Just two years ago, after a successful career in property management, Julie Steil traded in her acrylic nails, Lexus and crew of 200 to start River Valley Cheese.
Most women don’t ask for a water buffalo for Christmas.
But once you meet Julie Steil, the owner of River Valley Cheese in Fall City, the request makes perfect sense. “You chase the milk,” she explains in the gentle Southern accent that took root while she was growing up in Harlem, Ga.
“Harlem was the kind of place where women were only as good as their biscuits, and if you didn’t look good you better cook good,” Steil says. “So I was taught at an early age to cook everything from scratch, nothing instant, and I became a passionate gourmet cook.”
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Her love of cooking continued as she (the youngest among nine children) was chosen to prepare the family feasts. “But I always loved cheese and was fascinated by it,” she explains.
So, just two years ago, after a successful career in property management, Steil traded in her acrylic nails, Lexus and crew of 200 to start River Valley Cheese. She and her husband, “Rancher Rob,” bought a 20-acre spread near Snoqualmie Falls and started out with an old cow and a goat, neither of which they knew how to milk (kindly neighbors came to the rescue). The yak and the water buffalo arrived next.
Steil commandeered Rob’s garage and transformed it into her Cheese Room, then amassed a 150-head herd from every breed of dairy goat so she could experiment with the different flavors and butterfat levels in the milk.
A number of lucky breaks vaulted River Valley Cheese into the stratosphere of local artisan cheese makers. With four boys and a girl aged 12 to 18, Steil was chosen as PTA president. But instead of bringing cookie platters, she tried out new varieties of cheese on her fellow PTA members, one of whom worked for Whole Foods Market. Soon, officials from the natural-foods chain came knocking and have been big supporters ever since. Local chefs jumped in.
A showcase event at a gathering of Washington State University alumni also helped build the buzz. Selling at 11 farmers markets each week upped the visibility factor and aided the bottom line.
Perhaps the luckiest break came at the University District Farmers Market, when Steil ran into Charles and Rose Ann Finkel, founders and owners of the Pike Brewing Co. “I’m not really a beer drinker,” Steil recalls, “but they are such infectious marketers, I tried their Naughty Nellie beer. I liked it and immediately thought of using it to wash the rinds of my cheese. Once they allowed me to use the name, Naughty Nellie — a raw cow’s-milk cheese — was born.”
Another partnership quickly sprang up between the Finkels and the Steils.
The Steils had been buying Purina chow for their animals, while the Finkels had been paying someone to haul the spent barley away from the brewery. Yet when the Finkels suggested she try feeding the spent grain to her animals, Julie was cautious.
“We tested two five-gallon buckets with the yak, who ate it up like oatmeal mush,” she says with a chuckle. “Next I sequestered one of the cows, and when the nutritionist came out and it was a thumbs up, we started feeding it to all the animals.”
“We love supplying them with our spent grain,” says Charles Finkel. “They had it analyzed, and even though it is a brewery’s by-product, it still contains 27 percent nutritional value, perfect food for their animals.”
“The spent grain is sweet, and this translates to the cheese. Our cheese is teat-to-table in two days,” Steil explains. “I add interesting ingredients to my fresh chèvre logs to make them gourmet. My Holiday Ginger Log, with candied ginger, nutmeg and pumpkin seeds, is like eatin’ a big sweet-potato pie.”
In addition to Naughty Nellie and Silly Billy (which is washed in raspberry port wine), she’s experimenting with coffee and Thomas Kemper root beer for her washed-rind cheeses.
We walk outside the cheese-making room that sits at the back of the house, past the rabbit hutch and down the driveway.
“You’ll start smellin’ the pasture now,” she says. As she opens the gate, two medium-sized yaks, their dark hair matted like Rastafarian curls because they’re molting, lumber toward us. A mélange of happily bleating goats, which Steil describes as the teenagers and old ladies, eagerly nibble my denim jacket and pants legs.
“I love you, Tulip,” Steil says in a singsong voice. “You’re so pretty, Patches. Say, ‘One day I’ll be makin’ feta,’ ” she coos as she scratches the blissful goat under the chin.
The moment after birth, Julie takes the baby goats from their mothers and bottle-feeds and weans them until they are old enough to fend for themselves and start grazing. They feast on spent barley during milking time and wash it down with the watery whey discarded from the cheese curds. The whey also acts as a probiotic to keep the animals’ stomachs working smoothly.
As closure to the beautiful cycle of life at River Valley Cheese, Steil gives Naughty Nellie back to the Finkels free of charge. They place the mellow, malty, cheddar-like product on their cheese plates and melt the Wild West Buffalo Mozzarella atop their Pizzas Margherita.
From humble beginnings to corporate life and finally down home on the farm, Steil’s success story is best summed up by a prominently displayed sign in the Cheese Room: Well-behaved women rarely make history.
Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of “Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining” and a columnist for Wine Press Northwest magazine. Visit her new blog, Northwest Notes, at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. Jim Bates is a Seattle Times staff photographer.