Thursday, May 28, 2009

Virginia Cheese

I've been so busy lately with Chef's Tastings and special events here at the restaurant that I have hardly blogged in the month of May. I think that the furor is starting to lessen a bit and I can get back to roughly a topic a day.

Today, let's talk about cheesemaking in the Commonwealth of Virginia (a state whose health and agricultural inspectors do so much to prevent cheesemakers from doing what they do). Despite the state-imposed red tape, a few brave souls have persisted in making cheese for many years and what they're making is now better than ever. Here are three examples from our cooler.

Meadow Creek Dairy

Rick and Helen Feete have been plugging away at Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, VA for years—I've been buying from them for seven years—and are making some of the best cheeses in the world right now. Their raw Jersey milk Grayson, a squat 4-lb. square with a red rind and creamy paste, has won first place from the American Cheese Society. To my taste, I think this is the best cheese being made in America right now, but Grayson is certainly not for the faint of heart. It reminds me of a cross between a true Münster, which most Americans have never encountered in its runny, ripe, funky state, and Taleggio, the red rind cheese from Italy. It's one of those cheeses whose funk is worse than its taste and a glass of Linden Claret mellows out the taste. I love this cheese.

Oak Spring Dairy

While Rick and Helen live all the way at the other end of the state from me and I rarely get to see them, Allen Bassler lives right in my back yard over in Upperville, VA where he makes cheese from Brown Swiss and Jersey cows on Mrs. Mellon's farm. I run into Allen from time to time and he's also a customer. Allen used to have a web site, kind of, years ago, but he's the kind of guy who'd rather make cheese and not fool around with marketing it. He makes a few basic kinds of cheese: a Derby, a Cheddar, and a Gouda. Although I think he should leave these names for the originals and find new names for his own versions, they do give you a good idea what to expect, except that the Gouda is a young, soft, white melting cheese, rather than the aged prototype that you are expecting. I think the Derby (said "darby" in English fashion and pictured to the right) is his best cheese. I've seen his cheeses for sale at the Leesburg and Berryville farmers markets.

Everona Dairy

And now for some of the best sheep's milk cheese in the world. Dr. Pat Elliott at Everona Dairy has been making sheep's milk cheese seemingly forever and it is a thing of beauty. Her signature is called Piedmont and it won the Farmhouse category for sheep's milk cheese at the American Cheese Society's competition in 2005. I love this cheese immensely. Pictured here, you see son of Piedmont called Stony Man. Stony Man is made with a thermophilic "heat loving" culture, which allows cheesemaker Carolyn Wentz to heat the curd, giving a smoother, denser paste that I really enjoy. I've never met Pat or been to her farm, but I hope to rectify that this year. When I spoke with her a few weeks ago, she urged me to try her new blue Camembert-style sheep's milk cheese. OMG! Fabulous, but it didn't last 24 hours in house, hence no photo. All the Everona cheeses are spectacular and we are so lucky to have this gem of a dairy right here in Virginia.

Now for the inevitable question: where can you find these cheeses at retail? Except for Allen's cheeses, I don't know. I either buy direct or I buy through a distributor. In any case, I buy whole cheeses, which is a lot more than you want or need for home use. But, you can certainly sample these and all our other farmstead dairy cheeses on one of our cheese plates here at the restaurant.

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