Virginia Cheese Week – An interview with Cole Sullivan

bonnyclabber cheese co at south of the james market

Researching my most recent article for RVANews over the past few weeks, I nurtured a serious appreciation for Virginia cheeses. In studying various dairies in the area, I spoke with Dany Schutte – a Certified Cheese Professional and cheesemonger at Ellwood Thompson’s; I stumbled across this tear-inducing article about Everona Dairy; and I bloated myself up on gorgeous local cheeses, including but not limited to those of Sullivan’s Pond Farm, aka Bonnyclabber Cheese Co.

Cole Sullivan, Rona and Tim Sullivan’s son and one of Bonnyclabber’s cheesemakers answered interview questions via email, much of which didn’t fit in the article, which is unfortunate because Cole is articulate and well-informed. Here’s that interview in its entirety.

– How long has your family been making cheese? How did you get into it?

I suppose my mother – Rona Sullivan – has some early farm experience from before I was born. As a family, though, we’ve been making cheese for about 15 years, ever since she first started milking goats in 1999. That year, we moved to Remlik Farm in Middlesex County where we rented the lower half of a farm house on the 200+ acre property where they raised pigs and cows. Mom researched cheese making and ended up reading about bonny-clabber, which is an Old World method of culturing raw milk. As I remember, she got some does (female goats) from a local breeder and paired them with a borrowed buck (male goat). I think some of our current herd can be traced back to that original line.

bonnyclabber cheese co. logo

We shared the goats and some chickens we kept with a French family – Coco, Olivier, and Theo – that rented another house on the same farm. Together, we would all have dinner and taste the various experimental cheeses that Rona was concocting. Sometimes she was unsure if what she had made was worth eating. However, no matter how funky the flavors were, Olivier would repeat, “No cheese is bad cheese.” They were responsible for giving her the name ‘Lachevriere’ , which translates to ‘Goat-lady’.

Mom also had a goatherd mentor named Pat that she would turn to when challenges would arise, as they certainly would. Her knowledge of goats was rich with naturalistic intuition, about which most standardized farming people wouldn’t think. To me, the combination of Mom’s passion for folk skills, the insight of her capricious teacher, and the support she received from Coco and Olivier early on gave her the drive to keep learning and develop the product we make today.

What changes have you seen in consumers since you started making cheese?

We were first selling a lot in Williamsburg at the Farmer’s Market around 2003-’04 after we moved to what is now Sullivan’ Pond Farm. It kind of felt like we were the odd ones out. There were mostly crafts and kitsch art: not many food vendors or farmers there, as is the case with many of our local markets. The customers were often tourists and visitors to Virginia. Most people had never witnessed our method of cheese production, not to mention using raw milk in general. Mom would always give folks a lot of information and many would seem bewildered and more focused on samples than conversation. From time to time, there would be a few engaging patrons with interest in the ideology of sustainable skills and crafting (which is our specialty), but often people were simply looking for a cute gift.

I am pleased to say that, after ten years, I’ve experienced a huge upward trend in the consumer’s interest pertaining to local and organic methods of food production. We have been with the South of the James market for 5 years now and have watched it grow from 20-25 vendors up to 110+ with increasing customers to match. I have wonderful discussions with people all the time about the importance of local food and community-oriented social structure. Honestly, the internet has been integral for this change in our society. Many folks are now researching nutrition and finding that raw milk and cheese tends to provide more health benefits than industry standard, ultra-pasteurized, and homogenized products. People want to know the truth about their food and we couldn’t be more thankful.

cole sullivan

– What’s one of your favorite cheeses to sell, and what makes it special?

My personal favorite is ‘Lachevriere Cendre’ because of it’s versatility and ability to get much better with age. The name Cendre translates to ‘cinder’ in French, referring to the rind of the cheese being made from activated vegetable charcoal. Cendre itself is a variety with a long history in French culture. They would often bury the cheese in ashes to keep it over winter. We now produce our own pasteurized version using either grapevine or rosemary stem charcoal made at the farm. Sometimes we age the cheese for a couple extra weeks to get a ‘bloom’ of white mold; the same culture one would find on Camambert and Brie. I mostly enjoy telling people that they can achieve this themselves by leaving the cheese outside of their fridge on a plate under a glass for however long they are are comfortable (usually a few days to a week). To me, the more mold the better!

