Sunday, May 27, 2012

FireFly Farms

Located in Maryland's Allegheny Plateau, FireFly Farms began as a collaboration among a small group of neighbors who decided to enter the world of artisan cheesemaking. With a 130 acre farm purchased in 1997, the four "Fireflies" initially managed their own herd of goats. In 2006 they decided to focus all their efforts on cheesemaking. They now purchase milk from four local family farmers.

The rich milk produced by Nubian goats is the secret to the rich flavors of there traditional goat milk cheeses. They have a clear, fresh taste and a soft, spreadable texture. 

Their website has the most beautiful image on the front page, which I have used above. There is also a terrific article and interview about FireFly, from Cheese by Hand.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Pecorino Crotonese

Sheep’s milk cheeses are some of the best in the world. Different in flavor than cow or goats milk cheeses, sheep’s milk is known for its rich sharp flavor that is at the same time nutty and sweet. You have probably had sheep’s milk cheeses many times, and not even known it. Feta from Greece, Roquefort from France, and Manchego from Spain are all classic sheep’s milk cheeses. But perhaps the most famous of all are the salty Pecorino cheeses of Italy.

“Pecora” is the Italian word for sheep. And Pecorino tells you that the cheese was made from 100% sheep’s milk. There are lots of different Pecorino’s in Italy, with most taking their names from the regions in which they are made. Pecorino Romano made in Rome. Pecorino Toscana made in Tuscany. Pecorino Sardo made in Sardinia. Pecorino Siciliano made in Sicily. And, well, you get the idea…

One of my newest discoveries is a Pecorino from a small mountainous village by the name of Crotone in Calabria (the toe of the boot). It is called Pecorino Crotonese. And, it is without a doubt one of the most stunning Pecorino cheeses I have ever had. Aged in a wicker basket, it has a distinctive cross-hatch impression on the rind. The flavor is the epitome of a good Pecorino – meaty, sharp, nutty, gamy, and earthy with a unique little citrus tang on the finish.

Pecorino Ginepro

Pecorino, the generic Italian term for cheeses made from sheep’s milk, has been made in Italy since the Ancient Romans. Pecorino Ginepro hails from Emilia Romagna, where at the turn of the 20th century there were many thousands of sheep and hundreds of producers. This number began to shrink as the local Parmigiano-Reggiano grew in popularity and sheep farmers turned to breeding cows to keep up with the trend. Currently, only a small number of farms in Emilia-Romagna still produce pecorino. 

Each 6 pound wheel of Pecorino Ginepro is soaked in an aromatic bath of balsamic vinegar and juniper before it is aged for a minimum of four months. The dark brown rind is created by the vinegar, though the lingering finish is kissed with gin-juniper. The flavors of the balsamic vinegar and juniper seeps into the bone-white paste and give the salty cheese a sweet finish of juiciness. Wrapped in paper, which contains moisture, the cheese is always moldy, and benefits from a few hours' breathing. An unusual and arresting cheese, made of raw sheep milk.

The pleasant combination of sweet and savory in the cheese, along with its distinctive aromas, make it a good match for either a medium-bodied fragrant white or a lighter style red. Fiano di Avellino, the pine scented white from Campania or a slightly tart Langhe Nebbiolo from Piemonte would both go exceptionally well.

Fiore Sardo

Sometimes referred to as Pecorino Sardo, Fiore Sardo is produced on the island of Sardinia off the coast of Italy. Sardinia is an island of savage beauty and violent contradictions. The island's hard and barren interior is surrounded by a green and lush coast. Cheeses that are produced in this hot and dry atmosphere differ greatly from Italian cheeses produced in the cooler northern reaches. This is a cheese with very ancient origins, thought by some to date back to the Bronze Age. With a paste more golden than is usually found in sheep milk cheese, Fiore Sardo is banded by a hard, black, natural rind. This semi-hard cheese is sharp and savory.

Although there are now industrially produced variations of Fiore Sardo that are sometimes made from a blend of cow's and sheep's milk or even pasteurized milk, traditionally Fiore Sardo is made from fresh, unpasteurized sheep's milk, sourced from native Sardinian sheep from a single flock. These versions are made in small mountain huts - known as "pinnette" - by the shepherds that look after these flocks. The natural smoke from the hut's central, open fires give these cheeses their characteristically smoky overtones.

