Joan and Pierre-Louis Monteillet live what many consider to be a dream life, churning out beautiful handmade cheeses from a charming farm that's, yes, pretty as a postcard. But life at Monteillet Fromagerie isn't as idyllic as it seems - unless you are a fan of really, really, really hard work. When these former wheat farmers aren't caring for animals, making cheese, managing the tasting room (with outdoor pizza oven!), travelling to Farmer's Markets as far away as Portland and Seattle, hosting incredible events - such as July's upcoming Outstanding in the Field dinner, managing a holiday guest house, teaching cheesemaking workshops, or sharing their knowledge with farm interns (live in Kyle MacLachlan's trailer from the set of Twin Peaks!) they are busy thinking of what's next - and how that can be better than what was. Tired yet? It may be exhausting just to read about, but this inspiring couple manage it all with a gusto, generosity of spirit and joy that could muster the inner farmer instinct in even the most urban city slicker.
Pierre-Louis and Joan Monteillet
For those romantics still out there - tell us how you met.
Joan: I came from California to visit my family in Walla Walla and thought, "Gosh, this town isn't so bad now!" I was born and raised there - my parents were wheat farmers - and things had changed a lot since I left. So I decided to take a chef job at was then the only good restaurant in town,The Left Bank, but said before I start I am going to take a six-week vacation to Mexico. This was 1977 and going to Mexico was like an eye-opener that the rest of the world was out there and sometimes, when we only see what's around us, we don't understand why the world is so beautiful and different. I was so spellbound with Mexican women because they had the textiles, the most beautiful white petticoats, everything they wore was pristine and beautiful and totally opposite of what I'd heard as a kid growing up. So it really changed by beliefs. I ended up in Oaxaca and met Pierre-Louis through his friend Michel, who I befriended.Pierre-Louis: Yes, at that time I was travelling with Michel La Fleur - a French Canadian guy - that I met in Tunisia in North Africa; I had been travelling in North Africa, West Africa, gone across the Sahara a couple times, basically spent about 3-4 years backpacking around the world. I went to Mexico and spent six months travelling through Mexico and Central America and then started running out of money. I knew my time was limited because I was running out of money, so if I spent more than $60 a month I was over budget! Anyway, when I met Joan I had $120 left. So by chance we happened to be in the same pensionne - a cheap pensionne...
Joan: Hotel Chayo!
Pierre-Louis: Yes, Hotel Chayo! I went to Monte Alban, the Zapotec tribal ruins, so I was not there when Joan met Michel. Michel had gone to a restaurant the night before and got "la tourista" - he was so sick! We had rented the cheapest room we could find, I remember, 23 pesos, but it did not have a bathroom - and being sick and not having a bathroom can be a big problem. The bathrooms were in this little yard but they were closed for cleaning and there was Michel, so sick, and Joan saw him desperately looking around with a roll of paper in his hand and told him he could use her bathroom. So that's how we made the connection. No shit!
Joan: I did have a toilet in my room - just smack in the middle of the room. So, I let Michel in to my room - he was in there for a while - and I was like, "Are you OK?" and he said, "Yeah, I feel great! Why don't you come have dinner with my friend and I tonight?" And I said, "You're already thinking about dinner? You just spent an hour and a half on my toilet!" So, I thought well, OK, maybe I will go. I looked down about an hour and a half later and saw Pierre-Louis saunter across that zocalo into Michel's room and I went, "Oh my! I think I WILL be going to dinner!!"
Pierre-Louis: So we met at dinner together with this big international group...
Joan: I was so impressed that Pierre-Louis could translate for all these different people!
Pierre-Louis: ...then after dinner we went to the zocalo, the big town square, and watched these xylophone players. Six men on big xylophones playing Flight of the Bumblebee.
Joan: So I was sick the next morning but we exchanged addresses because I was going south he was going north. I had to be back in Walla Walla April 1 to start work. Then, on April 4, there was Pierre-Louis - he had hitchhiked all the way to Walla Walla!
