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When Love Grows Mold

The artisanal cheeses of upstate New York

When playing the word association game, there is no shortage of answers to throw at the topic of Western New York. The Bills. Bingo! Snow. Keep going! Wings. You got it! Cheese. What?

As the comical cow commercials remind us, “Cheese comes from cows and happy cows come from California.” Wisconsin’s football fans go as far as to wear Styrofoam replicas of cheese wedges on their heads. Certainly, if Buffalo had any claim to cheese fame, we would proudly flaunt it.

But our cheesy story is shrouded in mystery and mold.

In search of the truth regarding Western New York’s rank in the cheese world, the first task is to find a true turophile.

Barbara Madden, the artisan cheese buyer at the Lexington Co-operative Market (807 Elmwood Avenue), is a self-described cheese-o-phile who swoons at the mere mention of the dairy delight.

Madden is self-educated when it comes to her impressive knowledge of cheese. She has gained hands-on experience by working on local dairy farms over the past few years, and she has held the position of cheesemonger at the co-op for the last four years.

She knows her way around a cheese case.

She offers nearly 100 varieties of cheese at the co-op, and more than a dozen are crafted locally. She takes great pride in her cheese selections, specifically the boutique local varieties.

Madden explains that the local artisanal cheeses she chooses to sell reflect are handcrafted from start to finish.

“We strive for local, sustainably farmed producers,” Madden says. “All of my farmers treat their animals really well.”

She has gallons of information when it comes to New York artisan cheeses and, of course, has a few local favorites. Painted Goat Farm in Garrattsville, New York, ranks among her top choices.

Ilyssa Berg and Javier Flores are the proud owners of Painted Goat Farm. They are also the farm’s only employees. Located in the foothills just north of the Catskill Mountains, Berg and Flores have operated their goat farm since 2007.

Berg was brought up just outside New York City and holds a degree in ecological anthropology. Flores comes from a long line of farmers in the very rural community of LaLoma in Ecuador. They met over a decade ago and, together, they have created one of the most unique dairy farms in New York.

As the name implies, Painted Goat Farm deals strictly in goats; no comical cows allowed here.

The farm has close to 80 goats, 60 of which are used for milking. And those 60 goats produce some magical milk.

Berg explains that the majority of the cheeses produced are fresh or soft cheeses. They produce creamy, spreadable chevre in several variations. They offer their cheeses seasoned with fresh herbs, cracked peppercorns, and even a rosemary-fig jam.

Berg and Flores are proud of their interesting offerings and note that they change with the growing season and milk production.

“What you feed the animals really influences the taste of the cheese,” says Berg.

Another uniquely New York dairy farm is Old Chatham Sheepherding Company located in the heart of the Hudson Valley. While Berg and Flores stand behind their goats, Tom and Nancy Clark, owners of Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, have put their stock in sheep.

The Clarks began their 600-acre farm back in 1993 with an impressive herd of 150 ewes. That original flock has now grown to more than 1,000 ewes. With one of the largest flocks of dairy sheep in the country, the Clark’s produce both a French Roquefort style cheese as well as a Camembert.

The farm’s five-person staff works seven days a week to maintain their organically managed fields and pastures. They farm the old-fashioned way eschewing the use of hormones and pesticides.

Their mantra: “Great cheese is made from great milk.”

Their claim to fame, Ewe’s Blue, is soft cheese made in the Roquefort style, ripe with blue and green veining. The creamy texture and lasting finish make it one of the farms favorite cheeses.

The Clarks also specialize in Camembert, a creamy cheese similar to Brie with a soft white rind and a buttery texture. Delicious when paired with a glass of pinot noir, this cheese can also stand on its own.

It is impossible to cover the wide range of cheeses without paying homage to the bovine beauties, cows. Cooperstown Cheese Company located in Milford, New York, does just that.

The farm has been owned by Sharon Tomaselli and Bob Sweitzer since 2007 and utilizes the milk from their 100 percent grass-fed Jersey cows.

Cooperstown Cheese Company has crafted their own particular brand of cheese, Toma Celena.

Toma Celena is a northern Italian alpine-style cheese. The cheese is distinctly nutty and exclusive to its creators. The dairy also offers fresh products including cheese curds and ricotta cheese.

The co-op’s Barbara Madden understands the subtle nuances found in these local cheeses and selects her producers and their wares carefully.

She also appreciates the alchemy of cheese. She notes how the flavors change based on the season and what the animals graze on.

“I love that every cheese is so different,” she says. “Cheese is such a complex food.”

Finding these cheesy treasures may prove a bit difficult. Many of the local farmers run small farms with small flocks. The size of the farm and dairy affects the amount of production. Madden suggests visiting local farmer’s markets to dig up these gems.

The hunt is well worth it. After all, as Madden says with a big smile, “Everything is better with cheese on it.”

More information on New York state artisanal cheese producers can be found at

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