The molds containing the cheeses are briefly immersed in hot water to help develop the thick outer rind. They are then unmolded and placed in a brine solution. After removal from the brine, the cheeses are placed on a trellis-type mat made of rushes which is suspended in the smoky area above the fireplace in the mountain hut.

The second stage of maturation takes place when the wheels are transferred to a platform in the roof before finally being finished in an underground cellar for the last stages of maturation. In the cellar, the wheels are periodically turned (flipped) and greased with olive oil to prevent the rind cracking. Cheeses are matured for between two and eight months before release.

The texture of the outer rind of Fiore Sardo is dry and hard and, depending on age, a pale golden-rust color or a deep rich burnt brown. The texture of the cheese is very firm and dense and straw-ivory in color. Flavors are sweet, rich and nut-like with notes of burned caramel, smoke and salt. Fiore Sardo was awarded D.O.P. status in 1996.

Andante Dairy

Established in 1999 and owned by Soyoung Scanlan, Andante Dairy is located near Petaluma, just north of San Francisco, California. Soyoung has had successful careers in both the engineering and science worlds, working as a biochemist. She also has a strong background in classical music as an avid pianist, making her a rare combination of talents that seem to converge over the cheesemaking vat.

Having studied the properties of milk and cheesemaking intensely for two years, including a stint at Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo, Soyoung has become a highly respected figure in the artisan cheese industry. She is known for producing small quantities of extremely high quality cheeses, many of which are made in the French style.

Andante Dairy is located at the Volpi Ranch, which is also the source for Scanlan's goat's milk. Cow's milk comes from the 400 strong herd of Jersey cows at nearby Spring Hill Dairy.

By choice, Soyoung works alone. Her cheesemaking facility is clean, simple, highly organized and has plenty of space to move about. Her early cheesemaking career was greatly encouraged and inspired by Thomas Keller, the owner and chef of the French Laundry in Yountville. Keller and Scanlan both have a tremendous eye for detail and perfection, and it is these qualities that shine though in all aspects of Scanlan's cheese.

At Andante, Scanlan produces a range of cheeses made from cow's, sheep's and goat's milk, or combinations of the three. For example, Andante's Minuet is a soft-ripened, triple crème made using pasteurized goat's milk with Sadie Kendall's famous cow's milk creme fraiche added to the curds.

The result is a cheese that combines the richness of a triple creme with the light tangy qualities imparted by goat's milk and creme fraiche. Flavors are bright and clean and luscious, with a very fine, silky texture and delicious, long finish.

Also, her Andante website is one of the most beautiful sites I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.

Andante Dairy's Melange

By Janet Fletcher: Andante Dairy's Melange is a subtle, petite cheese, made from roughly equal parts cow's and goat's milk, weighs in at just over 4 ounces. That's the perfect size for two at the end of a meal; with other cheeses on the tray, it will satisfy four.

Andante cheesemaker Soyoung Scanlan uses goat's milk from the Petaluma farm where her cheese plant is sited and rich Jersey milk from neighboring Spring Hill Dairy. So the milk does not travel far, a factor in quality cheesemaking. The milk is pasteurized, cultured and allowed to ferment slowly; it takes 15 to 18 hours to build up enough lactic acid to coagulate the vat. Milk for Cheddar cheese, in contrast, might be inoculated with enough culture and rennet to produce a curd in under an hour.

The extended fermentation encourages flavor development and yields a more tender curd because so little rennet is used. For a rough analogy, think of an acid-coagulated curd as resembling a fragile custard while a rennet-coagulated curd is more like Jell-O.

The curds are hand ladled into molds, not pumped, a step that preserves their integrity. Over the next 2 1/2 weeks, a thin coat of white mold will envelop the little rounds, signaling the spread of Penicillium candidum. Although the Penicillium spores are present in the dairy, Scanlan also inoculates the milk to ensure that the bloomy rind develops promptly. In less than three weeks, the cheeses are wrapped and out the door.

Melange measures only about 2 1/2 inches in diameter and less than 1 inch in height. To protect it from drying out before it reaches the consumer's table, Scanlan wraps the cheese in plastic, but that is not ideal. It wants to breathe. If you do not plan to serve it immediately, take it out of the plastic and put it in a lidded plastic container to give it a little more breathing room. Refrigerate it, but bring it to room temperature to serve.