Pierre-Louis: I did El Paso to Walla Walla in two days!
Joan: Oh we like our thumbs - we're the Tom Robbins group. We believe in Sissy Hankshaw! The thumb gets you a long way. So, that's how it all started! My dad looked at him and said, "God, you're going to be a good farmer!" and I went, "Oh dear. My dad's already got him all set." It ended up to be true!
Did you know anything about farming?
Joan: Oh yeah, I did! I'm a third-generation farmer. That was my life. I mean, I didn't think anyone else wanted to do it. My dad convinced him, I guess, I don't know how that happened!
Pierre-Louis: I started on wheat, cattle, and alfalfa. Where Leonetti Cellars is now, Joan's parents owned that whole place and her dad sold it to Baker Ferguson to start a winery. So Bake and Jean thought they were going to start L'Ecole 41 there and then they found the old schoolhouse and decided to change the venue.
Joan: My parents were very forward-thinking for wheat farmers and my dad was also a builder. So he was constantly trying to make the next place better to be. He had, I think, nine different farms in Walla Walla - before we left when I was 13 to move to Lake Oswego so I could study art, because I was being a juvenile delinquent. My dad was like, "What's wrong with you?" and I just said, "I'm so tired of being a farm girl/cowgirl/ranch girl/rodeo girl/sports girl!" I just wanted to escape. My family has always been so good at listening to needs - how many families move to Portland so their 13-year old can study art? Who listens to a 13-year old like that? There's some respect in families to give some allowance of integrity to what we think we want to learn. Because if you quit learning, give it up! What else is going to happen?
Pierre-Louis: You are dead! But you know, Joan was an Olympic hopeful?
Really?! I'm going to guess something to do with horses?
Joan: No, in sports! I was quite a track star. So Dave Clicker, the Clicker berry guy, he was the alternative hurdler in the Olympics and he started training me when I was about 11 - I think in 1959. There were four really talented tracksters in Walla Walla and we were all running track and playing basketball. I had three national records at age 11 - three AAU standing records for softball throw, running broad jump, and 440 relay.
I never would have guessed it!
Joan: Well there was nothing else to do but run and ride horses! But that's what small towns are about. I knew what I was good at here, but at 13 I wanted to try something different - it's like thinking what can we all be better at when we get a new influence? Environmental change is good. It's really how we move ahead with getting people aware of what we're all trying to do - have a better environment. This area is good for this. You can breathe and think and you can sit by creeks and paint and you can do pretty much anything your brain wants you to do - if you don't dairy farm. Dairy farming is killing me!
Pierre-Louis, you are originally from France - what was it like in your hometown?
Yes, originally I am from South Central France. My hometown is Millau - it's about 45 minutes from the Mediterranean, north of Montpelier. For wine geeks that's just above the Languedoc. We grow lavender and almonds but it's a little too cold for olives or grapes - not completely a Mediterranean climate, but close. Roquefort cheese is made 20 miles away from my home, so the whole economy of the area is based on the sheep. All the leather would come to my hometown so most people made a living on glove-making. Beautiful gloves - like Hermes - not cheap stuff. In the 30's, 40's and 50's they were very in style and all the glamorous actresses would wear them. So all the women would finish the gloves and the men would do the tanning and work on the leather. And this would allow the women to work at home and raise a family and still make a living.
Joan: That's what, in this area, I think we could still develop. A cottage industry of work people can do at home and be able to raise their children.
Pierre-Louis: So I grew up there and as a kid in high school in France you had to learn a language at 12 so I chose English. Then at 14 I had a choice of German or Spanish so I chose Spanish - and I already had five years of Latin. So language, history, and geography were always my interests. And cave-exploring. There were a lot of caves around my hometown and I belonged to a spelunking club. We had an opportunity to go to Turkey and explore caves when I was 17 so that's what got the travelling bug in me. My older brother was a Spanish teacher and had gone to Haiti to teach and then was in Morocco so I went to visit him in Morocco after I went to Turkey and I just kind of kept travelling from there.
