An Homage to Fromage

Man cannot live by bread alone. Cheese producers are finding ways to tweak the imagination and perk up palates.

In 2012, when Shannon Rice and her husband Tim started Shady Goat Farm on an acre in Pungo, they wanted to create something different, something truly unusual, that would set them apart from the competition. Shannon had been making candy for some time. Why not goat cheese truffles?

The truffles, along with some of their cheeses, were so well received that, after 14 months, the Rices moved their operation to a 15-acre farm in Southampton County.

Making fine chocolates out of goat cheese is an extreme example of what Virginia cheesemakers are doing to create unique products; the wheel or the wedge seem almost pedestrian alongside a growing variety of shapes, colors, additives like ash, and specialty presentations like coin-size parchment pockets holding just a smidge of cheese. The array of artisanal cheeses is growing so fast that the Food and Drug Administration is hammering out separate guidelines and standards for that market segment.

According to some estimates, there are approximately 450 cheesemakers in the American artisanal market today. In Virginia, some three dozen Virginia cheesemakers are making by hand small-batch cheeses with the same degree of creativity and innovation as industry leaders.

Caromont Farm in Esmont, for instance, washes its semi-pressed, hard-rind Red Row in local apple cider as it ages. The farm’s Alberene Ash, a blue cheese, is coated with black pepper and vegetable ash and aged on local lavender boughs. Everona Dairy in Rapidan soaks its signature Piedmont cheese in Virginia wine to create Pride of Bacchus, which retails at $44 a pound.

But even sans innovation, like any other state or region, Virginia’s cheeses as a whole are distinct, thanks to a shared provenance. Like wine, a cheese’s regional or even its specific identity is rooted in its terroir, the sum of the environmental conditions that convey the essence of a place through flavors. A California brie, for instance, tastes different than one made in Virginia. “The processes are the same,” says Sloane Solanto of the Creative Wedge in Virginia Beach, a shop that features Virginia-made artisanal products. “But the terroir gives it its uniqueness.” If soil and climate are elements that affect the flavor of a wine, what comprises a cheese’s terroir? Primarily, says Solanto, “It’s determined by what the animals are eating and the water they drink.”

Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax “is a wonderful example of

terroir as it is profiled in the flavors of the cheese,” says Dany Schutte, cheesemonger for Southern Season in Richmond, the

three-store chain’s only Virginia location. When choosing cheeses for Southern Season, where about 10 percent of the 120 or so cheeses offered are Virginia-made, Schutte says, “I look for well-made products that show a story, that bring an essence of place. From the quality of their milk to the affinage they oversee to the final product. I can watch, taste the seasonal changes in the year of the production cycle.”

Just as important, says Schutte, is “passion in the product. It’s elusive and harder to quantify, but I know it in my gut when I find it.”,,

Can Cheese Stand Alone?

Of course. The cheese course is meant to be a transition between a savory entree or salad and a sweet dessert.

Cathy Power, an owner of the Cheese Shop in Williamsburg, offers a guide to presenting the perfect plate. Since you’re serving a cheese course rather than a stand-and-graze platter, each guest gets a plate, and all are alike.

To build a cheese course, Power approaches a plate as if it were a clock: “The mildest cheese goes at 12 o’clock.” Power suggests a fresh chevre, creamy and mild “with a little acidity to pique your palate.” *Recommendation: Goats R Us (Blackstone) chevre with pineapple or chives

The second cheese, which is positioned at 3 o’clock, should have slightly stronger flavors. Power suggests an aged cheddar or a creamy, nutty Alpine-style cheese, such as an emmental or a gruyere. *Recommendation: Meadow Creek Dairy (Galax) Appalachian or Everona Dairy (Rapidan) Piedmont

The third place, at 9 o’clock, is reserved for the strongest of your three cheeses. Maytag blue, a washed rind or a stilton fit the bill. *Recommendation: Meadow Creek Dairy Grayson

According to Power, three cheeses are enough. If you want to add more, continue the pattern of mildest to strongest. She suggests lighting up the plate with fresh fruits, various mustards or even chutney, or—if you would like the course to stand in for dessert—adding a swirl of honey, dried fruits or some broken chocolate.

Last, Power warns, beware of crackers, which tend to be salty; they can overwhelm a cheese. Instead, thinly slice half of a fresh loaf of bread and leave the rest of the loaf on the table. “There is nothing more communal than tearing off a piece of bread and passing it to the person to your left,” says Power. “It’s a great way to finish an evening.”

Or maybe extend it.

