Pioneer of Artisan Goat Cheese: Cypress Grove’s Founder MARY KEEHN

Pioneer of Artisan Goat Cheese: Cypress Grove’s Founder  MARY KEEHN

Learn how a small time producer spearheaded America’s goat cheese segment.

When Mary Keehn, a single mother of four and self-proclaimed serious hippie, adopted two of her neighbor’s goats back in the 70s, she didn’t have a business plan, or any plan, to start her own business.

“My start was serendipic and an offshoot of the land movement of the 60s and 70s,” she says. “Back then, I made my kids’ clothes, had a big garden and raised goats for milk with which I made cheeses.”

It wasn’t until 1983 that Keehn created Cypress Grove with a $10,000 loan from her family.

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Cheese Industry Makes a Difference

Cheese Industry Makes a Difference

Coast to coast, cheese producers step up during
the coronavirus pandemic.

In a heartwarming show of support for the country and Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic, artisan cheesemakers and importers throughout the nation have stepped up in a myriad of ways.

Small business is the life blood of food source sustainability. If a small producer suffers a calamity, other small businesses can pick up the slack. Food survival is a symbiotic relationship between the small producer and local support.

Double the Donations

Northbay Creameries, part of The Rians Group, has recently doubled its donation to Restaurants Care, upping its contribution from 3 to 6 percent of all proceeds from its online store. Sonoma, CA-based Laura Chenel, along with Petaluma, CA-based Marin French Cheese and St. Benoit Creamery, also in Petaluma, started the Northbay Creameries online shop in March 2020 to give customers a convenient way to order products from the security of their homes.

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A Cheese of Visual Intrigue

Montchevre Kiss My Ash was first launched in 2018 by Saputo Cheese USA, headquartered in Lincolnshire, IL, a few months after its acquisition of Betin Inc., doing business as Montchevre, a Wisconsin-based goat cheese manufacturer and marketer.

Through its Montchevre brand acquisition, Saputo Cheese USA not only broadened its presence in the specialty cheese landscape, but also has offered its customers a variety of new products that round out its goat cheese offerings, including the award-winning Montchevre Kiss My Ash.

Described as a luscious vegetable ash-covered goat cheese with a marble-textured rind and smooth ivory body, Montchevre Kiss My Ash has an elegant and unique appearance.

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A Domestic Cheese Mecca

A Domestic Cheese Mecca

For almost a decade, The Cheese Shop of Des Moines has cultivated its offerings of mainly regional and domestic artisanal cheese.

The impetus for C.J. Bienert opening The Cheese Shop of Des Moines was simple; after years of working in the cheese industry for different retailers, he was tired of being told no.

“I had worked at various cheese counters, markets and a wine shop that went out of business, and was sick of being told ‘no, you cannot have a closed case for American artisan cheeses,” says owner C.J. Bienert. “I knew the demand was there, and there was nothing like it in the area, so I decided to go on my own path.”

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The Evolution Of Laura Chenel

How a love of goats led to a cheese empire

The Evolution Of Laura Chenel

Laura Chenel’s was founded by its namesake in 1979, though starting a cheese company was not her initial goal. As a young woman, Chenel was someone who traveled a great deal and was an early adaptor of the belief that one should provide their own food. She grew and made what she could, and acquired some goats, too, in the process.

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Margaret Cicogna: The Cheese Lady of Italy

America’s Long-Time Ambassador Of All Things Italian

Margaret Cicogna: The Cheese Lady of Italy

Margaret Cicogna is one of the United States’ leading authorities on Italian cheese. “People call me the Cheese Lady,” she told Cheese Connoisseur over coffee in New York City. “But I do a lot more than cheese. I went to school. I have a family.” Still, Cicogna’s deep knowledge and passion for cheese, and close relationships with the producers she’s worked with over many decades, have more than earned her the title.

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Fig-ure It Out

Successfully pairing cheese and figs for a sweet, savory masterpiece

Fig-ure It Out

Some would say that biting into a sweet, sticky, squishy fig has been a gastronomic pleasure since the beginning of time. Fig trees purportedly shaded Adam and Eve and provided them with their first hint of clothing. Archaeologists have found fig branches next to human remains that date from more than 7,000 years ago. Some scientists believe the fruit trees may have been among the first domesticated crops.

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The sought after fungi takes cheese to unique heights.

Pictured: Cypress Grove’s Truffle Tremor

When we think of luxurious food ingredients, few carry the mystique, or command the price tag, of truffles. The fungi, not the chocolates.

Synonymous with the extravagance of four-star dining, the price per pound may exceed a month’s rent. The cost of truffles is related to the challenges of harvesting them, bringing these highly perishable fungi to market and selling them under the pressure of an extremely short shelf life.

