160518 Atlanta, Ga: Cheese Custard with Woodsman & Wife Ol’ Oak Tree. Photos taken at Murphy’s in Virginia Highland, Atlanta, Ga. Styling by Murphy’s Culinary Director, Ian Winslade. (Photo by Chris Hunt/Special) for story 060216 cheese
Photo: Chris Hunt
Photo: Chris Hunt

Georgia cheese makers’ long days churn out great flavors

Cheese making is alchemy of a delicious sort. And turning gallons of milk into a delicious cultured product is a passion for local cheese makers.

Mary Rigdon of Decimal Place Farm has been raising her very special flock of dairy goats for more than 20 years. She started small, raising two goats and learning the ins and outs of dairy goat farming. And making cheese, but only for herself.

“I went to the local library and found a book on cheese making, ‘Goats Produce, Too’ by Mary Jane Toth, and I found a Fayetteville company, Hoegger Supply, that sold cheese making cultures and rennet. I started off making chevre. It wasn’t perfect, but it was really good. When I mastered that, I went on to make feta and then mozzarella. It was way later before I started making cheddar.”

What started as something that just interested her turned into a farmstead business. Now her chevre, plain or flavored, mozzarella, feta and cheddar are served at restaurants across Atlanta, sold at specialty stores and are available at the Peachtree Road, Freedom and Green Market at Piedmont Park farmers markets.

» PHOTOS: Making cheese at Decimal Place Farm

Rigdon has taken particular care to create a flock of about 40 dairy goats she has bred to keep the milk supply steady. Mama goats give birth in December or in July. “All the milk goes back to the baby goats and what the baby goats can spare goes into the cheese.”

A day in the life of a dairy farmer and cheese maker is a long one. “Every morning I look at all the animals before I go into the cheese room. By 7 a.m. I start the pasteurizer, pasteurizing the milk from the evening before. Then I go back and start milking the goats. When that’s finished, the pasteurized milk is cooling down and I can begin making cheese. Depending on the variety I’m making, I add the good bacteria to the milk, then rennet if it’s needed and then it’s time to wash out the pasteurizer and run the next batch of milk.”

The chores go on, between caring for the goats and making the cheese, feeding the babies and checking fences, keeping water buckets full and checking on the cheese, until 6 p.m. when dinner must be served to her family so that by 7 p.m. the last milking can be done on time, with the milk stored in the bulk tank awaiting cheese-making the next day.

Julie Schoen and her husband Mark have been making cheese at Nature’s Harmony Farm since early 2015. Along with lead cheesemaker Rob Abney, the farm produces four aged European-style cheeses using raw cow’s milk from a neighboring farm’s herd of primarily grass-fed Jersey cows. “We make all our cheese completely by hand. There’s no machinery involved from the stirring of the milk to the hooping of the curds to the aging of the wheels,” said Schoen.

Making aged cheeses requires daily attention. “Once the cheeses are put into the aging rooms, they must be flipped and washed a number of times a week. Washed rind cheeses like our Cherokee Rose have to be hand washed with a brine solution of salt and B. linens” (a bacterium that helps give the cheese its particular flavor).

These cheeses rest in temperature- and humidity-controlled aging rooms for at least 60 days, but as long as a year.

The bulk of the farm’s cheese goes to Gourmet Foods International, which supplies chefs and retailers throughout the United States. Schoen goes to the Saturday morning Peachtree Road Farmers Market every other week with a small supply of whatever is available, most frequently their Cherokee Rose.

“I love sharing our cheese with Atlanta cheese aficionados. People don’t think of Georgia as a cheese producing state, but the shoppers at the farmers market are definitely interested in local cheese. Up next for us, maybe fresh cheese curds using pasteurized milk?”

Each month Karen Green and her husband Jeff of Udderly Cool Dairy in Roopville produce between 750 and 1100 pounds of pasteurized cow’s milk cheeses. The creamery purchases all its milk from the dairy cows managed by the students at Berry College and then pasteurizes it at the creamery.

» PHOTOS: Atlanta-made cheese and cheese dishes you need to get on your radar

They’ve been making cheese since 2010 and have limited their production to fresh cheese (fromage blanc) and Gouda and Jack varieties. “You want to be sure you can make cheese that is consistently good, and we have chosen ingredients and equipment that are reliable throughout the process,” she says.

