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A fast-growing artisanal cheese movement in Texas is putting fresh, locally made varieties within easy reach.
The state ranked eighth in the nation in 2012 with 43 artisanal producers, a number that had grown more than 250 percent from 2006, according to statistics from texascheesetour.com, a directory to the state’s artisanal cheesemakers and purveyors. Artisanal cheese is produced in relatively small batches, unlike mass-produced cheeses commonly found in grocery stores.
Emblematic of the movement is HILCO Electric Cooperative member Brazos Valley Cheese, northwest of Waco.
Since its founding in 2005 by Rebeccah Durkin, a self-taught cheesemaker, and her cousin Marc Kuehl, Brazos Valley Cheese has grown from producing cheese in a 36-gallon milk vat to one that can handle 400 gallons at a time—enough to produce 25 15-pound wheels a day.
They use raw, unpasteurized milk from two nearby dairies that graze their cows on grass, Kuehl says.
“The green in the grass makes the milk more yellow, and you get a real, full flavor,” he says. “It’s just a different product from what you get in an industrialized mode. We value not being industrialized.”
Because it’s made from raw milk, the cheese must by law age at least 60 days, which is done in an on-site underground room. It’s then shipped to Whole Foods grocery stores and is in demand by chefs and hotels, Kuehl says. Brazos Valley Cheese varieties include cheddar, Brie and smoked Gouda and can be ordered at brazosvalleycheese.com.
Another available variety is one Kuehl created accidentally. He says one day he’d been heating milk for a batch of cheese and went home for lunch, inadvertently leaving it cooking.
“I thought I’d completely flopped the cheese,” he says. “I thought it was going to be dry and crumbly. But in case it was edible, I wanted to make it unique.” So he put it in a cheese press and rubbed the rind with a mixture of vanilla, sorghum and cinnamon. From the potentially ruined batch came a variety dubbed Van Sormon, a name coined from the three flavorings (VANilla, SORghum and cinnaMON).
As with any handcrafted food product, variation in taste is common. A batch of cheese made in the spring when milk has higher butterfat levels or after rain has made grass grow will taste different than the same type of cheese made in the winter or during a drought.
“It’s not a cookie-cutter product,” Kuehl says. “We don’t want that.”