Central Pennsylvanians' preference for mild-tasting cheese takes tangible form in the young white cheddars, blocks of baby Swiss and herbed Colby/Jacks most often offered up by local cheesemakers. But some artisan and farmstead cheese producers are attempting to push their neighbors' palates in more adventurous directions. (See list with links at the end of this article.)
"Cheesemakers are artists," says Bill Houder, proprietor of the Town Clock Cheese Shoppe in Gap, who features dozens of local cheeses alongside such high-end standards like Irish Cashel Blue and French Camembert.
The American Cheese Society says "artisanal cheese" can be made from any type of milk from any source and include any flavoring, but it must be made in small batches by hand. A "farmstead cheese," a more restrictive label, must be made of milk from animals residing on the cheesemaker's land. Artisanal and farmstead cheese can be made from either pasteurized or raw milk, but cheese made from the latter must be aged at least 60 days (to kill potentially hazardous bacteria) before it can be sold in Pennsylvania.
Houder is encouraged by the rate at which Central PA cheesemakers are moving toward more experimental blues, cave-aged cheddars, interesting sheep cheese and goat Goudas. "There still aren't many that would push a real turophile's palate, but most are still quite lovely," says Houder, using the Greek-derived term for a cheese-lover. He caters to discerning clients. "If I am going to sell their product, they've got to show me something that sets their cheese apart."
Among cheeses earning shelf space in Houder's shop are Common Boat Blue, a salty cow's-milk blue by Misty Creek Dairy in Leola; a cave-aged raw cow's-milk Bouche from Wakefield Farms in Peach Bottom that sports an earthy, edible rind; and Ewe's Dream, a raw-sheep's-milk cheese from Otterbein Acres in Newburg, modeled on an Italian pecorino.
Houder also sells a fresh, creamy chèvre from Linden Dale Farm, a goat-only operation in Ronks. Linden Dale's Mary and Andrew Mellinger also make a brined feta and an aged Tomme-style variety. But the cheese that routinely sells out from their Lancaster Central Market stand is Dalençay, a local spin on the pyramid-shaped French Valençay. To make either of these cheeses, the drained curd is cast in a mold, inverted and allowed to coolly ripen two to three weeks until its surface blooms with a natural mold rind.
"Valençay is almost impossible to import. It's too delicate, too perishable," says Andy Mellinger, who's been making Dalençay since May. His wife adds that "people who know cheese, but live here, are very appreciative of it."
Jason Viscount, executive chef at Bricco in Harrisburg, understands the value of this new breed of local cheese. "The artisanal movement here is still in its infancy," he says. "But the cheese has definitely gotten a lot better in the past 10 years." He adds that local cheese is not immune to the seasonal changes of the region, leading to occasional problems with availability.
The goat cheeses Viscount offers on Bricco's menu — or at Olewine's Meat and Cheese House, adjacent to the restaurant on Chestnut Street — include an earthy, white-bloom-rind cheese called Starlight Crottin and a rich but mellow ash-coated cheese called Moonlight Fog. Both are from Camelot Valley Creamery in Dover. Pipe Dreams Fromage in Greencastle contributes demi-sec (aged two weeks) ashen goat cheese. Pipe Dreams' cheesemaker, Brad Parker, apprenticed in France and distributes his cheese to high-end restaurants and cheese shops throughout the Washington, D.C., area. Viscount contends that Parker's cheese is some of the best being made in the country at the moment.
As for local cow's-milk cheeses, Viscount stocks several produced by Keswick Creamery in Newburg, including its Blue Suede Moo (akin to an English Stilton), Vermeer (crossing a creamy Dutch Gouda and a nutty Emmenthaler) and Dragon's Breath (a blistering pepper jack).
Keswick's Mark Dietrich Cochran, who runs the creamery with his wife, Melanie, believes cheese to be a product even more entwined in "terroir" — characteristics of the land that contribute to unique qualities in its produce — than wine. "Cheese is only as good as the milk it's made from, and that milk is only as good as the cows' diet," he notes. The Keswick herd of 49 Jersey cows dines on pasture grasses that are supplemented only by sweet hay in winter.
