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Say Cheese: Amish, aged and first-rate

Tom Tompkins unwraps his aged Amish cheeses at the Del Ray farmers market in Alexandria. (Domenica Marchetti)

I admit that I have harbored some stereotypical notions about Amish cheese. You probably know the kind of cheese I’m talking about: big blocks of shrink-wrapped orange cheddar-style cheeses, thick half-moons of baby Swiss, Dutch-style Goudas, generic bricks of “farmer’s” cheese with lots of flavored variations including bacon, caraway and salsa. In general these cheeses are good, but not great, wholesome yet somehow underwhelming.

Then Tom Tompkins set me straight.

Tompkins sells Amish cheeses at three Alexandria farmers markets, including the Saturday morning market in Del Ray, which is where I met him. While some of the cheeses he sells are the aforementioned classics, he also carries two raw-milk cave-aged beauties that are about as good as any I have come across. The cheeses are produced using the milk of eight Amish dairies in Lancaster County, Pa., from cows that are pasture-raised and free of hormones and antibiotics.

Bouché ($11.99 per pound) is a cheddar-style cheese that is aged for two years in 40-pound blocks. After aging, it is cut into 10-pound blocks and aged an additional 10 weeks in a cave, where it develops a bloomy white-mold rind. The name Bouché is a term from the French Renaissance, Tompkins says, that means, “squared with a knife.” The cheese has the intense buttery sharpness of good aged cheddar, but it is smoother in texture, supple and creamy -- especially after it has been brought to room temperature and the rind is edible.

Smethe, left, is a Camembert-style cheese with a mottled, white gray and brown rind. (Domenica Marchetti)

Smethe ($11.99 per pound), another French Renaissance word (“smooth”), is crafted into seven-pound wheels and aged for four to five months in the cave. During the maturation process, the cheese is brushed with a Celtic sea salt solution and turned every few days. As it ages, the cheese develops a mottled, white, gray and brown rind. The interior paste is pale in the center and golden closer to the rind. It is deliciously salty, with a definite tang that tickles the back of your tongue, and a creamy-crumbly texture. Although Tompkins describes it as a “Camembert-style” cheese and refers to it as “stinky,” its aroma is comparatively mild and it really conforms to no category.

So how did these cheeses come about? Here is Tompkins’s abbreviated version:

A former dairy farmer himself, Tompkins was working in upstate New York at a small yogurt company that went out of business. When the company sold its yogurt-making equipment to a group of Amish dairy farmers in Pennsylvania, Tompkins’s curiosity was piqued and he paid a visit to the farmers. Because of Amish restrictions regarding use of electricity, the farmers determined they would not be able to use the yogurt-making equipment, and Tompkins helped them sell it.

Together, the farmers and Tompkins embarked on a new venture: making aged, raw-milk cheeses, learning the craft from Jonathan White, a New Jersey organic farmer and cheesemaker. While Tompkins initially made the cheese himself, it is now made by Amish farmer Henry R. Lapp, while Tompkins focuses on sales and marketing. Their company produces 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of its two aged cheeses per year, selling them primarily in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Locally, you can find Tompkins at the Del Ray market on Saturdays, 8 a.m. to noon; at the West End market at Cameron Station on Sundays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and at the Upper King Street market (near the Metro station) on Tuesdays, 3 to 7 p.m. Also available at the

-- Domenica Marchetti (Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  May 11, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Say Cheese , To Market, To Market  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, To Market to Market  
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Amen to the cheese descriptions. Tom also sells wonderful yogurt, too.

Posted by: eburbage33 | May 10, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Tom's Bouche is my son's favorite cheese. And Tom has done so much to build the farmers markets in Alexandria -- including making the trek down from PA in the blizzards this past winter! Thanks for profiling his wonderful cheeses. (And the yogurts he sells are the best, too -- especially the maple!)

Posted by: ColleenFoodieTots | May 11, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Great to know about the yogurt! Will try it this coming Saturday. He is such an interesting guy. Wish they would start selling cheeses at the Sherwood Hall market on Tuesdays (I will have to start lobbying harder...)

Posted by: Domenica1 | May 11, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

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