November is one of my favorite times of the cheese calendar, because it is a month of change for cheese makers. Truth is I have mixed emotions about this change. We are down to our last few batches of single herd goat cheese and the larger sheep's milk cheeses are beginning to appear. Some makers have finished making cow cheese and others are just beginning.
Some of our newer customers are surprised to hear about these seasonal changes. Too many consumers have been given the false impression that they can have any cheese they want any time they want it. In truth you can get renditions, well facsimiles, of types of cheese out of season, just as you can get tomatoes out of season. Yet, what a difference between a tomato harvested locally and ripened in August compared to one transported out of season from a commercial grower then ripened with steam in January. The pressure on cheese makers to produce, produce, produce is so enormous that it has changed the fate of many traditional cheeses. A consumer may discover a cheese in August or September and want it for Christmas, even if this would mean making it out of season. To this end, I know one cheese maker who, under pressure from consumers a few years ago, resorted to making cheese on powdered milk. This, however, is not common. Most cheese makers are passionate about the quality of their ingredients. The best people in the industry will go with the seasons.
I think I have the greatest customers in the world. If I say to them that such and such will be out of season in a few weeks, they accept it calmly, no matter how much they love the cheese. Eating great locally made foods is more important to them than having a branded food all year round, even if the brand represents an artisan cheese company. In fact, you can get into a lot of trouble by following only the brand (but that is the topic for another time).
By following the seasons you will be staying in touch with the great cheeses; for cheese, like all natural foods, is very much a product of its source. To put it simply, great cheese comes from great milk. Great milk in turn is a product of great feed, great pastures, careful animal husbandry as well as studious and considered cheese making and finishing. No shortcuts, no branding tricks, no additives, no cute labels will substitute for this.
The problem is that seasonal change can be highly individual. By putting the buck with the does or the rams with the ewes at different times of the year, the farmer can sometimes extend the season somewhat. Usually only the huge operations do this. In theory it is possible, if the herd is large enough, to produce cheese throughout the year. Most of the single estate, farmstead producers, however, use the winter to take a break and give their animals a rest. It is best to look forward to the drying off times, because even if they keep going, the winter feed is so dramatically different that one can almost immediately taste it in a cheese. Almost everywhere, the changing climate spells a change in quality, whether or not one recognizes it immediately. I know of several cow cheese producers that stopped producing cheese in the last several weeks, which is when the cows were taken off the pastures for the year. Why? The summer and autumn milk of cows on pasture is so sweet and complex, once you've tasted cheese made on it, you really don't want to go back.
The 'buck two step' is only one of many tactics that goat cheese makers use to get through the winter. Some producers will begin freezing curd from about September on to be used in December, January, February and March for making cheese. Others will shift away from 100 percent chevre making and reserve a portion of their September, October and November milk for cheeses that require more aging. They then will release these during the winter months. Still others will get a license to buy in milk and may buy in cow's milk from a local farm to produce a cow's milk cheese using chevre moulds. All practices are being used at the moment in California. However, among the best people in the industry the frozen curd tactic is seen as undesirable.
Here's a rough guide to the upcoming seasonal changes:
- Chevres made on the milk of small single herds will be disappearing in the next month or so throughout the northern areas of the country. Some may go as long as Christmas, but this is pushing it. Generally, if you are eating chevre for Christmas, it will be made on frozen curd. Chevres will appear again in April.
- Soft-ripened brebis (sheep's milk) from small producers have already ended. They are being replaced by larger ewe's milk cheeses, such as Vermont Shepherd and Bellwether Farm's San Andreas.
- Some cow cheeses that are made only on pastured milk have already stopped in the northern areas. Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Wisconsin is one example.
- Leaf wrapped cheeses, such as Sally Jackson's Goat Tomme and Sheep Tomme will be stopping in November. They will appear again in April. However, she got a late start with her new cow, so her newly named cow tomme, Renata, is likely to continue throughout the winter.
Generally, the washed rind cheeses are produced from November throughout the winter. Several Eastern farms are doing this.
Therefore a few raw milk cheese buying rules:
1. Avoid chevres from about mid-December.
2. Cow's milk soft ripened cheeses (brie style) should be at their best.
3. This is a good time for washed rind (surface ripened, if you will) made on cow or sheep's milk.
4. Go for the natural rind blues such as Stilton, the traditional Persilles (not those made up ones by Hevre Mons) of the Haut-Savoie, aged Gorgonzolas, and some Erborinatos. Not the best time for Roquefort or ones from that family.
5. 18 month cheddars should be perfect now, as will 9 month Double Gloucesters.
6. Many semi-soft cheeses with bloomy rinds or washes would taste good up to about the end of January.
About the Cheesemonger
John Raymond, previously the Cheese Manager at Dean & Deluca, St. Helena, spent 20 years in Europe working with traditional foods. He now runs his own wholesale and retail cheese operation, called Raymond & Co., in Glen Ellen, California.