Friday, November 09, 2007
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From Mt. Tam to Indiana
Friday, November 9, 2007
It’s always a thrill to me to find a new American cheese on a par with comparable cheeses from Europe. Most American cheesemakers, understandably, have a learning curve, and the Europeans are a few centuries ahead. But Fons Smits, cheesemaker for the new Traders Point Creamery in Indiana, grew up in the Netherlands in dairy country and has all the relevant academic credentials for cheesemaking. During a stint in California, he helped Cowgirl Creamery create Mt. Tam, its popular aged cow’s milk cheese. Now, at Traders Point, an organic dairy in Zionsville, near Indianapolis, he has another success to his credit: the raw-milk Fleur de la Terre.
Traders Point Creamery opened its doors four years ago thanks to Fritz and Jane Kunz, a hand surgeon and his wife. Jane Kunz inherited the property, a defunct farm, and she and her husband decided to revive it to produce dairy products and grass-fed beef. I was impressed that, in their literature, the couple make no mention of themselves but talk at length about their Brown Swiss cows.
Smits began work on Fleur de la Terre (literally, “flower of the earth”) only a couple of years ago, so this is truly a cheese in its infancy. But what an impressive debut. “It’s a Dutch-style cheese, but I would not say it’s a Gouda,” says Smits. “We try to make it our own.”
Before I spoke to him, I was having a hard time comparing Fleur de la Terre to anything I knew. It is vaguely Gruyere-like, but not as nutty or sandy. Smits makes it only in spring and fall, when the cows are producing the most milk; in the summer, the milk goes to fresh dairy products, like yogurt and ice cream.
The raw milk is cultured and coagulated with non-animal rennet, then the curds are rinsed with warm water to rid them of lactose, or milk sugar. This step keeps the cheese’s acidity in check, because the culture would eventually convert lactose to lactic acid. The fresh curds are packed in molds, pressed for a few hours to make them more compact, and brined for a couple of hours to season them. Then they move to the aging room for four to six months.
Finished wheels of Fleur de la Terre weigh about 11 pounds. They have a hard, dry, clean rind, and a firm, butter-colored interior with a few small eyes. The aroma, oddly, reminds me of the fat on a lamb chop – an unexpected fragrance in a cow’s milk cheese, but appetizing nonetheless. The flavors are sweet, salty and mellow, the finish creamy if you let the cheese sit on your tongue. Smits has created a cheese with personality that doesn’t resemble anything else. I like it immensely.
Try Fleur de la Terre with whatever red wine you have nearby; you practically can’t go wrong. With its touch of sweetness, it’s also a nice match with an off-dry sherry.
Next up: Bleu de Sassenage, a cow’s milk blue cheese from France.
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