In 1983, Coach Farm, in Pine Plains, debuted its pretty little goat-cheese button, marking the start of the modern era of artisanal cheesemaking in the Hudson Valley. Three-and–a-half decades later, a new generation is separating curds from whey, and an ever-more-discerning consumer is willing to pay a premium for local cheeses made from the milk of pampered cows, goats, and sheep that graze along the river’s length.
New York State dairy manufacturers just two years ago surpassed for the first time the production of one billion pounds of cheese. Folded into that very large number are the handmade products of small-scale operations whose cheeses are as apt to be set out on a decorative leaf at a farmers’ market as to be shrink-wrapped for supermarket sale.
Megan Ercole, the cheese manager at Adams Fairacre Farms, in Poughkeepsie, can measure the surge in interest in local cheeses. “When I came on board five years ago, the selection was 2 ft wide and two shelves tall,” she says. “Now, it spans 8 ft and is four shelves high.”
The array is dazzling: blues, cheddars, bloomy rinds and chèvres; logs, pyramids, squares and tommes. Ercole herself is collaborating with veteran cheesemaker Colin McGrath and chef Dan Crocco of Mill House Brewing Company on a seasonal ale-washed cow’s milk cheese they’re calling Test Pilot. The challenge will be finding room for it on the shelf.
Creameries and dairies have strict sanitation rules, but many welcome visitors to view the inner workings through a glass window, to meet the animals that make it all possible, and to buy cheese on site (a few even use the old-fashioned honor system). Local cheeses are sold at specialty cheese shops and farmers’ markets; some of these are mentioned here. See producers’ websites or Facebook pages for additional retailers.
Suzanne Levesque has for nearly a decade made her uniquely exuberant goat cheeses, including a fresh summer crottin rolled in herbs and drizzled with raw honey; Avalon, a half-pound Camembert-style wheel nestled on a brandy-soaked fig leaf and decorated with rose petals, nasturtiums, or pansies; and Black Magic, a bloomy rind with a hint of sweetness and an undulating ribbon of black that comes from its coating of coconut-shell ash. Levesque sells out of most cheeses by fall, but her goat medley — cheese medallions packed in a glass jar with olives, peppers, fresh garlic, rosemary, pesto, and cold-pressed olive oil — is in hot demand year-round. At this certified organic dairy, the goats eat only local hay and grains.
Where to buy: Farm store (open winter, by appointment, and summer); Copake and Troy farmers’ markets.
After a sojourn in Northern California, Rory Chase returned in 2007 to the family farm, in Pine Plains, and retrofitted a barn that his grandfather had built in the 1930s as a cheese plant and aging cave. Chase, who studied cheesemaking at both the University of California at Davis and the University of Vermont, brings a measure of erudition to his work. He runs the creamery; his sister, Sarah Chase, runs the farm, managing the cows (Holsteins, Jerseys, a few Brown Swiss) and pastureland on what is now a certified organic farm.
Chase’s cheeses are classified “farmstead,” made exclusively with milk from the farm. His Camembert-style rounds, which he describes as “beloved, creamy, decadent little half-pound wheels,” are farmers’ market favorites. He also makes a triple cream, Nimbus (his own favorite, and a ribbon-winner at the 2018 New York State Fair); the nutty, Alpine-style Alpäge, which forms wonderfully crunchy lactate crystals as it ages; and Barrett’s Blue, a bold Stitlton-type that crumbles in all the right ways.
As if that weren’t enough to keep him busy, Chase moonlights making goat cheeses for Miracle Springs Farm (see below), a challenge he enjoys. “It’s fun to work with the two different milks, to see how the curds behave from start to finish,” he says.
Where to buy: Farm store open daily; online store; Pleasantville, Ossining, Cold Spring, and Rhinebeck farmers’ markets.
Visit: For special events only.
In 2007, Joyce Henion built an “itty bitty” creamery in her garage, intent on adding small-batch cheeses to her line of goat soaps and goat fudge — all made with milk from her Nubian herd. She has since earned a loyal following for her impeccable fresh chèvre; Drunken Goat, a wine-soaked Gouda-type wheel; and Greek-style feta (“Greeks love it, so I’m not changing anything,” she says). In a recent coup, her whole-milk ricotta, coveted by chefs, won a gold medal at the 2019 New York State Fair.
Where to buy: Online sales for pick up at the farm; Rosendale farmers’ market and more.
