When Jos Vulto opens the door to his hidden-in-plain-sight creamery in Walton, N.Y., he’s barefoot, wearing rolled-up jeans and a long, white smock. A large gold hoop, hanging from one ear, is almost obscured by his long beard and the hairnet covering his head. Vulto, 56, started making cheese in his Brooklyn apartment in 2008. Today he splits his time between his Crown Heights home and his Walton workshop in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, where he produces cheese three times a week.
Of the five Vulto Creamery cheeses currently on the market, Miranda is perhaps his best known. A petite, peachy-pink wheel that resembles a corduroy tuffet, the cheese is named for Vulto’s late wife, who died after a two-year bout with cancer in late 2012. “She asked me to name a cheese after her,” he says. “And I knew she wouldn’t want to be named after a big cheese.” This small washed rind was fitting, he says, “because it’s pretty. Pretty and delicate.”
Jos Vulto visits with the cows at his milk supplier Rolling Ridge Dairy in Delhi, N.Y.
Originally from Holland, Vulto came to the United States in 1990 on a Dutch government–sponsored grant. For two years he was an artist-in-residence at P.S. 1, the famed contemporary art center in New York City, and by the time his grant ran out, Vulto had decided to stay. He met his wife, Miranda, at P.S. 1, where she worked in the office, and they married and moved on—she studied to become a social worker, and he landed in architectural metalworking. Their son, Iskander, was born in 1997.
While at P.S. 1, Vulto’s medium was smoke. He wrapped empty buildings in cloth and built contained fires of sawdust and hay inside. When the interior started smoking, the cloth would absorb an imprint of the building. He called this “rooking,” a play on the Dutch word for smoke.
Years later, when he became interested in cheesemaking, Vulto found many parallels between making art and making cheese, he says. Both require the mastery of a process through repetition, and both turn organic material into something different altogether through a specific series of steps. “In many ways cheesemaking is a logical extension of what I did with my art,” he says. “In the artwork it was about the fabric transforming … through the [“rooking”] process. With cheese, it’s the magical transformation from fluid milk into this other substance.”
Vulto and employee Marc Peters check the vat.
Vulto started making cheese in early 2008, documenting his process on his now-defunct blog (heinennellie.blogspot.com) and gathering feedback from friends and cheesemongers in Brooklyn’s emerging artisan cheese community. By mid-2009 a larger plan was taking shape. Vulto was looking for a career more creative than metalworking, and he and Miranda had recently purchased a fixer-upper farmhouse in Walton. “I wanted to spend more time there, and create something to make a living,” he says. “Cheese seemed to be realistic.”
With his wife’s encouragement, Vulto dove even deeper into cheesemaking. He created batch after batch of all styles of cheese—from washed rinds to goat’s milk blues and various tommes—painstakingly recording his progress. He attended a workshop with respected cheesemaker and consultant Peter Dixon and absorbed as much information as he could from books and the web.
By the time he was aging a few hundred pounds of cheese at a time in the basement crawlspace of his Brooklyn metalworking studio, Vulto was a legend in the local cheese community. While a member of an amateur cheesemaking club, he made prototypes for his first commercial wheels, Walton Umber and Ouleout. His creations stood out among those made by his fellow hobbyists, says cheese writer Matt Spiegler, another club member. “The profiles, in terms of flavor, texture, paste, and rind development, were already impressive,” Spiegler adds. “Some cheesemakers have an intuitive understanding of the milk and its personality and potential, and Jos is one of those people.”
Once he set his mind on becoming a professional cheesemaker, speed was essential, Vulto says. “When I started, I thought, I have to be pretty bold,” he says. “I knew I wanted to succeed quickly, so I couldn’t hold back.” In 2010 he started building the Walton creamery in a low-slung warehouse just outside downtown. That same year Miranda was diagnosed with colon cancer; construction slowed while he cared for his wife during her illness. But he continued going upstate to work on the creamery space a few days a week and received a license to make cheese in Walton just months before Miranda’s death in December 2012. He began production in earnest the following spring.
It was a tough time, but “Miranda had always emphasized not giving up, to keep going no matter what happened [with her health],” Vulto says. And focusing on the creamery “helped me figure out a new beginning,” he says.
Cheeses age in Vulto Creamery’s cave.
Of Vulto’s five cheeses, three—Miranda, washed-rind Ouleout, and Tomme de Savoie–inspired Hamden—are made from the same vat of raw Jersey cow’s milk from Rolling Ridge Dairy in nearby Delhi. Vulto and his three part-time employees heat and culture the milk, then add rennet. Once the curds form, the team partially drains off most of the whey (the curds are still suspended in some whey) and pours the curds into molds for Miranda and Ouleout. The rest of the whey is then drained, and Hamden is molded and pressed from the remaining drier curds.
When Vulto started creating Miranda in 2012, his aim (as with all of his cheeses) was to make something that evoked his immediate geography—only after developing the cheese did he realize it would be the right one to name for his wife. During aging, the cheese is washed with Meadow of Love absinthe, made by Delaware Phoenix Distillery (down the street from the creamery) from a variety of herbs, many grown in New York State. “I wanted something hyperlocal,” Vulto says. “Plus the name was fitting: Miranda and Meadow of Love.”
Vulto applies the absinthe to the wheels twice a week for six more weeks as they age. After two months the eight-ounce rounds are ready for sale. Beneath the pungent exterior are warm, woodsy aromas reminiscent of the spirit. “When Miranda is at its best, the influence of the absinthe wash is forward without being overwhelming,” Spiegler says. “The flavor is a complex but well-balanced swirl of brothy, meaty, and earthy, with nutty and grassy notes and a hint of fried onions on top.”
These days Vulto is focused on getting his cheeses in front of more people. When he started working with Rolling Ridge Dairy this past spring, he upped his weekly milk supply from 3,500 pounds to 5,000 pounds, increasing his cheese production. Now that Vulto is working with distributors, his cheeses can be found beyond their original New York borough. And while he’s committed to building his business in Walton, Vulto put the farmhouse renovations on the back burner when Miranda died and still hasn’t decided whether he wants to live there full-time. One thing that is certain: “I am sure Miranda would be amazed, very proud and happy of what I have accomplished,” he says. “I often wish I could have shared this with her.”
Miranda rounds age on shelves
An absinthe-based cocktail is a lovely match for Miranda, highlighting the cheese’s woodsy and smoky notes. And following the old “what grows together, goes together” adage, try Miranda with a dry New York State hard cider (we like Eve’s Cidery), or a cabernet franc from the Finger Lakes region, such as one from Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard.
- Cheese Plus: 2001 Polk St. San Francisco, CA (415.921.2001)
- Milkfarm: 2106 Colorado Blvd. Los Angeles, CA (323.892.1068)
- Darien Cheese and Fine Foods: 25 Old Kings Hwy., Ste. 10 Darien, CT (203.655.4344)
- Cheesemongers of Santa Fe: 130 E. Marcy St. Santa Fe, NM (505.795.7878)
- Bedford Cheese Shop: 265 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, NY (718.599.7588) and 67 Irving Pl. New York, NY (718.599.7588)
- Orrman’s Cheese Shop: 224 E. 7th St. Charlotte, NC (980.226.3025)
- East End Food Co-op: 7516 Meade St. Pittsburgh, PA (412.242.3598)