Proctor Farmers Market Vendor Kristi Slotemaker Talks Making (and Eating) Cheese

With hands-on classes, Proctor Farmers Market vendor River Valley Cheese offers more than meets the eye. ©SouthSoundTalk.

We’re all excited about the fact that it’s farmers market season. One of the reasons behind that excitement is the discovery of delicious goodies produced by Washington vendors. By perusing local farmers markets, Tacoma residents can make some truly noteworthy discoveries.

One of those potential discoveries is River Valley Cheese. On a recent visit to the Proctor Farmers Market in North Tacoma, we came across the company’s products and had to have a taste. We sampled three types of cheese and ended up purchasing three. Yes, the cheese is that good.

River Valley Cheese Owner, Kristi Slotemaker, invited us to attend two cheese-making classes at River Valley Cheese in Fall City. The busy cheese-maker also took some time out of her hectic schedule to talk cheese and explain how her curiosity ended up leading her to cheese Nirvana.

River Valley Cheese
First-timer Eli Petrova poses with her just-made mozzarella. © SouthSoundTalk.

Slotemaker, whose authenticity and infectious gregariousness make class edutainment rather than just education, was raised in the Navy town of Bremerton. Her father worked for the Department of Ecology, so the family didn’t move around like the Navy families did — a fact that Slotemaker lamented, so as an adult she decided to travel. After exploring the west coast and living in California and Texas for a bit, she knew that Washington truly was home, so she moved to Seattle.

While Slotemaker always knew that Washington would be her forever home, it was only recently that she decided to plunge headfirst into the business of making cheese. Slotemaker purchased River Valley Cheese from founder and former acting President of  Washington State Cheesemakers Association, Julie Steil, in May. “I started the very next day (May 21) at 8:00 a.m. making mozzarella and shadowing classes with my mentor, Julie,” she says.

Slotemaker may be new to cheese making, but she comes from a long line of dairy farmers. “As far back as you can trace my ancestors, they all have been farmers,” she explains. “My grandfather was a dedicated dairyman. They had a modest dairy — about 80 Holstein milkers — that sold to Darigold, as did many dairies in Lynden at that time, and in 20 years, my grandfather missed only two milkings — and even milked with a broken ankle.”

Besides, as Slotemaker says, “I have loads of cheese-eating experience.”

River Valley Cheese
Fresh mozzarella made in class. © SouthSoundTalk.

Joking aside, the effusive Slotemaker had played with cheese-making kits as a hobbyist — which is why she feels a kinship with the students in River Valley Cheese’s classes.

“I know how the students feel when they invest four hours into making a cheese that turns out like sand,” says Slotemaker. “You have to know what your farmer believes in and where your milk comes from before you can make great cheese.” This commitment to buying local is what prompts her to visit the farms from which she procures milk.

One might wonder what prompts a person to buy a cheese company. “Here’s the deal — so many of us feel disconnected from our community — we’re so busy we don’t have time to pursue creativity and play and we certainly don’t feel we have the luxury to indulge in what makes us curious,” explains Slotemaker.

“At least, that’s how I felt. I felt disconnected — but my curiosity growing every day. I couldn’t ignore it. So, I started gobbling up books on creativity and connection and somehow farms entered into the picture. I feel like ‘Gaining Ground’ by Forrest Pritchard and ‘Daring Greatly’ by Brene Brown had a love child, and it’s me. Oh yeah — sprinkle in some ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert and this cake is baked.”

Slotemaker then began visiting farms and speaking with her father about the family history and, lo and behold, she now has her very own tribe. “And here I am at the beginning of an amazing journey with my Cheese Tribe (what I call my students), and we’re going to play with cheese and connect with our local farmers. It’s pretty amazing,” shares Slotemaker.

River Valley Cheese
A student plays with mozzarella in the “Just Mozzarella Cheesemaking Experience” class. © SouthSoundTalk.

It’s easy to see how her students want to join the tribe. We attended a mozzarella class and a gouda and goat cheese class and, although each class had a mix of old and new students, the new students quickly felt at home thanks to Slotemaker’s teaching style. Interspersing jokes and music throughout the lessons, Slotemaker makes school fun.

Sterling Ingle-Mead and his girlfriend Jennifer Gnau were two cheese-making newbies who got a kick out of the gouda and goat cheese-making class. Ingle-Mead’s favorite part of class was “the open forum for asking questions and the hands-on” aspect.

Gnau loved “tasting the goat cheese and making the goat cheese.” It’s no surprise that all the students really enjoy the cheese buffet that is part of class.

Student Jessica Stone, an alumni of previous classes, also shared her excitement. “I’ve bought all the supplies. I’ve got everything I need to make cheese at home. Well, everything except the milk,” she jokes.

Of course, an article about a cheese-maker without any mention of cheese, just wouldn’t be right, so we asked Slotemaker which River Valley Cheese products were the most popular with customers and which were her personal favorites.

“Valley Girl — our tomme style cheese, which is buttery and creamy,” Slotemaker says is a customer favorite. “It will make you want to slip into something comfortable and nibble.”

Students Sterling Ingle-Mead, Jennifer Gnau, and Jessica Stone, plus River Valley Cheese owner Kristi Slotemaker posing with their wheels of gouda. © SouthSoundTalk.
Students Sterling Ingle-Mead, Jennifer Gnau, and Jessica Stone, plus River Valley Cheese owner Kristi Slotemaker posing with their wheels of gouda. © SouthSoundTalk.

And she just loves the mozzarella. “I gotta say that truly fresh mozzarella needs to be on everybody’s bucket list. The milk we get from Twin Brook in Lynden makes it amazing,”

“Valley Girl, Blue Hooch, and Bo Vino also have raving fans, so we’re definitely keeping all the recipes and we are excited to announce new cheeses lining up to debut in the fall of 2016 and early 2017,” she adds.

Visit the Proctors Farmers Market to taste some of River Valley Cheese’s sublime products and find out more about cheese-making classes on the company’s website.


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