Shereen Alinaghian raised goats and made cheese in Pennsylvania before moving her one-woman operation to the Hudson Valley in 2013. Through the largess of the Columbia Land Conservancy Trust’s Farmer-Landowner Match Program, which helps farmers lease affordable land, her beloved goats have plenty of room to roam. Alinaghian’s cheeses include fresh chèvre (plain, honey lavender, and garlic scape with black pepper); the Camembert-style Mammuth; an aged pyramid speckled with green peppercorns; and a bloomy-rind button called Doolan. Lately, Alinaghian has been using milk purchased from Hawthorne Valley Farm to make a bevy of cow’s milk and mixed-milk cheeses.
These Cheeses Stand Alone
Favorites with staying power
Jody Somers and Luisa Scivola specialize in Pecorino-type cheeses made from their own sheeps’ milk: fresco, aged just two months; al tartufo, studded with Italian summer truffles; and stagionato, aged over a year. They also make caciotta, a simple cow’s milk cheese, and a much-sought-after seasonal ricotta. Somers learned the traditions of Tuscan cheesemaking on a small farm outside Orbetello, in the Maremma; he also makes salumi from whey-fed pigs. The farm’s bounty inspires Scivola’s menus for festive weekend dining events.
Where to buy: Farm shop open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday (best to call ahead): Troy, Sarasota Springs, and Rhinebeck farmers’ market.
Dan and Talitha Jones sold their first farmstead cheese in 2012 and now have a repertoire of exclusively goat’s milk cheeses that includes a pleasantly sharp aged cheddar; aged tommes washed with Black Dirt bourbon and local ales; Greek-style feta; and a variety of bloomy rinds. A bestseller is their Firthcliffe, an ash-layered cheese similar to the much-imitated Humboldt Fog, from Northern California. The Joneses dress up their classic fresh goat cheese by layering it with seasonal additions: the first June blueberries; cranberry-orange jam; or arugula pesto.
Find them on Facebook.
Where to buy: Pleasantville and various other farmers’ markets; see Facebook page for weekly updates.
Visit: By appointment only or during special open hours.
In 2008, Abby Rockefeller inherited 250 acres of farmland that had belonged to her mother, Peggy Rockefeller, a fierce advocate for agricultural preservation in the Hudson Valley. She hired an expert craftsman, Rick Anderson of Martha’s Vineyard, to build a dairy, telling him the only caveat is that it had to be beautiful. Construction began in 2012 on what is indeed one of the most beautiful clusters of farm buildings around.
In 2016, cheesemaker Matt Spiegler was charged with fulfilling part of the not-for-profit, biodynamic farm’s broad mission: to make impeccable cheeses using milk from the farm’s sterling herd of Brown Swiss, Jersey and Guernsey cows.
As a young tech worker, Spiegler, who grew up in the Hudson Valley, wrote a blog called “Cheese Notes” and published stories about cheese in Edible Brooklyn and Modern Farmer. His passion got the better of him, and he dove into cheesemaking through an intensive program at the University of Vermont, followed by work at Woodcock Farm and Jasper Hill Farm, in Vermont. At the 2018 New York State Fair, Spiegler’s mild, buttery Peggy won a silver medal; his washed-rind Coperthwaite took gold. Not one to rest on his laurels, Speigler is adventuring further: “I’m R&D-ing a larger format, alpine-style cheese, like a Gruyère, or a Beaufort,” he says. “I hope to have it within a year.”
Visitors are encouraged to watch the process. “We installed big, wide windows for easy viewing,” says Spiegler, who makes cheese on Tuesdays and Fridays. “We want to be an open facility, welcoming to everyone.”
Where to buy: Self-serve farm store open daily 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Visit: Visitors are welcome daily during store hours. Monthly tour of creamery and caves (sign up on website).
Willy Bridgham’s sister, Josie Madison, likes to tell the story of the cheesemaker’s early experimentation with milk and cultures: “The first test batch was made in our grandmother’s kitchen when she went to Florida,” says Madison. “Willy would highjack her refrigerator, set the humidity and temperature for cheese aging, and I would talk with the cheese while it was doing what it was supposed to be doing.”
Whatever they were up to, it worked out just fine. Along with Willy’s wife, Shaleena, the siblings established Four Fat Fowl in 2013 and quickly gained a cult following for their singular St. Stephen triple cream. Made with Jersey milk and cream from Dutch Hollow Farm, in Schodack Landing, their powdery, handmade bloomy rind is a pure celebration of fat. Willy, who worked stints at both Coach Farm and Old Chatham Creamery, likes spreading it on toast for breakfast.
To gain square footage, the trio bought the business’s hometown elementary school: a third-grade classroom and the music room are now the manufacturing floor; the library was reimagined as an aging room; a kindergarten classroom serves as the shipping and handling department; the nurse’s room is a glass-plated viewing area; and the principal’s office is their business hub. Four Fat Fowl also produces Inagadda Ricotta and CamemBertha, an ode to Camembert.
