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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Florida joins artisan cheese movement

Published May 16, 2012

Leah Steele needed a place to board her horse, Fury. She found deluxe accommodations for her steed at a citrus-grove-turned-dairy, and in exchange, she volunteered around the farm.

Four years later, the 23-year-old University of Central Florida graduate is the cheesemaker for Winter Park Dairy near Orlando. She spends her days gently heating 570-liter vats of raw cow's milk, adding cultures and vegetable-based rennet and stirring until the curds get rubbery and "popcorny." She drains the vats of whey, scoops the curds into slatted plastic hoops, tends to them as they drain and solidify, brines them, then slides the 4-pound rounds onto ash boards in the cheese cave, where they spend 60 days before they emerge as blue cheese, cheddar, tomme or peppercorn blue.

Winter Park Dairy may have been a pioneer in producing natural, raw milk artisan cheeses in Florida, but it is not the state's only cheese producer. The artisan cheese movement that started in this country in the early 1980s with big names like Maytag Dairy Farms and goat-cheese pioneer Laura Chenel has hit the Sunshine State with a vengeance in the past few years. We recently visited three cheese producers that represent different styles, different animals' milk and very different agendas.

Winter Park Dairy

David Green is a fourth-generation citrus farmer. In the 1980s his orchards in Winter Park froze solid, requiring a serious Plan B. Boarding horses for Fury and friends didn't make ends meet, so a trio of cows was purchased. This small herd eventually ballooned to 12 animals.

"Zoning said we could have a dairy on our 8 acres. The intention was to create the highest value dairy product that there is — that's cheese. We helped write state code, because it had never been done before. We were first in the state to do raw milk cheese," Green says.

He enrolled in a cheesemaking class at the University of Vermont and then hired master cheesemaker Peter Dixon to get him up and running quickly.

"We bought the learning curve on the cheese," Green says wryly. But what kind to make?

"If you have raw milk, you can make any cheese. I saw blue cheese as the highest value commodity cheese used in food service."

Green quickly learned that raising the cows, milking the cows and then making the cheese was more than he bargained for.

"Cheesemaking and cows are two different things. Making your own milk is really hard."

These days he brings in 700 gallons of raw cow's milk from Southeast Milk Cooperative each Monday in a huge sanitized disposable bag fitted into a stainless steel frame in a refrigerated truck. That milk gets pumped into two vats and made into one of four styles of cheese within 72 hours. Up to three tons of finished cheese is held at 55 degrees for 60 days in the on-site cheese cave.

But this is where Green's background in business school meshes with his personality (as he describes it, "kind of a hermit, kind of a rebel"). You won't find Winter Park Dairy cheeses on the shelves of Whole Foods or on the roster of American Cheese Society competitions. Green sells to high-end restaurants and hotels like the Gaylord Palms Orlando, the Amelia Island Ritz-Carlton or Tampa's SideBern's.

And no competitions, because as Green says, "The detriment of being judged No. 2 far outweighs the benefit of potentially being deemed No. 1."

4501 Howell Branch Road, Winter Park; (407) 671-5888; winterparkdairy.com

Mail-order cheese, $18/pound, roughly $50/wheel

The Dancing Goat

In 1998, Pam Lunn's family bought its first goat. Her daughter Carleigh, 8 at the time, wanted a show horse. But it was son Clinton, then 10, who ended up falling in love with showing goats.

"I hauled him over three states, doing eight to 10 shows a year," Lunn says as she walks past pens of chickens and quail and goats on her 3-acre Dancing Goat farm near Race Track Road in Tampa. She describes what makes a successful show goat: straight legs, a feminine head and neck, udders that aren't too long, and something about gopher ears versus elf ears. Most of the goats appear to be following along, except for one bedroom-eyed fellow named Barack and the very elderly Esmeralda (Clinton's first goat, now 13).