Grass varies from pasture to pasture, which further expands the possibility of local cheese varietals. "The milk from Otterbein Acres just down the road has a completely different taste. So even if we made the same recipe, the cheese would taste different," Cochran says, adding that his neighbor's Camembert would be featured on his own ideal cheeseboard.
Keswick aggressively markets its products locally (participating in farmers' markets in Carlisle and Palmyra, distributing to restaurants and hosting events that pair its cheeses with local wines, beers and ciders) and to a wider audience in Washington and Philadelphia. But many more tasty cheeses remain quietly placed in farmside stands along scenic country roads.
Drive to the Whispering Brook Cheese Haus on Edenville-Cheesetown Road in Chambersburg and ask Edward Brechbill to pull some of his five-year-old cheddar out from the back cooler. Make your way to Richfield, Snyder County, where Stephen Shelley of Premium Choices Cheeses will spoon out his best-selling cranberry-almond chèvre. Venture to Welsh Mountain Farm in Narvon, Lancaster County, and be rewarded by two-year-old cheddar that has an extended tang and bit of a crystallized crunch (a good thing!). Or head to Stone Meadow Farm in Haines, Centre County, to taste a slow-aged raw-milk Camembert that rivals its noble French cousin.
Central PA is beginning to offer a wealth of artisanal cheeses. It's worth the effort to find them.
Caprine Delight, 1778 Chambersburg Rd., Gettysburg, 717-334-3263 (No website)
Otterbein Acres, 10071 Otterbein Church Rd., Newburg, 717-423-6689 (No website)
Premium Choices Cheeses, Richfield
Welsh Mountain Farm, Narvon, 590 Red Hill Road, Narvan, 717-768-3652 (No website)
Whispering Brook Cheese Haus, 8875 Edenville-Cheesetown Rd., Chambersburg, 717-369-2355 (No website)
Blue Cheese and Prosciutto Panini
Sometimes putting a little bit of sweetness beside a piece of blistering blue cheese can tilt an uneasy eater’s attitude in its favor. This sandwich includes a drizzle of honey over the melting cheese to achieve that end. I tend to sweeten the plate a bit more by serving these sandwiches with fresh figs in the fall, Bosc pears in the winter or sweet cherries in June.
Good-quality olive oil (one with a nutty flavor is good)
4 half-inch thick slices of sesame semolina bread
½ cup of crumbled Central PA blue cheese, such as Keswick Creamery’s Blue Suede Moo or Common Folk Organics Blue Cheese
1 teaspoon wildflower honey
4 slices of good-quality Prosciutto di Parma ham (as thinly sliced as your deli can provide)
Heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat for about 1 minute. Lay all 4 slices of bread in the pan. Immediately split the blue cheese between 2 of the slices of grilling bread, spreading the cheese evenly on each piece of bread so it will melt uniformly. Drizzle half of the honey over each cheesy slice. Keep the bread on the heat until it is a golden brown color (about 1 minute more). Remove the pan from the heat and lay 2 slices of ham on each of the plain pieces of grilled bread. It’s important not to place Parma ham on the bread while the pieces are directly on the heat, because it becomes stringy if it gets too hot. Use a spatula to turn the cheesy bread slices on top of the ham slices and transfer the sandwiches to a cutting board. Cut each sandwich in half with a serrated knife. Yields 2 sandwiches.
Individualized Pear and Goat Cheese Galettes
Presenting one large rustic tart at the table will certainly make an impression. But with just a bit more work, you can present each guest with his or her own intriguing little bundle of pears, cardamom and honeyed goat cheese wrapped in a brown-butter crust and topped with an almond embellishment. They are worth the effort, for sure. The time-consuming part of this recipe is the crust, because you have to completely cool the browned butter before making the dough, and the dough should rest for 30 minutes before you roll it out. But after that point, assembling these rustic tarts is a breeze.
