Hard work and happy cows add up to heavenly cheese at Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese
Written by Bridget Williams Photography by Andrew Kung
Where the beaten path becomes a breadcrumb trail is where you can find a slice of fromage heaven. The story of Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese begins in the mid-1970s when Ken Mattingly, Sr. relocated his wife and seven children from Indianapolis to a 200-acre farm in Barren County, Kentucky to pursue his dream of becoming a dairy farmer. His son, Ken “Kenny”, Jr., who was 19 at the time of the move, followed in his father’s footsteps by rising early for grueling workdays beginning at 4 am and not ending until long after the sun had set. Almost two decades later, a pair of seemingly unrelated developments converged to set in motion a series of events that undoubtedly saved the future of this family farm: milk prices dropped by nearly 40% and Kenny took a trip to Western Europe and observed how small family farms were finding ways to add value to their existing products.
The jump from dairy farmer to cheesemonger wasn’t an overnight transition, rather a long-haul commitment to a labor of love that continues its evolution to this day. The Mattingly’s acquired their frst cheese making equipment and a recipe for Gouda from a woman in Oldham County who was looking to get out of the business. They kept the equipment in storage for three years while they continued to educate themselves about the cheese-making process.
In 1998, while Kenny tended to the process of milking their 140 cows, his mother and father handcrafted the first batches of Gouda, eventually producing 4,000 pounds in their first year. “My mom could tell from looking at a picture of someone making cheese if they were doing a good job or not. She always said ‘you have to be gentle with the curds,’” said Kenny. Kenneth Sr. and his wife Mary Rose introduced the Commonwealth to their cheese with as much personal attention as it was made: loading up their van and crisscrossing the Commonwealth, offering samples to restaurateurs, patrons of established farmer’s markets, and anyone who inquired about their mission.
Today, the original 300-gallon vat is still in use, now supplemented by a larger, more automated one to help keep the balance between demand and supply in check. Kenny’s son Jared oversees the herd. Ask Kenny, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mitt Romney and a politician’s knack for conversation and cutting up, what type of cows they keep and he’ll quickly reply “happy” before adding Holstein cross-bred with European stock. Another reason for the herd’s high-spirits: the cows (raised without artificial hormones) have double the lifespan of a typical dairy cow.
For the frst 15 years, the company focused on raw milk cheese aged at least 60 days. Though the FDA now mandates pasteurization, Kenny is still partial to the raw milk variety. “It’s easier to tell early on if a batch is going to be good or bad,” he explained. The whole process takes place in an environment where cleanliness could put many a commercial kitchen I’ve visited to shame. Te raw milk travels from the adjacent milking house through a double-filtered stainless steel pipe to a sanitized vat in the cheese house where production takes place. From there, various combinations of salt, rennet, proprietary cultures, and flavorings are added. Tough 60 days is the minimum a cheese is aged, some are held in refrigerated rooms much longer to enhance the favor.
From its humble start with raw milk Gouda, the company has expanded its repertoire to include more than 30 varieties, with half of the raw milk produced on the farm going to produce more than 100,000 pounds of cheese each year. You’ll find Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese on the menu in 13 states, including Home Bistro in Chicago (where the double cream varieties are popular); Lilly’s Restaurant in Louisville (one of Ken Sr.’s first customers); the Lexington Farmer’s Market; Jungle Jim’s in Cincinnati; and as far away as the Bay House Restaurant in Naples, FL. Kenny isn’t a big fan of proving his cheeses’ mettle by entering contests, preferring to let customer demand, which continues to steadily increase, determine which of his products are winners.
Even today, when Kenny slices into the unblemished red wax coating enveloping a hefty wheel of Gouda, his enthusiasm is palpable. “No one can cut the cheese like me,” he quipped while offering up a slice, which tasted like good Gouda should: subtly sweet yet sharp and complex. His wife Beverly, who helps staff the roadside cheese shop connected to the production facility and oversees the order fulfillment side, chuckles and smiles only as someone hearing the familiar punch line for the umpteenth time can.
Kenny’s eyes positively light up with a father’s pride when he talks about the farm’s future. Jared recently planted his frst grapes for what will become Mattingly Farms Winery. Barren County is indeed barren when it comes to the sale of alcohol, and in a special local option election, the 666 eligible voters in the Thomerson Park precinct gave the green light for Jared and his wife Ashton to start out selling wine made by other wineries and eventually their own once their vines have matured. “It’s nice to see each generation making their mark on the farm,” said Kenny. Being able to pair a glass of wine with a cheese tasting isn’t a bad idea either.
Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese is located at 2033 Tomerson Park Road in Austin, KY. For more information visit kennyscountrycheese.com or call 888.571.4029.