For some people, the summer solstice signals the true start of the season, but for Sophie Slesinger, it’s the release of Grayson cheese. “It’s the kind of thing cheese mongers get excited about,” says Slesinger, the cheese specialist at Blue Duck Tavern in Foggy Bottom. “You’ll hear everyone buzzing about it: ‘It’s June. Grayson’s coming back!’ ”
Grayson, made in the mountains of southwestern Virginia by Meadow Creek Dairy, is just one of many cheeses from across the country that true turophiles long for as spring turns into summer. Such cheeses are made in the Alpine tradition from the milk of cows, sheep and goats that have been released into their summer pastures to munch on fresh grass, clover, wild onions and dandelions galore. The result is often lighter in flavor and texture than its counterpart from wintertime, when the same animals are living a more sedentary life, feasting on dried hay in warm barns and producing milk with a higher fat content.
“Cheese is an agricultural product like anything else, which means it’s seasonal,” says Slesinger. “Americans are now starting to realize what everybody else already knew.”
“Everybody else” is, of course, Europeans, particularly those in Switzerland, France and Italy, where cheesemaking is a highly revered art form on the same level as winemaking, often protected by designation-of-origin standards. True Roquefort, for instance, can be made only from the milk of certain breeds of sheep and aged only in the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, but Americans aren’t quite that fussy — at least not yet.
“The idea of terroir is now coming up when we talk about American cheese,” says Lisa Hviding, a self-described “curd nerd” and head cheesemonger at Sona Creamery on Capitol Hill who was Slesinger’s predecessor at Blue Duck Tavern. “And when you consider that all cheese is basically made with the same four ingredients [milk, cultures, rennet and salt], but they are all still so different, it starts to make sense.”
Zoe Brickley of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vt., believes that terroir — the way in which the natural environment of a place is said to provide a unique flavor to locally grown food — can be a critical factor for cheese made from spring or summer milk, like Meadow Creek’s Grayson or Jasper Hill’s own widely acclaimed Willoughby. “Pastured dairies are distilling the local landscape into the cheese,” she says. “The people, the landscape, the cows, the microbes: They all come together.”
At Meadow Creek, that means the Feete family doesn’t make cheese after Christmas, giving the cows a vacation until milk production picks up again after calving season begins in March. “When we first started the dairy, we were very committed to building a sustainable farming system,” says Kat Feete, whose parents opened the farm in the 1980s. “Sustainable led us to grass, and grass led us to seasonal, a system where all the cows calve in the spring, when the grass is plentiful, and go into their dry period in the hard winter months.” The Feetes became interested in Alpine transhumance — turning the livestock out to pasture — as a method for producing high-quality cheese, and once they started following the same tradition, they agreed with the Europeans: “Cheese made while the cows were on grass was better cheese,” asserts Feete. “It’s all part of the big picture for us: a sustainable system that matches the natural cycle of the pastures to the natural cycle of the cows and, in the process, gives us superior cheese.”
But how can you tell if it’s a summer cheese? With cow’s milk cheese, the first clue is visual, says Sona Creamery’s Hviding: “You’re looking for a rich yellow interior, which is achieved from all the beta carotene coming out of what the cows are grazing on in the meadows and pastures, with a dense, buttery texture.”
Meadow Creek’s Feete sees a change throughout the season, not only in the lactation cycle of the cows but also in the nature of the grass itself and how that affects the milk: The lush, fast-growing grass of springtime translates to a bright lactic cheese with clean flavors, while the drier, more concentrated grass of high summer creates more complex flavors. The Grayson cheese, made with spring milk, is what Hviding calls “puppy breath” cheese: “A little bit stinky, but in a good way.”
At Vermont Shepherd’s operations in Putney, Vt., owner David Major theorizes that the milk and cheese made in late spring and early summer are the most flavorful because his sheep are grazing on grasses and flowers that are in full bloom and then going to seed. “As I pour milk into the vat at the beginning of cheesemaking, I can often smell a whiff of whatever is in bloom this time of year, whether it be dandelion, yarrow, mints, tansy,” he says. “If you want cheeses that truly reflect the season, buy cheese that comes from animals that are grazing.”
Major makes just two cheeses: Verano, an earthy, herbaceous hard cheese made from spring milk and released in August; and Invierno, a full-flavored variety made with a mixture of sheep and cow’s milk that is produced during summer and aged until early winter. Some would say that sheep’s milk cheese is perhaps the most seasonal of cheeses, simply because, unlike cows — and goats to some extent — sheep make milk only during warm weather to coincide with lambing, which is why many mongers will feature a classic fresh sheep’s milk feta on cheese boards in the summer.
At Lively Run Goat Dairy in New York’s Finger Lakes region, owner Peter Messmer finds that seasonal cheese is deeply intertwined with the animals’ breeding patterns. “The natural breeding season for goats begins in the autumn and lasts until spring,” says Messmer. “This cycle means that most goat dairies reliant on a single herd of goats have to deal with a period of two months of no milk production, which can be very challenging, because customers want cheese in February as well as in June.”
The solution at Lively Run has been to stagger breeding slightly among several herds of goats, creating a shorter dry period during the winter and giving Messmer an opportunity to observe up close the difference between goat’s milk cheese made during different seasons. “It is very interesting to compare the same cheese made in the winter with cheese made in the summer,” he says. “Our Cayuga Blue during the winter is a much more intense cheese: The blue mold is stronger, more fungal, almost truffle-like, creamier because of the higher fat content, and a bit more goaty. Cayuga Blue in the summer, by comparison, is more portobello mushroomy than truffle-like; the texture crumbly rather than creamy; the flavor less goaty and brighter.”
At Sona Creamery, the tangy house-made chevre is a summer staple and, when blended with fresh dill and red onion, makes for a welcome change from standard cream cheese to schmear on a Sunday morning bagel. “A really fresh goat cheese is clean and light,” says Hviding. “You want to look for a bright white color.” When seeking to up the ante on grilled burgers, Slesinger at Blue Duck Tavern likes Cabra La Mancha, a raclette-like goat’s milk cheese from FireFly Farms in Maryland that won first place for washed-rind goat’s milk cheeses in the 2014 American Cheese Society Competition.
As summer cheese begins to make its appearance, cheesemongers showcase the fresh, grassy flavors of the season by building cheese boards that include at least one cow, one goat and one sheep cheese and complementing them with seasonal fruits, vegetables and herbs. Slesinger adds quick-pickled cucumbers, summer squash and onions, honey-accented candied apricots and grilled bread. “The cheese is your centerpiece, then you build out from there,” she says. “I know everyone thinks of wine to go with a cheese board, but I like to pair it with beer, something crisp and seasonal. What could be better than pickled vegetables and cold beer with fresh cheese on a warm summer evening?”
With a little practice, you might even catch a whiff of clover in your next bite.
Hartke is a Washington-based food writer and editor. On Twitter: @khartke.