Sue Cummings is a master home cheese maker with many years of experience. Last January, she sent us her own original recipe for a cheese she calls Florentine – click here. This cheese and the wide variety of other cheeses she makes, come from the milk of her own Nubians. Her farm is located in one of the most remote and beautiful areas of Montana, the state which is also known as “Big Sky Country.” She kindly shared her story with us:
My husband and I live on a farm near Kalispell, Montana. Kalispell has officially around 22,000 people although the valley we live in has close to 100,000 spread out in several small towns and subdivisions. We are in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, so we are surrounded by lakes, rivers, streams and beautiful mountain scenery. We live about 45 minutes from Glacier National Park. We also have a ski resort in Whitefish that is one of the best ski destinations in the U.S. So, we have lots of tourists, lots of retirement communities, lots of people living in the countryside on ranchettes.
We were both born and raised in Montana. In fact both of my parents were born and raised in Montana. My mother’s parents lived in Kalispell. My father’s parents lived on a homestead in a fertile farm area south of the town. My grandparents on both sides were some of the earliest residents in the area. Historians say this valley was one of the last places in the continental U.S. to be settled because it was virtually inaccessible. The first real access to the area wasn’t until 1885 when steamboats started bringing people and supplies up Flathead Lake.
In 1891, Great Northern railroad completed track to the north end of the valley. My mother’s mother came with the railroad and her father came up the lake on the steamboat. I’m not sure how my dad’s family got here but I do know they were homesteading by the late 1880’s.
My parents met and started dating when my mother was teaching at a small country school near the large sheep ranch that my father’s family owned some 50 miles from Kalispell. One of my mother’s friends was my dad’s sister and she invited my mother to visit at the ranch. One thing led to another and they eventually were married.
There’s a lot of family history in between but my dad ended up with his own farm. When he died, my brother and I split the property. He lives in the original farmhouse and I live down the road in a newer house.
My husband and I have been married for 47 years. We met in high school when he was dating my best friend. He is a year younger than I am. After I graduated, I was at loose ends for the summer and my friend was working in Glacier Park for the summer so she wasn’t around. Steve called me and asked if I would like to go water skiing. As a farm girl, I had no access to water skis, much less motor boats, and this was an exciting offer even if he was my best friend’s boyfriend. By the end of that summer, I was the one going off to college with a boyfriend back home.
There was a lot of long-distance romance before we got married a couple years later. We completed B.S. degrees in Mathematics at Montana State University. I got a Master’s Degree in Nutrition at Texas Woman’s University and then Steve went to law school at the University of Washington in Seattle while I worked in a metabolic research lab at the Veteran’s Hospital.
As a farmer’s daughter, my family never took vacations and before I got married, my most exciting experience had been a train trip to Spokane, Washington (240 miles). Trips to Missoula were a big deal and it’s all of 120 miles away. When I married Steve, I married an adventure.
We went on camping trips every summer while we were in school. I finally got to go to Disneyland. After our kids graduated from high school, we lived in Russia for a year. We have been to Denmark and Italy several times, and spent 3 weeks in Morocco when our oldest son was in the Peace Corps. We’ve been to Cuba, China, Tibet, Iceland and most countries in Europe, including Latvia, Lithuania and Yugoslavia (before it broke up). We’ve been to Mexico several times and Steve went swimming in the Bering Sea when we visited a cousin who lived up there.
We have 2 sons, both living here. Our oldest son married a girl from Bozeman. They met in college at Montana State University. David teaches at the Kalispell Montessori School and Dawn is a laboratory scientist at Kalispell Regional Hospital. They have two daughters, Emma, 12 and Margo, 10.
Our youngest son lives ½ mile down the road on an organic farm. He and his wife, Mandy, met while they were working on Masters in Fine Arts degrees at Southern Illinois University. They have 3 boys, Bayliss, 9, Beckett, 7, and Oliver, 5. We can hardly believe our good fortune at having 2 wonderful sons with their wonderful wives and 5 incredible grandchildren, and they all live right here.
I discovered the wonders of goat milk about 8 years ago when I noticed that the Ukrainian lady who was doing some knitting for me had goats. She let me taste the milk and I knew I had to get more of that stuff. A year later, she sold me her goats and I’ve been raising Nubians ever since.
We have two small goat barns and that really limits how many we can keep. The number of goats varies greatly through a year. We vary between 2 and 10.
I bought the book, “Home Cheese Making” and started on page one, working my way through the book. I have a science background and had a lot of questions about technical things that the book didn’t talk about at all. I tried to find books that had answers and didn’t come up with anything that helped much.
Then, I found out about the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. I took their 2-week set of classes in November 2012. The Institute no longer offers classes but the classes I got to take were really helpful. I got all my questions answered and I feel that my cheese making improved a lot. I can analyze what’s wrong when things don’t go well and can even fix problems, at least sometimes. I had a desire to share what I had learned and have been teaching classes at our local community college as well as at my home.
I currently have a young woman coming once a week to make cheese with me. She went to a two week course at Sterling College in Vermont and has been a real asset to our mutual cheese making experiences. Holli encourages me to experiment and branch out beyond cheddar and Colby. We’ve made Gouda, mozzarella, Manchego, burrata, and Cotja. Last week, we made Parmesan but will have to wait patiently for that one. I also make feta, chevre, Provolone, queso blanco, queso fresco and my own development, Florentine (for recipe, click here).
Our climate is very dry and my one experiment with blue cheese was a pretty dismal affair. I’ve been hesitant to try cheeses that require a humid environment or ones that include mold. I am lactose intolerant and so usually like to make cheeses that will be low in lactose after aging. I also make my own yogurt and ferment it for 24 hours. My professor in Vermont said that this doesn’t eliminate lactose but rather allows the bacteria to produce lactase, the enzyme needed to digest the milk sugar. That makes it safe for me to eat.
I have had a variety of jobs over the years – lab tech, custom seamstress, computer consultant, math teacher, reading tutor, but my cheese making experiences have been one of the most rewarding of any that I have ever done. When I took the classes in Vermont and learned about the biochemistry of cheese making, I really became passionate about it. The incredible variety of different kinds of cheese, whether it’s a simple lactic cheese or a complex cheese like Camembert, cheese is infinitely fascinating. Every time I make some, I look at the final cheese and feel like a miracle just occurred. And best of all, it’s really, really yummy.