Once harvested, these tubers, priced by weight, must be shipped and distributed within 36 hours to a prevent a water loss of 10 percent per day. Fresh truffles must be consumed within five to seven days to avoid becoming mushy (over ripe) and losing their most salient feature—the aromatics. They are a fragile product that can be easily damaged by processing and direct heat during cooking, so they require expert handling.

Perhaps these facts can help us appreciate why they are so expensive, although that won’t make the price  any easier on the pocketbook.

Upping the Ante

To get more truffle-bang for the buck when craving a bit of culinary pizzazz, think truffle cheese. In recent years, the presence of truffle cheese has mushroomed in the marketplace. Cheese with truffle inclusions is a smart way to grate on layers of flavor for a fraction of the cost. Still, add the word ‘truffle’ to any product, and you can expect to pay a premium. When is this coveted ingredient worth it? And when is it hype? A little background can help us to discern the difference.

Truffles grow among tree roots and have an important forest-nurturing function that goes beyond the mere titillation of gourmet palates. Given their ecological role, their valuation might be as ethically desirable as a carbon tax. The thought of truffles may conjure up the image of hogs running through woodlands with farmers in hot pursuit. But since 1985, Italy has banned truffle-hunting sows. Apparently, they make pigs of themselves plundering the terrain and scarfing down the treasured fungi. Trained dogs, on the other hand, particularly the Lagotto Romagnolo breed, simply paw at the ground to signal they’ve detected the scent.

Make no mistake, the flavor of truffles is mostly in the human nose, too, which leads us to chemical abuse; that is, aromatic spiking through the use of 2 4-dithiapentane (bismethylthio methane), a petroleum-formaldyhyde-based sulfide, known to be an eye, lung and skin irritant. The chemical is used in so-called truffle oils to imitate the white truffle (Tuber magnatum) aroma. Surprisingly, most oils contain no real truffle whatsoever. The synthetic aroma, which mimics only a key component, primes consumers to expect less range and subtlety. For example, take just a single type of fresh truffle, the black melanosporum. I found that in sampling just a few within that species, there was a different aromatic flavor profile for each one.

Given that you will pay a premium for any truffle product, check the ingredients. What does flavoring, essence or aroma actually mean? Usually, it means chemicals. As I reviewed more than a dozen truffle cheeses, the degree to which the aromatics were synthetically spiked influenced my selection process. Synthetics suggest either penny-pinching or a lack of skill. Remember that truffle is fragile and loses aroma along with its moisture. When processing truffles, timing and technique are everything to lock in flavor. Since ‘truffle’ implies luxury, we should expect to pay for a truffle cheese priced to reflect authenticity and expertise.

A Truffle Education

A multitude of truffle species, both wild and cultivated, grow around the world, but only a handful are worth eating. To explore fresh truffles and truffle products, I visited the showroom of Urbani Truffles in New York City, where I met with Marta Castillo Peinado, food scientist and manager of the Urbani Truffle Lab. Unfortunately, it was in February, too late for the White Truffle (Tuber magnatum) season, but I was able to sample a few three-day-old Black Winter Truffles (Tuber melanosporum). Shaved razor thin, the aromas ranged from floral to earthy or spicy. They are each so varied that Marta advises local clients to come in to select ones with the aromatic profiles they prefer. On the palate, the floral smelling truffle was the sweetest. For me, once in the mouth, the experience quickly shifted to texture. One was powdery, another mildly fibrous. Marta described the White Alba Truffle (Tuber magnatum) as more delicate, saying it melts on the tongue.

Truffles are seasonal and predominantly grown in Europe (France, Italy and Spain, for the most part). But since they are now being cultivated in the Southern Hemisphere, particularly in Australia, the boundaries of seasonality are expanding for certain types. Climate change looms as a consideration for future growing locations. North Americans are laying the groundwork to farm truffles by planting hazelnut, oak and other trees that are hospitable to European species.

A native species, the Oregon Truffle (both black and white varieties) grows wild in the Pacific Northwest from Northern California to British Columbia, wherever Douglas Fir forests are found. Another native type is the Pecan Truffle that takes its name from its affinity for pecan orchards. Of the many truffle cheeses I encountered, all used prestigious European species. That suggests a potential for North American artisan cheesemakers to embrace truffles reflecting their own terroir.

In the accompanying sidebar, you will find a list of truffles that you are likely to encounter in cheese, followed by a truffle cheese containing that particular type. When shopping, you may see words, such as Vitt. (Vittadini) or Pico, after the Latin names of the tuber. These are the names of the mycologists credited with first describing that particular species centuries ago. Products are often labeled ‘Black Truffle’ or ‘White Truffle’, but unless the manufacturer lists the Latin name, it’s hard to know what you’re actually getting.        

