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Say Cheese: Europe by way of New Jersey

Clockwise from top: Crema de Blue, OktoberKase, Oldwick Shepherd, Smokey Shepherd and Shepherd's Basked, all from Valley Shepherd Creamery, surround fresh apricots. (Domenica Marchetti)

Hunterdon County, N.J., is a mix of rocky terrain and rolling hills, of historic villages, big residential properties, and large tracts of farmland. It is also home to Valley Shepherd Creamery, where owner and cheesemaker Eran Wajswol is producing some really good European-style cheeses.

My sister, Maria, happens to live about two miles from the creamery and its country-style “sheep shoppe,” so I’ve had the opportunity to visit numerous times since the store opened in 2005. Each time I go, I stock up on fresh sheep’s milk ricotta, sheep’s milk yogurt, butter and buttermilk. But there are many other wonderful cheeses to choose from, and every time I visit it seems Wajswol has added a new one to the list.

Wajswol, who spends about every waking hour at the cheese-making operation, told me that it is the creative process that appeals to him. The Belgium native is an engineering graduate of Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken (where he met his wife and bookkeeper, Debra). Before he was a cheesemaker he was a builder of high rises.

“I got tired of that,” he says. “Making the cheeses is much more fun.” Over the course of several years, the couple learned how to make mountain-style cheeses in Belgium, France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. They now tend a flock of 600 sheep and two herds of dairy cows — 30 Jersey and 15 Guernsey — plus 20 goats whose milk he uses to produce crottin and other fresh cheeses.

Valley Shepherd cheeses have proven to be immensely popular. Wajswol sells at more than two dozen regional farmers markets, including the Union Square Greenmarket in New York, and to more than 200 chefs. This week he is opening a small shop in SoHo, in lower Manhattan, where he will sell a selection of his signature cheeses, as well as the farm’s own pasta, sheep’s milk yogurt, butter and buttermilk.

Valley Shepherd’s first, best-known cheese is its Oldwick Shepherd, a cave-aged raw sheep’s milk cheese with a brownish-white mottled rind and a faintly grassy flavor with a nutty finish. Smokey Shepherd is the same cheese smoked over applewood embers.

Among the other cheeses that Valley Shepherd produces:

Perlitta (in front) and Tewkesbury, two Valley Shepherd cheeses. (Domenica Marchetti)
  • Crema de Blue: a creamy, really assertive blue cheese made from a mix of sheep’s milk and cow’s milk.
  • Nettlesome: a tomme-style mixed-milk cheese with a mottled rind and a paste flecked with stinging nettles.
  • Oktoberkase: an aged cheese that is produced from the protein-rich milk that the sheep give in October, as their milking season is winding down. It is smooth in texture and earthy with a slight back-of-the-tongue tingle.
  • Perlitta: an aged gouda-style mixed milk cheese with a creamy, richly flavored orange paste.
  • Shepherd’s Basket: a raw sheep’s milk Basque-style cheese (think of Manchego) that is slightly crumbly and both sharp and buttery. I served this with sliced fresh apricots and local wildflower honey and really could not stop eating it.
  • Tewkesbury: an aged cow’s milk cheese made in the style of Comte, but deeper in flavor, salty and buttery rich. The paste is creamy-crumbly and shot through with small eyes.

Valley Shepherd also makes a lovely brie-style cheese known as Brielle. Wajswol is working on a more pungent version with a paste that is runny near the rind and more firm in the center. He is also working on another Comte-style cheese made only from Guernesy milk.

Like any dedicated engineer, he is always tinkering with his creations.

-- Domenica Marchetti
(Follow me on Twitter.)

(Note: Oldwick Shepherd is sometimes carried by Cowgirl Creamery. More of the creamery’s cheeses are available online through the Valley Shepherd web site.)

By The Food Section  |  June 29, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, cheese  
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