The art of cheese making 

Curdled to perfection

In Europe, small, specialty cheese makers abound. Practically every village has its own tradition and type, with regional names guarded jealously by tough laws (the French do not recognize what we call "domestic brie"). Most American cheese is made by large dairy concerns. It's affordable but tends to be, well, boring.

Fortunately for the cheesehead, specialty cheese shops are proliferating (there are several at the Public Market). A smaller but fascinating trend is the growth of small, artisan cheese makers in this country. Some, such as Cypress Grove Chevre in California, with its outstanding Humboldt Fog, are making a name in the broad World of Cheese.

In the great dairy state of New York, the trend is also taking root. Down in Interlaken, Lively Run Goat Dairy has been making goat cheeses for almost 25 years. More recently, Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese Company has started producing cow cheeses near Trumansburg.

Susanne Messmer and her family continue a tradition of goat cheese in Interlaken. The Feldman family started Lively Run in 1982, but there were also the "Goat Folks" there at that time (who, sadly, went bankrupt). Around 1995, the Feldmans took a sabbatical. The Messmers got a six-week crash course, started by renting the business, and have been running it ever since.

Cheese making is a many-staged process. It always begins with adding an enzyme, rennet, to milk. This separates the proverbial curds and whey. Eventually, the solids are drained, formed into a shape, and usually aged. Every particular cheese has procedural twists and turns, and both of the cheese makers I spoke to stressed the difficulty of maintaining consistency.

Lively Run uses milk entirely from its own herd, currently 110 goats (this is what "farmstead" cheese means). Its fresh Chevre starts with pasteurized milk that becomes yogurt-like with rennet. It sits overnight, then is drained, salted, stuffed into tubes, and cut into saleable portions. It comes plain or with one of seven herb combinations.

Lively Run Feta starts the same, but is cut into cubes in the whey (added surface area makes it harder). It's strained and put into rectangular molds, turned and salted for three days, then aged in brine at 50° for 30 days.

For Cayuga Blue, penicillin is added to the milk, and the cheese is formed into rounds rather than blocks. It drains at room temperature for a week so the mold can start to grow (poked holes also facilitate the process). The aging is tricky: 50°, 90 percent humidity, and careful weekly turning to avoid spoiling. Sixty days later you have what Murray's Cheese in New York calls, "(a) beautiful, subdued blue, with veins as deep as the lake this cheese is named after."

In addition to making cheese, Messmer, who has a social work background, uses the farm for altruistic purposes. She has sponsored refugees from Egypt and women recovering from substance abuse, and is working to create new programs.

Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese Company might be new, but its partners aren't new to cheese and dairy. Nancy Richards grew up next door on Taber Hill Farms, which is now run by her brothers and supplies the milk she uses. Back in 2000, she placed an ad looking for a cheese maker. Meanwhile, Jan Beuzekom, a Dutchman who had been making cheese around Europe for years, wanted to bring his skills to the budding market for European-style, artisan cheese-making in the United States. He found Richards' ad, and after five years of planning, red tape, and construction, they began making cheese in 2005.

The three Finger Lakes Farmstead cheeses follow the same process until aging. I watched Beuzekom in action, and it's a physical, precise process involving many cleaning steps. He adds rennet and culture to unpasteurized milk, which is raised to 85°. After a few hours, he puts the cheese into molds for draining. It sits in brine for a day, then goes to be aged at 55° and 85 percent to 90 percent humidity for at least 60 days.

Schuyler --- a traditional Dutch gouda named for the county --- is wiped with a waxy coating, and then turned and wiped clean regularly in the aging room. Schuyler is velvety, with a very clean taste and just the slightest hint of a bite, while Aged Schuyler has a bit more depth and scent.

Red Meck --- named for Mecklenburg -- is a "red-washed" cheese, like the original Muenster. Red-washing is an aging process that makes use of coryne bacteria in the aging room (or "cave"). Once introduced, the bacteria simply live on in the cave (caves in Europe have bacteria that are hundreds of years old). The rounds are turned and wiped with a wet cloth, at first daily, throughout the aging process. The wiping "annoys the mold," encouraging it to grown. The rind turns a vibrant orange over time, and the cheese takes on a nuttier flavor and a stronger smell.

It's fascinating to see. Finger Lakes Farmstead doesn't have tours, but Nancy and Jan will show you around if you come by. They're at the Rochester Public Market on Saturdays to sell the cheese, which you can also buy at Regional Access in Trumansburg.

Lively Run, on the other hand, makes a business of tours. Come by Monday through Saturday (but not Thursday) on the hour between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. to milk goats, see the process, and sample cheeses. It's $5.50 for adults and $2.75 for kids. Lively Run cheeses are available at Wegmans, health food stores, and at the farm.

Lively Run Goat Dairy, 8978 County Road 142, Interlaken, (607) 532-4647.Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese Company, 5491 Bergen Road, Trumansburg, (607) 387-3108.

Food tip

Taco John's Tex-Mex Eatery opened in early June in the former Ly-Lou's at 489 South Avenue (just north of Alexander). Chef/owner John Roth is keeping things simple and cheap. Have a taco, burrito, quesadilla, guacamole and chips, or a combo plate, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. No delivery yet, but call ahead for quick takeout (232-5830).

--- Michael Warren Thomas of

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