Alpine Lakes cheesemaker Catha Link is a Vermont native who acquired her love for farming and dairy early in life. “I grew up back when Vermont still had a lot of small dairies,” she remembers. “When we were young, my sister and I would hang out with the cows all day long.” Fast forward a few years to a time when Catha and Eric Link, a professional videographer, were traveling the world making movies about whitewater kayaking. After spending time in the Western US, they were inspired to put down roots and moved to Washington permanently. Their path to cheesemaking passed through a pear orchard. They acquired a farm in the Cascade Foothills near Leavenworth, Washington that included four acres of pear trees (Central and North Central Washington is prime orchard country) that hadn’t been attended to for years. “We wanted to find something that could graze in the orchard without destroying the trees,” says Catha. Cows and goats were out of the question, and so they settled on sheep as the ideal solution. Today they have a milking herd of about 25 East Friesan and Lacaune mix sheep.
Eventually the family (the pair have two children, 51/2 and 81/2) began to adapt to a slower, rural lifestyle. Catha began experimenting with making cheese, yogurt and other products from sheep’s milk for several years, passing along her results to friends and neighbors. “We wanted to eat healthy, wholesome food that we made ourselves, and liked to eat,” she says. In time, she was able to travel back to Vermont, visiting cheesemakers like Vermont Shepherd and others to understand more about the finer points of the cheeesemaking process. Alpine Lakes Sheep Cheese became officially licensed to make and sell cheese in December of 2006.
Alpine Lakes’ cheeses are made seasonally, about 6-8 months out of the year, when the sheep are lactating (a typical schedule for a sheep dairy), allowing the Links time to farm, travel for their video production business and harvest pears the rest of the year. Catha is firmly committed to making only raw milk cheeses. “I’d never make anything else,” she says, citing the health benefits of unpasteurized milk and milk products.
And their sheep now have new grazing territory in the orchard of a neighbor who grows organic pears. The sheep keep the grass mowed and the trees fertilized and the neighbor harvests good pears – a perfect symbiosis between neighbors, sheep and pears.
Catha makes several styles of cheese: a mild-flavored Mountain Tomme aged three months; Creamy Blue, aged sixty days with a mild flavor that gets stronger with age; and a classic soft-ripened sheep's milk Camembert. They're available during the season in Leavenworth, WA at the Cheesemonger’s Shop and Sage Mountain Natural Foods; Anjou Bakery in Cashmere, WA, Metropolitan Markets in Seattle, or you can order them directly from the website.
In addition to making cheese, Catha also offers cheesemaking workshops periodically – see the website for more information about upcoming events.
[photos courtesy Alpine Lakes Sheep Cheese]
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Alpine Lakes Sheep Cheese PO Box 122 Leavenworth, WA 98826 509-548-5786