Truffles and Cheeses that Contain Them

Tuber Magnatum (Pico) aka White Italian or Alba Truffle

Grown in the Piedmont region of Italy, available from mid-September to December/January. This is the most highly prized variety, increasingly rare and so valuable that it almost never shows up in a cheese.


Central Fromaggi (Italy) first developed Smeraldo al Tartufo Bianco for a private client before making it seasonally available. You can generally find it in November/December and sometimes around Easter time. This is a Sardinian sheep Pecorino, aged approximately five to six months, with a natural truffle aroma of French oniony soup and subtle umami notes that play harmoniously in the Pecorino.

Serving suggestion: Shave some onto an elegant risotto or let it work its magic on a simple baked potato. Exquisite!

Tuber Melanosporum (Vittadini) aka French Black Winter or Perigord Truffle

Available from January through the end of March, Australian melanosporum are available from June-August.

Tuber Uncinatum (Chatin) or Black Burgundy Truffle

Grown across much of Europe, they are a type of autumn/winter tuber available from September to late December.

Tuber Aestivum (Vitt) or Summer Black or White Truffle

Aestivum seems to be the most common variety of truffle used in cheese. Four delicious examples are listed below. Grown prolifically around the Mediterranean coast, it is easy to understand why aestivum is the black truffle of choice for many products. The French company Agour refers to aestivum as a ‘White Summer Truffle,’ while most others describe it as a ‘Black Summer Truffle.’ To avoid confusion, check for the Latin name on the label. Aestivum are available May-August. Although the same species as the Winter uncinatum (Burgundy) truffle, they are different in appearance and taste.


Central Fromaggi’s (Italy) Moliterno al Tartufo. Aged a total of six months in a base of Sardinian Pecorino, the producer uses a unique technology to deliver genuine truffle into this cheese as well as the Smeraldo. The Moliterno flavor is full-bodied, more beefy-umami than the Smeraldo.

Agour’s (France) Fromage de Brebis a la Truffle, a younger Basque sheep’s milk cheese. The aroma is more vegetal than in the Moliterno.

Serving suggestions: The Moliterno and the Agour are my personal favorites to grate on any style of pasta al dente. Superb!

Cypress Grove’s (USA) Truffle Tremor.

While truffles often seem lost in soft and fresh cow’s milk, such as Brie-style cheeses and Burrata, Truffle Tremor strikes an impressive balance. Perhaps the reason Tremor succeeds is that it’s actually a goat cheese. Think Humboldt Fog without the ash. Truly elegant!

Serving suggestion: A starring role on any cheese board with fruit or vegetable crudités.

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.’s (USA) Toma Truffle, released in 2019, is aged 90 days. Point Reyes achieves a subtle balance of truffle and buttery toma base.

Serving suggestion: A harmonious companion for crunchy, whole grain breads. Or add panache as a last minute toss into scrambled eggs.

Tuber Albidum (Pico) aka Tuber Borchii (Vittadini) or White Bianchetto Truffle

Easily confused with white truffle, this is Albidum not Alba. These Bianchetto are small spring truffles available from mid-winter-April.


Il Forteto’s (Italy) Cacio di Bosco al Tartufo, is aged 150 days. The Bianchetto truffle has a pronounced garlicky flavor that plays well against the sweet caramel and nut notes of this semi-soft Pecorino. Serving suggestion: Try it with a baguette and a citrusy preserve or shave it onto polenta.


With a bevy of health benefits, both kefir and lassi have become more prevalent in the U.S.

The yogurt aisle at the grocery stores has boomed in recent years, as people have discovered the many health benefits of this probiotic-rich food. But there’s other dairy products that are also making big resurgences.

Kefir and lassi were once obscure products most likely to be found in natural food shops. Today, even the most mainstream grocery stores are likely to carry these drinkable yogurts, which offer great taste, a host of health benefits and versatile options for cooking.

“Sales of kefir and other drinkable yogurts are big business in the U.S.,” says Seair Lorentz, brand manager at Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery, located in Sebastopol, CA. Data from Chicago-based market research firm IRI shows that sales of drinkable yogurt products were around $900 million in the past year. “There are a lot of new plant-based alternatives entering the drinkable yogurt market right now and getting a lot of attention.”

“We know that today’s consumers are on a constant pursuit of delicious options to add to their diet,” says Kiersti Bird, brand manager for Broomfield, CO-based Wallaby Organic, which makes whole milk and low-fat kefir. “Kefir is great to try with breakfast or as a mid-day snack.” It can also be used in salad dressings, soups, curries and a variety of other dishes, although people hoping to replenish their bodies with probiotics should avoid cooking it.

