Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Cheese of the month- Sprout Creek Farm's “Rita”

Although I often complain about residing in Poughkeepsie, I cannot bypass that one huge perk is living near a cluster of fantastic farms. Since I’m passionate about eating local meat, produce, and dairy and supporting local farmers is a must, Poughkeepsie has become a really intriguing locale, at the epicenter of the “think global, eat local” initiative in New York. The area is ripe with lush, production-driven farmland. Although I often miss the bright, flashy city life, a big part of me loves being surrounded by small, homestead farms.

Of all local products worthy of discussion, I adore cheese beyond comprehension and in a perfect dream world devoid of cholesterol, I would eat only cheese, all day, every day. Lately I have been trying to up the ante with my cheese obsession and really take the bull by the horns, or in this case, take the cow by the utters and take advantage of my surroundings.

I’m fascinated with extremely small creameries that produce artisanal cheeses made with love, compassion, and creativity. One local gem is Sprout Creek Farm and I was lucky to have attended a cheese making class with Colin, a young, passionate, and fiercely intelligent cheese maker. A graduate of the Culinary Institute, he has the creative artistry of a chef and the calculated intelligence of a scientist, which made him a fascinating, well spoken teacher.

We got down and dirty in our class and by the time the session ended, I was halfway covered in a hearty helping of whey. During the session we learned about heating the milk to very specific temperatures in order to facilitate the fermentation of lactose to lactic acid. We watched as Colin added lactic starters and rennet (a veal enzyme) to the raw milk and observed as it turned from liquid to a gelatinous solid. We helped stir the pot, separating the curds and whey with heavy metal tools that looked better suited to a torture chamber. This breaks up the curd mass in order to release and separate the whey. Colin poured curds in molds and the two other students and I got to work, crumbling curds with our fingers and pushing them into the molds to form a solid mass.

In short, we bore witness to a simple vat of cow’s milk turning into a glorious, glimmering round of cheese (young maiden cheese, but cheese nonetheless). I was I could be more scientifically accurate in my description of the process, but it was my first introduction to the science and was a bit overwhelmed.

Colin was nice enough to prepare an educational (and scrumptious!) tasting in between stirs of the milk tank. He has recently added several cheeses to his repertoire and the farm now offers a vast selection that progress nicely in flavor and texture. You don’t even have to leave the farm to create a perfect cheese plate!

We tried washed rind, mold ripened, and bloomy-rind varieties. I went nuts for the “Rita.” We were under the impression that Colin or an equally whimsical compatriot named the cheese after a special lady-friend. But as it turns out, Rita is the alpha-cow in the barn. She’s a fierce creature, with an attitude to boot, and the little-known muse of the eponymous cheese!

Rita is a bloomy-rind cheese. A well known example of a bloomy-rind is brie and like brie, Rita has a creamy, pasty interior, with a soft, fluffy white rind. However, the deep center of the Rita has a silken, buttery texture that melts in your mouth. It dances on the tongue and provides a tangy, edgy finish.

I can’t get enough of Rita. I bought a round at the farm’s market and decimated almost the entire small wheel the same day. I can’t believe I just admitted that! Sprout Creek does not disappoint and Rita, the sexy, silken minx of cheese, has put a spell on my palate.