For our 2017 list of The Best Cheeses of the Year, we turned our focus to the good ol’ US of A! Over the next few weeks, we’ll share our top picks for wedges and wheels in the Northeast, South, Midwest, and West. Find the best of what your area has to offer, explore what makes each cheese special, and learn what the experts pair it with.
Written by Amanda Rae Busch, Lynn Freehill-Maye, Seánan Forbes, Nicole Haase, Hannah Howard, Kristine Jannuzzi, Kara Kaminski-Killiany, Melissa Paesan, Bridget Shirvell, and Marimar Toledo.
Photographed by Evi Abeler | Styled By Kristin Stangl | Illustrated by Neal Aspinall
Old Chatham Sheepherding Company / Murray’s Cheese Old Chatham, N.Y. / New York, N.Y.
A blooming partnership between maker and affineur resulted in this riff on classic Corsican Fleur de Maquis. Made at Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, the fresh sheep’s milk wheels are shipped to Murray’s in Long Island City, where they’re coated with an aromatic blend of hop flowers and herbs and aged for three weeks in the on-site Natural Rind cave. The result is a woodsy, floral rind that complements a smooth, rich interior.
Murray’s VP of merchandising, Steve Millard, suggests a drizzle of New York wildflower honey and a crisp Finger Lakes riesling. Alternately, he might punch it up with pickled carrots or Rick’s Picks Smokra, okra pickled with smoked paprika.
Nettle Meadow Farm, Thurman, N.Y.
During an uneventful food show several years ago, Nettle Meadow co-owner Sheila Flanagan’s mind began wandering. “To keep myself entertained,” she says, “I was thinking about how I might add a creamy twist to our three-milk cheese.” The resulting pyramid—Briar Summit—combines milk from the farm’s own goats and sheep along with cow’s milk and cream from nearby Willow Marsh Farm.
In keeping with their reputation for unique flavorings, Flanagan and partner Lorraine Lambiase added raspberry leaf tea to the milk when pasteurizing. The bloomy rind isn’t fruity, but its lush creaminess carries whispers of the woods and herbal notes from the briar patch. New York’s Bedford Cheese Shop owner Charlotte Kamin appreciates the pyramid’s delicateness. “The infusion of tea is like a waft of flowers as opposed to an aggressive perfume,” she says, noting that it’s best savored without embellishment alongside an effervescent, traditional dry Champagne.
WINFIELD VALLEY VACHE
Penn Cheese, Winfield, Pa.
Named in playful reference to the fresh, tangy cheese we call chèvre (French for “goat”), Penn Cheese’s Vache (French for “cow”) is a mellow bovine version. Using milk sourced from local Amish farms, Penn Cheese blends the fresh, spreadable curds with a housemade orange-cranberry-apple chutney.
MAD RIVER BLUE
Von Trapp Farmstead, Waitsfield, Vt.
Cheesemaker Sebastian von Trapp’s grandparents founded their dairy in Vermont’s bucolic Mad River Valley in 1959. (And yes, his grandfather was the youngest boy in the von Trapp Family Singers of The Sound of Music fame, who settled in nearby Stowe.) Today, Sebastian’s parents milk 50 organic dairy cows, a herd bred for cheesemaking from Jersey, Ayrshire, Normande, and Montbéliarde stock. Raw-milk, natural-rind Mad River Blue was created to satisfy Sebastian’s obsession with blue cheese.
Mild and approachable after three months of aging, “it develops a little bit of caramel sweetness, a little anise spice, and some dark chocolate,” Sebastian says. He likes to spread it on a burger, eat it with figs and honey, or—best of all—crumble it on top of a hot dog alongside funky, spicy kimchi.
Jasper Hill Farm, Greensboro Bend, Vt.
Jasper Hill resurrected this phoenix from the ashes of a fire suffered by Ploughgate Creamery, an early collaborator of theirs. The disk’s creator, Marisa Mauro, later switched gears to make impeccable cultured butter, but her washed-rind beauty lives on. Rory Stamp and the crew at Dedalus Wine Shop, Market, and Wine Bar in Burlington, Vt., are big fans. “This pudgy little stinker is the closest analog we have to the coveted Reblochon from the Savoie,” Stamp says.
“In cooler months, Willoughby makes a brilliant tartiflette, broiled over roasted potatoes, leeks, and lardons with a glass of Mondeuse,” says Stamp. “In the summer, we let it ooze into a pancake (shape) and go at it with cornichons, potato chips, walnut Dijon, and some sparkling Gringet.”
CRÈME FRAÎCHE MADAGASCAR VANILLA
Vermont Creamery, Websterville, Vt.
