Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farms has birthed so many sought-after cheeses that it hardly seems possible that the staff would have the creative energy to dream up another.
Enter Harbison, the newest member of the Jasper Hill family, a cow’s milk cheese that debuted this summer and already looks like a success.
Even if you don’t recognize the name Jasper Hill, you may have had some of this pioneering farm’s cheeses, such as Bayley Hazen Blue, Constant Bliss and Winnimere. Jasper Hill also has a big hand in the award-winning Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, because it ages the wheels – made by a neighbor, the huge Cabot Creamery – in its underground caves.
Like many American artisan cheeses, Harbison, a bloomy-rind disk wrapped with a strip of spruce bark, evolved from an experiment. Jasper Hill fans will recognize it as the love child of Moses Sleeper, the creamery’s Camembert-style cheese, and Winnimere, its bark-wrapped washed-rind wheel.
The experimental cheese became runny when ripe; girdling it with the spruce band helped contain the interior and imparted a woodsy scent. “We knew we were on to something tasty,” says Mateo Kehler, Jasper Hill’s cheese maker.
Jasper Hill harvests the paper-thin strips of bark in the spring from white spruce and dries them. As needed, the bark strips are boiled to sterilize and soften them, so they will bend around the day-old wheels.
Over the four-week maturation at the creamery, the wheels develop a powdery-white cloak of mold. By the time they reach Bay Area cheese counters, the 10-ounce wheels should be supple inside, spreadable like frosting. At peak ripeness, which occurs at about 60 days, the cheese will be so soft that you can slice off the top and scoop out the interior with a spoon. You can watch a demonstration of this serving method, as well as an overview of the cheese-making process for Harbison, in a video produced by Jasper Hill.
When I sampled Harbison, the wheel was not yet oozy. I peeled away the bark and cut into the paste, revealing an appetizing ivory interior, moist and glistening, with a few small openings. The texture was semisoft and silky, with none of that sticky quality that mars some bloomy-rind cheeses. The aroma reminded me of mushrooms and piney woods, damp cave and clotted cream, mingled with an unexpected fruity note.
If you want to experience Harbison at optimum ripeness and it isn’t there yet, Kehler suggests putting the cheese in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Keep it in a lidded plastic container and monitor it often, turning the wheel over every couple of days. When it gives readily to pressure, bring it fully to room temperature before serving. “The texture should be ooey-gooey,” Kehler says.
A beer enthusiast, Jasper Hill’s cheese maker recommends Harbison with Saison-style ale. Saison Dupont from Belgium is a classic in that style.
Look for Harbison at Cowgirl Creamery, Rainbow Grocery, Cheese Plus, Mission Cheese, Say Cheese and Bi-Rite in San Francisco; at Pasta Shop in Berkeley and Oakland; Cheese Board in Berkeley; and Oxbow Cheese Merchant in Napa.