Where to buy: Self-serve cooler on site; online sales at firstname.lastname@example.org; see website for full list of retailers.
Visit: Viewing room open Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Founded in 1972, Hawthorne Valley Farm is a certified organic, biodynamic, not-for-profit farm that boasts a Waldorf School and a herd of mostly Brown Swiss cows. Cheesemaker Jeremy Shapiro, who studied agriculture at University of Vermont, oversees the creamery and sometimes helps with the milking. Two of his many cheeses are the Camembert-style Luna, which oozes beautifully, and an aged alpine-style cheese made in a traditional copper-lined pot imported from Germany. His whole-milk cheese curds are ideal for snacking or for making the trendy Quebecois dish poutine. While technically not a cheese, the creamery’s maple-vanilla yogurt is a legend.
Where to buy: Farm store open daily 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. (closed on holidays); Hudson farmers’ market.
Visit: Tours by appointment; for a fee, visitors can help to herd the cows (May through October).
David Levine, who runs the American Sustainable Business Council, and Jaimie Cloud, president of the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education, founded what they call a “small and mighty goat dairy” in 2014. Their 150 Alpine goats are tended by Rene DeLeeuw, who managed the Coach Farm herd for more than 20 years; cheesemaker Rory Chase of Chaseholm Farm takes in their milk and makes their cheeses at his Pine Plains creamery. Two standout cheeses are the bestselling Signal Rock Reserve, a semi-soft cheese with floral notes and a rippling line of ash made from charred beet leaves; and Fault Line, a Tallegio-style cheese formed in gorgeous 10-inch, 5-pound rounds.
Where to buy: Farm sales (call ahead); online store; Millerton farmers’ market and more.
Visit: By appointment only.
Sean O’Connor, who makes a wide variety of cheeses, is known for his milky mozzarella. His lineup includes a popular fresh chevre; smoked mozzarella; oozy Camembert-style goat cheeses; and Ballston Blue, a Roquefort-like cow’s milk wheel. O’Connor likes to play with flavors, mingling maple sugar and chipotle pepper in a lively petite chèvre; seasoning a cow’s-milk cheese with Italian black truffles and Garam Masala; and, in season, jazzing up an aged goat cheese with locally harvested ramps.
Where to buy: Farmers’ markets in the capital region, including Troy and Saratoga.
Champions of Local Cheese
With playful names like Rascal, Goliath, and Bambino, veteran cheesemaker Colin McGrath launched his serious line of cheeses in 2016, working out of leased space at Churchtown Dairy, in Hudson. McGrath was already known by cheese buffs as the talent behind multiple award-winning cheeses at Sprout Creek Farm, in Poughkeepsie (where a new creamery is under construction).
“I’ve been making cheese for just about 15 years, and there’s no place I’d rather be doing it,” says McGrath, a native Californian who stayed after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. “This valley is so hungry for artisan products.”
Another luck of geography, he says, is the presence of quality small dairies here. “We have access to great milk,” says McGrath, who gets his from cows at Brookby Farm, in Dover Plains, worked by the same family since the early 1800s.
Reflecting McGrath’s enthusiasm for his vocation, a recent Facebook post read: “A clean creamery is a happy creamery! Today we are making Fresco, Du Jour and Bambino.” (With bacteria as a main tool of the trade, cheesemakers like to say that cheesemaking is 90 percent cleaning and one percent cheesemaking.)
Fresco, which one purveyor says she “eats with a spoon,” is pure and milky, best served up in big dollops. Du Jour, as the name suggests, is subject to McGrath’s whim; he is known to wash it with local bourbon. Victoria, a buttery square with a pleasant funk, named for McGrath’s mother, is “near and dear” to the cheesemaker, but he says his favorite is Rascal, a pungent, semi-soft cheese with nutty notes: “It’s what I eat if I’m going to grab a hunk of something.”
Where to buy: Brookby Farm Store, Dover Plains; Hastings, Chappaqua and Larchmont farmers’ markets; see website for other retailers.
Visit: Visitors are welcome daily at Churchtown Dairy.
A few short years ago, Katelyn and Brendan Foley gave up city jobs and returned to their hometown to become farmers and cheesemakers. The two take turns milking their goats and making fresh feta; the Camembert-style Velvabert; and Auggie, a smooth-textured, golden-rinded tomme. With the Culinary Institute of America and Mohonk Mountain House as customers, the Foleys have a juggernaut on their hands: “We’ve quadrupled our cheese plant,” says Brendan, ”and it’s not enough.”
Where to buy: Farm store open Wednesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended summer hours; Millbrook farmers’ market.