When Clinton was in high school, Pam inherited her son's hobby, a hobby that became a business when she lost her right-of-way services job after Sept. 11, 2001. A good goat can produce 2 gallons of milk per day (versus a cow, which produces between 9 and 14, but as Lunn says, "goats are more efficient eaters" so the feed-to-yield ratio isn't bad).

Her goat's milk business went official in 2007, the milk sold on its own ($12.50/gallon) or in the form of yogurt, kefir, chevre, feta ($10/half pound) or goat's milk soap that she and husband Jim make together. Because the milk and cheese are raw milk products that are not aged (legally, a raw milk cheese must be aged 60 days), she sells Dancing Goat products at St. Petersburg's Saturday Morning Market and Tampa's Sweetwater Organic Farm's Sunday market as "not for human consumption."

"I am not so naive as to think that Fido is the benefactor of my cheese," Lunn says while watching 15-year-old volunteer Andi Szikszay carefully hook up each goat to a milking machine, filling up what Lunn calls the "redneck chilling keg" with creamy fresh milk.

In the cheese room the Lunns heat the milk to 90 degrees, add the cultures and, a bit later (the finished chevre is creamier if you wait), the rennet. The resulting curds are hung in cheesecloth, and 48 hours later it has become delicious, fluffy goat cheese.

The Lunns' goats are more pets than working animals, living comfortable lives on clean hay with their family members and a couple of cats for entertainment. But on our visit, none were dancing.

"Oh, the name? With goats you want all your babies to be girls because they produce the milk," explains Pam. "There's an old myth that if you dance naked, your babies will be girls. I did it one year and had two baby girls."

12502 Maverick Court, Tampa; (813) 818-0305; thedancinggoat.net

Look for the booth at St. Petersburg's Saturday Morning Market.

BufaLatte

Richard and Jeff Isel and Chris Webb had a great idea for importing wines for a restaurant tap system. It ended up being too cumbersome, but along the way they heard about an Italian consortium that had just built a buffalo mozzarella factory in Mexico. The Mexican water buffalo didn't produce as much milk as their Italian brethren, and the company couldn't export the cheese to the United States because customs didn't have a category for "buffalo," but it got the team thinking.

The results are BufaLatte, an Italian-American partnership that started in Tampa last year and moved to a 10,000-square-foot factory in St. Petersburg in March. Curd from the milk of certified water buffalo (a different species from American bison) farms in Campania, Italy, is flown in, and a team of hygienically suited-up workers in St. Petersburg manipulates the curd and coaxes it through a Comat mozzarella forming machine (like a major-league taffy-puller, although Chris Webb says it is an "entry-level" model).

Most domestic mozzarella is made of cow's milk, which is lower in nutrients like calcium and protein, and has a milder, blander flavor. A true Italian water buffalo mozzarella has a lush texture and a distinctive grassy/musky flavor. The problem with importing finished Italian buffalo mozzarella is the time it spends in transit. It may be several weeks between production and consumption, not an ideal situation for a fresh cheese.

With nearly 250 million pounds of buffalo mozzarella produced in thousands of Italian factories, a scant 3 to 4 percent of the real stuff makes its way to the United States. In small batches, BufaLatte is attempting something new: an imported product that is also locally made. Already the company's 8-ounce balls and smaller bocconcini, water packed in plastic bags, have found their way into some of the area's top restaurants and shops.

3201 44th Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 485-8736; bufalatte.com

Look for their mozzarella at shops like Castellano & Pizzo or restaurants like Armani's or Pane Rustica.

Cheese culture

Cow, goat or buffalo; fresh or aged; stinky, tangy or rich — cheeses are as varied as the people who make them. And as with wine, cheeses reflect the "terroir" (the geography, climate and sense of place) of where they are made. For local-food advocates like Lunn, the growth of Florida-made products is imperative.

"Know your farmer, know their practices and take a look at their operation. In 10 years, if you don't know a farmer, or grow some of your own food, you're not going to eat."

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293.

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