Meet the makers of artisan cheeses from along the Wasatch Front.
by Scott Evans
Cheese had it out for me. Years of idealism ended in a single bite of aged cows' milk. After seven years of abstinence, Stoneground's classic bruschetta with paper-thin shavings of Parmesan cheese pushed me over the edge. Of course, the four-cheese pizza that also found its way to the table left me with longings not fit for a vegan. Bliss tainted with a hint of shame overcame me as I stuffed that two-inch piece of bread in my mouth. Five years have passed since that moment, yet the cheese is still melting in my mouth. Yes I was vegan, and yes, the cheese was worth it.
Pungent, hard or soft, foreign or domestic-and now local-cheese! In the past five years, several local cheeses edged their way onto select market shelves and restaurant menus. Beehive Cheese Company, Rockhill Creamery, Red Rock Cheese and Shepherd's Dairy are all making artisan cheese along the Wasatch Front. Inspired by these local cheeses, three recipes and some trivial rumination may help with the adjustment to early winter chills.
My first experience with local cheese began with a young goat cheese made at Shepherd's Dairy in Tooele. Each fall I salivate at the thought of a fall salad made famous by Wolfgang Puck at Spago.
Owner and cheesemaker Vaughn Oborb of Shepherd's Dairy is obsessed with quality. He sources his goat's milk primarily from Utah County, and in one instance, even purchased goats for a supplier to ensure the milk was up to his standards.
He is also committed to sustainable business practices. All the water used in washing the cheese and cleaning the shop comes from an artesian well on the property. He gives the whey left over from the cheesemaking process to neighboring farmers to help reclaim and naturally fertilize their soil.
After nearly 25 five years of making both artisan and commercial cheese, Vaughn was hired as the master cheesemaker for Shepherd's Dairy in 2000. By 2004, he had purchased the company and ultimately committed to artisan cheesemaking. He runs his company with his heart, similar to a chef-owned restaurant. No website or marketing campaigns here; Vaughn lets his cheese tell the story.
Neapolitan Shepherd's Goat Cheese
(serves two to three people)
2 medium-sized beets (1 red, 1 yellow or golden)
1 small package of Shepherd's Goat Cheese
aged or reduced* balsamic vinegar
toasted or candied walnuts
Ranui Wild Greens (arugula or spinach also work)
sea salt (grey salt or other rock salt preferred)
Pre-heat the oven to 350°. Peel beets, slice into quarter-inch-thick disks and spread thinly on baking sheet. Lightly drizzle with about a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and season with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Roast beets for 25-30 minutes or until tender. Remove from the oven to cool.
Place a handful of washed greens on each serving plate. Build a tower of alternating layers of red and yellow beets for each serving, using a butter knife to smear each layer with goat cheese "mortar." Place the tower on the plate, sprinkle with toasted or candied walnuts, and drizzle with aged or reduced balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.
For ease of eating, cut the tower into quarters, pizza-style. Top the tower with sunflower sprouts or a pinch of shredded greens.
To make a balsamic reduction: Heat 1 cup of balsamic vinegar in a saucepan over medium heat until about 1/4 c. or syrupy liquid remains, concentrating and deepening the flavor.
About a year ago I had the good fortune to meet Pat Ford from Beehive Cheese, when he made weekly deliveries to Zola. He brought wheels of young cheddar cheese along with small samples of their cheese experiments. One week it was their young Parmesan called Aggi, in honor of the college that lent the recipe. The following week, it was their espresso and lavender cheese Barely Buzzed, which won first place at the American Cheese Society Conference this year.
Another fun and popular cheese was their habanero-spiked Promontory Cheddar. We made a fantastic mac and cheese from the fiery cheese; the recipe below is adapted from our original Zola/Salt Lake Brewing Company recipe.
Local Cheddar Mac and Cheese
(serves two to three)
8 oz. (1/2 bag) orecchiette pasta
2 T. butter
2 T. all-purpose flour
2 c. milk
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 c. shredded Beehive Promontory Cheddar (habenero cheddar if available)
fresh ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375°. In a large pot, cook the pasta in rapidly boiling salted water until it is tender (about 7-8 minutes). Drain the pasta.
While the pasta cooks, heat the milk in a saucepan over medium heat until bubbles form around the edge of the pan. In another pan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the sliced garlic and heat slowly until it begins to change color, then remove it from the butter.
