By Elizabeth Winslow
Photography by Whitney Arostegui (above) and Chris Corona (below)
After years spent working in the film industry, Joaquin Avellan fell into his new avocation by accident. His father came to the States from the family’s native Venezuela for heart surgery. After the surgery, the elder Avellan needed help returning home to his dairy, where the Llanos grasslands meet the Andes mountains, near the village of Barinitas. Joaquin volunteered to go back with him and get him settled.
“My father could not go into the dairy, so I set up cameras so that he could monitor the operation remotely. I got in the habit of waking early to make sure the cows were being milked and that my father’s standards were being met in the cheesemaking shop.” In time, his father grew stronger, and Avellan returned home.
Once back in Austin though, Avellan found himself waking in a panic at 3:00 each morning. “I need to milk the cows!” he would think in a haze, before realizing that he had returned to his film-editing career and left the cows thousand of miles to the south. He found himself thinking fondly of the tricky business of cheesemaking—the nuances of temperature, salinity, texture and cultures. It wasn’t long before he succumbed to the siren song and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.
He began a search for quality milk, and soon the first of many, many test batches of cheese were made in his home kitchen. Avellan’s sister Elizabeth discovered a local dairy, but he wasn’t happy with the cheese that resulted. Something wasn’t quite right, and the supply of milk was low. Then Avellan heard about Stryk Jersey Farm in Schulenburg. He went out to meet Darlene and Bob Stryk, and knew immediately that he’d found his source for milk. “Darlene and Bob are just amazing—really happy, joyful, beautiful people. They truly love their animals and this shows in every aspect of their work.”
Learning from his trial-and-error phase, Avellan was now insistent that his milk come from grassfed cows and be unpasteurized—like the milk his father uses. Luckily, the Stryck Jersey Farm is a completely grassfed operation that offers raw milk for sale. “The milk from grain-fed cows makes cheese with a funny texture,” says Avellan. “It’s chemically different, and the nuances of flavor are lost when the cows eat grain. Even worse is pasteurized milk. It is difficult to digest and kills the cultures that make good cheese. I would never try making cheese from pasteurized milk.”
Avellan began making cheese with the raw milk from Stryck’s happy cows. “I made a queso fresco at first,” Avellan explains. “This is the cheese we all eat in Venezuela.” Avellan’s queso fresco was delicious—tart and crumbly, a little salty, tasting of the wide, green pastures of Central Texas. He took a sample to Austin’s resident cheese expert, John Antonelli of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop. “It was incredible,” Antonelli recalls. “We were all loving it, and then he told us it was made with raw milk. I told him, ‘you’ve got to get this out of here!’”
As delicious as the queso fresco might have been, the FDA requires all raw-milk cheese sold in the U.S. to be aged a minimum of 60 days. Rather than feeling discouraged, though, Avellan simply wondered what would happen to a queso fresco when it was aged. “Every day it kept getting better and better,” he says. “It has the same tartness as a queso fresco, with nuances of lemon, lime and kiwi. I was so excited about the 60-day aging process that this is where I got the name. Sixty days equals two moons, so I named my company Dos Lunas.”
Avellan even developed a unique aging process. Rather than aging in a cave, Dos Lunas cheeses are suspended at a temperature of 41 degree and wrapped rather than exposed to the air. Moisture remains in the cheese, and ultimately it takes on the character and complexity of an aged cheese but with a soft, melting unctuousness from the retained moisture.
It wasn’t long before Avellan’s father made the trip to Austin to sample the cheese he had inspired. The senior Avellan was so pleased with it that he’s just released a first run of Dos Lunas Barinitas in Venezuela. In his son’s mind, this honor is the greatest stamp of approval he could ever wish for.
For more information on Dos Lunas Cheese and where to buy it, visit doslunascheese.com.