Ringing it In…

It’s the eve of New Years Eve, and it’s gotten me to thinking about what lies in store for cheese and the makers of it in 2009. With each passing year, we are graced with more and more beautiful cheeses coming from small farms across the country. And while there may be lots of ice (or mud) and sludge and puddles out there, the seeds of next years’ production are being sown as we speak.

In Vermont, in Pennsylvania, upstate New York, there are bunches of folks learning the cheese ropes and honing their craft, and with a bit of luck and a few pestering entreaties via telephone, we’ll be seeing some of their cheeses this coming winter and spring. And that’s just the newbies. The more seasoned cheese makers that we work with at Saxelby Cheesemongers are twisting and stretching their creative limbs and evolving new cheeses in a seemingly round-the-clock, dairy-centric effort to get the most interesting and true flavors from their animals and their land.

Now is an especially fruitful time for makers of delicious dairy, and the cheeses that we are seeing (and eating!) are changing the cheese-scape of our country like never before. Just like different moments in the history of art produce different outbursts of inspiration and innovation, cheese is the movement of our day. I guess if we were painters it would be a return from abstraction to realism to a more solid, tangible realism. Like tracing from Pollock back to Sargent, from Kraft to Jasper Hill Farm. Any way you slice it, from these mongers’ eyes, things are definitely looking up.

One of the particularly American innovations that has captured my interest over the past year is the influx of mixed milk cheeses out there. There are many cheese makers out there milking goats and sheep who have begun to craft an impressive array of mixed milk cheeses, usually by adding a bit of cows’ milk. Sometimes the imperative is economic, and other times the desire to experiment and create is the overarching goal.

Goats and sheep are quite seasonal in their milk production, goats giving milk for about 9 months after freshening (farm speak for giving birth) and sheep for just 5 months or so. As the animals near the end of their lactation cycle, the constitution and flavor of the milk changes, getting fattier and more rich. Many of the farms we work with at Saxelby Cheesemongers have taken to combining this late season goat and sheeps’ milk with a bit of cows’ milk, both to balance out the fat content, and eke out some different flavors. It also means that the farmer can make and store more cheese to get them through the winter months when their own animals aren’t giving milk. Cows’ milk, being quite mellow and buttery in flavor, is an ideal element to play with, tweaking the flavor a little bit in the direction of butterfatty goodness, and making the texture of the cheese a bit silkier and more supple.

This seasonal mixing of the milk is something that is unique to America, and to be frank, something that probably would not be tolerated by AOC and DOC regulations in Europe. Across the pond, cheeses are made according to traditions that were established over the past couple of hundred years, and to deviate from them is akin to sacrilege. However, in our little age of experimentation, these tweaks and deviations are being embraced daily by cheese makers mastering their own styles and varieties of cheeses. Ok, so there might be a bit of Pollock in there. Cheese makers nowadays are kind of benificent, stir-the-pot renegades in their own right.

If you’d like to try a few on for size, come by the shop and weigh in with a nibble or two. At this time of year, the ranks of mixed milk cheeses are at their fullest and most splendiforous. Just ask for a bite of any of these and see what the mixing of milks is all about:

Battenkill Tomme (raw sheep and cows’ milk. Three Corner Field Farm, NY)

Humble Pie (pasteurized cow and sheeps’ milk. Woodcock Farm, VT)

Seal Cove Tomme (pasteurized goat and cows’ milk. Seal Cove Farm, ME)

Capriola (pasteurized goat and cows’ milk. Lazy Lady Farm, VT)

Timberdoodle (raw sheep and cows’ milk. Woodcock Farm, VT)

We wish you a Happy New Year and Happy New Cheeses to Come in 2009!

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