Kefir: An Introduction

“Kefir is a cultured milk beverage that contains a variety of live and active cultures,” says Bird. “It tastes similar to yogurt, but is drinkable and doesn’t require a spoon, making it a delicious and convenient option for an on-the-go snack.” It’s also high in calcium, protein, B vitamins and potassium.

“There are essentially two types of kefir: milk kefir and water kefir,” says Lorentz. Both are made by adding crystals called kefir grains to a liquid. “For our kefirs, fresh milk is first pasteurized and then mixed with a blend of live and active cultures, prompting fermentation. This makes the milk slightly thick and causes it to develop a beautifully tangy flavor.” While many people like to drink it plain, kefir is often blended with berries, mango or other fruit, which provides a nice counterbalance to the drink’s naturally sour flavor.

While cow’s milk is the most common ingredient in the United States, Redwood Hill makes some of its kefirs with goat’s milk. It also offers a lactose-free cow’s milk version for people who struggle with dairy. Consumers who cannot have milk at all can buy or make kefir made with coconut, almond or other nut milks.

The other option is to add the kefir grains to a mixture of water and fruit, which provides sugar with the beneficial bacteria needed to survive. Water kefir is a slightly fizzy drink similar to flavored carbonated water or kombucha, which is a type of fermented tea.

Kefir is one of the many fermented foods rapidly growing in popularity in the U.S. Products like non-pasteurized sauerkraut, miso, yogurt and kefir are rich in probiotic bacteria. These microscopic organisms provide a huge range of physical and mental health benefits.

Jennifer Iserloh, a Hoboken, NJ-based holistic health coach, chef and author of “The Superfood Alchemy Cookbook,” likens the human gut to a jungle full of flora and fauna. “The more cultures you can introduce into your jungle—the more biodiversity you have—and the healthier your jungle will be,” she says.

“There’s this whole movement right now toward functional medicine and understanding the root causes of chronic illness,” she adds. “When you want to heal yourself at the root, you go to the gut. What people are realizing is that without balancing the gut, you’re not going to heal those chronic conditions—ever.” Fermented foods then become a necessity, not a luxury.

It’s important to note, too, that different probiotic bacteria serve different roles. One may help people digest certain foods; another may encourage weight loss, while still another will help in regulating hormones and mental states. The term “gut-brain axis” references this idea that what happens in the stomach has a surprisingly high impact on what happens in the brain. While these bacteria do occur naturally in the body, they’re constantly being killed off by things like antibiotics and over-the-counter medication, processed foods, lack of sleep, drinking too much coffee or alcohol, or even trauma, such as a car accident. That means the bacteria have to be replenished on a regular basis.

Probiotic cultures in pill form are available nearly everywhere these days, “but the one off the shelf can die quite easily,” says Iserloh. “In kefir and other fermented foods, they’re more likely to be living.” A pill may also contain only one or two types of probiotic bacteria, where fermented foods may have many more species. That’s why many people are now seeking out probiotic foods to add to their diet.

Learning about Lassi

Lassi is a drinkable yogurt that is made in much the same way as traditional yogurt. Milk is heated, cooled and cultured in a warm place until it has thickened. Water is then added to give the drink a lighter texture and more refreshing feel.

Lassi has a rich history in Ayurveda, a form of holistic medicine developed thousands of years ago in India. Even thousands of years ago, practitioners recognized that good health starts and finishes with the gut, says Karan Gera, founder of Monsieur Singh Lassi, New York City. “The science of Ayurveda is about making sure your stomach is healthy.”

Jaya Shrivastava, CEO of Austin, TX-based Sassy Lassi Yogurt Co., describes lassi as “smooth, slightly tart, naturally sweet and easy to digest.” Gera also emphasizes the drink’s tartness. The sour flavor created by the cultures helps highlight the sweetness of anything that is added to lassi, making it less important to add sugar to pull out that flavor.

When Americans hear the word ‘lassi,’ they typically think of a mango lassi. Because mango is not that common of a thing in some western cultures, there’s that exoticness to the fruit,” says Gera. The sweetness of a fresh mango is also exquisite with the drink’s sourness.

But in India, mango lassis are not as common. Salty lassis, which do have salt added but are what Americans might refer to as savory, are more traditional. “The way my mom used to make lassi is you gently roast cumin seeds, then you mix them with salt and maybe some fresh coriander leaves,” Gera says.

According to Ayurveda, lassi, like most other foods, should be consumed at room temperature. “Cold drinks are not considered to be good for the body,” Gera says. “When yogurt is colder, it’s thicker, and it shocks the system and, therefore, takes longer to digest. If it’s warmer, it’s easier for the body to absorb, and you get the nutrients faster. Also, if you let it sit outside, once it gets a little warmer, you get more of the flavor of the fruit or spices.”

