Shortly after Lindsey and I set up taste2taste, I went to my local farmers markets in Westchester County, NY in search of new products and inspiration for our blog readers to enjoy
One Sunday morning, at Irvington Village Farmer’s Market, I came across the stall of a local artisan cheese maker, called ‘The Cheese Guy’ based out of Yonkers, NY. What caught my attention was a huge slab on display, that I initially mistook for a piece of solid marble. It was, in fact, an incredible looking piece of reserve matured marbled cheddar. Beautiful honey and cream granite in appearance, it tasted amazing and I was hooked!
I just had to find out who was behind this superb product and their story. So, on a cold rainy day at the end of last year, I managed to track down Brent Delman, the Guy behind the Cheese and we met at his house in the back roads of urban Yonkers to talk, taste and trade tales of this dairy delight
Just twenty or thirty years ago, when one thought of American cheese, what came to mind was a dark yellow rubbery processed product that didn’t taste of anything much. However, just like the beer industry in the US,there has been a veritable explosion in craft cheese making in recent years. This has been led by people’s interest in local and non industrial food. As a result small family farms starting to produce higher end artisan cheese product and the proverbial ex-Wall St types acquired small farms to produce their own cheese
Brent’s story is a little different and very interesting
He grew up in a Jewish family in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio where, as a child, he had access to great Italian cheeses and homemade Amish farm cheese, as well as the dairy products his mother made in the Eastern European Ashkenazi style. Soft cheeses, cottage cheese, cream cheese and sour cream in quiche and dips, all of which he loved. After University and several years in the sales and distribution side of the food business he found that there was something missing from his life. He really wanted to do something hands on and be more creative. Having always been passionate about dairy and cheese, he decided to develop his own product line and fulfill his American dream
This coincided with a change in his personal life, as Brent was returning to a more traditional Orthodox Jewish life style and wanted to keep Kosher. At the time, a great deal of artisan cheese used animal rennet, which precluded traditional Orthodox Jews, Vegetarians or Muslims from consuming it. Realizing there was a dearth of Kosher and vegetarian artisan cheese in the market, he decided to create a kosher version of artisan cheese. He came up with the wacky logo and name, “The Cheese Guy” a sort of cheesy disco era Elvis / John Travolta symbol, having picked up the moniker as a nickname his customers used to give him
Brent immersed himself in a steep learning process. He went back to school, attending courses on cheese aging at the University of Vermont and got hands on experience at small family farms in Vermont learning about cheese production and forming relationships with both them and producers further afield, who were interested in working with him. However, to produce a Kosher cheese required an extra level of effort. Brent had to work with the farms in person and with a representative of the Kashrut (Rabbinic Kosher Authorities) to render the production facilities Kosher. This meant bringing in his own ingredients including kosher rennet and bacterial cultures and investing in new equipment specific to production of his cheese. Notwithstanding the hurdles, he hit on a winner, the business grew and he currently works with farms in the US (Hudson Valley of NY, Vermont, Amish farms in Ohio and Wisconsin) and even overseas (Argentina, Italy and Israel)
But, that’s not the end of the story! Brent lived in urban and suburban New York and not on a farm, where the cheese is produced. So, how could he fulfill his dream of being a hands-on cheese producer? Well, he turned to focus on what is now his primary interest, Affinage, or the aging of cheese.
However, where could he age cheese, so close to home? The secret was right under our feet!
