Hummingbird is a delicate disc of Robiola-style cheese from Doe Run Dairy in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. Kristian Holbrook is the head cheesemaker at Doe Run Farm —his wife Haesel Charlesworth, manages the fruit and vegetable farming — but Doe Run is the passion project of Urban Outfitter’s founder Dick Haynes, who long had a desire to get into farming and saw an opportunity when the historic Doe Run farm came up for sale just as he was pulling back from the $2 Billion clothing business, first started as a single clothing shop in the 70’s, catering to Pittsburgh’s countercultural crowd. Doe Run is a sustainable, organic farm, with the cows, sheep and goats rotationally grazed on the 700 acres.
The creamery opened just a couple years ago, but the farm is much more than just a cheesemaking operation, with vegetables, horticultural gardens, massive greenhouses growing ornamental flowers, and more. You can read a detailed profile of Haynes and Doe Run at MainlineToday.com. Kristian has a culinary background, and is graduate of the New England Culinary Institute and a former chef at Green Seasons, outside of Pittsburgh.
Like many Robiolas, the Hummingbird is a mixed-milk cheese, made with Jersey cow and East Friesian ewe’s milk. Inspired by the likes of Robiola Bosina and Robiola Due Latte, the wheels are thin, only 3/4” high perhaps, with an elongated oval shape, akin to an oversized bay leaf. The rind is paper thin and pillowy to the touch, pinkish-orange with a white veil of mold and occasional tiny patches of blue. As soon as you cut it open, the ivory paste begins to ooze out of the thin rind, the interior molten at room temperature. The aroma is lightly fungal, with notes of wet hay.
In flavor the Hummingbird is buttery, unctuous and herbaceous, milky-sweet and with a nice salt balance, with subtle but distinct barnyard and lanolin notes on the finish.
I’m a big fan of Robiola’s, so discovering this American-made version is a pleasant surprise. (I probably shouldn’t share this, but you can see my own experiments with a Robiola recipe, which were…not exactly successful, so I appreciate it even more when it’s well-done, as with the Hummingbird).
Cravanzina, made by Caseificio dell’Alta Langa, hails from the Alta Langa region of Southern Piedmont. Caseificio dell’Alta Langa produces a variety of cheeses with a particular talent for Robiola’s, including the Robiola Bosina. The Cravanzina, like many Robiola’s, is a mixed-milk cheese, made with sheep and cow’s milk and is a relatively new invention inspired by Paglierina, a traditional Alta Langa cheese, whose name derives from their aging on straw, or “paglia”.
The wheel is soft and giving to the touch, with a delicate, impressively thin rind, a veil of white over the exterior. The paste is ivory-yellow and lightly eyed, oozing and bulging as it warms. The aroma is light and milky with fungal notes, and in flavor this is a very mild, buttery, easy-eating cheese. This is not to say it’s boring however; it has a wonderful creaminess and silky mouthfeel, with mushroomy, earthy flavors and hints of hay and buttermilk. An excellent cheese for early in the wheel of your cheese plate.
Purchased at Olde Hudson.
The Washed Rind Wheel from Twig Farm is a “sometimes” mixed-milk cheese, according to the cheesemakers Michael and Emily Lee. Michael earned his cheese stripes working at Formaggio Kitchen and apprenticing at Peaked Mountain Farm before he and his wife found land for their own farm. Twig Farm, based in Cornwall, VT, near Middlebury, has a small herd of 30 or so goats — mostly Alpine, with a few Nubians and Saanens thrown in for good measure — and the raw goat’s milk from their herd always goes into the Washed Wheel. Sometimes, though, raw cow’s milk from neighboring Joe Severy’s organic dairy goes into the vat as well, so depending on which version you get and what the mix is, it may fall somewhere different on the cow-goat spectrum. The cheese is then aged for 80+ days and washed with a whey brine.
The wheel has a reddish/orange, sticky rind, lightly speckled with gray-green spots. The paste is semi-soft and custardy, with a scattering of eyes, softening and drooping on the board as it warms. The aroma is earthy and a little bit barnyardy, with a full, meaty flavor, a little bit tangy and floral, tending towards the mild, sweet side, without the assertiveness or bite you’d expect from a full-goat washed rind, which leads me to assume this was a mixed-milk wheel (I forgot to ask the cheesemonger). This would be an excellent cheese to pair with beer.