Despite that recommendation, many people prefer to enjoy lassi cold. “On hot summer days, salted lassi is the welcome drink of choice that is offered to guests,” says Shrivastava. “It is light, icy cold and smooth, garnished with fried curry leaves, roasted and ground cumin seeds, and popped mustard seeds.” Lassis can also be topped with cheese and roasted nuts, sweetened with sugar and rose syrup, or made even richer with the addition of heavy cream.

Warm or iced, lassis have a special place in the hearts of many Indians.

“There’s a common saying whenever someone loses their temper in India. They say, in their own language, ‘Chill, have a lassi,’” says Gera. “It’s got that very refreshing aspect to it because it has that special tartness and is mixed with real fruit and spices. When it hits your brain, it refreshes it. There’s so much stress with modern life. Sometimes you want to take a moment and just have a real thing and not something processed.”

“Cooking” with Kefir

“Kefir is an incredibly versatile ingredient,” says Lorentz. “It can replace buttermilk in any baking recipe, including cakes, muffins and pancakes.” Besides providing great texture, using fruit-flavored kefir will add appealing flavor to baked goods. “Plain kefir is a great addition to dips and dressings, like green goddess or ranch.”

“Marinade bases are great with the salted lassi,” Shrivastava says. “Simply pour a cup of plain or salted lassi, add any spices or rubs you like, and pour it over raw chicken or meat. Let it sit in the refrigerator overnight, and throw it on the grill.”

To get the health benefits of kefir or lassi, though, it’s important not to heat it, Iserloh says. “It will kill the probiotic bacteria.”

She recommends substituting kefir for yogurt in smoothies or using it as the base for a cold soup with avocados, green grapes and almonds.

Gera used to make lassi ice cream, with flavors such as passion fruit chia and honey lemon with mint. While those products are no longer available, anyone with an ice cream maker can whip up a similar mixture at home.

Shrivastava has made cocktails with lassi. She recommends using rum with pineapple, mango or other tropical fruit-flavored drinks. Or try combining rose lassi with red wine.

It turns out that lassi is great for the outside of the body as well as the inside.

“Plain lassi is a great skin and hair conditioner,” says Shrivastava. “We regularly use it in India.”        

RECIPE: Mor Kuzhambu

Recipe provided by Jaya Shrivastava, CEO of Sassy Lassi Yogurt

1            cup plain or salted lassi

1            cup water

½           tsp turmeric

¼           cup freshly grated coconut

1            green chili or jalapeño pepper

1            tsp cumin seeds

1            tsp black mustard seeds

1            sprig curry leaves

5            okra – cut into 3 pieces each

2            Tbsp canola oil or ghee

To make:

1. Dilute the lassi with water and use a whisk to make smooth.

2. Add the turmeric and salt if required, and set on a stove to simmer on a low flame.

3. Meanwhile, grind the grated fresh coconut and green chili into a paste. Add the paste in the lassi and continue to simmer—a low flame is important.

4. Heat oil/ghee separately.

5. When hot, add the mustard seeds first.

6. Wait until they pop and then add cumin seeds and the curry leaves and fry for about 30 seconds.

7. Add the okra and fry until crisp.

8. Add the fried okra and seeds into the simmer lassi sauce and turn off the stove.


A cheese that reflects its impressive history.

Photo by Jesper Storgaard Jensen

Pienza is one of Tuscany’s most enchanting towns. Its only 2,000 inhabitants have the privilege of living in an ancient environment full of history that was admitted to the prestigious UNESCO list of world inheritance places in 1996.

But the wonder doesn’t stop here, because Pienza is also home to one of Italy’s most beloved cheeses.

In certain parts of this country, local food products deep-rooted in tradition enhance the image of cities. This is exactly the case in the central part of Tuscany, Val d’Orcia, which is well-known for its stunning natural scenery. Here, the sweetness of the hilltops and the multiple long rows of marching cypress trees give Tuscany a touch of softness, as though nature had decided not to offend anyone’s eyes. You are able to drive around for hours while indulging in one dazzling view after another.

This is, however, also an area famous for its abundance of flavors that can be found in local recipes, wines and the many varieties of cheeses. Smells and tastes abound in the area’s cozy towns, which here are called città d’arte, literally meaning ‘art cities’. Amongst these are Siena, Pienza, Montalcino, Montepulciano and Bagno Vignoni.

Abundance is, without a doubt, the appropriate key word when you speak about the flavors of this area, including the two famous wine towns—Montepulciano and Montalcino. The first is famous for its red wine Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and the latter has gained world fame due to the “King of wines”, the Brunello di Montalcino.

