Local Artisan Cheeses on the Rise
by matthew wexler
Making cheese—and selling it for that matter—is not for the faint of heart. While the Jersey cows at Mecox Bay Dairy lazily graze in the lush green fields near Swan Creek, cheesemaker Art Ludlow and his family cycle through an endless 365-day-per-year job of milking, ripening, and aging their six signature varieties for sale at farmers’ markets and select retail outlets throughout the Northeast. Shops such as Lucy’s Whey and Cavaniola’s Gourmet Cheese Shop are busy as well as they cater to the increasingly knowledgeable palettes of customers who have come to expect a carefully curated selection of American and international products.
“Over the past 15 years American cheeses have really become on par with their European counterparts, and we have seen a flourishing of artisanal and farmstead cheeses hit the market,” says Christine Hyatt, Board President of the American Cheese Society. Last year’s ACS Conference & Competition drew more than 1,600 entries from the US, Canada, and Mexico; New York cheesemakers alone won 20 awards. Regardless of who takes top honors, Hyatt is quick to point out: “People have strong opinions about the types of cheeses they prefer. When you eat a really fine cheese, you will always discover an interesting texture and aroma. It’s an attention grabber.”
Since launching Mecox Bay Dairy 10 years ago, Ludlow has caught the attention of aficionados by producing a variety of cheeses to satisfy his customer base, but he says his Sigit, a nutty, Alpine-style cheese (think Gruyere or Swiss) is the front-runner. He also notes a variance in his cheeses depending on the time of year: “What we sell in June is different than the cheese we’ll sell in August. There is carotene in grass, giving the milk a yellowish color.”
Small format cheeses like Ludlow’s are the passion behind Lucy Kazickas of Lucy’s Whey in East Hampton. Since 2008 Kazickas has scoured the country to offer her customers the best of the domestic market. “American cheese is like the California wine industry was 25 years ago, and they are now winning international awards,” she says. “It’s also helping our farmers remain sustainable—a lot of them are turning to make cheese as a value-added product.” Kazickas has noticed more experimentation with washed rind cheeses where beer, wine, and other spirits or herbs are used in the aging process.
One of her favorites is a semisoft washed rind made by up-and-coming cheesemaker Keeley McGarr. After taking a course at the University of Vermont’s Institute for Artisan Cheese and doing a subsequent internship in West Cork, Ireland, McGarr set up shop in an old farmhouse in the Finger Lakes to recreate the centuries-old traditions she learned “across the pond”—the namesake for her signature cheese. Kazickas was impressed by McGarr’s tireless dedication but says that it is typical. “These cheesemakers are not getting rich on this. They are doing it out of love while also creating a sharing and collaborative community.”
Michael and Tracey Cavaniola’s Sag Harbor cheese shop leans toward European varieties, which comprise 80 percent of their inventory. “American cheeses are coming along,” says Michael, “but Europeans have been doing this for so long and can properly age raw-milk cheeses. There’s also a lesser need to move the product so quickly.” By law, Cavaniola’s can import raw-milk cheeses aged longer than 60 days. “Our clientele is well-traveled,” he says. “They’ve been to Italy, France, and Spain and want to relive those culinary experiences here.”
With vastly different backgrounds and methods of expression, local cheesemakers and cheesemongers have one thing in common: a dedication to beautifully made products that tell a story. All three acknowledge a growing local interest in understanding where food comes from. Whether you are sampling Ludlow’s latest creation (Blue Cheddar), hearing a firsthand account from one of Kazickas’s cheese road trips, or waiting with bated breath for Cavaniola’s latest arrival, one thing is for certain—that perfect tangy flavor you taste has come a long way from the cow (or sheep, or goat…) to the counter.
photography by martin poole/gettyimages.com