Ryan Burger of Woodsman & Wife says there’s a lot more to making cheese than he originally thought. “It’s a lot more scientific that people would believe. All cheeses are formed from milk and bacteria, but the milk, time, temperature and bacteria are all variables,” he says.

Years in the restaurant business and an aspiration to have a farm-based bed-and-breakfast led Burger and his wife Spice first to Flat Creek Lodge in Swainsboro. “Spice told me if I wanted to have a sustainable farm and restaurant eventually I would have to know how to make cheese.” He ended up as head cheese maker and manager of the dairy operation at Flat Creek before he left for Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, where he was also head cheese maker and livestock manager. His cheeses won national awards for both dairies.

Last year he and his wife returned to Atlanta and started to make good on that farm-based business dream. They bought a house in Douglasville where he has a small dairy and homestead farm. “We have cats, dogs, chickens and vegetable gardens and we have a great love for foraging as well.”

That foraging leads to some of his most interesting cheeses. “For our Old Oak Tree, we make a spice powder of dried oak trees and toasted dried mushrooms. Then layer that with the curd to make a rich line of flavor throughout the center of the curd as well as a generous coating on the outside.”

You can always serve your selection of local cheeses on a cheese board, but why not try your hand at a little cheese cookery? When considering these recipes, know that you can swap out cheeses by substituting your favorites in each dish.

» QUIZ: How well do you know your cheese?

Ian Winslade’s Cheese Royale

Ian Winslade, culinary director of Murphy’s and Paces & Vine, created this dense custard to showcase the flavors of Woodsman & Wife’s Old Oak Tree. The recipe is so simple and so foolproof you could use any cheese whose flavor you enjoy.

2 ounces Dutchman cheese, grated

1 cup milk

8 ounces Woodsman & Wife Old Oak Tree, rind removed

1 cup heavy cream

4 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Arrange eight 4-ounce ramekins in a roasting pan. Divide grated Dutchman between ramekins.

In the jar of a blender, combine milk and Old Oak Tree and puree until smooth. Transfer to a large bowl and add cream, eggs and salt. Strain the mixture and divide between prepared ramekins. Bring water to a boil and pour around ramekins to come halfway up their sides. Carefully put roasting pan into oven and bake until custards have just set, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and serve warm. Can be made ahead and reheated in a hot oven. Makes: 8

Per serving: 278 calories (percent of calories from fat, 76), 13 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, no fiber, 24 grams fat (14 grams saturated), 188 milligrams cholesterol, 590 milligrams sodium.

Mary Rigdon’s Vegetable and Chevre Strudel

Cheesemaker Mary Rigdon of Decimal Place Farm adapted this recipe from the “Russian Vegetable Strudel” recipe in one of the original Moosewood Restaurant cookbooks. Over the 20 years she’s been making it, she’s turned it into a recipe that works as a quickly put together main dish that fits into the schedule of non-stop farm life. Since the recipe makes two strudels, she likes to serve one for dinner immediately and then freeze the second. “When we have visitors the farm, it’s nice to be able to have one strudel warming in the oven while we walk around the farm, then have a hot entree ready to go when we get back.”

The proportions of vegetables for the filling is flexible. “What you’re looking for is a nice mix of colors.” The cabbage, carrots and onion make a filling perfect for late fall, winter and into early spring. In summer, she sautes a mix of crookneck and zucchini squash with the onion, then adds chevre or goat cheese. If she’s uses her garlic-dill chevre in either version, she eliminates the dried dill from the recipe.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 small head cabbage, chopped (about 1 pound)

2 carrots, grated (about 1 cup)

1 onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

1/4 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced

1 teaspoon dried dill weed

1 teaspoon caraway seed

1/2 teaspoon salt

8 ounces chevre

1 (17.3-ounce) package puff pastry sheets, thawed

Make filling: In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add cabbage, carrots and onion and cook until cabbage is wilted. Stir in mushrooms and cook until they release their liquid and most has been evaporated. Season with dill weed and caraway seeds. Remove from heat and stir in chevre. Stir until chevre melts and binds ingredients. Add salt and taste for seasoning.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Remove puff pastry sheets from package and unfold. Divide filling between pastry sheets and fold pastry in half. Seal edges and arrange on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until golden brown and serve with a salad. Serves: 8

Per serving: 463 calories (percent of calories from fat, 60), 12 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 31 grams fat (10 grams saturated), 13 milligrams cholesterol, 411 milligrams sodium.

