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Cheese Department Lays in Cornerstone

A new cheese, made by three different cheese operations in three different states is part of a project that could help re-define American artisan cheese.

Last week at Potash Markets I received two pieces of what may prove to be one of the most important cheeses in America. Cornerstone is made by two New England cheesemakers and one in Pennsylvania. It is the early result of a project that could soon include many other small cheese artisans in other regions of the county, and might spark a new wave of cheese innovation. That’s a heady, lofty goal. And that’s why I am excited that Potash Markets may be the first retailer in Chicago carrying the toma-style cheese. Our eight-pound squares came from Parish Hill Creamery, ( Putney, Vermont, after co-founder Rachel Fritz Schaal and I had a phone conversation about the project.

The Cornerstone Project was inspired by a discussion at the American Cheese Society conference 2015, about whether or not American artisan cheesemakers had yet developed true original styles. But rather than storming headlong into designing a new style, the project started by stepping back, Fritz Schaal says, to explore fundamental cheesemaking processes and that would allow the milk, the farm terroir and the cheesemaking environment to lead the way toward innovation. Each cheesemaker follows a basic recipe and avoids extraneous treatment to cheeses as they develop.

"By limiting the input variables, we allow the raw milk to determine the nuances of texture and flavor unique to each of our Cornerstones," she says.

Peter Dixon, the veteran head cheesemaker at Parish Hill, was part of that initial conversation. "Peter’s suggestion was that the only way to be original was to go back to the traditional and the elemental.” That's not so unusual for artisan cheesemakers. But Dixon had already pushed further toward the elemental than most, by using native starter cultures made from his herd’s milk, and that is unusual.

Conventional modern practices, even for farmstead cheesemakers, involve the use of pre-packaged, isolated cultures purchased from companies that specialize in microbiological products for the food industry. These companies offer an array of strains, appropriate for various styles of cheeses, and the products bring good, predictable results. Starter cultures help launch the fermentation that turns milk to cheese. Stepping-up native cultures from raw milk is an additional task added to the process of daily cheesemaking and requires some familiarity with microbiology if one is concerned with consistency. While Cheesemakers in the 19th century did this routinely, today’s cheesemakers are not so likely to develop their own cultures unless they hope to produce unique flavors or allow expression of terroir, which is exactly what the Cornerstone Project is about.

That’s a lot of back story, but you the customer want to know what kind of cheese you will buy. “When it’s young, it’s tangy,” Fritz Schaal says. “Lactic and yogurty, and not too crazy or intense. As it ages it develops a stronger, more nuanced flavor.”

The “stone” we have opened at Potash is certainly tangy and lemony, with a semi-hard crumbly texture. We think it goes well with cured meats and sweet fruit preserves, and we think you will enjoy it. Please stop in and try some Cornerstone. We carry numerous American artisan cheeses, including a few from New England, and more places far and wide.

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