After years working on the family dairy farm, milking cows alongside four brothers twice daily, a young Shep Ysselstein realized something. He didn’t like milking cows.
Shep did, however, value rural life and wanted to do something connected with the family business. Little did Shep know that he would find his calling on a spring break trip to Thunder Bay. While staying at the family farm of a university friend, he learned how they combined their Holstein business with cheesemaking.
Shep saw that this model could also work with his own family’s farm near Woodstock.
So, after graduating with a degree in business in 2006, Shep took courses in cheesecrafting at the University of Guelph and at the University of Vermont’s Institute for Artisan Cheese. He also gained practical experience while interning at a number of cheesemakers, spending three years in upstate New York, Vancouver Island, and Switzerland.
It was during four months in the Bern mountains when Shep fell in love with the art of cheesemaking and mastered the technique of making Swiss cheeses.
“We made cheese the same way they had been doing it for 500 years, with a big copper cheese kettle on top of a fire – very little automation,” Shep says. “It was an amazing experience, because it’s hands-on; it’s all about how it feels and how it tastes.”
After returning to Oxford County
, Shep then spent 18 months setting up his own cheesemaking business called Gunn’s Hill Cheese (after the street it is found on). He decided on Swiss cheese based on his experiences with that variety, as well as to introduce Canadians to a new flavour of cheese. Even though most Canadians are only familiar with one “hole”y variety of Swiss, there are actually over 100 types of Swiss cheese.
In consultation with a food safety consultant, Shep designed his own 6,000 square-foot facility top to bottom, including working with friends and family on the construction which was finished in 2011. Settled into his new cheesemaking home, Shep began crafting three signature cow’s milk, washed rind cheeses: Oxford Harvest, Five Brothers, and Handeck. All of his cheese is produced using milk from the family farm. The benefit of knowing the milk producer is he can control the quality of his main ingredient and know exactly what the cows are being fed.
Oxford Harvest is Gunn Hill’s soft cheese. Modelled after a little known Swiss cheese called Mutchli, it is a mild creamy cheese, developing its lightly lactic and buttery flavours after only four weeks of aging. Excellent for serving on its own, this cheese also has wonderful melting qualities.
Five Brothers is a semi-hard cheese and Gunn Hill’s most popular offering. It combines traits from Gouda and another Swiss variety called Appenzeller. The mild version is available after two months while a stronger version is available after eight months. This product has creamy and rich flavours with sweeter overtones and distinctive “eyes” throughout the body of the cheese.
Hard, Handeck, is produced using the same methods as a typical Swiss mountain-style cheese. This cheese can be aged up to two years. It is drier, with very rich and complex flavours and nutty overtones.
Shep is also experimenting with other varieties, such as smoked cheese, sheep’s milk cheese, and asparagus and dill cheese. For three to six days a week depending on the season, Shep usually starts his cheesemaking at 5am (farm habits die hard) and is finished by 1 pm. He can spend the rest of the day on administrative tasks or teaching people about cheesemaking.
Instead of just making cheese behind the scenes, Shep wants to educate and inspire visitors by putting the craft front and centre.
“I want people visiting Gunn’s Hill to be able to see more than just cheese on the shelf. This way they can see how much goes into cheesemaking.”
Visitors to the retail store can survey the cheesemaking area through expansive glass winwdows that overlook the 300-gallon cheese vat and cheese presses at work.
Shep also leads tours of Gunn’s Hill Cheese and conducts 8-hour “cheesemaker-for-the-day courses”. The course takes visitors through the cheesemaking proces, starting with milk delivery, when milk from his family dairy farm arrives by truck and is transferred to a 6,000 L storage drum. (It takes a lot of milk to make cheese: typically about 10 L of milk makes 1 kg of cheese.)
The milk is then pasteurized at 63o
C for one hour and then is cooled for an hour at 32oC to allow the bacteria cultures to form. Renet, an enzyme, is added and 40 minutes later, the milk has become a mixture of solid cheese and runny whey.
The cheese is then gathered into circular plastic molds which are placed under cheese press for several hours or overnight to help drain any remaining whey out of the cheese wheel. The wheels are then placed in a salt water bath for one to three days. The cheese is then stored in a room at 12oC and 95% humidity. The wheels are scrubbed with salt water daily to feed the bacteria that give the cheese its washed rind exterior.
Gunn’s Hill Cheeses are available at specialty cheese and food stores across the province, including Dairy Capital Cheese in downtown Woodstock and the Hurley's Independent Grocer in Ingersol. With restaurants increasingly focused on creating menus with local ingredients, it’s no surprise Gunn Hill’s offerings are found in the cuisine of the local gourmet restaurant, Six Thirty-Nine at 639 Peel Street in Woodstock and the Elmhurst Inn, 15 minutes away in Ingersoll.
Soon, fans of Gunn’s Hill
cheese may be able purchase their favourite cheese at their local grocery store. On the day I visited, Shep had just finished showing a food safety inspector from Loblaws around his facility. The retail giant is looking to stock the Five Brothers cheese in about 30 of their stores.
Shep sees interest in artisan cheese continuing to expand: “These days people want to know more about what goes into their food. They want to be able to talk to local people that make what they eat.”