Cheese stipends bearing fruit

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Dave and Terry Rice of Clover Creek Creamery, makers of a range of cow's milk cheeses in Blair County, are known for "Pirate Blue. " This is a pungent, natural rind blue with a serious following. Gutsy enough to bring to mind the Spanish Cabrales, it is at its peak and wildly good "for about three weeks," and then, exasperatingly, Mr. Rice says, "it falls apart."

When colder temps slow the milking season, the Rices will be one of three local cheesemakers, owners of farmstead creameries in three Western Pennsylvania counties, who will fly away from their farms, crossing oceans and even equators, to seek training they believe will take their skills to the next level.

The Rices are going to Argentina, 200 miles north of Buenos Aires, taking up with cheesemaker Pablo Battro, to see how in the heck they can get their blue to store for longer periods of time, a serious issue when you live hours from your major market.

Costs for the traveling cheesemakers -- the other two are going to Canada and to France -- will be partly underwritten by a $2,500 stipend each received for a winning essay, "Why Training Me Will Mean Better Cheese for Pittsburgh," in Slow Food Pittsburgh's annual competition.

Most of this year's money was raised, as it was last year, by a sous chefs dinner fundraiser, hosted at Legume Bistro.

The Rices found Mr. Battro through his son Mariano Battro, a cheesemaker, owner of La Mariposa in Oregon, who in turn is a friend of Gianaclis Caldwell, author of "Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking," who taught a PASA-sponsored cheesemaking class in State College that the Rices attended.

Why go so far? "We connected with Pablo's practicality and reputation for helping cheesemakers take what they are already doing well and make it better," says Dave Rice. Also the couple lived in Honduras in their early married years -- their son was born there-- and are "pretty much at home" with Spanish.

A $2,500 stipend is barely airfare for the South American mission, and it won't cover all expenses for the project undertaken by last year's winner, Amish dairyman Sam Byler.

But if the dividends beginning to appear from the Clarion County cheesemaker's decision to add sheep cheeses to his line of goat milk products are any hint of the future, a modest investment may be the gift that keeps giving.

Mr. Byler brought in a herd of sheep last year, boarding them at his friend Aaron Schwartz's farm, and worked with a well-known consultant to make the transition to sheep milk cheese.

Last Saturday, Farmers@Firehouse marketgoers got first dibs on the two new sheep cheeses on the market. They are also available at the PA Made Cheese stand at the Farmers' Market Co-operative of East Libery.

The halloumi, a firm, white Greek-style cheese, is a blend of sheep and goat milk, with a magical ability to resist melting.

In the market demo tent, kids cooking teachers Rosemarie Perla and Kelsey Weisgerber were laying strips of it in a hot ridge pan where they earned tasty brown stripes and then were spritzed with lemon and dusted with fresh oregano.

The fragrance drew people with demands of, "What is that?" They tasted and were sent a few tents down to the PA Made stand where they could buy the halloumi and taste Mr. Byler's second new sheep cheese, an aged pecorino type, soft enough for nibbling but perfect to grate on salad or pasta.

Melanie and Mark Bachman of God's Country Creamery, abutting the New York state border in Potter County, led off their winning scholarship essay with: "Age is of no importance unless you are a cheese," quoting 19th-century statesman Edmond Burke.

The family repertoire includes firm cheddar and Gruyere-style cheeses that depend on expert aging. They've tapped son Philip, 23, the heir-apparent "with the cheese-making passion," who has a Penn State degree in animal sciences and worked in the school's famous creamery, to go to Ontario to study with an award-winning cheesemaker. Margaret Morris of Glengarry Fine Cheese is an affinage specialist, whose specialty is helping farmstead cheesemakers solve product aging problems.

Philip plans to return home by way of the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont.

Headed to France, taking her French-speaking neighbor to translate, is last year's winner, Lori Sollenberger of Hidden Hills Dairy. The Bedford County cheesemaker makes a range of cheeses using the high-butterfat milk of her Jersey herd.

She was bold enough to send samples to Steven Jenkins, high-profile Manhattan author ("Cheese Primer") and cheesemonger. His comment? "Your cheeses are delicious, but you'll never accomplish anything memorable until you do something less mundane."

Hence her trip to the French Alps to unlock techniques to make her own rich Reblochon-style cheese. "Less mundane" is also closely tied to highly skilled affinage, skills she will have to learn. If successful she will produce a soft, washed-rind beauty with complex funk and a nutty flavor.

Find the winners' cheeses in specialty markets.

Correction/Clarification: (Published July 9, 2013)

Due to an editing error, the original version of this story misspelled Sam Byler's last name.


Virginia Phillips: She's a Slow Food Pittsburgh co-founder.


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