Ricotta and Goat Cheese Terrine

2 cups ricotta cheese
2 cups goat’s cheese
2 tablespoons finely diced chives
½ cup pesto
6 tablespoons finely chopped sundried tomatoes
30 Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
6 tablespoons toasted pine nuts, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Combine cheeses in a mixing bowl and season with salt, pepper and chives. Line a terrine mold or dish with plastic wrap. Spread ¹₃ of the cheese mixture into the mold and smooth. Spread half the pesto over cheese mixture. Scatter sundried tomatoes, olives and pine nuts evenly over the pesto layer. Repeat with another layer of cheese, then pesto, then tomatoes, olives and pine nuts. Top with remaining cheese mixture. Fold plastic over top and refrigerate at least 2 hours.

To serve, remove wrap from top of terrine, then invert dish onto a platter. Remove plastic wrap.

Serve with crackers or crusty bread.

Serves 10-12 as an appetizer

Gorgonzola-Lemon Butter

¹₃ cup unsalted butter, softened
2 ounces Gorgonzola cheese
¹₄ cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 garlic clove, finely minced

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and whip until well incorporated. Serve atop N.Y. strip or rib eye steak.

Serves 2-4

Winter Greens, Apples, Pecans and Roquefort Cream

1 head escarole lettuce, washed and dried
1 small bunch watercress
½ head Belgian endive
1 crisp Granny Smith apple, cored, quartered and thinly sliced
¼ cup pecans, toasted
2 ounces Roquefort cheese
1 baguette, sliced into croutons

Discard long stems from watercress. Julienne the endive. Toast baguette croutons, then smear with cheese and set aside. Place all greens in a bowl with apples, pecans and apple slices, then toss with sweet shallot vinaigrette. Add croutons and serve with fresh ground pepper to taste.

Serves 4

Sweet Shallot Vinaigrette

1 ½ tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 small shallot, finely diced
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ cup olive oil

In a bowl, combine vinegar, mustard, diced shallot and salt. Whisk in oil.

Serves 4

Corncakes with Smoked Gouda

1 tablespoon olive oil
½ medium red onion, diced
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups fresh corn
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 jalapeno, seeded and sliced thin
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 eggs, separated
1 cup ricotta cheese
½ cup milk
½ cup unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ cup smoked Gouda

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add onion and ½ teaspoon salt. Sauté over medium heat until soft, approximately 5 minutes. Add corn and cayenne, and sauté until tender. Add jalapeno and lemon juice and heat. Set aside in a bowl to cool.

Beat egg whites into stiff peaks. In a medium bowl, combine yolks, ricotta and milk. Stir in flour, remaining ½ teaspoon salt and baking powder and mix. Add gouda and sautéed corn and onion mixture, and fold in egg whites. Spoon batter into a lightly oiled skillet over medium-high heat to make 3-inch cakes. Cook about 3 minutes on each side until golden brown.

Serves 4

Cheese-stuffed Phyllo Purses

2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
½ cup balsamic vinegar
¹₃ cup honey
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
4 phyllo pastry sheets
3 ounces sheep’s milk cheese, grated

Melt 1 tablespoon butter and oil in a nonstick pan over medium heat. Add onions and sugar, stirring about 30 minutes until caramel in color. Add vinegar and honey, and cook 10-15 minutes until thickened. Stir in thyme. Melt remaining butter. On a greased baking sheet, lay out a sheet of phyllo and brush with melted butter. Repeat with remaining 3 sheets. Cut into six 5-inch squares and spoon a small amount of onion mixture into the center of each. Top with cheese. Take opposite corners of each phyllo square and twist together. Place pockets on baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 12 minutes or until golden.

Serves 2-3

Red Pepper & Tomatillo Chutney

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
¼ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon black mustard seeds
2 dried red chili peppers
2 cups diced tomatillos
1 cup diced red bell pepper
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
¼ cup sugar
½ cup water
¼ cup white vinegar
½ teaspoon salt

Heat oil. When hot, add all seeds and heat until they pop. Add chili peppers, tomatillos, bell pepper, ginger and sugar. Mix well. Add water and vinegar

and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently for 30-35 minutes

until syrupy. Stir in salt. Discard chilis, and cool. Serve with cheese-stuffed phyllo purses.

Serves 2-3

Credits: Special thanks to Blackwell Botanicals and The Thompson Family.  English and French console tables from Kim Faison Antiques, Richmond.  “Origami” tablecloth and “Atable” napkin from Yves Delorme, Richmond. This article originally appeared in our April 2015 issue.

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