Making the cheese
Originally published Wednesday, November 30, 2011
By Tamara Abbey
Artisan farmhouse cheddar (clockwise from top) joins a plate with imported English Stilton and Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano.
NewsTribune photo/Tamara Abbey
Artisan and farmstead cheeses are enjoying a renaissance of popularity at restaurants, specialty stores and homes throughout the United States. Once relegated to particular regions or done on the farm from the day’s milking, cheeses often are crafted in small batches by creameries and marketed by cheesemongers at farmers markets and on the Internet.
A new interest in selecting and serving these cheeses at home has become a popular continuing education course at Illinois Valley Community College. Chef Timothy Freed teaches the courses after watching the market develop over the past 10 years.
He offers several tips for choosing and serving cheeses at home. His first is to choose a minimum of four cheeses on the plate.
“It can be anything you like,” he said. “It can be four types of cheddar or I like to have four different types of milk.”
He suggests starting with familiar cheeses, like cheddar, but look for different varieties such as those made from sheep and goat milk and even cheeses made in different seasons.
“Each cheese can be a little different from summer to winter,” he said. “It depends on the animal’s diet. That gives each cheese its own set of characteristics.”
Since cheese is made from milk, it should be brought to room temperature 20 minutes before serving.
Cheese pairings also are popular. Freed said the easiest way to start pairings are to match the cheese, wine and beer by region of origin. An aged Spanish-style sheep’s milk manchego should go well with a moscato wine. A champagne would work with a robiola or camembert cheese since they are classified as a bloomy white rind cheese. The bloom is achieved with the addition of particular molds (a special strain of penicillin) that grow on the outside of the cheese while allowing the inside curd to soften into a paste. The rind on these cheeses is edible but usually served by slicing off the top and then spreading the smooth cheese paste on cracker or toast.
Freed also suggests contrasting flavors when pairing cheeses with wines or beers. A sweet wine would go better with high-acidic cheeses, while a dry red wine would go well with a soft goat cheese.
Goat’s milk has a different flavor than cow’s milk and there is a wide variety of flavor differences from different cow breeds. Probably the most striking difference is the pure white color of a goat’s milk cheese whether it’s fresh or aged.
While building a cheese board, Freed included nuts for additional texture, olives and stuffed grape leaves for flavor depth, fresh herbs and seasoned olive oils and balsamic vinegars. The flavored oils and vinegars can be drizzled over the cheeses, and cured specialty meats and sausages can be added as an additional accent.
When the party’s over, Freed said cheeses should be put back in their original containers and then covered with plastic wrap or in a closed container before refrigerating.
“One thing you don’t want to do is, if you have a cheese board and you have leftovers, don’t put it all in one container,” he said.
The aromas of some cheeses can overpower the more delicate varieties creating an unwelcome mix of flavors later if placed in the same container.
Freed, also the chef on staff at Hy-Vee in Peru, said the store tries to carry regional and imported cheeses with seasonal varieties.
“We’ve just had an explosion of new dairies and creameries across the Midwest,” Freed said.
While most of the regional cheeses are from Wisconsin and Iowa, several dairies in Illinois have turned to artisan and farmstead cheese production. The shift has resulted in a variety of craft cheeses that, in some cases, have literally saved at least a few of Illinois’ disappearing dairy farms.
Lime Rock Swiss Farm
“We actually walked in to our bank and said we’re done,” said Jane Rieman, co-owner of the Winnebago County dairy. “Our financial advisor told us, ‘You do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s think about this.’”
Before long they had a new business model and started selling small batches of cheese at farmers markets. They also sell to specialty shops, restaurants, small grocery chains and through the Internet at www.limerockbrownswiss.com.
Ropp Jersey Cheese
Ray and Carol Ropp of Normal almost were forced into changing their dairy business to a farmstead creamery a few years ago. Carol said their son Ken came back to farm but the small herd of Jersey cows and limited acreage weren’t going to support two families. Ray and Ken thought about making cheese along with selling bulk milk but the idea backfired.
“Shortly after we started, the place where we were selling our milk said they wouldn’t take it anymore,” Ray said.
They have 65 Jersey cows and had to quickly turn to cheese production when they lost their bulk milk contract. Milking an average 50 cows a day has resulted in 250-300 pounds of cheese produced per day.
“When we started we were the only on-farm cheese plant in the state,” Carol said. “We milk the cows, we make the cheese, we package the cheese and sell it right here.”
They also offer Internet sales at www.roppcheese.com
Marcoot Jersey Creamery
When Brooke (Marcoot) Segrest was growing up she said her father always told them to find a life off the family’s Jersey dairy farm in Greenville.
“Then four years ago, he was ready to sell the cows,” she said.
Instead, the girls came home and Segrest knew the dairy would have to find a new way to support the family. Luckily, one of her sisters had worked at a creamery and the seventh generation of Marcoots were in business.
“My 3-year-old is outside being a farmer now,” Segrest said. “I guess we’ve started the eighth generation.”
Marcoot cheeses are sold in farmers markets throughout southern Illinois. For more information, its Web site is www.marcootjerseycreamery. com.
Prairie Fruits Farm
First-generation farmer Leslie Cooperband along with co-owner Wes Jarrell, used to live in the far more urban Madison, Wis., area before finding a small farm near Champaign. They set out to live a more sustainable life by planting fruit trees and cover crops. Cooperband added a few goats to the small farm mix which became Prairie Fruits Farm.
Then she started making fresh chevré and took it to farmers markets. She has expanded into more styles of cheese including some sheep’s milk cheeses that are only seasonally available. Goat and sheep milk cheeses were nearly nonexistent until a few years ago and now market demand has outpaced supply.
“People are traveling more and they’ve had the cheese in restaurants,” she said. “I think the overall awareness of cheese has really grown.”
Their cheeses can be found in central Illinois farmers markets and specialty shops. For information, its Web site is www.prairiefruits.com.
Prairie Pure Cheese
Brian Gerloff of Woodstock hopes dairies remain viable in Illinois. The veterinarian and child of a dairy farmer had watched the dramatic decline in the state over the past few years.
“When I started (my practice) there were over 220 dairy farms,” he said. “Today there are about 20-30.”
Most of the dairies were sold to developers as the Chicago suburbs kept expanding and threatening the rural landscape.
“I thought there must be a way to make a living next door to 7-8 million people and make it an asset,” he said.
He now is a partner in Prairie Pure Cheese LLC. The other partner runs the dairy operation. The partners pay farmers a fair price for the milk and then have a small Wisconsin creamery make the specialty cheeses.
“The main goal was to increase the profitability of suburban dairy farms,” he said. “The local food movement has contributed a lot and once you’ve had really good cheese, you’re spoiled.”
They sell cheese at farmers markets, specialty shops and offer limited on-line sales at www.prairiepurecheeese.com.