From the Adirondack region of upstate New York, comes Kunik, courtesy of Nettle Meadow Goat Farm and cheesemaker Sheila Flanagan.
A mixed-milk triple-creme, the Kunik is a blend of goat’s milk and the cream of Jersey cows, resulting in a decadent, lush white molded experience. The fat globules in goat’s milk are naturally much smaller than in cow’s milk, which means that the fat is naturally homogenized. This makes it extremely challenging to separate out the cream (you cant just pop it in the fridge and wait for the cream to separate, like cow’s milk), so pure goat’s milk triple-cremes are rare. Fortunately, as Nettle Meadow discovered, you can use cow’s milk cream to bring up the butterfat content of your goat’s milk, allowing you to bring the flavor characteristics of a goat’s milk cheese together with the delightful excess of a triple-creme.
In order to be classified as a triple-creme, a cheese must have at least 75% butterfat content. Just to be clear though, that means 75% in the “dry matter” of the cheese, so the actual fat content, once you factor in the high moisture content of a soft cheese like this, actually clocks in closer to 40%. Butter comes in at between 80-86% total fat, as a point of comparison. And to put it in perspective, a 1” cube of Parmaggiano or other hard cheese would actually have a higher fat content than a 1” cube of a triple-creme, because the moisture content of such a cheese is WAY lower, so you’re getting concentrated dry matter.
All of which is to say, don’t let that “triple cream” labeling freak you out! If you’re eating cheese at all, a triple-creme is only marginally higher (and sometimes lower) in fat than most of the other cheeses you’re eating.
If you want to learn more about what exactly makes a cheese a triple-creme (or double-creme), Formaggio Kitchen’s blog has an in-depth post on the subject that’s worth a read.
This Kunik was soft to the touch, the liquid, oozing creamline surrounding a slightly firmer core. This is a cheese that develops complexity as it ages, so go for the older wheels if you can, when the inside has started to really ripen and become molten. With a musty, milky aroma, the moist, velvety paste is tangy, mushroomy and mineral with a buttery, decadent pungency and mouthfeel.
Purchased at Murray’s Cheese.
A cheese that needs little introduction at this point: The Flagsheep from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, winner of the Best In Show ribbon at this year’s American Cheese Society “Cheese Rally in Raleigh”, which took place in Raleigh, NC in early August. Although I’d had — and enjoyed tremendously — Flagsheep previously, this particular wedge came from the batch that took Beecher’s to cheese-world glory. I had tried it at the Festival of Cheese in Raleigh (you can see the ribboned wheels in that blurry third photo above), but by the time I’d gotten around to it, my taste buds were pretty much blown out after consuming easily over a hundred other cheeses, so I was happy to get another chance to experience it properly and in a civilized manner.
Flagsheep is a hard aged clothbound made with a mix of cow and sheep’s milk cheese (Beecher’s signature “Flagship” cheeses are pure cow, hence the name). Unlike many of the past winners of the Best in Show ribbon (Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Rogue River Blue) — and despite being aged well beyond the 60-day limit — Flagsheep is made with pasteurized milk. The cheese has clearly not suffered from it, an accomplishment of its own.
The cheese is a clothbound wheel, with the texture, firmness and dryness of an aged cow’s milk clothbound cheddar, with a tendency to break into long, flaky shards when cut; at the same time it has the surface oils one associates with sheep’s milk cheeses like Manchego. The paste is scattered with “flavor crystals”, aka the little pockmarks of crystallized amino acids that develop in hard cheeses as they age. The flavor is deep and complex, sweet and salty, grassy and meaty and with a balanced sharpness and notes of caramel, lanolin and toasted nuts. Despite the sharp and sheepy flavors it has a mellow and sweet finish.
