April 2009 Issue
All-Ohio Cheese Plate
A longtime haven for buttery Amish cheeses, Ohio’s dairy farmers are branching out and experimenting with artisanal varieties.
By Teresa Woodard
It goes without saying that Ohio’s Amish Country is the source for exceptional Swiss cheese. But when we’re searching for handcrafted batches of fresh chevre (that’s French for “goat”), Holland-style Gouda and aged cheddars, most of us head to our grocer’s specialty cheese aisle to sort through selections from France, Italy and other places beyond the state’s borders.
But finding outstanding Ohio-made, small-production cheeses has gotten easier, thanks largely to the local food movement. A divergence from your typical orange and white cheese cubes, this new group of first-class varieties such as halloumi and goat milk feta are the products of the state’s 14 licensed artisan cheese makers, many of which are making farmstead cheeses — those made on the farm exclusively with the milk from the farmer’s own herd of well-tended, often purebred cows and goats.
Top Ohio restaurants such as Iron Chef Michael Symon’s Lola in Cleveland and Alana’s Food & Wine in Columbus are featuring these small-batch culinary wonders on cheese plates and in salads and special dishes. Last fall, the Williams-Sonoma catalog included an Ohio-made Gouda in its Pastoral American Cheese Collection, and others have won accolades at national food and dairy shows.
Latest U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show Ohio ranks eighth in cheese production and turned out 194 million pounds of cheese in 2007. The state got its start in cheese making in 1833 when Swiss immigrant Jacob Steiner was attracted to the Ohio Valley’s rolling hills and lush meadows, reminiscent of his homeland. He began producing Swiss cheese 175 years ago, and today his descendants’ Baltic, Ohio, company is joined by a handful of other Swiss cheese producers in making the state number one in Swiss cheese production.
In spite of all this success, Mike Kast, owner of Curds & Whey cheese shop in Columbus’ North Market, says Ohioans have “an inferiority complex” when it comes to their cheeses. His shop served Ohio cheeses for two recent events hosted at the North Market, and he says the one hosted for a group of out-of-staters drew rave reviews, while the one for locals drew complaints about his unexotic selections.
Roger Tedrick, assistant chief of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s dairy division, is an advocate for Ohio’s cheese industry. “Our good milk and tasty cheeses come from the state’s abundant forages, whether grain or grasses,” he says.
To cheese enthusiasts, milk is the soul of cheese, much like grapes are the soul of wine. And, these cheese lovers look for different characteristics depending on the milk’s animal source and breed (Jersey cows or Nubian goats), their type of feed (pasture or grain), the milking season and its weather conditions (a dry summer or cold winter) and the dairy farm’s terroir or distinctive taste of a place (Ohio’s central lowlands or its Appalachian plateaus). Also, like wine, a cheese’s production techniques and aging (or ripening) processes influence its flavor. Sounding too complicated for cheese-tasting novices? Don’t worry. Kast offers his recommendations for an all-Ohio cheese plate with both long-standing favorites and newer selections.
Many of these cheeses are available from the cheese makers at their retail stores or through their mail-order operations. Several varieties are also sold at farmer’s markets and specialty foods stores. For more information, visit the cheese makers’ Web sites.
Fresh CheesesCheeses that have been agedFresh Chevre
Integration Acres, Albany
Famed pawpaw grower Integration Acres produces a fresh goat cheese with balanced tartness. Enjoy tasting it with a sauvignon blanc. Also try serving it on pizza, warmed on a salad or spread on bread along with Integration Acres’ pawpaw chutneys. www.integrationacres.comGoat Milk Feta
Osage Lane Creamery, Pataskala
Osage Lane Creamery offers a different style of goat milk cheese with its feta. The cheese is perfect served on salads or casseroles or sampled with a Malvasia Bianca (a white Mediterranean grape variety). www.osagelane.com
Cheeses with a white rind and soft center, ripened from the outside in
Lake Erie Creamery, Cleveland
Blomma, Swedish for “flower,” refers to this soft-ripened cheese’s bloomy rind. A small urban producer, Lake Erie Creamery sources the milk for this cheese from Cherry Lane Farm in Portage County’s 120 Saanen goats. Pair Blomma with a sauvignon blanc or try melting it on toast. www.lakeeriecreamery.com
Medium Firm Cheeses
A broad category of generally smooth cheeses with little or no rind and aged from a few days to a few monthsBaby Swiss
Guggisberg Cheese, Millersburg
Pioneered by Swiss immigrant Alfred Guggisberg more than 50 years ago, this long-standing Ohio favorite regularly wins top awards at the Ohio State Fair and gained a second place at the 2008 World Dairy Expo (the company’s newer grass-fed premium Swiss took first). Enjoy this baby Swiss on a cheese plate or in a fondue. www.babyswiss.com Gretna Grillin’
Blue Jacket Dairy, Bellefontaine
Blue Jacket Dairy, named after Blue Jacket Creek, creates this halloumi-style cheese, like the ages-old cheese from Cypress. It’s a salty, cow’s-milk cheese that’s similar in texture to mozzarella and has a high melting point. Try grilling or frying it for a novel appetizer. www.bluejacketdairy.comHill Folk Jersey
Buckeye Grove Farm, Beallsville
Hill Folk Jersey is a Monterey Jack-style cheese with great flavor. Buckeye Grove Farm makes this grassland, natural-aged cheese with the farm’s unpasteurized, whole Jersey milk. www.buckeyegrovefarm.comYogurt Cheese Heini’s Cheese Chalet, Millersburg
Produced in the heart of Amish country, this organic, mild and slightly tart cheese is popular for grilled cheese sandwiches or cubed on party trays. Sample the original, vegetable or peppercorn-chive flavors. www.heinis.com
Hard cheeses defined by their firm textureColby Pearl Valley, Fresno
Today, the third generation of the Swiss immigrant Stadler family produces nearly three million pounds of cheese with milk produced by eastern Ohio dairy farmers. With its big, nutty and buttery flavor, Kast says this Colby is one of few worthy of discussion. www.pearlvalleycheese.comFarmstead Cheddar
Colonial Classics, Scio
Similar to an English cheddar, this farmstead cheddar is crumbly, not elastic, and is noted for its slightly nutty flavor. The cheddar is made from milk from the farm’s herd of nearly 50 pasture-fed cows and aged a minimum of 60 days. www.naturalcheese.net Farmstead Gouda
Oakvale Farms, London
Oakvale’s Farmstead Gouda is firm and buttery like Dutch Gouda thanks to the high-fat milk from the farm’s 80, mostly Holstein, dairy cows. Over the past few years, Oakvale’s Gouda has won awards at American Cheese Society competitions and was recently featured in Williams-Sonoma’s catalogue as part of an American cheese collection. Try this cheese with a glass of grenache, a lighter-bodied red grape variety. oakvalecheese.com
When creating your own tasting plate, Kast recommends serving cheeses at room temperature. He says to offer milder cheeses (like the chevre or blomma) first, then progress to the stronger, aged cheeses (like the Gouda or cheddar). Kast encourages tasters not to rush the cheese tasting, because cheeses are best enjoyed in small bites and at a leisurely pace. “Allow the cheese to rest on the palate to let the flavor fully develop,” he says. He also advises novices to not let cheese’s smell scare them. “Smell is not related to the taste,” he says reassuringly.