Day trippers who do venture off Interstate 35 are in for a treat and will find new life breathing into this historic little country town. Century-old storefronts have been revamped and repainted in bright, colorful shades of blue, purple, and hot pink and have created a cheerful place where creative souls and energies flow to synergize Lorena’s old-town shopping district with one-of-a-kind shops and eateries such as The Crossroads Antique Mall, The Blue Roan Café, Just For You Gift Shop, The Village Lamp-Lighter, and The Pepper West Gals porcelain art studio.
This quaint little town welcomes and endears visitors with its charming vintage appeal-old-fashioned lamp posts, large decorative planters and hanging baskets filled with colorful flowers and foliage, and inviting benches and furniture in front of some of the shops beckon guests to stop and sit for a spell. If you are starting to envision Mayberry or scenes out of Norman Rockwell paintings, now you’ve got the picture.
Near the end of the street on East Center you’ll find a real “cheesy” shop that’s gained quite a reputable name for itself across Central Texas. And I am talking about REAL cheese here, folks. You won’t find any artificial colors, additives, preservatives, or emulsifying fillers in any of the handcrafted artisan cheeses at The Cheese House. This is the reason Scott Simon, cheesemaker and owner, has gained the business of so many chefs, locavores, and foodies across Central Texas.
Be forewarned and prepared to “melt” the instant you open the door to The Cheese House. The aroma of fresh-baked bread will waft out to greet you and enthrall your savory senses. Once inside, you’ll discover a remarkable inventory of large cheese wheels in assorted flavors—all-natural, handcrafted, custom artisan blends made from only the finest, freshest, local Texas ingredients as well as an entire line of gourmet and specialty foods all made right here in Texas. When asked about how he initially became interested in cheesemaking, Scott smiled and said, “Well I guess you could say it all began with macaroni and cheese. I always made my own homemade cheese sauce for macaroni and cheese for my kids when they were young and when I did, all of the kids in the neighborhood would show up to eat. One day after a trip to the grocery store, a large bag of grated cheese got left in the car. By the time I found it the next day there was nothing left except oily liquid and yellow, gooey stuff at the bottom of the bag. I knew that wasn’t right or natural and I knew I could do better. So I started making my own cheese.”
Scott may be one of the only cheesemakers in the world to have a degree in physics and pharmacology. “I never really worked in either of those fields,” he chuckled, “I owned a records and information retrieval corporation for over 28 years. When I retired and sold it, I decided to open The Cheese House and do what I love full-time. I guess you’d say I turned my hobby into a business. So I brought all my stuff down here and started making cheese all day. Which made my wife happy—she was thrilled to get all my cheese-making stuff out of her way,” laughs Scott.
With the exception of the live cheese cultures he orders from France, everything else in his cheese is all-natural and locally grown or produced. On most Saturdays you’re likely to find Scott at his booth in Waco at the downtown farmer’s market. However, he also frequents other markets around Central Texas. Not only does Scott sell at cheese at the farmer’s markets, but he buys his ingredients from other vendors and local farmers. One wheel of cheese he took off a rack and showed me had “Texas peppers-Scott & White farmer’s market” inscribed across the bottom of the label.
Scott uses whatever is in season when he goes to make a batch of cheese, which he credits as the key to the cheese having a unique and distinctive Texas flavor. He offers many varieties of peppered cheeses, including Texas Pepper Jack, Texas peppers, and cheddar with ghost peppers—the most infamous pepper of all. Ghost peppers originate from India and hold the official title as the world’s hottest pepper. “I only have one rule about selling peppered cheeses—especially this one,” he said as he pulled a wedge of cheese labeled “ghost peppers” out of the glass display cooler, “I won’t sell it to you unless you try it,” he said smiling.
Cheese making is a lengthy process and one which requires great patience. The hands-on part of the process can take place over the course of a few days or up to two weeks. However, it is the aging process that is a true test of one’s patience. The cheese must age anywhere from 6-12 months. But during this process that the cheese develops its unique flavor profiles and characteristics: mild, strong, or sharp. The older the cheese, the harder the texture.
Once the cheese is done and ready to age, Scott vacuum-seals it in plastic and labels it. Then the cheese is placed on racks and stored at room temperature for 6, 8 or12 months or until it is ready to sell. When I asked about storing it in a refrigerator, Scott explained that only dairy products that have lactose require refrigeration.
“A well-aged, hard cheese does not have lactose in it. The live cheese cultures eat the lactose out of the curds and when the cheese is pressed into the mold, the excess moisture, or whey, that contains the lactose is pressed out. What little if any moisture does remain is lost during the aging process. So even someone who is lactose-intolerant could eat this cheese.”
After he explained the racks and storage, he gave me a tour around the kitchen and showed me where he makes the cheese, one batch at a time. Each batch produces 100 pounds of cheese. Scott’s favorite time to make cheese is in the spring. “You can taste a difference in the milk based on the season and diet of the cows. The milk is generally sweeter and has more flavor when the grass is green. I make cheese year-round; however, I prefer to do the largest bulk of it during the spring and early summer when the milk is the best,” Scott said.
All of the milk used in his cheeses come from organic dairies in Central Texas that have grass-fed herds free of antibiotics, hormones, additives, GMO, corn, soy and preservatives. One of them, Mill-King Market & Creamery, is located just outside of Waco in the Crawford/ McGregor area. Family-owned and operated for three generations, the Mill-King dairy specializes in low-temperature pasteurized, non-homogenized milk and cream. If you grew up on a farm or cherish the memories of fresh sweet milk, you’ll want to pick up a gallon of Mill-King at The Cheese House. You can see the rich, sweet cream that has separated and risen to the top of the milk right through the jug.
When you head to Lorena to visit The Cheese House, be sure to come hungry. The Cheese House features a daily lunch special and a menu with appetizers, sandwiches, cheeseburgers, homemade mac ’n cheese, soups, and desserts. It also has Scott’s own original creations–11 specialty grilled cheese sandwiches, including one that has macaroni and cheese on it!
And whatever you do, don’t forget to add an ice-cold bottle of Cheer wine to your order. This fresh wild cherry soda is made with style and pure cane sugar, a reminiscent of the old style fountain drinks from the past. Dublin Bottling Works also is located in Central Texas (southwestern Erath County) and features a full line of sodas in vintage-inspired flavors such as orange cream, vanilla cream, black cherry, vintage cola, cherry limeade, and Texas sweet peach. They are so yummy you’ll want to grab a couple extra bottles for the trip home.
After you taste a few slices of Scott’s artisan cheeses, it becomes quite evident that he was never meant to make cheese at home as a hobby—cheese-making is his life calling. To say Scott is a “cheese lover” is “udder-ly” insulting. Every ounce of this man soul is “cheesy.” He eats, lives, and breathes cheese.
Perhaps that’s why I didn’t find his answer to my question, “what is the hardest thing about making cheese?” surprising. He simply looked over at me and with a big grin on his face he replied, “The hardest thing about making cheese is watching it walk out the door.”
Visit Lorena and The Texas Cheese House.
It taste like Texas-no matter how you slice it.