Cream Cheese and Olive Parcels

You can make these ahead of time and refrigerate. Then bake just before you’re ready to serve a delicious small nibble. You can use any local fromage blanc or even ricotta in place of the cream cheese called for here.

1 teaspoon olive oil

3 green onions, finely chopped

1 cup cream cheese, room temperature

1/3 cup chopped pitted green olives

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill

Freshly ground black pepper

6 sheets filo

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Sesame seeds, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Have a rimmed baking sheet ready.

In a small skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat and add green onions. Cook until softened. Remove from heat and cool.

Make filling: In a medium bowl, combine cream cheese, sauteed green onions, olives and dill. Season with black pepper.

Cut the filo sheets in half lengthwise. Cover strips with plastic wrap. Remove one strip and brush with melted butter. Place a generous tablespoon of filling one inch from one of the short sides. Take the bottom left corner of the strip and fold it up and over the filling to the right, forming a triangle. To continue wrapping, flip the triangle up then turn it to the left. Continue in this manner until you have formed a tightly closed triangular parcel. Brush on a little melted butter to seal the last flap into place and then place, flap down, on the baking sheet. Once all parcels are formed, brush with remaining melted butter and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake 15–20 minutes or until golden-brown. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes: 12

- Adapted from a recipe in “Cooking with Cheese” ((Ryland Peters & Small, $21.95).

Per serving: 124 calories (percent of calories from fat, 78), 2 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 11 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 29 milligrams cholesterol, 131 milligrams sodium.

Todd Ginsberg’s Flatbread with Pesto and Fromage Blanc

Todd Ginsberg, chef/partner of The General Muir, offers this recipe which occasionally is a special at The General Muir but appears weekly at The General Muir/TGM Bread’s farmers market tent alongside their loaves of fresh bread and other offerings. You can use the mix of mushrooms he suggests here, or go strictly local and make it all oyster mushrooms or a mix of oyster and shiitake mushrooms from local growers. The pesto is also adaptable. Here he offers the classic basil pesto, but he makes pesto with turnip greens or other greens as they come into season. Radish green pesto anyone?

The flatbread recipe is from Robert Alexander, master baker/partner of TGM Bread, next door to The General Muir at Emory Point. Alexander notes that the rising times in the recipe can vary according to the temperature of your ingredients and your kitchen. “If the dough is cooler than 73 degrees the process may take more time. If the dough is hotter than 80 degrees then the process may be shorter than described,” he wrote when he provided the recipe.

1 bunch basil, stems removed (about 4 cups leaves)

1/3 cup grated or shredded Parmesan

1 clove garlic

Zest of 1 lemon

1/2 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper

Canola oil

2 cups mixed cremini and oyster mushrooms, sliced (about 1/2 pound)

TGM Bread’s Flatbread dough (see recipe)

8 ounces Woodsman & Wife Fromage Blanc

Make pesto: In the bowl of a food processor, combine basil, Parmesan, garlic and lemon zest. Pulse to combine. Add a third of the olive oil and begin pureeing the mixture. Slowly add the rest. Season to taste and set aside.

Roast mushrooms: Film a large skillet with canola oil and heat over high heat. Add mushrooms and cook until mushrooms have released their liquid and most of the liquid is evaporated. Remove from heat and season to taste.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Divide and flatten flatbread dough as called for in the flatbread recipe. Divide pesto between four flatbreads and spread over evenly over the surface of the dough. Divide mushrooms between flatbreads and arrange on pesto. Top each flatbread with large pieces of Fromage Blanc. Bake flatbreads until bottom and a little bit of the sides are lightly golden. Remove from oven, cool slightly and cut or tear to serve. Serves: 16

Per serving: 321 calories (percent of calories from fat, 42), 11 grams protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 15 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 14 milligrams cholesterol, 512 milligrams sodium.

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