Wednesday, February 11, 2015

On Location: In Pennsylvania Studying Cheese & Eating Whoopie Pies

Well, it's official, I love Pennsylvania. Not only does this fabulous state host one of the best cheesemaker conferences I've ever attended, it also makes a whoopie pie that will literally be the best thing you've ever eaten in three bites.

Maybe I'm still riding the sugary high of this hand-made bad boy from the Rotelle family at September Farm Cheese in Honey Brook, PA:

or perhaps it's the cheese induced coma I've been in the past two days, but I'm telling you, the little burg of New Holland, Pennsylvania - birthplace of New Holland Equipment, home to my favorite hay rake growing up on the family farm (yes, I already emailed my dad a picture of the big downtown headquarters sign) - is one happening artisan cheese mecca. This is what I discovered, thanks to the fine folks who invited me to speak at the 2015 Cheese Makers' Resource Conference, sponsored by the uber-organized Agri-Service LLC team.

More than 170 cheesemakers and dairy folk from around the country coming from as far away as Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Connecticut, descended on New Holland this week to attend the annual conference, featuring in-depth educational sessions on Cheddar cheesemaking, sheep & goat cheeses, regulatory challenges, cultured dairy products, creamery start-ups, and panel discussions on breaking into markets with new products.

My job was to lead two different tasting and sensory sessions on salt, sour and bitter notes in cheese (there's nothing I'd rather do than talk cheese!), but by far, the highlight of the conference for me were three back-to-back sessions with veteran artisan cheesemaker and consultant Peter Dixon, who talked a rapt room through the art and science of making goat and sheep milk cheeses.

Taking notes as fast as humanly possible, I learned a whole lot of new information on how goat and sheep milk is different for cheesemaking, and how milk composition of these species varies greatly depending on the animals' lactation calendar. As we all know, a female animal must give birth in order to start giving milk (lactating). The average length of lactating for sheep is 220-240 days, and for goats, 305 days, before the ladies "dry up" in time to give birth again a few months later.

Milk produced during the length of a ewe or doe's (or cow's for that matter) milking season varies greatly in composition. For example, the ratio of protein to fat in the last 30 to 60 days of a sheep or goat's milking cycle is greatly decreased. In other words, the percentage of milkfat is higher, and the percentage of protein in that milk is much lower. Cheese yield goes up, but the quality of that cheese may go down, and be much higher in moisture.

That's why it can be hard to make a good quality hard, aged cheese from late lactation milk in all species, Dixon says. The key is to make different types of cheese depending on the type of milk produced during the lactation cycle. European cheesemakers had this figured out hundreds of years ago in the Alps. They knew that after giving birth in the spring, the height of the cow's lacation cycle was in the summer, when the cows would be on Alpine pastures, producing milk rich in both fat and protein and perfect for making huge, round Alpine cheese such as Emmentaler and Gruyere. In winter time - at the end of the cows' milking calendar - cheesemakers invented tommes, smaller cheeses that didn't need to age as long, and were often considered inferior in quality to the big wheel cheeses of summer.

Since we don't live in the Alps, a modern American solution as to what to do with late lactation sheep's milk, Dixon says, is to blend it with cow's or goat's milk to still get a solid quality ratio of fat to protein, and to have enough milk to make a vat of cheese (animals will start drying up at the end of the lactation schedule, resulting in less and less milk in the waning days of the season). Dixon's general rule of thumb? Any cow's mixed milk cheese must contain at least 20 percent of goat or sheep milk to obtain any flavor profile of the sheep or goat.

In addition, goat and cow's milk may also be blended with sheep's milk to make softer cheeses, or, late lactation sheep milk may be frozen and mixed with the next year's milk to make a fresh batch of cheese.

"The key is: don't make the same cheese thinking you have the same milk every day," Dixon says. "Different milk equals different cheeses depending on the time of the year."

While this year's conference focused on cheddar and goat and sheep cheeses, next year's conference will focus on soft-ripened cheeses, with keynote speaker Gianaclis Caldwell already booked for the February 9-10 event, said Dale Martin, president of Agri-Service. I'd highly recommend attending the conference, and then making a short road trip to September Farm Cheese to not only eat their line-up flavored cheddars and jacks, but to also consume the best Whoopie Pie of your life. Best. Day. Ever.

September Farm Cheese in Honey Brook, PA, home to the best Whoopie
Pie ever. Yes, ever.

1 comment:

Culinary Pen said...

Welcome to PA! If you're staying in the state for a bit, Goot Essa (Howard, PA) and Clover Creek Cheese Cellars (Williamsburg, PA) are both deliciously worth checking out.