Combining art and chemistry | Herschel Hills founder eager to share her love of cheese
One of Sharon McDaniel’s immediate goals for her cheese company is to find a processing space of her own.
McDaniel started Herschel Hills-Saskatoon’s Artisan Cheese House in 2009 because she wanted to produce food that makes people happy.
She also wanted a way to artistically express her scientific knowledge of food production.
Like many beginning food producers in the province, McDaniel uses the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre’s facilities on the University of Sask-atchewan campus in Saskatoon.
She makes her cheese in one room and tests samples in the lab next door. Her milk comes from the university’s dairy herd.
However, making artisan cheese is not a fast process because it must be aged. As well, it must be monitored regularly.
The centre allows McDaniel to process her cheese any time during business hours, but access after hours is usually limited.
“The food centre has been very liberal because cheese needs to be tended to at all hours and every day,” McDaniel said. “And there are long weekends when this place is locked up. So they’ve allowed me to come in and tend the cheese. That in itself, I don’t think that’s happened here (at this facility) before.”
What McDaniel needs for her two-week production cycle is a place of her own.
During that cycle, McDaniel and employee Tina Thorsteinson separate curds from whey, pasteurize milk, fill empty vats with milk, add cultures and rennet and preserve aging cheese with salt. They make 80 kilograms of cheese every two weeks.
McDaniel produces cheese varieties such as camembert, feta, gorgonzola, fromage frais, halloumi, gouda and delaronde blue.
Herschel Hills is named after Herschel, a hamlet northeast of Rose-town, Sask. The scenery surprised her when she first encountered the small community.
“It’s a beautiful place,” she said.
“I was surprised because I’m not from Saskatchewan and when I saw those hills in Herschel, I fell in love with them. That’s about it.”
McDaniel has a bachelor of science education degree in food science and nutrition, which gave her a passion for how food is made. She would often taste new foods at a restaurant and try to recreate them at home.
“I tried it with cheese, that’s all,” McDaniel said. “I used to travel a lot. I would see artisan cheese makers everywhere. We didn’t have any here.”
McDaniel first tried making mascarpone, an Italian soft cheese famously known as the main ingredient in the dessert tiramisu. Her at-home experiment was a success, and she continued making cheese.
Eventually she began taking her product to Saskatoon’s farmers market.
“There’s a lot of chemistry and there’s a lot of artwork to this. It’s a creative outlet.… It uses my science background and it allows me to have an artistic venue.”
She took cheese courses with three masters: Kathy Bliss in Scotland, Peter Dickson in Vermont and Neville McNaughton in Oregon.
McDaniel has also taken advanced cheese making courses and courses on affinage, which is the aging of cheese. She went to Italy two years ago to attend a conference about the slow food movement, which promotes production of local food and traditional processes.
“It was a group of people that got together from all over the world and they brought their food for people to try,” she said.
“It was an absolutely massive conference and cheese was a very big part of it. And so small food movement happens all over the world.”
McDaniel decided to join the slow food movement in Saskatoon.
Two grants from the provincial government’s Saskatchewan Agri-Value Initiative helped her move the business into the food centre.
McDaniel occasionally receives help from her two daughters, though she recently hired Thorsteinson to help her through the 12-hour processing days.
“It’s part science, part art,” Thorsteinson said. “And you really do have to have both if you’re going to be a cheese maker.”
McDaniel soon discovered that the guidelines for making cheese in Sask-atchewan are not clear. It wasn’t even certain which regulating body was in charge.
“This is still new in Saskatchewan,” Thorsteinson said. “(Sharon is) a trail blazer but in provinces like Quebec, they’ve been making cheese and selling it for decades. It’s very clearly defined to sell cheese to the public.… Safety is very important, we’re all for food safety. We just need to know who we’re supposed to talk to. What policies and processes do we need to have in place? So (Sharon) has a background in this already.”
McDaniel sells her product at the Saskatoon Farmers Market as well as two retail locations and four restaurants in the city.
Herschel Hills can be found on Twitter and Facebook with a cheese of the week featured every Friday.
“After a cheese has had some time to age, we open it and it’s available for sale,” McDaniel said.
“I like to highlight our successes. I will mention a cheese every week so people know there’s something new when people come down to the market and ask for it.”
She hopes to create cheese with an identifiable Saskatchewan terroir, a term that describes how the environment effects the outcome of the product.
“Herschel Hills will hopefully be a household name here in Saskatchewan,” she said. “That’s about all I can promise; all I can wish for.”