by Jennifer Brizzi
Cheese is the perfect food, unless you’re vegan or lactose-intolerant. Providing protein and pure pleasure, well-made cheeses also boast nuances of flavor — thanks to their own terroir and methods of production — that are as refined as any fine wine’s.
I’ve long said that after butter and garlic cheese is my favorite food. And I’ve made a lifetime study of it and a few forays into making my own (so far only fresh, not aged). I’ve learned over the years how cheese needs to be served as close to room temperature as possible for the flavor to bloom fully, and how it has an arc of perfection as it ages toward its peak, crests and then begins to decline.
When you buy cheese in France, they ask you when you will be serving it so they can give you a chunk that will be at its perfect peak at that moment. Tonight? Tomorrow night? Right now? Here we have to rely on our senses of sight, smell and touch or the skills of a knowledgeable cheesemonger to know what’s truly good.
Like shopping for seafood (my fourth favorite food), buying cheese can be troublesome outside of major urban centers. Certain cheeses may be well past their peak or nowhere near it, or the selection can be limited. Recently I was hankering for some cheese from Sprout Creek, a Poughkeepsie creamery/school with some great artisanal products, but they were all out at my favorite cheese-buying place. So I went to Sprout Creek’s on-site market, tucked away in the back of a rustic but well-kept farm building, nestled in a pastoral and beautiful setting. I just randomly grabbed a couple of chunks to buy, knowing that whatever I picked would have to be good.
As the product of a small farm, made from milk from small pasture-raised herds which graze on grass, these fine cheeses claim lower levels of calories and cholesterol, no herbicides, pesticides, hormones or antibiotics, and a richness of omega-3s and antioxidants.
I wasn’t disappointed in the flavors, either. The Eden I chose was a nice cow cheese that reminded me of a mild cheddar. I thought it would be good melted, although none of mine went that route. As it aged a bit in my fridge its character developed a bit, with more rich butteriness but with a full tangy flavor, not shy. Its maker describes Eden as a “semi-soft pungent paste of golden yellow” with “hints of butterscotch and sweet apple.”
As a cheese aged three to five months, or over 60 days, it can legally be made with raw milk, which makes for a fuller flavor and better nutritional qualities. A bumper sticker on a car in the parking lot made me smile: “The revolution will not be pasteurized. Drink raw milk.” By U.S. law, cheeses aged 60 days or less must be made with pasteurized milk.
The second cheese I bought was Lizzy, aged about the same amount of time and also of raw milk, but this time from the goat rather than the cow. The maker describes it as having “big eyes,” “an elastic texture” and a “musky, slightly smoky flavor.” I found it rather goaty and intense but not overripe, quite delightful. As it aged in my fridge, it got even funkier, developing a complex fruity sweetness and subtle nuttiness. The goat cheeses are available only seasonally and in limited quantity.
When I first heard of Sprout Creek, years ago, they had three cow cheeses, Ouray, Toussaint and Barat, which they still make. Ouray is a raw cow’s milk cheese with an edible rind, aged seven to nine months, with a sweet floral flavor (they claim butterscotch and bacon flavors in the smoked crumbly version also currently made). Toussaint is also a raw cow’s milk cheese, aged five to seven months, with a smooth tight texture, the modern smoked version dry and intense. Barat is aged ten to twelve months, with a nutty, caramel flavor and a buttery finish, a texture that’s dense, dry and granular.
These days, thanks to creative cheesemakers, there are more than a dozen newer varieties, including the two I tried. Sprout Creek’s Bogart is “mold-ripened, semi-firm, big-bodied, open, and supple … a cheese that everyone, even a child, loves.” Madeleine is a salty pecorino-like raw milk goat cheese with a delicate herbaciousness. Batch 35 is straw-colored with a lot of little eyes and a meaty, earthy quality. Camus is a nutty blue with hints of maple. Doe Re Mi is a moist, creamy, slightly tart fresh chevre, and Sophie is a velvety, buttery tangy one. Rita is a young pasteurized cows’ milk cheese with a grassy taste.
At the farm on a gorgeous and mild early fall day, in the cozy market, through a large window I watched cheesemakers busily making cheese. One kindly sprayed the foggy window so I could see in, to a workroom with a huge vat full of milk being stirred gently into cheese curds and a large stainless-steel table laden with cylindrical molds ready to hold the beginnings of newborn cheese.
Margo Morris, one of Sprout Creek’s founders, told me about the current comeback of the small-farm model: classic neighborliness combined with environmentally safe methods of production that make for a better society, a healthier populace. The primary mission of Sprout Creek is education, she told me, and as the creamery literature states, “Nothing can teach children better than Mother Nature, for she has been the ultimate instructor-mentor-educator and friend to us all since the beginning of time.”
Sprout Creek offers year-round residential and day programs on its 200-acre farm, where children and adults alike can experience a real farm experience, feeding animals and tending gardens, listening to nature, whether as a college internship (students from Bard, Marist, the CIA and Vassar participate) or in the highly regarded summer camps for kids. Even parents (or anyone) can camp out in the onsite fully furnished three-bedroom cottage. Community building and spiritual growth are emphasized, with outreach programs wide in scope.
You can visit the charming market, which overlooks the cheese storage and cheesemaking areas — and which also offers freshly baked bread — Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the creamery at 34 Lauer Road in Poughkeepsie. Many of their delightful cheeses are also available for purchase online (and at Adams!). Call 485-9885 or visit sproutcreekfarm.org.