Artisanal cheeses to be on the menu
Top area sous chefs will cook for a cheesy cause Sunday at Legume Bistro in Oakland.
The $85-a-plate dinner is aimed at encouraging artisanal cheese-making in Western Pennsylvania, where, despite the region's rich dairy-farming tradition, it is missing from the gastronomic landscape, according to Slow Food Pittsburgh, the “eat local” advocacy group sponsoring Sunday's event.
Funds raised will help establish the first-ever $2,500 Pittsburgh Cheesemaker's Grant, to be awarded annually to a cheese artisan living west of State College. The recipient will be chosen in an essay contest in which candidates make the case for how they will advance their skills.
“We've been wanting to do something about the lack of great locally produced cheese for years,” says Slow Food Pittsburgh's Susan Barclay of Regent Square. “With all the pastureland and creameries in Western Pennsylvania, there's no reason we shouldn't be producing cheese on par with eastern Pennsylvania or even Vermont.”
Besides boosting the region's agricultural economy, locally-made cheeses would be a treat for consumers, most of whom are limited to mass-produced varieties or less-than-fresh imports, Barclay says.
“If you've ever had cut-to-order, small-batch cheese,” she says, “you know it tastes nothing like the shrink-wrapped stuff you find in supermarkets.”
Cheese-making is both an art and a science, akin to wine- and beer-making in its complexity, according to Melanie Dietrich Cochran, of Keswick Creamery in Newburg, Cumberland County, who is one of the judges in the essay contest.
A second-generation dairy farmer, Cochran produces dozens of varieties of aged raw-milk and fresh pasteurized cheese for markets in Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. She specializes in farmstead cheese, or that which is made from a single herd of milk — in her case, registered Jersey cows from her own Carrock Farm.
“Artisan and farmstead cheeses reflect what's special in a particular region, depending on the breed of cow, goat or sheep, and what they eat,” Cochran says. “A cheese recipe made on one farm can taste very different from the same recipe made on another.”
What distinguishes artisan from factory cheese is fresher milk from pasture-fed animals, says Cochran.
“The goal of any artisan is to use the cleanest milk, from cows getting the most natural diet possible, either by grazing or being fed hay. Fermented feed, like corn silage, can cause faults in the cheese.”
Cochran sells directly at farm stands, and supplies shops where cheesemongers can educate customers about selection and proper storage, as well as wine and beer pairings.
“The worst thing you can do when you get home is wrap cheeses in Saran wrap,” Cochran says. “If you don't keep the wrapping from the cheese shop, use wax paper or aluminum foil.”
Artisanal cheese is riding wave of popularity, says Cochran, who grew up farming and graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in dairy science. When she decided to pursue cheese-making more than a decade ago, she traveled to California State Polytechnical Institute for a course, because it was one of few offered anywhere in North America.
Today, there are many opportunities, including courses at Penn State University. Cochran teaches classes herself, because she sees cheese as a value-added product that can help keep family farms alive, including those in Western Pennsylvania.
Cavan Patterson, who with his brother Tom owns Wild Purveyors in Lawrenceville, supports that mission, because it is another way to keep food dollars circulating close to home.
“Why should we send our money overseas,' he says, “when there is great European-style cheese being produced in our own backyard?”
Patterson carries cheese from 26 Pennsylvania creameries, mostly in the eastern counties, but he said there is room for more, since small-batch quantities are limited and demand continues to grow.
“Cheese is one of those things, like wine, that has an air of sophistication, and it's not something everyone can make,” he says. “It represents the peak of artistic creativity in food.”
Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.