When did you make the decision to move from wheat farming to cheesemaking? Did you even know how to make cheese?
Pierre-Louis: I had a friend in the business in France but first we did the wheat farming for Joan's family farm for about 20 years. So by 1997 we gave up the wheat farming and put the group in the CRP program, which is the Conservation Reserve Program, and we seeded 1000 acres of grass and let it be.
Joan: Thanks to my mother being generous once again!
Pierre-Louis: I was a part-time tile contractor and seeing how the wine industry was developing in Walla Walla around 2000, we thought well here it's a little too cold for grapes - plus I don't know anything about it anyways - so we say, "How about cheese?" At that time we had 27 acres and went to visit some cheesemakers in Oregon, my friend in France, as well as some cheesemakers in Switzerland. First we went to Christophe Baron's place in Champagne and his family introduced us to cheesemakers they knew, also because Jean Francois Pellet, who makes wine for Pepperbridge, his parents knew more cheesemakers, then we spent time with my friend, and that's how we got our base.
Pierre-Louis: Yeah, at that time that was the goal.
Joan: We quit wheat farming in 1996 and it took us 2 years to establish the grass, which created the CRP program. It was very successful because now you have soil that has been without chemicals or being disturbed for almost 20 years - you have worms galore! The worst thing about agribusiness is it kills everything in the ground because of all the chemicals. My mother could have said, "No, I want to keep wheat farming this to get more money out of it!" but she said yes. She was part Cherokee indian and I said, "Mom, this would be like going back to how the Palouse used to look with the native grasses and the people moving through and not using and abusing and slashing and burning..." Anyway, she was totally open to it. Not every person would have done that. So we were among the first to turn our land over to CRP. And Pierre-Louis is a chameleon - he can learn anything, he can do anything.
Pierre-Louis: I never farmed before, I never mowed a lawn in my life. I grew up in a Cafe so I was good at dishwashing and sorting bottles and the irony was that my father - up until I was 5 years old - he was a custom harvester machinery dealer. In 1957 my father bought the cafe, I was 5, but I never knew he had done anything with farming. I definitely didn't know how to make cheese, but I knew I liked cheese.
Joan: We were trying to figure out a product that would pair well with all these amazing wines coming out of the wine industry here and I was like, "My God, what could go better than a place where people could eat fresh cheese?"
But when we opened we put an advertisement in the Walla Walla Union Bulletin for our first Open House that said something like, "Bienvenue! Monteillet Fromagerie is Open! Come try our cheese," and it totally backfired on us. We got hate letters because it was when the French would not go to Iraq. We got these weird letters with words cut out of magazines and they'd say "Who do you think you are? You won't fight for your country." We just wanted to see who would come to an open house for the cheese! We couldn't believe people were so upset that there was a French person here.
How many animals did you start with?
Pierre-Louis: One. When we were wheat farming we had a La Mancha goat. When we lived at the wheat farm we were basically self-sufficient. Except for sugar. We made our own soap, ground our own flour, killed and butchered our own meat, and we did a garden. Then we had one goat for milk, yogurt and all that.
Joan: It was like a natural progression. We wanted to stay in agriculture - maybe that's not the right word for us now - we should coin a new one because sustainable has been used too much and organic doesn't mean anything. If Kellogg's has enough corn to make organic Corn Flakes we're in trouble because I don't know where those corn fields are! I think a lot of verbiage is being misrepresented for what it really is. When it comes to food products we all have to - as good citizens of the planet - tell the truth, know our vendors, and know our farmers.
Pierre-Louis: We started buying our first goats in 2001 when we started building the facility. When we went to France we learned how to set up a facility properly.
