lessons in cheese
The Flavor Begins with the Milk
by Robert J. Aguilera
Cheese makers would love to have summer milk all year 'round. In the winter, pastures are covered with snow and cows are given dry hay, grains and other supplemental feed to keep them healthy. In the summer, mature paddocks of grass, flowers, weeds and herbs are in full bloom and produce milk that is loaded with the flavors of living pasture. Both seasons produce nutritious milk, but in the case of summer milk, the abundance of good bacteria, chlorophyll from sun-drenched grass and beta carotene from other pasture forage change the color of the milk and contribute bolder flavors in the resulting cheeses.
Europe's finest aged cheeses grew out of this natural selection in the colder regions of France, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Great Britain. Aged "earthy" tommes and tomas, as well as "cooked" gruyeres, goudas and cheddars have been masterfully developed over a long history of taking cows up to graze on lush mountain summer pastures before milking. These cheeses can range in size from three- to 80-pound wheels. The larger the wheel, the longer it can age-a key factor in providing sustenance during an eight-month winter when little fresh fruit or vegetables are available. In some cases, these aged cheeses were (and are still) made in a cooperative fashion: Villagers pools their milk to create cheese for the village to share, after "cave" aging for three months, six months, a year, or even two years. Aged cheeses of this substantial size also make it possible to store cheese for a year or more without a need for refrigeration. This style of cheese making captures the flavors of milk from a particular season and region. Necessity, it would seem, was the mother of perfection.
Today, most aged cheeses are made year 'round, as cheese makers embrace and utilize the knowledge that milk gathered in different seasons produces very different tasting wheels of cheese.
In Massachusetts, we have several cheese makers who carry on the tradition of creating aged cheeses, and you will see their efforts at farmers markets and on restaurant menus throughout the summer. As you familiarize yourself with the following cheeses, be sure to ask the maker at the market, cheese monger at the counter, or the cheese steward at the restaurant you frequent, "Do you know when this cheese was made?" Even knowing the month in which a cheese was made will enrich your experience and help you to put its flavors into context. As Jeanette Fellows from Chase Hill Farm in Warwick, Massachusetts, explained to me, "Our cows only eat grass and whatever else grows in the pasture, and the yielding product is a pure expression of the place and the season." In my experience, I've found that cheeses made in early summer have a bitter, leafy green and soil flavor base, while those made in late summer produce a roasted nut and fruit flavors.
Cricket Creek Farm's Maggie's Round is made in the style of an Italian toma. This style of aged cheese originally hails from the Piedmont region of Northwestern Italy, an area just south of the Alp mountain range. Maggie's Round is made from the raw milk of a herd of Brown Swiss and Jersey cows. Jerseys give a very rich milk that can sometimes mute the flavors of the pasture, so mixing the milk with that of the Brown Swiss helps to balance the flavor. The wheel is dense, elastic and creamy in texture with a butter and earthy flavor. It is typically aged four months, but it has been known to age a full year as well. When Maggie's Round is aged a year it is dryer in texture and heightened in its typical flavors with new sharp notes. Early in the summer, I would enjoy this cheese on a pulled pork sandwich with a side of roasted beets and a glass of American Saison beer. However, later in the summer, it would pair well with fresh peaches and a glass of a crisp, dry white wine, such as an Albarino.
Chase Hill Farm's Farmstead Cheese is made from the milk of a herd of 100% grass-fed Normande cows. This breed also provides the milk for the famous bloomy cheese called Camembert. The milk is rich but well balanced, with pronounced flavors from the pasture. The recipe for Farmstead Cheese is based on a Colby, which is similar to cheddar with less of the traditional sharp flavor characteristics. I have found that the fresh grass and milk flavor of this cheese is best paired with blueberries and strawberries, when they become available. Alone, a sparkling rosé or an off-dry sparkling white wine like Moscato di Asti would pair well with this cheese. When melted, this cheese has the range to pair with peppers, eggplant, turnips and cauliflower, and is best enjoyed with wheat beers.
Foxboro Cheese Company's Asiago is an aged cheese that is made from the milk of Ayrshire cows. This breed has its roots in Scotland and comes from a hearty stock with an ability to bear the coldest of winters. The milk produced from this breed is also very balanced in its flavor offerings. Made from raw milk, Foxboro Cheese Company's Asiago is only aged up to three months, but it has the ability to age longer. Asiago is an Italian cheese from the colder northeast region of Italy. It is typically made in 20-pound wheels and can age longer than two years. I find this cheese to have walnut and slight chive flavors, which make it great for pairing with cantaloupe and white wines like Gruener Veltliner. For a more substantial meal, you might want to use this cheese to make a caramelized onion tart to have with a cold Pilsner beer.
Smith's Farmstead Country Cheese makes the well-known style of cheese known as gouda. It is made year 'round inWinchendon from a herd of Holstein cows. Gouda originates from Holland and is known by its characteristic vanilla, creamy and sometimes caramel flavors, depending on the age. Gouda is also a cheese that ages for years, sometimes well past 4 years, again made initially for surviving the long, cold winters in Northern Europe. Smith's Farmstead Gouda is mild, luscious and easy to enjoy all summer long. Pair with radishes and beets in early summer with a glass of Sangiovese red wine. In late summer, pair with raspberries, corn dishes and stout beers.
As these cheeses are aged, they are truly cared for by their cheese makers. Do your part to seek out the local makers in all regions of Massachusetts and support their efforts all summer long. Three of the cheeses mentioned in this article currently have little if any representation in our surrounding neighborhoods. Cricket Creek's Maggie's Round, Chase Hill Farmstead and Foxboro Cheese Co. Asiago are currently being considered and courted to become part of various cheese shops' inventories in our area. So, go to Formaggio Kitchen and Central Bottles in Cambridge, Russo's in Watertown, City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain, Sherman Market in Somerville, South End Formaggio in Boston or any other local cheese retailer and pledge your support for these cheeses and the need for them to be sold in a shop near you.
Chase Hill Farm,Warwick MA
Cricket Creek Farm,Williamstown MA
Foxboro Cheese Company, Foxboro MA
Smith's Country Cheese,Winchendon MA
Robert J. Aguilera learned about cheeses while working at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then at Farmsteadinc in Providence, Rhode Island. He now distributes cheese making and packaging supplies to cheesemakers across the United States. "I hope to continue to help the cheese landscape in America in any way I can." Robert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.