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Brie and cheddar are cheese counter staples, but Impromptu, Figaro and Nocturne are quite a bit harder to come by. These are just some of the musically inspired cheeses that are the brainchild of Soyoung Scanlan, a Korean–born pianist and scientist who has become one of the most esteemed artisan cheese producers in the United States. Scanlan is the owner and “soloist” at Andante Dairy, which she named to reflect the tempo she felt was most suitable for cheesemaking in Petaluma, California. Today her handcrafted products are served at some of the country’s finest restaurants.
Scanlan discovered her passion for music as a young child and started playing the piano at age five. She took lessons for ten years and worked as an accompanist in high school. In college, however, she opted to study chemical engineering, for practical reasons: “Music was always in my life, so I didn’t need to have it as my profession. I wanted to learn something that could give me independence. As a woman, that was very unusual in Korea—everybody expected you to get married and become a wife and mother and that was the rest of your life. There were not many female students in the engineering school.”
Scanlan excelled in her undergraduate studies and went on to pursue her master’s in biotechnology at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology while still performing as an accompanist in her free time. After graduating and working as a researcher at a medical school for two years, she decided to move to the United States in September 1994 to learn English and eventually get her Ph.D. She was twenty-six years old and had never been abroad before. “I came alone, and it was kind of daunting. My second day in Boston I got lost, and ended up in front of these posters of famous musicians: I realized I was in front of Symphony Hall.” She took the opportunity to buy herself a student subscription for the season and started going to concerts as often as thrice a week.
“It was so exciting to be looking at these musicians that I’d dreamt of for over twenty years—Kurt Masur conducting Beethoven. It was very new, and it made me feel like I was in a different world. Music gave me the courage to be open.” She ended up meeting her future husband at an Itzhak Perlman concert just a few weeks after she arrived. “He was a very rare young man in the concert hall,” she says, laughing. The couple was married less than a year later.
Scanlan began to have doubts about pursuing her Ph.D. and working as a scientist. She says her professional experience in the lab in Korea left her feeling like something was lacking. “I started feeling a kind of separation from myself… science wasn’t giving me a sense of reality. The more I got into it, getting a job and the research field, I thought, is this really it?” Scanlan wanted to find an alternative, something that would be more meaningful and evoke the feelings she experienced while playing the piano. “I was looking for something very physical, but at the same time spiritual and mental, as a human being expressing every part of yourself.”
During a vacation with her husband to France, Scanlan found what she was looking for when she had her first taste of real, unprocessed cheese. She was immediately hooked. “I didn’t grow up with cheese. But when I started tasting it, it was fascinating. Very few ingredients can turn into something so various and so diverse in terms of flavor and texture. Cheese was something unexpected; I thought it was beautiful.”
When they returned home, Scanlan decided that in order to delve into cheesemaking, she needed to better understand the raw material that she would be working with first. She received a scholarship to study dairy science at California Polytechnic Institute and researched the physical and chemical structure of milk for two years. Eager to put what she learned into practice, she accepted a job making cheese for a farmer in Petaluma, and six months later branched out on her own to found Andante Dairy in 1999.
Andante now produces about two hundred to two hundred fifty pounds of cheese per week, all of which Scanlan makes by hand. It is one of the smallest dairies in the country, but she enjoys being intimately involved in the cheesemaking process and eschews mass production. There are no pumps at Andante—after the milk is pasteurized and coagulation is complete, she hand-molds and salts each piece, one by one. She has two helpers who assist in cleaning and other tasks, but she is the only cheesemaker. Depending on the type of cheese, the entire process can take from three days for a fresh cheese to up to fourteen months for an aged hard cheese.
Scanlan still plays the piano regularly, both on her own and with her ten-year-old daughter. “I practice Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ whenever my mind is a little bit tangled, when there are so many things going on and I over-promised my contribution to certain places, restaurant openings, and I feel like things are going out of control. After about six or seven pieces, I can feel the rhythm of my mind. It’s very helpful.”