Joan: And over there, what they're doing is not even a comparison. We knew we needed to be set up for USDA approval but what they do overseas is totally different because they don't have the restriction of pasteurization. Their milk is tested daily by a government agent that circles through all of the dairy farms. It's just a much cleaner, more regimented system. What we've done here is restrict farmers from producing raw milk because a lot of people in the business of trying to produce raw milk have never farmed before, they've never done animal husbandry, and they don't realize the commitment. You have GOT to keep everything clean. Animals lay in their bedding - if their bedding is filthy, the animals' teats are filthy. This is why in France they clean their barns so often you could go in an eat off the floor.
Pierre-Louis: See the philosophy here is, because we pasteurize, the inspector then never needs to check out the farm because pasteurization kills everything. So now raw milk because that's too much to inspect.
And that's how factory farms get by?
Joan: Exactly. And the USDA doesn't even have enough inspectors. Our poor inspector is running the whole state of Washington so she's handling ALL of the cheese farms! She came a couple of weeks ago and we passed 100%, the FDA was here and we passed 100% inspection. The best thing with being on top of your game with cheese is that cleanliness IS next to Godliness. If they can take swabs off 153 spots in your drains, faucets, milk samples, and everything and you come out OK, that is good. But you look at Estrella and Sally Jackson getting closed down last year - they were at our farm three days before they closed all those farms down. And if they had found E.coli or Listeria we would have been shut down. But we really tried to take as much information from France on the way they do their cheese. They don't try to do too much - they do one or two good cheeses and they go off to a person who is going to age them in their own caves. Over here we don't have the same mentality. In the U.S. everyone wants to do everything - and a lot of it.
Pierre-Louis: And we do the whole gamut, not just make cheese. We birth the animals, we raise them, we milk them, we produce the cheese, we age the cheese, we use the bi-product of the dairy - which is the males - we raise them for meat.
Joan: Our friends and family laugh at us and they're like, "Why don't you have someone to do that job for you?" and I say, "because we've lost all the people that know how to do it - or want to do it!" Whatever's going on it's just less and less people involved in the process of getting food from the field to the table. Not just vegetables - it's the meat industry that has to have a better understanding of what it takes to raise an animal up to butcher weight. Not that you just want a good looking lambchop - you want an animal that has been raised on healthy pasture and fresh water. The first thing they asked us, the USDA, was to test our water because they said if you don't have pure water you can't have a dairy. Milk is made of water - that's really the key to a good dairy. The proteins turn into the fats but water is your base...
Pierre-Louis: Instead of feeding animals cardboard and sawdust and filler.
The farm to table movement may be all the rage but it's like people want to enjoy the spoils of it - but not do the labor?
Pierre-Louis: Yes, not many people want to do this work. What we find out is we get interns who work for a few months or a few years and realize it's damn hard work for not a lot of money. The people making the money are the retail people.
Joan: Now this is interesting - because now that we're not retailing, people are calling us. So Beecher's just called and I thought - how funny is that that Beecher's is calling US?
Pierre-Louis: I was working at Pike Place Market a few years ago, right across the street from the Beecher's store, and the cheesemaker came over and said, "I've never tasted cheese like this!" So we gave them samples and prices - but they didn't want to pay that much for it. So now they calling us - we'll see.
Joan: Beecher's is a clever business and I don't begrudge them that. It's not a farming business, is all. It's about numbers, not the animals. There are many cheesemakers who don't have farms. No matter what we all want to think, we know what it takes to get the milk out of the animals. If people can make a good living by selling their milk at a bulk price, that's fine, but we have no choice out here. We thought maybe with all the goat farmers we knew out here there'd be a source of milk and that ended up being a joke. So you have to raise the animals to get the milk if you really want to be a farmstead cheesemaker. And even with milking 83 goats twice a day we don't have enough milk to say we could be viable in a situation for setting up a storefront. We sell everything we make every week and we're only doing three Farmer's Markets and our farm store here. So what does it really take to be viable these days - with anything? How much do you have to produce to break even? I know we do as best we can with producing a consistent, quality cheese, but then if you were trying to do something more lucrative - like having a retail space somewhere - what would that take? Another couple hundred animals probably. So for us, being a mom and pop team - with our intern Daniel - I don't really want to be big, I just want to be creative and still try to do what we believe in. I still want to do my fused glass art again, I don't want to think that those days are gone completely. So, how do we get it all?