– What is a typical day on the farm like (or is there a typical day?)

I suppose each day has it’s own unique challenges, but you can always count on milking the goats to be the lengthiest and most stressful. That happens at about 7:30 AM and goes on until noon. I don’t do much animal work these days since I’m making and selling the cheese. There’s some work for me in the morning, usually hanging the wet curd in cloth to let it drain and mixing yesterday’s batch to prepare for weighing and shaping by hand. We mostly sell pasteurized cheese at the moment, seeing as we just got back into the milking season. Almost every day we start a batch of milk in our 15 gallon pasteurizer, to which we later add a culture so it forms into a curd. Ideally, we all have lunch together around one o’clock. There are projects constantly going on, as well, so afternoons are dedicated to outside work when the weather allows. Thursdays and Fridays are usually packed with preparing orders and getting ready for the South of the James market on Saturdays with GrowRVA. At the end of the day, dinner gets thrown together anywhere from 6:30 to 9:00 PM. We have a very malleable dining schedule that changes depending on who’s available to cook and whether everyone is even ready to eat.

– I know your cheese is a bit distinct because of the lack of rennet – What does that mean exactly for the cheese? What is bonnyclabbering?

Rennet is often the catalyst used to curdle milk for modern cheese-makers. It comes in many forms, whether it’s origin is that of a mushroom variety or derived from the bacteria of a calf’s stomach. People have been using it in different parts of the world for generations, especially since the early 1900’s when industrialized agriculture and pasteurization became prominent. There are, however, other ways – such as lemon juice – to transform milk into it’s solid form.

Our favorite is called bonny-clabber. Clabbering is a term synonymous to curdling but it strictly applies to raw milk. The ‘bonny’ or ‘good’ clabber is the curd, in this case, resulting from fermentation of the lactose (sugar) in raw milk. In other words, the milk transforms itself as the natural enzymes/bacteria break down the sugar, causing everything to separate into curds and whey. For this process, both rennet and foreign cultures (added for flavor to most cheese) are unnecessary because we haven’t killed the healthy bacteria with pasteurization. It’s amazing to me that the modern food system has seemingly neglected this method for more than a century.

bonnyclabber cheese co

– I know being environmentally conscious and practicing sustainable techniques is important to you. How do you achieve this, and how does it distinguish Sullivan’s Pond from other producers?

I’ve been raised to acknowledge the infinite value of the skills our ancestors used in their daily lives, and I believe inoculating society with these life-sustaining techniques would help solve a variety of global issues. Many tribal and folk cultures have traditions for good reason. Usually, the plants, animals, soil, and water on the land is all they have to survive on and there is no room for excess waste.

Knowing this, we wrap most of our cheeses in leaves and corn husks, which are bio-degradable. We have never used chemicals or pesticides on our gardens; instead we use natural techniques like permaculture and companion planting to inhibit insect development and encourage the growth of a sustainable eco-system. We feed our goats non-GMO feed and treat most illness in the herd with herbal remedies to limit excess medical treatments. These measures are the least we can offer to reduce our carbon and energy footprint, in our minds.

I feel that most businesses have to sacrifice their morals to keep with the demands of our economy, and we are no different. It’s a perpetual struggle to move forward with being sustainable in a local environment and yet continue with what must be done to fund our life at the farm. We’ve been lucky enough to get involved with the WWOOF network (World Wide Organization of Organic Farming) since last year and now have a steady flow of workers who want to learn about goats and have skills to share.

In my opinion, if we can all band together as global community members and use the structure already set in place by the growth of industry, we can encourage locally-sourced agriculture and enact new standards concerning the production of our food.


A big thank you to Cole, Rona, and Tim Sullivan! And thanks to Mary Delicate for the photos (from the South of the James farmers market.)


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