Return the butter to the heat, and whisk the flour into it until the mixture is smooth (it takes about 2 minutes). Whisking constantly, ladle warm milk into the mixture half a cup at a time until it is fully incorporated. Continue whisking until the mixture comes to a boil (about 8 minutes). Add the cheese and whisk until smooth. Remove from heat. Add the cooked pasta, salt, and pepper and stir until well-mixed.
Place the pasta and cheese sauce in an oven-proof dish and top it with breadcrumbs. Bake 10 to 20 minutes until breadcrumbs are crisp and the cheese sauce is bubbly.
With all my self-proclaimed culinary inclinations, I have succeeded only in passing on my love of cheese to my three-year-old daughter. Her favorites are aged crumbly cheddar such as a Comte, and the real deal Parmeggianno Reggiano. Our weekly trips to Liberty Heights Fresh often end with her doing a couple of drive-bys in the cheese aisle and stashing exotic cheeses into our basket. Just like my daughter, I lean towards aged cheeses for à la carte eating.
Rockhill Creamery in Richmond, has a very nice Snow Canyon Edam cheese with six months of age on it. I would certainly love to taste it in a couple more years as well, but it is already showing signs of depth and grassiness imparted from the five Brown Swiss Cows that nibble up the grasses around their farm. With "the girls" lovingly raised on their farm, Cheesemakers Jenn Hines and Pete Schropp can ensure that their fresh milk and cheese is produced sustainably. Similar to most European cheesemakers, they choose to use raw or unpastuerized milk in their cheese making. They believe a deeper flavor is present in cheese made from raw milk.
Red Rock Specialty Cheese Company
A true family operation, Red Rock Specialty Cheese Company is run by Kay "Doc" Nilson and his sons Jon and Brad. With countless years of cheese making experience among them, the Nilsons reunited in Delta, Utah, to make goat's milk feta and whole milk ricotta. Red Rock feta is great in Mediterranean salads or on a cheese plate as well.
What's for dessert?
At the end of any meal, a restaurant patron is faced with many decisions. Call it a night and ask for the check? Dessert? Cappuccino? An often overlooked savory dessert, and my choice, is a cheese plate. At home or in a restaurant, a cheese tray can really end the meal well. Several slices of cheese into a conversation with cheesemonger Jonathan Simpson at Liberty Heights Fresh, we decided to feature a cheese plate from all four artisans featured in this article as a dessert course.
A cheese plate can be arranged many ways. The traditional approach is to place the mildest cheese at 12 o' clock on the plate and go clockwise around the plate to the stronger cheeses and flavors. This allows tasting the subtlety of the milder cheeses first and working the palate up to the bolder flavors at the end of the tasting.
Local Cheese Plate
1. Red Rock Specialty Cheese Company Goat Milk Feta
Semi-soft, crumbly, with prominent salty, briny flavors, this cheese is made from goat's milk rather than cow's milk. It imparts an earthier flavor profile than its counterparts.
2. Shepherd's Dairy Goat Cheese
This semi-soft cheese has a smooth, fresh, slightly nutty flavor with a hint of earthiness.
3. Rockhill Creamery Wasatch Gruyere
A semi-hard cheese made with raw cow's milk. It's aged 60 days and has a fruity, nutty, slightly grassy flavor.
4. Beehive Cheese Company "Barely Buzzed" Espresso- Lavender Cheddar
This semi-hard, full-bodied cow's milk cheddar has nutty and earthy, floral, butterscotch and caramel flavors coming through the coffee rub.
Add a bunch of grapes on the plate for the full experience. Eating a grape or two between cheeses clears the palate and allows the unique attributes of each cheese to come forth.
Although each of these cheese makers came to their craft in different ways, all have integrity of product and a passion for doing things right. Cheese is one of many products that simply taste better when made in small batches. When machines take over the production process, the quality and subtlety declines. All these incredibly hardworking cheese artisans utilize sustainable practices in their cheese making. No growth hormones, additives or artificial colors are found in any of their cheeses.
The seven years I spent in culinary abstinence forced me to look at food critically. I learned to determine where my food came from and what it was made of. Without those critical years, I may have never developed an appreciation for artisan food. It always comes down to two things: source and flavor. Food with full flavor that comes from a sustainable source is like manna from above.
Scott Evans is a manager and liquor buyer at Squatters.
The featured artisan cheeses are at these Salt Lake city stores:
Liberty Heights Fresh
1242 S. 1100 E.; 467-2434
314 W. 300 S., 519-5754
2050 E. 6200 S., 272-1212
Wild Oats Marketplaces
645 E. 400 S., 355-7401
1192 E. Wilmington Ave.,