Updated Tuesday, November 27, 2012 at 01:40 PM
IT'S EASY to envision Meghan McMahon McKenna as an Irish milkmaid born in an earlier century. Awake before dawn, she'd head to the barn to tend her goats, fill a pail with milk then trudge back to a chilly cottage to spread homemade cheese on brown bread. For her, paradise might be a soak in a steaming tub.
The contemporary Meghan McKenna has a much better gig.
A longtime cheesemonger at Metropolitan Market, she's now cheesemaker at Mountain Lodge Farm, a new farmstead creamery near Eatonville in Pierce County.
Here in the foothills of Mount Rainier, she lives on the Nisqually River Forest Reserve in a spacious farmhouse whose lab-like cheesemaking room stands just off her kitchen.
McKenna rises each day to tend a herd of 80 goats, including two dozen darling does, prized for the butterfat content of their sweet milk.
When the does aren't munching hay, they hit the hillside with a mama llama, browsing on scrub and salal, blackberry brambles and dried leaves. "They eat those like potato chips," says McKenna, who grew up in a Chicago suburb eating Kraft Singles.
Twice daily, she and her husband, Shawn, milk the goats and collect 25 to 35 gallons of precious product, depending on the season. Thrice weekly that milk is transformed into cheeses named for the nearby mountain, and sold at select shops and farmers markets.
"We buy as much as we can, whenever we can," notes cheesemonger Sheri LaVigne, owner of Seattle's Calf & Kid. "Their Summit, a surface-ripened cheese made with a layer of vegetable ash, is one of the most perfectly executed cheeses I've seen from any domestic cheesemakers in a long time."
LaVigne isn't the only fan. In 2011, the American Dairy Goat Association gave five of McKenna's six entries first-place awards in the amateur category, and her soft-ripened Paradise took best of show. Mountain Lodge Farm got its dairy license in February.
Both were proud moments for the farm's owner, Sherwin Ferguson, a nurse practitioner and working partner whose skills come in handy during the busy season when baby goats are born, swiftly weaned, then bottle-fed.
It was a workshop at the acclaimed Quillisascut Farm school that brought Ferguson and McKenna together. Chance bunkmates, Ferguson had the means to keep her land in agriculture, McKenna, the moxie.
McKenna says she became a student of cheese by tasting — beginning with her first "revelatory" mouthful of fresh mozzarella during a college year in Italy. After a move to Seattle and the Sand Point Metropolitan Market, on-the-job training meant attending conferences, learning the art of aging, and experimenting at home with cheesemaking kits.
She also worked without pay for a farmstead cheesemaker who helped her perfect the craft. Each Monday for six months, "I'd get up at 3:30 a.m., ride my bike to a Zipcar and arrive there by 6 for the start of milking and cheesemaking," McKenna says.
During a honeymoon year in 2010, she and Shawn immersed themselves in the craft with stops throughout Europe. "Our goal was to find a farm in the mountains practicing transhumance, the ancient tradition of rotational, seasonal grazing."
They found it in the Pyrenees, spending two months in a 200-year-old cottage.
Today, living a locavore's fantasy in the shadow of Mount Rainier, "We present a very pastoral version of life, where we drink wine with lunch every day," McKenna says. "That's not the reality, but it got me hooked."
Nancy Leson is the Pacific NW food writer. Reach her at email@example.com. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Cheesemaker Meghan McKenna snuggles with Rosebud, a Nigerian Dwarf goat, at Mountain Lodge Farm. By spring, she expects to be working out of a new and larger high-tech creamery at the farm.
JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
McKenna rubs kosher salt on wheels of Tomme cheese.