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Foodies delight in artisan cheeses created locally

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By Chris Ramirez
Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It was a cheesy idea from the start, Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez recalls.

She and her husband, Steve Cleghorn, were pretty comfortable in the D.C. area. Plans for a storybook retirement on a farm in Pennsylvania seemed far in the distance.

But, over time, the call of goats became too much to ignore.

The couple are among the new crop of small-operation farmers who are deciding to make a living making and selling cheese. The trend dovetails nicely with the Farm to Table movement, which promotes local agriculture and its products.

About $1.6 billion in milk and dairy products, including cheese, are sold in Pennsylvania annually, accounting for about 40 percent of the state's total agriculture sales haul, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 400 million pounds of cheese are produced in Pennsylvania in any given year.

Heavier-than-usual rain in April and May hasn't discouraged Hart-Gonzalez from driving two hours each week to the Strip District and other farmers market hot spots in Pittsburgh to sell blocks of her farm-made feta and chevre goat cheese.

Nearly six years ago, she and her husband traded in their nine-to-five jobs for a life in the hills near Punxsutawney.

In D.C., she headed arts, humanities and modern language at the University of Maryland University College's School of Undergraduate Studies. Cleghorn, 61, was an executive for a nonprofit that aims to curb homelessness in the nation's capital.

They admit to not being patient enough to wait until they retired to go country. And, in 2005, they opened Paradise Gardens and Farm, an organic farm on 50 hilly acres in Henderson Township, Jefferson County.

"This is something we always wanted to do," Hart-Gonzalez, 61 says. "We figured now would be the time to do it when we still had the energy."

Everything produced here is natural, meaning no chemicals are used on animals or the soil. Weeds are pulled by hand, not sprayed.

The barn and farmhouse are powered by solar energy; their electricity costs have dropped 90 percent in less than two years.

Even the garlic that is mixed into the chevre is grown here.

Twice a day, tiny little goat hoofs beat their way from pastures of knee-high growth into a century-old barn that, at one time, housed horses and cows.

Once inside, the goats -- four at a time -- are milked by machine. The milk, as much as 40 gallons, is pasteurized then cooled so it can be cultured and made into cheese. After that, it is salted and seasoned with herbs.

The process takes one to two days, then the product is packed for market.

"When we go to farmers markets, we're not just selling milk and cheese. We're sharing information," Hart-Gonzalez says. "There's health benefits to what we do."

Govinda Narayan Timilsina, 33, takes careful notes each time a batch is made.

A graduate student at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, Timilsina is working as an intern in the farm's cheese operation.

He's studying to find new food options for his native Nepal. There, nine in 10 residents is a farmer, and goats typically are grown only for meat.

While political unrest and the government's inability to uphold the law have halted much of its agriculture growth, Nepal's hilly terrain, combined with a poor road system, has proven to be an even bigger barrier, according to a report by the World Bank, which helps developing countries with financial and technical assistance.

Timilsina sees opportunities emerging at some point.

"Nepal has lots of tourists from the U.S. and Europe who demand these kinds of cheeses," he says. "If we have a model in place for how to do this ... eventually it can turn into a huge market for us."

Back in the city, Jonathan Gaugler hopes the work he does in his Lawrenceville basement will land him on the ground floor of an emerging cheese-enthusiast wave.

His business, Arsenal Cheese, specializes in cheese curds. He makes the bite-size goodies with local Jersey cow milk. The cheese curds have more fat and milk solids than most cheese, and are made fresh.

"I thought, 'No one's doing it,' so why not?" Gaugler, 29 says. "Pittsburgh's one of those places that supports local businesses, so I figured it didn't hurt to try."

Curds are best served on bread or as snacks. They are a favorite among Canadians. Poutine, a delicacy from the North, features fries topped with gravy and curds.

Gaugler brewed beer for years, but says he always had an affinity for cheese-making. He studied the process at Penn State.

Arsenal Cheese curds are sold at Kelly's, Brillobox and Harris Grill, as well as East End Food Co-Op. Arsenal also accepts orders through its website.

Gaugler makes only cheddar for now, but says he might add pepper, dill and other flavors as the operation expands.

For Alisa Fava-Fasnacht, what started as a hobby and personal challenge has turned into a cottage industry for her and her husband, Alan.

Six years ago, Fava-Fasnacht stumbled on instructions on how to make ricotta cheese from scratch. Her plan was to make just enough for a lasagna dinner, but she ended up with six pounds.

The leftovers got rave reviews.

Today, the couple sell about 10,000 pounds of various cheeses both on order and from a wine and artisan-cheese shop -- Emerald Valley Artisans -- from their farm in Scenery Hill, Washington County.

"I knew we were on to something," Fava-Fasnacht, 50 says. "It was nothing we planned. It was an opportunity for us to further our passion for good food."

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Foodies delight in the artisan cheese created locally.



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