Pierre-Louis: Hold on a second. Because you know Joan, you outsourced all your labor to a foreigner.
Joan: What? Who, you? You hitchhiked here! You're like a little French leaf that blew in here like an Autumn storm. Can't blame me. You got that thumb out in Mexico!
When people come to the fromagerie they really see an idyllic, gorgeous farm and probably have visions of a lovely, lazy farm life. What's the reality?
Pierre-Louis: It is 24/7, 365 days a year.
Joan: People think we have the greatest life - and we do!! We'd like to explore maybe doing more special events here now that we have the outdoor kitchen and some people who can help out with those. We just had 42 yogis from the Urban Yoga Spa come out and it was a blast - but a lot of work, even though we had help from Sarah from the Whoopem Up. They were so sweet and appreciative that we accommodated special food requests from the vegans and vegetarians.
Would you have let me in your house if I told you I used to work for PETA?
Joan: Of course I would! Animal rights do need to be held up. My animals are so happy here! When the USDA inspector asked how I washed my eggs I said, "you don't have to wash your eggs if your nests are clean and if you keep your nests clean..." We have to start at the beginning of how we make sense of what we do with what we eat.
But there are some animals in places in this area that I'm going to set free one of these days! You're going to read in the paper about those damn turkeys being kept in horrible cages in Dixie being released! They've got these turkeys in like, tiny, bird cages. These turkeys need a great escape - they need to be freed. That's where PETA comes in. I am so for animal rights. I want animals to live a dignified life - they have that right - until, if they're domesticated animals, they won't even know what hit 'em when their day comes. And these turkeys, I'm sure they wish everyday was their day - what a horrible environment to be in!
Pierre-Louis: Out here in the wild, animals have a pretty tough life - always looking over your shoulder for the next cougar! We once had a juvenile cougar in our backyard and now we think he's coming back to visit as an adult - which is not good for our animals. And the wolves are coming!
Aren't wolves the sign of a truly healthy environment?
Joan: Yeah! Until those darn farmers with guns find 'em. The game inspector always asks when I'm going to get a gun and I'm like, "Never. It's not my place to go out and kill something that was here before I was." We're just trying to do what we can to keep our animals safe from the wild animals who have the right to be out there. We've been going out every night and penning our animals up in small pens because cougars won't go into small enclosed spaces like a pen. So, I was thinking like a cougar!
Pierre-Louis: Yeah - I am two years younger, you know. She is a cougar!
Pierre-Louis: Well, the cheesemaking part is the easy part. Getting the milk is where the work is. You've got to breed the animals, birth the animals, feed the animals, clean the barn and all that. But you have to milk twice a day, every day, for 8.5 months of the year. So, seven days a week. We take them at 6 in the morning and 6 at night to be milked. Between the milking is the cleaning, and there is a lot of it, about 4 or 4.5 hours every morning and night - so right there's about 9 -10 hours just cleaning. Then there's feeding, watering, etc. We pasteurize twice a week, about 250 gallons a week at the beginning of the season. So on Monday I pasteurized, set curd, ladled, put the cheese in mold or in bags, then the draining process was mostly Tuesday. So Wednesday we've got the cheese out of the mold for most of them and now it's a matter of monitoring the cheese so we know the culture we introduced to the milk works. The rind is set by Thursday and then Friday we start refrigerating and packaging. Then the weekend is selling the cheese at market. So it's all day, every day.
Joan: But no matter what, there's this whole beauty of what we all do to schlep for a living. I used to work in retail, I used to chef, so I've done a lot of things and I don't think 24 hours is enough in any day when you're really passionate about what you do. I think if I wasn't turning 61 tomorrow, I'd go "piece of cake!" about all of this. I think hard work is good and if you are a healthy person, the worst thing you can do is start feeling sorry for yourself. And you know, if we hadn't started this after wheat farming we still would have been doing something totally ridiculous. If we had gone to France we might have started a hospitality business, which is hard work as well. We've never been office people. Pierre-Louis you have never worked in an office, right?
