Louella Hill is a San Francisco-based professional cheesemaker known to many in the Bay Area as the San Francisco Milk Maid. A member of the California Artisan Cheese Guild, she teaches cheesemaking classes in a variety of locations, from private parties at homes and businesses to public classes at the renowned Ferry Building Marketplace.
“I’m kind of a pop-up cheesemaker,” she jokes. “In September, I went around to all of the branches of the San Francisco Public Library and wheeled in my cooler of milk and hot plate, pots and thermometer, and taught [people] how to make queso fresco. Sometimes it’s a really predictable, obvious place, but sometimes I’m inserting cheesemaking where it hasn’t been before. It’s fun. I get to mix with a diverse group of people, so it’s not just one person who’s interested in food production and cheesemaking.”
The goal of cheesemaking is to get the water out of the milk, turning the milk into a stable food that you can save for long periods of time. While Louella has connections with local dairy farmers, she notes you’d be surprised at how many cheeses you can make with little more than milk and buttermilk, which serves as the bacterial cultures. “The only supply that won’t be at the grocery store is the rennet, which is the coagulating enzyme. Most people take my class and think cheesemaking is this complicated thing, so hopefully that’s what I’m doing as a teacher. Taking away the smoke and showing it can be done and that it’s much simpler than it appears. To make a wheel of comté, well you can’t do that with just stuff at the grocery store, but you can do a lot of other stuff.” She does, however, encourage folks to befriend dairy farms or get goats in their backyard, as “the milk from the animal is so superior to stuff that’s coming in through the dairy processing plant.”
Her favorite cheese to teach is burrata. “I feel like burrata replaced—you know how cookie dough had an era? Burrata took over that place in people’s hearts. People kind of just melt with love when they say it. People are just so delighted to assemble this gushy, creamy, decadent pouch of cheese and cream.”
But blue cheeses are her favorite to make. “If I’m brushing and washing the outside of the wheel, it looks like a brown cylinder. Only once I cut it open – which I can’t do early, I have to wait until the right moment – is when I see what’s going on inside. Unlike most cheeses, which are on the white side of the color wheel, blue cheese has a burst of veins and lines and marbles of blue mold, which is so cool.” She continues, “the additional cool thing is with blue mold, when you first cut the wheel open, the body of the blue mold presents as like a green/yellow color. You cut it open and are like huh, this is like a white cheese with some yellow/green splotches. But within a minute, the exposure to oxygen causes those yellow patches turn a brilliant blue. It’s like this magic that happens before your eyes.”
Louella notes that she was always interested in food. Her journey started in college when she landed on a sheep dairy in Tuscany. “I had always wanted to learn an ancient food craft, or learn a method by which a food turned from a raw ingredient into a finished one. It became cheese serendipitously.” She continues, “They had so many sheep and so much milk. They needed extra hands to help turn all that milk into cheese and I happily participated.”
Despite not speaking any Italian, she relished the chance to learn alongside these craftspeople. “I remember the first moment of me thinking, ‘this is it.’ It was an epiphany and it clicked: I want to make cheese and be part of yanking cheese out of the grass for the rest of my life. I love it. That was 14 years ago and I continue to just love this craft of cheesemaking.”
She apprenticed at other farms in Europe and eventually made her way back to the United States, where she continued to study the craft with various dairy farms, cheesemakers and creameries. After countless hours of washing dishes and mopping out barns, Louella decided to start her own creamery with a partner in Rhode Island called Narragansett Creamery, which still exists today. She eventually moved out to California.
“I found myself in San Francisco with no goats and no sheep, no vat of milk. I had to reinvent myself and figure out what I could do with my obscure knowledge.” She currently teaches full time and is pondering the next step, whether that means acquiring a herd of sheep, opening another creamery or figuring out how to scale up and do even more teaching. “It’s very likely I’ll start another creamery and go back into production but figure out an education piece to it. I think it would be amazing to connect to a high school and have a hands-on youth training program to a creamery.”
When asked about challenges in this artisan field, Louella notes that consistency is a constant battle. “Every cheesemaker struggles with consistency and the customer’s demand for identical products. We talk about it kind of romantically like oh, the cheese changes with the seasons. But in reality, we have such a mass-produced palate and our standards are so perfectly regular. It’s hard because the nature of milk and nature of harnessing the microbial world to turn the milk into cheese – it’s variable. It’s possible to make very consistent cheese but the best cheese is somewhat irregular.”
She continues, “Farmers markets solve that problem slightly because it allows for the explanation as the producer and the customer get some facetime. But as soon as you move to wholesale, the space for the story is lost and people just reject it as soon as it looks slightly different. They don’t pick the cheese up. I hope that’s something I’m working on my entire life, encouraging people to eat weirder foods or to be more open minded. Weird is actually more normal in a sustainable system.”
To further educate those interested in her craft, Louella published “Kitchen Creamery” earlier this year, a book she wrote and illustrated over the course of two years that teaches how to make yogurt, butter and cheese at home. “My idea was to bring all my cheese lessons together into one text after chasing printouts for five years. It covers everything from quick and simple cheeses to aged and complex ones.”
She encourages those interested in farming and hands-on learning of a foodcraft to check out organizations such as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF. “I like it as a concept. That’s how we keep knowledge alive, going to rural places and learning side by side. Often it’s learning that’s beyond language: learned in action, learned with all the senses.”
Louella notes that, for her, making food “feels very practical and necessary and a way to connect to the people around me. I didn’t grow up in a cooking family necessarily, but I won’t deny I have crafty people around me. My father was an artist/blacksmith, so he was wrangling iron. My aunt’s a potter, my grandfather’s a watercolor artist. I was definitely getting positive reinforcement on the creating side of life. My upbringing was encouraging me to play with materials. It was more of a hands-on maker scene in my childhood, but I brought that over to food, which I, for whatever reason, have always been in love with.”