As Melange ripens, it softens from the outside in, so a ready-to-eat wheel should yield to gentle pressure. I like to see a little golden mottling on the rind; more than a little and the cheese is probably too advanced.

Internally, Melange should be semisoft and creamy, with a pleasant sour-cream aroma and a lactic tang. Scanlan says she eats the rind, but you can cut it away if you prefer. It wants a white wine with a creamy body but not a lot of oak, such as a Viognier or other Rhone or Rhone-style white wine.

Laura Chenel Melodie Goat Brie

Now located in the state-of-the-art new creamery in Sonoma wine country, Laura Chenel's Chèvre has been in operation since the late 1970’s. Laura Chenel was one of a small group of women cheesemakers to spearhead the production of goat's milk cheeses in the United States.

Having always been passionate about goats, Laura started her dairy in a former snail-processing plant in Santa Rosa. In 2006 she sold the company to French family cheese producers, Laiteries H. Triballat, who continue the tradition of Laura Chenel’s cheesemaking of both fresh and aged cheese.

Milk for production comes from 16 different goat dairies, thirteen of which are in California and three in Nevada. High quality milk is crucial to excellent cheese production and the company has very close relationships with their producers to ensure excellent animal health, nutrition and general well being.

Launched in the autumn of 2011, Mélodie is an “American original” made with fresh, pasteurized goat’s milk and named for its black and white rind, reminiscent of piano keys. After cultures and microbial rennet are added to the heated milk, coagulation takes place and the curd is cut and poured into forms to drain. Each 3 lb wheel is flipped several times to achieve optimal drainage before being turned-out and coated in vegetable ash to help promote the formation of the rind. After a few days, a delicate dusting of white mold starts to bloom, creating the signature grey and white rind.

The texture of Mélodie is smooth, pliant and supple. The interior paste is bone white in color offset by the delicate, predominantly black and gray rind. Mélodie is delicious when eaten young and, like many soft-ripening cheeses, develops more complex flavors for up to 60-100 days. Flavors are accessibly mild and cream-like, with a gentle lactic tang and a very pleasant balance of salt on the finish.

Saxon Homestead Creamery

Located just north of Milwaukee, close to the shores of Lake Michigan, Saxon Homestead Creamery was founded by Karl and Robert Klessig and their brother-in-law, Jerry Heimerl, in 2005.

Having owned a traditional dairy farm on the site for many years, the brothers wanted to adapt their method of farming to allow for their cows to range freely on pasture. It was also their vision to use milk from their own herd to develop a cheesemaking facility on site. This they have achieved, and Saxon Homestead Creamery makes a range of cow's milk cheeses such as Greenfields, Big Ed's, Pastures, Saxony and Meadows.

To add to their repertoire, Saxon is also collaborating with nearby LaClare Farm. Owned by Larry Hedrich, LaClare is a small-scale goat dairy with extremely high milk quality standards. The does have room to exercise and graze on pasture, and are fed whole grains and other foods that goats love.

Big Ed's

Made to the recipe of a mountain-style cheese, Big Ed's is a cooked, pressed cheese made from raw cow's milk and weighing in at about 15lbs. The rind is smooth, thin and golden-brown in color, imprinted with the Saxon logo. The texture of Big Ed's is dense and smooth and ivory in color. Aromas are clean and mild. Flavors are mild, rich, milky and clean with notes of brown butter and caramel.

Green Fields

Aged for 70 days, Green Fields is an unpressed, semifirm, washed rind cheese made from raw cow's milk. The interior paste of the cheese is a pale, creamy yellow, becoming darker towards the rind. The texture is dense and slightly flaky, yet supple. Although flavors vary somewhat with the seasons, generally the cheeses taste clean and lactic, with notes of butter, caramel and grass.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Capricho de Cabra

By Janet Fletcher: As trite as it may sound to Bay Area diners by now, a warm goat cheese salad rarely disappoints anyone. Fresh goat cheese becomes soft and spreadable when warmed, not stringy like mozzarella or stiff like Gruyere. When I was a cook at Chez Panisse many years ago, I made hundreds of baked goat cheese salads, which called for coating disks of goat cheese in olive oil and fine breadcrumbs. These days, being lazy, I will sometimes put a disk of unbreaded goat cheese in an olive oil-rubbed ramekin and warm it in the oven until it softens, then spread it on baguette toasts to accompany salad.