For Scanlan, the discipline and stamina required for the repetitive activities of cheesemaking are comparable to that demanded of musicians, with the end results of both being equally rewarding, if fleeting. She recalls working a large event with the renowned chef Thomas Keller, who was her first customer. “The whole process was very difficult, and one course goes out, the plates come back empty, the food’s been eaten… we were so tired and at one point we looked at each other and we asked each other why we ended up working with something that disappears so quickly? It’s not like a sculpture or painting. And when you consider music, it just disappears in the air. There is a similarity. But for me, it tells me a lot about the essence of life. When you pursue that kind of thing, I think it forms you quite differently.”
Music has been the inspiration behind most of the cheeses Scanlan makes at Andante. She typically comes up with the name first, and listens to or plays music that helps her work out how she will design the cheese. She thought about Contralto for about six years before she finally made it. The idea came to her at a concert in London, when she was deeply moved by the voice of contralto Sara Mingardo. “There was something gentle, with a hint of sorrow, a hint of loneliness, but still a female voice, and this unexpected texture of it.” Scanlan bought several of Mingardo’s CDs and frequently listened to her recording of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater in particular. She ultimately created Contralto as a goat’s milk cheese, with a smooth, thick texture and rich but not overpowering taste, reflective of the voice that remained with her after the performance.
Another of her cheeses, Tomme Dolce, was created while she was playing a lot of Mozart. “I starting noticing dolce in many of the passages, and I was thinking about what dolce means in music. A kind of sweetness, but not a cloying sweetness.” At that time, she was working Saturdays at a farmer’s market in San Francisco, and her friend June Taylor, a jam producer, was at the next stall. “She has a very sweet and low, beautiful voice. And her jam is very natural, with a minimal amount of sugar. I love her jam so much, and I wondered is there any way I can express this very gentle sweetness in cheese.” She designed a hard, tomme-style cheese (round-shaped, classically French) that she rubs with Taylor’s conserve to give it just a hint of sweetness.
“I think that’s a beautiful part of an artisan’s work, because our life and our intentions and activities are all combined: people, my daily life, my intentions are crystallized in one cheese. It’s quite serendipitous.”
Scanlan feels her understanding of music has given her a lot more freedom to express herself in her work: “I’ve never been a set or bound cheesemaker.” John Winterman, managing partner of Bâtard, currently the sole restaurant in NYC to carry cheese from Andante, says he leaves it up to her what she sends him, based on what she’s making at the time. “She’s classically trained as a musician, and she has the science background, but when it comes to her cheese, she has the spontaneity of a jazz musician. The sizes and shapes vary slightly, sometimes they’re a little creamier—there’s no industrial nature to her cheese. They have a classic basis, but a unique American voice.”
Scanlan is selective about which restaurants and shops carry her cheeses, but her choices aren’t driven by prestige or sales. “What I’m looking for is the harmony I can have with sellers and customers. When I visit a shop, I want to feel what’s going on there. I don’t read the review, I just walk around and smell and listen. I look for some signals and certain vibrations. Because my cheese is so much of me, if I can’t feel the connection it’s very difficult to send it out.”
Now forty-eight years old, Scanlan sees herself working as a cheesemaker for another ten years. “The sad part is, all the physical work wears my body down quite a lot. I’m trying to preserve my body as much as I can, but that’s actually for piano. I need to think very hard about what I want to do, and I want to keep my ability to practice piano.”
She already knows what she will call her final cheese: Rubato, after the tempo notation indicating flexible or “stolen” time. “These days I play a lot of Beethoven sonatas…the beautiful thing about Beethoven is that he gives musicians the freedom to do what they want. I feel this is my hope as a cheesemaker. When you’re doing commercial activity, there’s always a timeline, there’s always financial pressure. But at the end I wish to make a cheese that—it doesn’t matter how long it takes to make it, just forget about everything and make something truly free.”
This feature originally appeared on listenmusicculture.com, an award-winning music magazine.