Cover image: Tumino Cheese © Kaori Mahajan for WhereNYC
Review: “Is cheesemaking an art, science, or craft?” asked Mateo Kehler, co-founder of Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm cheeses in Vermont. If you guessed the latter, Mateo and fellow cheesemakers in the Northeast would probably concur.
Many of the cheese producers participating at this year’s Great Northeast Cheese & Dairy Fest at the historical Flushing Town Hall came into the industry almost by accident. But to call them dabblers in cheesemaking would be a gross understatement. They have had to master their craft and understand the science ins and outs of making the perfect cheese. With their knowhow and precision, nothing is left to chance. They have all had to research the techniques of making the perfect cheese.
Like Mateo, many have worked throughout Europe learning to make decadent cheeses or turned to raising cattle, goats and sheep. With encyclopedic knowledge, they have become experts in the field and whose passion for cheesemaking borders on zealotry. Yet, their fanaticism of cheese has led down a path to perfection, allowing them to compete with the European heavyweights let alone others elsewhere in the U.S.
The fest featured its own big names. Award-winning Vermont cheesemaker Consider Bardwell Farm proudly displayed familiar favorites from its repertoire including raw goat milk Manchester and Danby and the beloved melty classic cow’s milk Pawlet. The unmistakable pungent aroma of its latest wash-rind contender, Experience, was a special treat and one of the evening’s best. Gooey, sweet, nutty and creamy, it is a cheese-lover’s paradise.
Cellars at Jasper Hill, one of the evening’s headliners offered tastings of some of its best cheeses including: Harbison, a soft creamy cow’s milk, Bayley Hazen Blue, a raw milk almost lighter version of Stilton, and Cabot Clothbound cheddar, which was one of our favorites of the entire evening. It has a beautiful nutty aroma with a perfect amount of salt and a heavenly balance of creamy and sharp flavors, which still kept coming through even after we finished eating.
Among those present at the town hall were the farmstead producers or cow-to-cheese makers. They outsource little while taking charge of everything. Unlike dairy farmers who sometimes produce cheese on the side when they have a surplus of milk, the farmsteaders are only concerned with the betterment of their products. Hence, they produce the best milk only to make the best cheese.
“It’s a tricky business when making consistency, Pete of Lively Run Dairy admits. “Goats are seasonal milk producers unlike cows.” He pushes a rarity in my direction, Cayuga Blue, an unusual blue goat cheese. It was delicious. Not too strong but full of flavor. He urges me to try the other three while continuing on his lecture on the science of goat milking. “While goats produce more milk after birth, the fat content goes down. So you have to know when to milk them.”
Vermont Farmstead Cheese Co. has 60 cows on the farm. While all the cheeses were great, the hoppy beer-aged AleHouse Cheddar was a true revelation. For me, it really worked with just a slight yeasty, grainy perfume. I washed it down with a gulp of Finback IPA and looked for the next bite. Very clever.
Upstairs at the Town Hall, Swiss import Daniel Meier of Meier’s Artisan Cheese of upstate New York showcased his tangy, slightly salty River Bend Cheese curds among others. Currently in its sixth year, the farmstead cheese maker won the NY State Fair for his Gruyère and Whiteface Cheddar. My favorite was the red pepper cheddar which had just the right amount of heat.
The passion of farmstead cheesemakers often transpires to loyalty of the region . Ambitious yet sentimental, they are aware that they are the lynchpin holding together the local economy and therefore must forge new alliances in order to support the regional farms. Deep in the Catskills, Cowbella and Bovina farmstead cheese makers in Jefferson, New York, combined forces in order to take their operation to the next level of eventually producing creamy, greek-style yogurt.
It was hard to fight the lump in my throat as I listened to their story of these two unsung heroes who banded together in part because of ambition but also to continue to support local farmers in the area. Their delicious Alderney cheeses were a joy to eat. The personal story of local passion only added to overall experience of sampling the cheeses.
There were no shortage of interesting collaborations at the Northeast Cheese & Dairy Fest including Italian-style Tumino Cheese Company from the Finger Lakes who teamed up with Cornell University’s pilot program of cheese incubation. While the Old Grey Mare, a basic tomme, and the Song infused with juniper berries, were really enjoyable, the fiery Razzle’s Choice was a step too far for my liking. The chili just took over.
There was more than just sampling cheese. Of the many surprises: Mexican restaurant, Casa Del Chef of Woodside, Queens showcased an amazing puréed soup, a beautiful medley of roasted, butternut, acorn and spaghetti squashes and kabocha pumpkin – finished with a foamy light goat cheese. Beloved M. Wells Steakhouse of Long Island City dished out the creamiest, cheesiest, mashed potato ever that was so incredibly light and heartwarmingly wholesome.
As the evening drew to a close and our bellies full, it was time to go, but the beautiful aromas and lovely flavors happily lingered on our palettes. With so many cheesemakers participating, this year’s Northeast Cheese & Dairy Fest was truly special.
Don’t miss the upcoming 2017 Charcuterie Masters at Flushing Town Hall in February.