But, as we all know, a good wine becomes even better if it has the intriguing company of an outstanding cheese. That’s exactly why Pienza should have an important position on your Tuscany bucket list. A place that cannot be missed because of history, architecture and a cheese that many claim to be one of the best in Italy.

Historic Origins

When traveling from Montalcino towards Pienza, at a certain point along the motorway you’re likely to find a row of cars that have pulled over and parked on one side of the road. Many of the people leaving their cars have a camera around their neck. They are all heading towards the same spot from where you’ll find the best view to one of Italy’s most iconic natural spots—a green valley with a small group of cypress trees that seem to resemble the classical Tuscan dream of natural beauty.

This iconic view of nature and beauty is actually a sort of metaphor of what awaits you after just another quarter of an hour away, when you arrive at Pienza. Here, though, the beauty is also the taste of local pride, which, without doubt, is able to bring a smile to the lips of cheese lovers.

Pecorino di Pienza is a sheep cheese that has historic origins, just like many of Tuscany’s wines. Allegedly, it’s one of the oldest types of cheese in the world. The ancient Romans and, before them, the Etruscans, produced and consumed Pecorino. And, according to Italy’s gastronomic historic books, the Florentine nobleman Lorenzo de’ Medici was so fond of Pecorino that he actually went all the way from Florence to Pienza just to get his hands on the tasty cheese.

Over time, many tales and histories have been told about this cheese that has evolved over centuries. In modern times, this is also the story about how Sardinia and Tuscany are bound together through Pecorino.

Some 50-60 years ago, Val d’Orcia was not the fashionable, sought after area it is today. Most of all, it was a rural district where no one wanted to live, especially the young people who often preferred to move to nearby towns. At the same time, many Sardinian farmers decided to leave their farms and businesses. For that reason, the Italian government started offering the Sardinians an opportunity to buy huge areas of land in Tuscany at favorable prices. Many of them accepted this offer after which they moved to Tuscany, bringing hundreds and hundreds of sheep with them.

From Sardinia with Love

To be able to fully understand the history and quality of Pecorino di Pienza, I decided to visit the Fattoria Buca Nuova in the outskirts of Pienza. The company was founded in 1966, when Pietrino Cugusi and his wife, Mulas Maria Antonia, moved from Sardinia to Tuscany. Today, Pietrino’s son Emilio Cugusi is one of the heads of the company. He greets me as I arrive, and together we start our walk through the production unit.

“Since the middle of the 20th century, the production of Pecorino was carried out by the local farmers of this district who only had small breedings of sheep,” says Cugusi. “The sheep pastured in areas that otherwise would have been totally ignored. But, very slowly, these breedings started to be more substantial. The production became more and more important, and the markets—both the Italian and later on also some foreign markets—started to ask for higher volumes of a product that was characterized by a high quality.”

Today, the Sardinia imprint is still very present in the production of Pecorino. Sardinian sheep, which are a different breed compared to the Tuscan variety, are still used for the production of a cheese with very particular characteristics.

“The cheese is not spicy, although it’s full of character. I’d say that it has a decisive and rounded taste,” says Cugusi.

As we move further in the production unit, Cugusi stops and shows me some Pecorinos in the middle of a seasoning process.

“This orange Pecorino is being stored for 45 days. You obtain this color because of the external treatment that is used, i.e. the cheese is rubbed with a mix of tomatoes and olive oil,” he says. “This coating will naturally protect the cheese.”

Other types of Pecorinos are wrapped in a totally black coating or placed on a bed of leaves, which you are also able to see in Pienza’s numerous cheese shops. And one can also find Pecorino with a coating made on pomace from wine, which, of course, adds a very pleasant scent to the final product.

“As you can see, we have many different products and also sizes. Pecorino’s classical form weighs 1.5 kg, but we actually have cheese forms that weigh up to 6 kg. Although the standard seasoning is one and a half months, our Pecorino Gran Riserva, which is our top product, usually has a seasoning between 18 and 24 months,” Cugusi says.

In some Pecorinos sold in Pienza, you’ll even be able to see mold on the outside of the cheese. But there is actually no need to worry about that.

“The mold is actually a positive sign,” says Cugusi. “It occurs due to the fact that the cheese is not treated with chemical products in any way, and the seasoning is completely natural. The mold can easily be washed away.”

Not Protected

Pecorino is truly a unique cheese also when it comes to the quantity of the overall production, which is actually quite modest compared to a cheese produced commercially. While many of Italy’s other famous cheeses are protected by the EU-qualification DOP (Protected Designation of Origin), this is not the case with Pecorino of Pienza. Because it is not a protected brand, there is actually a risk of coming across fake products.