Pierre-Louis: I've never even worked for anybody!
Joan: So the worst and the best thing about being self-employed is you know how to budget the money you make because you're not expecting a big check from some employer. Part of the beauty of the Walla Walla valley is that there are a lot of us who think this way - there are a lot of people that are very independent in how they make their money. It's almost a pioneer mentality. We're building a new society with the energies of all the creative people that have different ideas instead of it being the homogenized idea it was when wheat farming took over. Once the land was taken from the Native Americans, it became plowing, slashing, burning, tearing out the woods, for profit.
So we've done enough damage and now I think there's a new generation of rebuilding, and that rebuilding is going to be hospitality - to bring people in who will appreciate what we still have instead of seeing it being transformed into a housing development. I have so much hope! The worst thing about me is I have so much optimism. I really think that setting an example will show people a different way to think - it's not one of us, it's all of us. And, it's global! These information highways - if we can use them to connect with other people in the world, we can learn more and make changes before we destroy this amazing stuff we still have in our own backyards. I think that's the positive thing about people like you coming here, for Pierre-Louis to come here, and believe in what we do - it's all believing in and working toward a system of change. It's not going stay the same, so let's make it better! I do not want to live anyplace where people don't keep thinking ahead. That's all I really care about. I don't want to be at the same place we were last year, I want to be thinking differently so we come to a different place soon. Sooner!!
What are the most important things you'd like people to know about you or what you do - or even what you believe in?
Pierre-Louis: We pray for you, just send the money!
Joan: Both those things - love AND send money!! Awareness. Not to believe everything you hear and trust the people you meet that are working hard as farmers and producers of food if you consume meat. Food misinformation is a huge propaganda machine that's almost as strong as our political propaganda to me - because the food industry has a lot of power right now. I think are not doing a just service to the people who are out there hoeing those weeds every day out of their strawberries and beans and peas and know what it takes to put that out there and have people bitch about the price per pound. I always tell people if you want to know what the price per pound for cheese is, it'd probably be $1000 if we got to figure the hours that go into making it. So what retail does to hurt farmers is make it look like food is cheap.
Pierre-Louis: If it's cheap, it's because somebody is not being paid.
Joan: So if people are more aware and educated about where food comes from, they won't go to Wal-Mart. They'll support their local farmers at their Farmer's Markets and local stores that really do supply truly local food. And don't believe local food is always local, so questions are good - pin people down! Find out who butchered those animals and where they came from. It's such a weird mentality, this knowing it's not the best thing - so, why are you eating it? Why don't people want to question?
Pierre-Louis: Because the answer is usually scary.
Joan: This is why I've never eaten at McDonald's. Even if you asked the question there's no way you'd know what that food is.
Really, it seems like people just don't want to exert the effort to find out because then they have to exert more effort to do the right thing once they find out the truth.
Joan: There you go! What does "effort" really mean? What is the effort of living? How much do we all have to put out to live a good life? Just think of the things we take for granted - like laundry! Our grandmothers and mothers used to have to hand wash everything. Now there's no connection, you just throw it in a machine and push "Wash". You used to have to boil the water, make the soap - Lord have mercy! - the whole day was just put to the efforts of existence.
But I wouldn't change anything about what we are doing. I am so happy to be here now. I think the future is a different thing, but I am thrilled to be doing what we're doing for as long as we can. But that's not sustainable either as you get older - my mom just died at 93 and she baked biscotti the day before she died so - what the hell? Keep baking!
There are still a few tickets left to Outstanding in the Field at Monteillet Farm on July 22. Multiple James Beard award nominated chef Chris Ainsworth of Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen will be cooking up the grub accompanied by undoubtedly gorgeous local wines. Get 'em while you can because this dinner will be one to remember.