My new favorite cheese for this sort of use is Capricho de Cabra, a silky-textured fresh goat cheese from Spain. Call it chevre if you like, but that's the French word for goat cheese. I like the word "capricho," which, like the English caprice, suggests something that seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, when I investigated the word's etymology, I learned that "caprice" derives from the Latin for "goat." Before it came to mean a whim, caprice referred to a goat's leap.

Based in the Spanish region of Murcia, the Capricho de Cabra producer also makes Caña de Oveja and Caña de Cabra, two fine cheeses occasionally available in the Bay Area. According to Brad Dube, who works for the importer Forever Cheese, the producer is the largest goat cheese maker in Spain. Size does not often correlate positively with quality, but this simple, fresh cheese more than meets expectations.

Retailers cut it into disks, but Capricho comes to them as a snow-white, rindless, Cryovac-packaged log weighing 1 kilo (a little more than 2 pounds). It smells clean and pure, with no gaminess, and it drifts across the tongue, leaving a lighter, smoother, moister and more mellow impression than most young goat cheeses. It has none of the chalky quality or gumminess that can inflict some fresh chevres, making them feel like bad peanut butter. Dube attributes the lush texture to the high fat content of the Murciana breed's milk, but careful handling of the curd probably also has something to do with it.

I like to scrape the surface of the Capricho with a table knife to make creamy, buttery curls. Warmed in an oiled ramekin, it is irresistible. Serve it with a green salad, some walnut bread and any dry wine that isn't too big. For a white, pour a Spanish Verdejo; if you prefer red, a Spanish Garnacha. 


Manchego cheese is probably the most widely known Spanish sheep’s milk cheese in the world. For centuries the tradition of aging curds in esparto grass molds has given the wheels an easily recognizable zig zag pattern on the rind. The paste inside has a firm, compact consistency and a buttery texture, which often contains small, unevenly-distributed air pockets. The colour of the cheeses vary from white to ivory-yellow, and the inedible rind from straw yellow to burnt umber. Manchego has a distinctive flavour, nutty, well developed but not too strong, with a slight piquancy that nearly demands some Spanish Red wine.

True Manchego cheese is made purely from whole milk of the Manchega sheep raised in the "La Mancha" region. La Mancha is a high, dry, and vast, plateau, more than 2000 feet above sea level in Central Spain. Together they form a square that connects the southern provinces of 
Ciudad Real and Albacete to Toledo, Cuenca, in the heart of Espana.  

La Mancha is an agricultural area with some fertile land mixed with rocky outcrops, and an extremely dry climate due to the height of the plateau. The variable rainfall, summer heat and winter frosts mean that the plant life throughout the region is naturally restricted to hardy plants with a tough constitution.

Manchego cheese has a long historic and literary tradition, it was mentioned by Cervantes in the legendary "Don Quixote of La Mancha". Today, there are two types of Manchego cheese: the farmhouse type, or Artisan, made with unpasteurized sheep's milk and the industrial type, made with pasteurized milk. In both cases, however, milk from Manchega sheep is the only type used.

La Mancha is a region with a long live-stock breeding tradition. Wool and animal bones have been found in some archeological sites, as well as different utensils used to produce cheese as early as the Second Century BC.

Early Roman historians wrote about the live-stock farming in the peninsula, especially in "Acampo Espartario", the name given by Romans to the region of La Mancha. Muslims inhabited the area from the Eighth to Eleventh Centuries, naming it "Manyá", meaning "land without water". With time the name would transform into "Mangla" or "Mancla", and finally "Mancha" around the Thirteenth Century.

Manchego has variety of different flavours depending on its age.
  • Fresco – the fresh cheese is aged for only 2 weeks, with a rich but mild flavour. Produced in small quantities, it is rarely found outside Spain. 
  • Curado is a semi-firm cheese aged for three to six months with a sweet and nutty flavour. 
  • Viejo, aged for one year is firm with a sharper flavour the longer it is aged and a rich deep pepperiness to it.