Early in 2009, Alex Seidel, chef/owner of Fruition, 1313 East Sixth Avenue, bought a ten-acre parcel of earth that sits off a dirt road, just outside Larkspur, and named it Fruition Farms. From the beginning, Seidel, along with Verde Farms founder Josh Halder, cultivated herbs, greens and vegetables, the bounty of which is utilized in numerous dishes from restaurant kitchens throughout Denver.
And now several of those same kitchens are turning out plates graced with small-batch ricotta cheese, made from the milk produced by Seidel's herd of 41 Nebraska-bred sheep -- a number that will soon swell to well over one hundred.
Val Landrum, an ex-chef from Fruition, is the farm's chief cheesemaker, while Jim Warren, Fruition's former sous chef, is the farm's head shepherd, a jack-of-all-trades job that he took on after he and Seidel attended a dairy sheep symposium late last year in Albany, New York. "At first it was just a trip," says Seidel, "but then we had a conversation about moving Jim out of the kitchen completely, and as of July, he became a partner in the dairy and the shepherd of the farm." Warren milks the sheep five days a week in the milking parlor, one of many areas within a newly constructed barn that also includes two aging rooms, a cheese-making facility and lab rooms to test the milk for bacteria and the cheese for acidity levels.
The first batch, admits Seidel, was less than desirable. And the second batch, he confesses, wasn't much better. "We made critical errors in the first batch. It was too dry and the curds were too firm, and the second batch wasn't great, either, but we got it right on the third batch." The sheep, which were delivered to the farm on the morning of September 24, produced milk that same night, and less than a week later, Seidel and Warren had their first customer. "I sold it to the Truffle and it sold out in a day," recalls Seidel.
Now, less than a month later, nearly two dozen Front Range markets and restaurants -- count Fruition, the Squeaky Bean, St. Kilian's Cheese Shop, Restaurant Kevin Taylor, Lola, Il Posto, D Bar, Olivéa, TAG, Table 6, Rioja, Euclid Hall, Yia Yia's, Barolo Grill, Solera and Argyll, among them -- have purchased the cheese. "We get about 250 pounds of milk per batch, which yields about one hundred pounds of cheese," says Seidel, who sold two hundred pounds of his ricotta in the first two weeks.
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"Everyone on the farm is involved with everything. We're collaborative partners in this whole mission, and we're all working together toward one goal -- to push the envelope, learn along with way and, in turn, learn to be successful," explains Seidel, who's also producing wheels of Percorino Toscano, which will be ready for consumption and purchase early next year. "We have to give the cheese time to age and their characteristics and flavors need time to do their thing."
And once that happens, Seidel will push to get his cheeses into larger venues, like Whole Foods and Sunflower Farmers' Markets. "I'm a cheesehead from Wisconsin, I make fresh cheeses in the kitchen at Fruition and no one else in Colorado, save for a guy in Craig, who produces spreads, is producing sheep's-milk cheese. We're producing the first sheep's-milk ricotta in Colorado, and that's a pretty huge deal," says Seidel.