After learning to make crème fraîche while interning on a farm in Brittany, France, 35 years ago, Vermont Creamery co-founder Allison Hooper went on to popularize the rich, lightly tangy classic stateside. Since members of the creamery’s team often found themselves sweetening the company’s plain Crème Fraîche, they decided to save themselves—and their customers—a few steps by adding just a touch of sugar and vanilla in two forms: pure vanilla extract and vanilla bean powder. The luxurious and velvety-smooth concoction can be dolloped on tarts, pies, or fresh fruit; whip it briefly beforehand for added loft. It’s also a standout ingredient in ice cream or pots de crème.
Grafton Village Cheese, Grafton, Vt.
An unusual venture for Vermont cheddar stalwart Grafton Village, Bear Hill is made with sheep’s milk sourced from Amish farmers at the foot of New York’s Adirondack Mountains. The cheese is reminiscent of an aged Pyrénées wheel like Abbaye de Belloc: a cooked-curd, dry-salted, washed-rind cheese that develops nuttiness and a springy bite to its semi-firm paste. Bear Hill stands out, says Janee’ Muha, cheese blogger and American Cheese Society competition judge. “If a cheese makes you do a happy dance in a food show full of cheese, you pay attention,” she says. “(It has) notes of caramel and cocoa nib with a nice round brothiness that lends a savory note.”+pair it Grafton Village cave manager Vince Razionale suggests serving Bear Hill alongside the mustard oil–spiked Pear Mostarda from Wisconsin–based Quince & Apple
GRETA’S FAIR HAVEN
Ruggles Hill Creamery, Hardwick, Mass.
Tricia Smith makes bloomy and natural-rind cheeses in an array of shapes and sizes using farmstead milk from a small herd of Oberhasli and Saanen goats—including a doe-eyed brunette named Greta. The granddaughter of the herd’s second queen, she produces some of the raw milk used to make Greta’s Fair Haven. Smith has been crafting this one-pound tomme-style disk with an herbaceous, peppery taste and a mottled surface since 2006; 2017 marks its second first-place win at the American Cheese Society Judging & Competition.
Consider Bardwell Farm / Crown Finish CavesWest Pawlet, Vt. / Brooklyn, N.Y.
For three years, the affineurs at Crown Finish Caves have been making waves with cheeses aged under the streets of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. For its collaboration with Vermont-based Consider Bardwell Farm, Crown Finish receives young versions of Goatlet, a wheel made with 20 percent raw goat’s milk and 80 percent raw cow’s milk, and ages them on wooden boards for four to six months in the historic lagering tunnel of the former Nassau Brewery. The resulting wheels have a lovely gray patterned surface, a firm paste, and a yogurt-like tang.
Spring Brook Farm, Reading, Vt.
According to Spring Brook Farm’s cheese program director Jeremy Stephenson, you know you’ve got a really great wheel of Tarentaise Reserve when its lingering taste sticks with you. He’s seen it firsthand while doing demos in supermarkets: “A customer walks by, and they don’t even want to look at you, but they grab a piece of cheese,” Stephenson says. The shopper hastily moves on, but in 10 minutes, the savory flavor—with hints of red fruit and butterscotch—has drawn her or him back, curious about what they tasted. “That tells us we’re doing our job,” Stephenson adds.
Liuzzi Cheese, Hamden, Conn.
The Liuzzi family has been making cheese for nearly two centuries, beginning in Noci, Italy, in the early 1800s and continuing in Hamden, Conn., since the early 1980s. This repeat award winner—with its homemade stracciatella tucked inside its mozzarella shell—expresses the clean, lactic flavor of fresh cow’s milk sourced from New York and Vermont.
Lively Run Goat Dairy, Interlaken, N.Y.
Growing up on a goat farm squeezed in between two of New York’s Finger Lakes, Pete Messmer has known the goat cheese business for as long as he can remember. After officially joining the Lively Run Goat Dairy team in 2010 and taking over as head cheesemaker from his mother, Suzanne, a few years later, Messmer oversaw the improvement of the farm’s aging facility. He also focused on perfecting and diversifying its existing line of cheeses, including this approachable, creamy natural-rind blue.
This year was the first time the 29-year-old entered any wheels into the American Cheese Society Judging & Competition. “I was nervous, but I felt good—especially because I’d put in so much work on Cayuga Blue over the last several years,” he says. Unable to attend the awards ceremony due to family obligations, Messmer was at a friend’s party when he heard Cayuga Blue had won a first place medal. “I started hooting and hollering, and the party soon devolved into a beer-soaked victory celebration,” he says. “I’m still basking in the afterglow…but already looking to next year and working to improve.”