IN 1801, BAPTIST Elder John Leland persuaded the ladies of his Cheshire, Massachusetts, congregation to make a wheel of cheese for President Jefferson to honor his support of religious liberty. The cheese was formed on a 6-foot-wide cider press; its rind was inscribed with Jefferson’s motto, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Leland transported the cheese to Hudson, where the massive, 1,450-pound cheddar wheel was hoisted onto a sloop and delivered to the president on New Year’s Day, 1802. It was served at presidential receptions for several years, after which it was believed to have been unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac River.
All of this is to say that cheese in the Hudson Valley has come a long way since that mammoth cheddar passed through Hudson. Today, we’re blessed with some of the country’s best and most innovative artisanal cheese makers. It just took a while.
Cheese is one of mankind’s most ancient foods, dating back over 6,000 years. According to legend, a traveling nomad in Central Asia “discovered” cheese when the milk he was carrying solidified after bouncing about in his saddlebag. (The alchemy occurred because the saddlebag was made from an animal’s stomach, causing the milk to solidify after coming into contact with enzymes.) A 2,000-year-old block of cheese and cheese-making equipment were found in the tombs of the Pharaohs. Homer wrote of a cheese-making Cyclops in The Odyssey. Cheese-making thrived under the Romans, who became renowned cheesemakers, disseminating their formaggio-making prowess throughout their burgeoning empire, which reached its apogee in France, where Julius Caesar was said to partake of Roquefort, still known as the “King of cheeses.” Christopher Columbus stocked up on Canary Islands cheese before re-crossing the Atlantic, and the Pilgrims pulled up at Plymouth Rock in a cheese-laden Mayflower.
Cheese making was widely practiced in the early days of the colonies, but it took time for it to become an established and respected business. It took even longer for America’s cheese makers to win the world’s respect. In an 1842 edition of Britain’s Penny Magazine, Charles Knight denounced the American tendency to adopt different and “by no means superior” customs. He considered cheese-making one of these and declared that “as a consequence, [the Americans] produce a quality of cheese decidedly inferior to our own.”
What a difference a few centuries make. Today, American cheeses are respected throughout the world, with many award-winning cheeses coming out of the Hudson Valley from large manufacturers like Coach Farms and Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, as well as from smaller producers like Sprout Creek Farm, Nettle Meadow Farm, The Amazing Real Food Company and Twin Maple Farm.
The alchemy of cheese is mysterious, albeit straightforward. Each cheese begins with the same process: Bacteria are added to milk to create acidity. The bacteria induce the solids (curds) to separate from the liquid (whey). To encourage further coagulation, rennet (a complex of enzymes), is added. The curds are then cut to further remove the liquid. Generally, the smaller the curds, the harder the cheese. (A soft cheese like brie is hardly cut at all.) Then, the cheese is salted or brined for flavor and preservation, shaped or placed into molds and, if appropriate, ripened.
The artistry comes from the cheese maker’s choice of bacteria, introduction of specific molds, and senses of sight, touch and smell. The X factor in cheese making is seasonality. Spring—when pastures are lush with a variety of grasses, herbs and flowers—is the best time to enjoy fresh, un-aged cheese. Seasonality is especially noticeable in goat cheese, because goats are more likely than sheep or cows to take full advantage of the offerings of the spring pasture. Unlike cows, which breed throughout the year, goats and sheep only give birth in the spring; in the early days of lactation, the milk is richer in milk solids, resulting in richer, more complex cheese than that produced from milk later in the season.
Nettle Meadow Farm’s Kunik, produced by Sheila Flanagan and Lorraine Lambiase, is a great example of a seasonal cheese. It’s best enjoyed in the spring, when its herbaceous flavors are most pronounced. This triple-cream cheese is made using milk from pastured goats spiked with the super-rich cream of Jersey cows. The goats’ milk gives it a unique tang; the cream makes it thick, buttery—and decadent. Kunik has attracted an exuberant fan base. Writing in Esquire, cheesemonger Anne Saxelby said Kunik “may well be the sexiest cheese in the U.S.” Joseba Encabo, a professor at the Culinary Institute says, somewhat inscrutably, “It doesn’t make you tired like other cheeses.” As triple-creme cheese and champagne are a classic pairing, my take on Kunik? Va-va-voom! Break out the bubbly.
Old Chatham Sheepherding Company’s lush, just-this-side-of-butter Camembert has won scads of awards. Unlike traditional camembert, which is made exclusively of cow’s milk, Tom and Nancy Clark make their soft-ripened cheese from sheep’s milk augmented with cow’s milk. To ensure that milk is available year-round, the Clarks use a light treatment: They keep the lights on for 22 hours a day in the fall and winter, eliminating the shortened days that are the ewe’s mating cue. When they turn the ewes out to pasture in March, a group of rams is brought in. Voila! Fall lambs! The Clarks also make a creamy, Roquefort-style cheese with 100 percent sheep’s milk in traditional fashion called Ewe’s Blue. (According to yet another legend, a young man eating bread and ewe’s cheese was distracted by a beautiful girl. He ran off to meet her. Months later, when he returned to his former lunch spot, the mold had created Roquefort.)
Sprout Creek Farm is the vision of Sister Margot Morris, who envisioned it as an educational center, working farm and purveyor of artisanal products made on site. Today, it’s best known for cheesemaker Colin McGrath’s semi-hard Toussaint, Barat, and Ouray, made from raw cow’s milk. Barat is a nutty, cheddar-like cheese with a smooth caramel flavor. Toussaint is a sharp, dry cheese with a tangy aftertaste (also available smoked, which accentuates its spiciness). Sprout Creek’s most renowned cheese, Ouray, is somehow sweet, tangy, buttery, salty and earthy. The official description is “sweet-floral flavor with cheddar-like hints.” If you’re lucky, when you visit Sprout Creek Farm, McGrath will have one of his experiments, called Cheesemaker’s Choice, for sale. (Availability? Sometimes.) I bought one—a delicious, salty, Asiago-style cheese that had been aging for two years. McGrath also crafts Madeleine, one of the few raw goat’s milk cheeses being made in the U.S. With a pecorino—like texture, Madeleine is an herbaceous cheese that exemplifies seasonal cheese at its best. Aged 5 to 9 months, it’s available only from August to March.
At Twin Maple Farms in Ghent, Doug Ginn takes raw milk from a neighboring farm’s herd of Jersey cows and makes Hudson Red, the newest entry to the Hudson Valley pantheon of cheese. Hudson Red is a washed-rind cheese; its pungent outer layer gives way to a rich, velvety inside.
In Pine Plains, best friends Peter Drestler and Rory Chase, of The Amazing Real Live Food Company, are evolving their skills and offerings from easy-to-make farmer’s cheeses to more complex hard cheeses. They’re known for their creamy Camembert, but look out—their brand new Gruyere and Tomme are spectacular (flavorful but not overpowering). On the horizon? Gouda and Manchego made from cow’s milk instead of sheep’s milk.
Jefferson was said to be non-plussed by the massive wheel of cheddar from Cheshire. Were President Obama lucky enough to get a massive delivery of artisanal cheese from the Hudson Valley, there’s little chance it would end up in the Potomac.