G.K. Chesterton said, “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese,” but as a serious cheese fan and certainly no poet, I must compose some prose about my latest cheese experience. Cheese, in my opinion is one of the greatest foods out there. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dessert, cheese has something to offer: mac and cheese, cheese omelet, cheesecake, or a wedge of extra-sharp cheddar with apple pie. I could end up with a list like Forrest Gump’s when he went on about shrimp.
My cheese-loving heart was thrilled when I recently visited the East Hill Creamery in Perry, NY and spent some time with the owners, Betty Burley, and her husband, Gary. I’d been following the progress of the creamery since last year’s visit to Wyoming County and was intrigued with the artisan cheese concept coming back to dairy country. The county’s history is full of creameries from the mid-1800s right through the early 20th century. In fact, a cheese factory was once located near the small farm I grew up on in East Koy, NY. Cheese making was the best way to use all that extra milk when refrigeration was a challenge. Now it’s making a comeback in a beautiful, new Swiss chalet-style building with a manmade cave.
On the off-chance that someone was around to chat with, I talked my husband into stopping at this new facility as we were driving out of Perry. A serendipitous encounter on the sidewalk with Betty brought a couple of surprises. When I introduced myself, she reminded me that we knew each other from years ago. She was working in the Wyoming County courts, and I was a young paralegal for a law firm just across the parking lot from the courthouse. After catching up on a “few years” in between, she graciously offered to give us a tour of the almost completed creamery.
Entering the building, you are welcomed by the fragrance of milk, rich and heavy in the air. It’s the promise of cheese beckoning you into the inner workings of the creamery. The Burleys are producing Alpine-style cheeses that have been made in the French Alps for centuries. They engaged a French consultant, Alex Pellicier, who has guided their process, the purchase of French equipment, and even the building of the structure. Betty and Gary are starting with raclette cheese, which requires attention to every detail from what the cows eat to pouring fresh milk into two 500-gallon copper vats when it’s delivered every morning by the milk truck. The cheese requires a precise temperature of 50 degrees and 90 per cent humidity, and it needs a cave. This raw milk cheese that forms a natural rind must hangout for 60 days in the cheese cave. Every wheel is hand-turned throughout the aging process. The plan is to produce about 120,000 pounds annually and there are already 35,000 pounds in the cave.
The man-made cave is fascinating. Large windows on the upper level give you a spectacular view into the underground cheese world. Basswood shelves timbered from the Burleys' woods support the beautiful rounds of raclette which are waiting for the perfect time to be packaged. The basswood is also being made into bowls and serving utensils. The upper level of the post-and-beam building will have a tasting room, and eventually be available for events sometime in 2017. Their downstairs retail store will open at the end of September 2016. Amish-made red oak beams hewn in Belfast, NY are overhead. The handmade touches, along with lots of natural light make this a beautiful building.
Four of the Burleys' five children are running the dairy operations so their parents can focus on cheese production. The herd of 700 at the Warsaw farm is New Zealand genetic-based, grass-fed on a rotational basis, and milk production is seasonal. It’s picky and yes, it matters. Grass-fed cows produce the type of milk necessary to make Alpine cheeses. They’ll add a second cheese which is even more labor intensive, a Gruyere, which will be called Silver Lake Cheese (for nearby Silver Lake for those who aren’t familiar with the area). The Gruyere requires six months in the cave. The raclette currently being made is called Underpass Cheese. Now, if you’re wondering about the name, I'll let you in on the story behind it.
The Burleys began dairy farming in the early 1980s and their land is on both sides of NYS Route 20A. They’ve been grazing their cows rotationally since they started their operations. Shuttling cows across a busy highway to another pasture has a lot of issues. Several years ago, they finally received permission to build a cow underpass, a tunnel directly under the highway. The cows are happier, as are the Burleys, and drivers aren’t inconvenienced.
Once back downstairs, we were invited for a little cheese tasting in the employee breakroom. The cheese is wonderful. Buttery, tangy, melty … sigh … delicious. Underpass Cheese is already available at several local stores, and since we were on our way to shop at Lantz’s Bulk Food store in Warsaw, we purchased a wedge to take home to Arizona. We’ve enjoyed it on crackers, in grilled cheese sandwiches, melted into grits (shrimp and grits), and all by itself. The experts say a crisp, white wine such as Pinot Gris pairs well with the semi-firm raclette, or Pinot Noir for those who prefer a red. It's all good. I can’t wait for East Hill Creamery to begin internet sales. I’ll be a regular customer.
Enjoy the slideshow tour of the creamery and dairy farm. And remember to eat local.
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