The Curd Nerd

Ex-engineer Jonathan White eschews technology to make cheese that “expresses the nature of the grass and the cow.”

Bounty: A display of Bobolink cheese and breads.
Photo by Pily Quintanilla

Stepping over a barbed-wire fence, then an electrified one, Jonathan White crosses a muddy pasture to check on his charges. There’s Nadia, poor dear, often lost since her mother died, and Wilbur, a gentle soul. Nearby are Ernestine, the one they call Harry Houdini, and a very pregnant, not-so-little Little Sally. All seem content. White clicks his tongue in greeting, eliciting a low moooo.

Amid this tranquil scene, White’s practiced eye notices anything amiss. “That one there is a little too skinny,” he observes. Another needs a bigger collar.

White’s affection for his animals is unmistakable—and well known. “He really is on a first-name basis with all of them,” says Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Happy cows are White’s partners in cheese making. Instead of confining his cows in stalls and stuffing them full of corn and hormones, White turns them loose to amble in the pastures, feasting on grass. “Cheese expresses the nature of the grass and the nature of the cow,” he says. “Stress shows up in milk as off flavors. My mandate is to figure out the best possible cheese that can be made from the sun, the rain, the grass, and the cows.”

In Vernon, at the northern tip of Sussex County, on a rented 200-acre farm they call Bobolink Dairy for the ground-nesting bird that frequents the pastures, White and his wife, Nina, make superb raw-milk cheeses and artisan breads, and raise whey-fed pork, 100-percent grass-fed beef, and suckled veal. They even make their own cows—crossing Ireland’s ancient Kerrys, a hardy breed with a long lifespan, with Jerseys, Guernseys, and other common dairy cows to create their Bobolink Black grazers.

White, a former software engineer, and Nina, a dancer, launched Bobolink in 2002 after their earlier, well-received cheese and dairy business, based in New York State, foundered during expansion. “We ended up with some venture capital that turned out to be vulture capital,” says Nina. They moved to Vernon with their three children and launched Bobolink in 2003, quickly regaining their loyal following of chefs and gourmet shops.

Bobolink’s strong word-of-mouth (in every sense) led Anthony Bourdain to laud its delicacies in a 2005 episode of his TV series No Reservations. Now the Whites struggle to meet demand, despite making more than 500 pounds of cheese and 2,500 loaves of bread each week, all sold exclusively on the farm, at farmers’ markets, and on their website, cowsoutside.com.

At 52, White looks like a Russian peasant from a century ago. He has squinty eyes and a full beard, a mustache, and dark, thick hair, all going gray. When he speaks, however, his impassive appearance gives way. His slight eyebrows stretch toward his hairline, animating his entire face, and the words tumble out in an avalanche:

“The way I’m producing food, the energy I use is almost all solar—it’s sun and rain and grass and cows. Yet to modern dairy-science people, what I’m doing is radical. I say that confining cows and feeding them corn and growth hormones is the radical idea. What I’m doing is about as conservative an idea as you can think of.”

By not feeding his cows a high-energy, hormone-spiked diet, which would artificially boost their milk production, White avoids stressing his cows and lengthens their milk-producing lives. “If you give a cow a high-energy diet, they’ll produce three times as much milk,” he says, “but it’s not sustainable in the long run.” At commercial dairies, where cows are milked two or even three times a day, it is more efficient to keep them in stalls much of the time. White milks his cows once a day, in the morning, and lets them roam and graze the rest of the day.

“Fifty years ago, the gods of hubris took over, and we started figuring out ways to outsmart the cows and make them produce more milk than they ever needed to produce,” he says. “That involved growing high-energy crops like corn and soybeans, and feeding them corn silage and bone meal and blood meal, which of course is feeding cows to cows. So we outsmarted ourselves, and the result has been that the cow who was our partner has become our vassal.

“They’re very social animals,” he says. “But most cows never get to be social because they’re confined.” He recalls the early days at Bobolink, when he and Nina built the herd mostly by buying cows from confinement farms—the only available source.

“They’d arrive on a trailer and we’d turn ’em out in a field, and they’d kind of stand there and look around, and within a couple days they’d figure it out, what to do. They’d start foraging around and whatnot. Then as new cows would arrive, the same thing would happen, and a couple of times the old cows would actually come over and sort of circle around the new cows and moo at them and lick them [as if to say], ‘C’mon guys, follow us, you’re free now.’”

The end result of all this TLC is cheese with depth and character. One of White’s signature cheeses is named for his mentor, Jean-Louis Palladin, the late Michelin-starred French chef who encouraged him to make cheese from grass-fed milk. White’s Jean-Louis cheese has a bright, lemony flavor and comes in foot-high wheels weighing more than 20 pounds.

“I couldn’t name a little cheese after a guy like Jean-Louis,” White says. Smaller, softer, and shaped like a Camembert is creamy Baudolino, named after the title character in an Umberto Eco novel set in the twelfth century. Jean-Louis and the crumbly, somewhat tangy, slightly concave drumm (which looks like the musical instrument) also are available in what White calls “Visigothic Blue” versions. For these he uses a method attributed to the king of the Germanic invaders, in which rye bread is aged in the cheese cave until it turns moldy, then is crumbled, salted, and added to the next batch of cheese-to-be.

With each of these, as with his other cheeses, White forgoes recipes, relying instead on his palate. Other cheese makers begin with an end product in mind, adding a specific “starter bacteria” to the milk for the type of cheese being made. White simply adds day-old whey to fresh milk. This jump-starts the fermentation process and allows him to make any cheese—or even different cheeses—from any given batch. (Whey is the cloudy liquid that remains after the protein in milk forms curds. Most cheese makers discard it; White feeds it to his pigs.)

“Usually as I’m taking the whey off, I’m meditating on what I’m gonna make,” White says. “I’ll taste the whey, too, and that also tells me where I’m going.” He might have one cheese in mind, based on what the cows have been grazing or his own inclination, but often, “I discover the curd has a different idea.”

White was raised in Hoboken, where his father was a mathematics professor at Stevens Institute of Technology and his mother a homemaker and editor. White went into computer science. “I designed embedded software, a field so arcane that I could talk shop with only about 50 people on Earth,” he wrote on his homepage.

His introduction to cheese came 30 years ago, when his software career took him to London for a year. Travels through Europe acquainted White with fresh farmstead cheeses, fueling a fascination with cheese making that grew when his Putnam Valley, New York, neighbor, the composer David Amram, gave him the goat’s milk Amram’s children wouldn’t drink. Eventually, White says, “I found that my passion for food exceeded my passion for engineering.”

Though he abandoned high-tech, deep down, White admits, “You’re never an ex-engineer because it’s a way of thinking. I try to apply a sort of holistic scientific reasoning to what’s known about historical dairy farming and cheese making. I try to figure out how they did it before refrigeration and electricity and transportation. So I’m a kind of cheese archeologist or anthropologist.”

White’s methods derive from a variety of sources and cultures: pre-1920s American farming books, research on grazing practices in New Zealand, advice from Amish farmers, and the indelible experience of making cheese from yaks’ milk with Tibetan nomads in 2001.

“They’re farming the way our ancestors’ ancestors farmed in the nomad days,” he says. “I learned from them that everything I need to know about grass and cows I can learn from watching the cows, and the best farmer is like any good scientist—the most important skill is observation.”

Jody Rosen Knower grew up in Monmouth County and now lives in Los Angeles, dangerously close to a cheese shop.

If you enjoyed this story, you also might like this article about artisanal foods in New Jersey. Click here to read: Artisanal Foods.

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