For pastry crust
8 Tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
1-1/3 cups of all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons dark brown sugar
¼ to 1/3 cup ice-cold water
4 large (or 6 small) ripe Bartlett pears, peels on, cored and thinly sliced
2 Tablespoons flour
¼ cup white sugar
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon cardamom powder
6 oz. of room-temperature Central PA chèvre (fresh goat cheese), such as that made by Linden Dale Farm in Ronks or Premium Choices Cheese in Richfield
2 Tablespoons wildflower honey
½ cup sliced almonds
1 egg, beaten
Turbinado sugar (raw cane sugar)
In a large skillet, over medium heat, melt the butter, swirling the pan so that it melts evenly. Keep the pan over the heat until the butter turns slightly brown and smells a bit toasty, which takes about 3-4 minutes. When you see light brown particles develop on the bottom of the pan, turn off the heat. Pour the browned butter into a bowl and refrigerate it until it returns to a solid state. That should take about two hours. Put the solid brown butter (including the browned particle that will have settled to the bottom of the butter in its bowl), flour and sugar into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the dough has a sandy texture. Add ¼ cup ice water and pulse until it forms a ball (if the dough is too dry, add more water, 1 Tablespoon at a time, pulsing after each addition, until it forms a ball). Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and work it into a disk. Wrap the dough and refrigerate for 30 minutes. To make the filling, combine the pears, white sugar, lemon juice and cardamom in a bowl. Set aside.
Fully mix the chèvre and honey together. Set aside. Preheat oven at 375°F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment. Sprinkle some turbinado sugar over the parchment. Divide the disk of dough into 4 pieces and work with 1 piece at a time. Working on a well-floured surface, roll 1 piece of dough into a 6-inch circle. Place it on the baking sheet on top of the parchment and sugar. Take ¼ of the goat cheese and honey mixture and spread it in the center of the dough, leaving a 1-inch rim of dough all the way around the circle. Take ¼ of pear filling and top the goat cheese. Fold the edges of the crust up onto the pears, leaving about a 3-inch circle of exposed pear.
Repeat that process with the remaining pieces of dough. Use a pastry brush to lightly coat the folded over edges of the dough. Sprinkle more turbinado sugar over the coated pastry. Sprinkle about 2 Tablespoons of almonds over the exposed pears on each galette. Bake the galettes for 25-30 minutes until the pastry is nicely browned. Let them rest for 15 minutes before serving. Serve with freshly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Yields 4 galettes.
Cheddar and Apple and Cherry Chutney Canapés
The Central PA terroir is ideal for apples, cherries and cheddar cheese. These assembled hors d’oeuvres, combine all three in one explosive bite that gives a nod to a traditional English holiday combination: chutney and cheese, both of which keep well in the fridge and can be pulled out easily when unexpected guests pop in.
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon black mustard seeds
½ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1¼ cups sugar
1 2-oz. piece fresh ginger, peeled, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
3 cloves of garlic
¾ lb. tart apples, peeled, cored, diced into ¼–inch pieces and tossed in 1 Tablespoon of fresh lemon juice so they don’t oxidize
1 cup dried cherries, roughly chopped
1 lb. block of Central PA sharp cheddar, such as those made by Welsh Mountain Farm in Narvon, Otterbein Acres in Newburg or Whispering Brook Cheese Haus in Chambersburg
1 box plain crackers, such as Carr’s Water Crackers
Apple and cherry chutney
To make the chutney, put oil, mustard seeds and red pepper flakes in a medium-sized non-reactive saucepan over medium heat. When the mustard seeds begin to pop, add vinegar and sugar to boil, and stir it so that the sugar dissolves. Reduce the heat to simmer for 10 minutes. As the vinegar mixture simmers, pulse garlic, ginger and salt in processor until the aromatics are finely chopped. Add apples, cherries and garlic mixtures to the hot vinegar mixture. Simmer until apples are tender and chutney thickens, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes. Place the chutney in bowl, cool, cover and chill.
To assemble the canapés, simply cut a ¼ slice of cheese to fit on each cracker and put a dollop of chutney on top of each piece of cheese. Yields 3 dozen canapés.
Recipes courtesy Christine Rudalevige
Published in A La Carteback to top