Around Pienza, only some 20 companies are producing the cheese made from the milk of just 3,000 sheep. As a matter of fact, if all the cheese sold under the brand Pecorino di Pienza were really the original, you would actually need 100,000 sheep.

Contributing to the problem are the sheep imported from France, which some local farmers have been using for milk in recent years. Instead of only 1 liter—the daily amount of milk coming from the traditional Sardinian sheep—the French sheep are able to produce 3 liters a day, which, of course, gives access to a larger production. However, the flavor of the final product is not like the original.

In the center of this Tuscan city, you’ll find the long Corso Rossellini, which cuts the town in two. The center of Pienza was designed in the Middle Ages by architect Bernardo Rossellino, who also worked for Pope Pio II, and it is dominated by the impressive Cathedral of Pienza, erected in 1462. From here, it is as though spirituality flows out to reach all corners of this small town, which is also known under its nickname “la città ideale”. This because Pienza was considered the Renaissance utopia incarnation of an ideal city, which, from an architectural point of view, is characterized by a rational organization of the open spaces and perspectives of squares and palaces.

Along the Corso, many small grocery and specialty stores can be found. And when you stop in front of them, you are automatically bound to be dragged inside by the inviting Pecorinos. Samples are on display to taste, and you’ll be able to try many before making your choice.

And, to complete the picture of Pienza, if you happen to visit the town on the first Sunday of September, do not miss the annual precision game ”il Gioco del Cacio al fuso”, where the participants try to role Pecorino cheese as close as possible to a pole. It takes place right in the center of town on Piazza Pio II and is an important folkloristic event of Pienza. On that day, a touch of fun and madness mixed with history and taste, will give you the perfect dimension of what Pienza is all about.

A “Little” Love for Cheese

Georgia’s Sweet Grass Dairy

At Thomasville, GA’s Sweet Grass Dairy, it’s the bovines that set its cheese apart.

The operation is owned by the husband and wife duo of Jeremy and Jessica Little, who together run the cheese production facility as well as a cheese shop and restaurant. Jeremy serves as head cheesemaker and focuses more on operations, while Jessica manages sales, marketing and the cheese shop. However, their jobs often overlap, and they wear many hats.

To fully understand the history of Sweet Grass Dairy, you first need to harken back to the story of Jessica’s parents—Al and Desiree Wehner. These dairy farmers switched their farming method to an intensive grazing management farming style in 1993, allowing “cows to be cows”. This meant the animals were moved to a fresh pasture every 12 hours and kept cool under a large pivot system.

It was this farming style, combined with the natural resources and mild winters in South Georgia, that helped the cows live longer, healthier lives on fresh green grass 365 days per year.

“My dad is from a long line of dairy farmers, and I grew up in 4H showing cows, but I told my parents I would never come back to South Georgia once I went to college,” Jessica says. “But never say never. While I was in school, I met Jeremy, and we both loved food so much, we thought it was our career path.”

While the couple lived in Atlanta, Jessica’s mom had the idea to start making cheese in her kitchen back on the farm.

“I would come home from school and taste what was in the beginning not great, but she kept at it, and people were so excited about it,” she explains. “We saw quickly this would be a fun opportunity and encouraged her to keep going.”

The Wehners built the creamery and, within a year, they needed help and interviewed some French cheesemakers to possibly come aboard. But Jeremy thought it would be a good idea for him and Jessica to move to Sweet Grass and help out.

“He fell in love with the idea of learning about the origins of food,” Jessica says. “For so long, he thought really great food was all about the skill of the chef and the technique. But he learned from coming to the farm that putting the care into the grass and the soil and how doing such a good job with the cows all play a role. There’s so much more than technique; it’s about sourcing great ingredients and high-quality food stock.”

The Littles moved back and quickly fell in love with the cheese industry, buying the creamery from Jessica’s parents back in 2005.

In Charge

With the Littles now running things, they soon learned that cheesemaking required a lot of time and dedication. Fortunately, the couple was willing to do what they could to make the operation a success.

“Being entrepreneurs at a young age was tough,” Jessica says. “When we bought the creamery, it was 140 acres and making both cow and goat milk. We found that it was really hard to be great farmers, maintain the pasture and be great at animal husbandry, along with making the cheese and marketing and selling it.”

At the time, the couple was driving three to four hours to farmers markets and taking the cheese around to chefs. They found it difficult to manage everything.

“We ended up selling the goats after about five years, which was a really hard decision,” Jessica says. “I think it made us better because we were able to focus on one segment—cow milk cheeses.”

That extra time also afforded them the opportunity to open up a cheese shop and restaurant in their home town.