This is an excellent cheese, and well deserving of the honor, especially when one considers that they’ve only been making the Flagsheep for a few years now. Sadly though, it could be hard to get your hands on in the near future — as one Beecher’s team member told me during the Festival, they had somewhere in the neighborhood of only 20 wheels of the Flagsheep on hand when the award was announced. Needless to say, those will probably all end up at Beecher’s two locations in Seattle and NYC, and are not available online. But we can assume that Beecher’s will be sharply upping the output of the Flagsheep in the near future, and perhaps even adding it to the production line at the NYC location (currently it’s only made on the West Coast by cheese maker Brad Sinko).
Purchased at Beecher’s NY.
(Update: Flagsheep was recently featured in a New York Times piece.)
Amarelo da Beira Baixa (translation: “Yellow cheese from the lower Beira”) is a Portuguese sheep and goat’s mixed milk semi-firm cheese. Unlike many Iberian cheeses, it is made using animal rennet rather than vegetable coagulants like those derived from thistle, and yet it still has a subtle bitterness in the flavor that one associates with those cheeses, which I found interesting.
With a semi-soft, creamy paste, mild in flavor and aroma, it has a slightly sour, yeasty flavor with a nice earthiness and nuttiness and only a hint of lanolin from the sheep’s milk. The sheep and goat seem to balance each other well, neither dominating the cheese and producing a mellow final result.
(By the way, if you’re wondering why I called it “thistle coagulant” when it’s often called “thistle rennet”: during my class at VIAC I was corrected on this, as apparently only Animal Rennet is labeled as such, the rest are coagulants of one kind or another which have just been short-handed to “rennet”.)
Purchased at Fairway Red Hook.
Sometimes, the cheese comes out great. And sometimes…not so much. Exhibit A: My latest batch of a “Robiola” style cheese, based on the recipe from Artisan Cheesemaking at Home.
The rind of the cheese has the trademark geotrichum brainy wrinkles to it, as well as the orange-pink hue common to Robiolas, so from the outside it didn’t look so bad. But if you’ve ever had a Robiola (and there are actually quite a few different varieties so I shouldn’t be using it as a blanket term, but imagine a Robiola Bosina and you can see what I was hoping for), you’ll know that it is generally soft and bordering on custardy on the inside, similar in texture to a Taleggio. Indeed, the recipe said that at 3-4 weeks it would be “very ripe, and barely contained by the thin rind”. Sadly, as I suspected as I inspected the wheels during their daily turns and gave them a light squeeze with my fingers, the inside just never went soft, maintaining a hard consistency even as the rind ripened and wrinkled around it. I inserted a tryer at 3 weeks (you can see the scars from that running through the middle) and had my fears confirmed, but kept the wheel in the fridge for a while longer, in the hopes that additional time would engender the desired transformation.
As the pictures show, however, there was no such magical change. On cutting the wheel open, I found a thin layer of custardy paste just under the rind, but beyond that it was hard and chalky, and not in a good way. the rind and creamline layer didn’t taste bad actually, but the hard interior was bland and sour. As the pictures show, there was also some wicked slip-skin. Needless to say, these wheels went in the trash.
So what went wrong? hard to know. The milk used was 50/50 Raw Cow/Pasteurized Goat, and I’m not sure if mixing raw and pasteurized might produced unexpected results. The recipe was for all pasteurized, so the raw milk could have thrown it off. I cut back on the Calcium Chloride called for in the recipe but perhaps should have left it out altogether.
The wheel was also taller than expected. The recipe called for a full-sized camembert mold but I had two smaller, so it’s possible the cheese ended up too thick height-wise for the salt to penetrate or for it to ripen properly.
Finally, the humidity could have been too low. I went with the leaf-wrapped variety of the recipe, substituting cheese paper for cabbage leafs, because it called for 80% humidity rather than 92-95%, but its possible that there just wasnt enough moisture in the environment for these wheels.
So, live and learn, and hopefully produce a better Robiola next time! (And just to be clear, I dont blame the recipe. Other recipes from the same book have turned out well so it’s a safe bet it’s user error in this case.)
Latest cheesemaking adventure: a Robiola-style mixed-milk cheese, made with 50/50 raw Cow’s milk and Pasteurized Goat. This is right when it came out of 30 hours at 77ºF/90% Humidity and is going into 55º/90%. 2 Gallons gave me two wheels made in small Camembert molds plus a couple of mini wheels made in soft cheese molds.