“We were getting so disconnected because we were selling all our cheese far away, but we didn’t have a good pulse of what customers were interested in once we stopped doing farmers markets,” she says. “We wanted that connection with the consumer, and this has allowed us to get involved with the community and see what they like and want.”

For instance, recently Sweet Grass Dairy launched a new Gouda, and they offered it at the cheese shop first to see the response on a larger scale.

“We traded one headache of running a goat farm with another of running a restaurant, but it was a good move for us,” Jessica says. “We’re now a jack of all trades as opposed to being a master of one, and I think with COVID-19, we’re very thankful we are. We have many different areas of of business.”

Evolution of Success

When the Littles first moved back to the farm, they attended their first American Cheese Society conference in 2002, and Sweet Grass Dairy won five different awards for cheeses.

“We were sitting right in front of a really great cheesemaker named Liz Parnell who had a creamery in Huntsville, AL, and she turned around, then looked at us and said, ‘Now I know I need to retire; when someone who has only been making cheese for two years is now winning awards.’ We have been very fortunate to win awards along the way.”

The company’s most popular cheese is its award-winning Green Hill, a double cream, soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese made in the style of a Camembert, named after its flagship dairy. It has an unctuous, buttery flavor, a thin white bloomy rind and smooth, creamy texture, perfect atop a warm baguette.

“This has helped put us on the map on a larger scale,” Jessica says. “We’ve had some success with our natural rind Asher Blue, which has won awards, as well.”

The Littles’ quest for education in the industry has been a key to success, she adds. Jeremy has spent a great deal of time at different institutions learning more about cheese and the process and has become friends with many in the cheese world.

“Our industry is not uber competitive, and we can pick up the phone and ask someone for help and learn,” Jessica says. “For me, that kind of collaboration is notable.”

Farming Matters

The thing that distinguishes Sweet Grass Dairy from other cheese companies is the way that they farm.

“We live in an area that has very mild winters, and we can keep our cows on grass year-round,” Jessica says. “Throughout cheese history, it’s known that when cows are out on grass, the flavor of the milk has been great. So we can provide a flavor profile that most other areas of the country don’t have.”

The average temperature annually is 67 degrees. In addition, the farm has unlimited water as it sits on top of the second largest aqua in the nation, so they can grow grass every single day.

“What we are doing with the land matters, and to be able to tell the story and to taste the difference is important,” Jessica says. “We are providing sustainable business for the long-term.”

It’s All About the Cheese

In addition to Green Hill, the other cheese in Sweet Grass Dairy’s portfolio that the company is known for is its Thomasville Tomme, a French table cheese made in the style of a Pyrenees mountain farmhouse tomme. This natural rinded, semi-soft cheese is aged for 60 to 90 days, which imparts a subtle yet complex earthy flavor and creamy texture.

She calls this a good gateway cheese for a lot of people in the region, and it attracts people to artisan cheese and trying more of its flavors.

“Most of the cheeses we make are French-inspired because Jeremy learned how to make cheese from a French cheesemaker at the very beginning, and there’s so much information and recipes that we can pull ideas from,” Jessica says. “He’ll say these are old-world-inspired flavors but with new-world type flavors.”

Every cheesemaker has a cheese that changed their lives, and for Jeremy, it was blue cheese, which is why Asher Blue is one of his favorites. This is described as having a unique natural rind and creamy-crumbly texture. It is slightly pungent, with a mushroomy aroma and earthy, grassy flavors with an unexpectedly mild, salty finish.

“It’s one of the hardest cheeses to make, but he loves making it, and it keeps him excited about this business,” Jessica says. “I love how cheese brings joy to people’s lives. It’s been so fun to be part of an industry that hasn’t had a lot of history in our country, and we both enjoy being a part of that.”

Looking Ahead

Sweet Grass has roughly 50 employees, with about half working at the restaurant. There’s also a marketing manager who lives in Atlanta and a national sales director in San Francisco. Everyone else is in the creamery or cheese shop.

“Last year, we made about 380,000 pounds of cheese, but we’re still small, and in that difficult phase of being too big to be small, but not yet competing on a national scale,” Jessica says. “We need to scale up and hire people who are experts in the years ahead.”

The plan is to move into a new facility sometime in 2020. The goal is to produce roughly five times its current capacity in the next few years and add new cheeses to its portfolio.

With the coronavirus impacting so many things this year, 2020 has been an odd year for Sweet Grass Dairy, as the company has experienced the same challenges all retailers and restaurants have. “We have some equipment coming from Canada and France, and we’re not sure when the borders will be open, but we are primed and ready to be in the new production facility in August. This will allow us to bump up to the next level and hire a really great controller and a really great production manager,” Jessica says. “We will be focusing on getting to that next level.”