A few years ago, he purchased a family house in Yonkers, deep in the sprawling New York suburbs not a stones throw from the Bronx. On viewing the house, it wasn’t the kitchen or bathroom that attracted him but on descending a dark stair case, he had a ‘eureka’ moment. There he founda huge, dark, dingy and musty basement. Where you and I might think yuck, spiders etc, Brent saw a Cheese Cave! This ‘cave’ became his experimental laboratory, a place to create his personal reserve cheeses. He knew from his studies at the University of Vermont that the microbes and micro flora in the atmosphere in his Yonkers basement would give his aged reserve cheeses a unique flavor quite different from the same cheese, if aged in say Rome. From small beginnings: tastings for family and friends, the word spread about his Yonkers aged cheese. He expanded the basement and started to take his aged cheeses to local farmers markets where they became a massive hit, so much so that he now participates in over a dozen farmers markets in New York and beyond
From a producer of fine quality Kosher Vegetarian cheese, Brent has become the Kosher Affineur! (or, aging specialist) with an expertise in aging cheese that makes him a by his own admission a true fineshmeker! (the old Yiddish phrase for a quality conscious perfectionist)
He is now exploring a range of own brand products to accompany the cheese and has become involved with local small family Vermont Farms in producing preserves, apple maple butter and even cheese crackers to accompany his products with the intention to bring together ‘terroire’ style pairings – a ‘taste of place’. with each product
We then got down to the serious business of checking out some of Brent’s cheeses. We tried out samples of both his more mainstream products and those emerging from the Cheese Cave. These were some of my favorites
Double Ale Cheddar
This is a Vermont Cow Milk Cheddar
The difference between this and a regular cheddar is that every month Brent uses two different craft beers, an IPA and Stout / Nut Brown Ale from a local area New York and New England brewery and combines the two which he adds directly into the cheese making process. This differs from the European style process, where a cheese wheel is soaked in alcohol post production
Every batch has a different variety and taste which varies depending on what combination of beers were used in the production process and I tried a couple of batches including one using Captain Lawrence beers and another in which he’d used beer from Yonkers Brewing Co.
The taste was a combination of cheddar salty nuttiness at one end with a bitter hoppiness at the other . Delicious paired with one of the beers from which it was made, I reckon. In fact, I understand that the labeling identifies the beers involved and this cheese is even collectible!
This cheese came into existence after Brent and his local Italian partner had scoured Italy to come up with partners to produce a cheese, who were willing to make the adjustments necessary to local recipes to make it kosher and vegetarian. They ended up at a farm on the Island of Sardinia that had never previously produced a kosher cheese
Then the fun began. The production of the cheese had to be supervised locally by a Rabbi to ensure the kosher rules were fulfilled. This meant he had to inspect and watch every stage of the cheese making process, beginning with the milking of the animals. As an Orthodox Jew, this gentleman could not eat with the locals, so he lived in a caravan. The result was the local farmers and community were convinced he was a spy!
As the name suggests Viney Sheep is of course a sheep milk cheese. It is soaked in a kosher Italian white wine at the end of the production process. It is 100% produced on the Italian Island of Sardinia from grass fed and organic fed sheep, has a natural rind and is aged for 6 months
On inspection, it has a waxy firm texture with a deep yellow color and when I tasted a sample, I found it had a salty sweet grainy, gamey dryness. I also tried it in combination with the Cheese Guy’s Strawberry and Vanilla Bean preserve, which set off the flavors to perfection
Many will be familiar with this type of cheese but the Cheese Guy’s version is probably one of the first Organic Kosher PDO (EU Protected District of Origin) versions of this cheese on the market. To be able to use the name, Brent had to present to the EU and persuade it that by using a kosher non-animal rennet and his own bacteria, they were not affecting the PDO (integrity) for EU purposes
The sample I tried was very salty, sharp and crumbly and would be good to grate and shred for pasta salad or in a soup. It also worked really well with The Cheese Guy’s Cranberry Port Wine preserve
Brent says that it is sold in Italy as “The Ultimate Traceable Cheese”. Ironically this name is derived from the fact the Cheese Guy’s supervising Rabbi in Italy follows every stage of production!
Saw Mill River Pecorino
This cheese is like a Pecorino Sardo. It is dark gold in color and on tasting it, I found it to be slightly smokey and less salty than the Pecorino Romano. The reason for the name is that it was a cheese exclusively aged under our feet in Brent’s Basement! Micro Flora de Route 87 South, I believe!
This is similar to a cheese called Chaource, a French Double Cream Brie style from the Champagne region. Brent gave it this name because as it matures, a bloomy white cheese rind forms on the outside of this soft cheese.
He gave me two samples to try. The first was an older fully matured version. It was pungent, almost mushroomy in odor and had a dry white coat of a chalky consistency. Fresh to taste, with a lot of bite, it was fantastic served on The Cheese Guy’s Rustic Italian cheese crackers. The next sample was of a younger version of this cheese. The exterior was a completely different, one might describe it as a coat of fuzzy soft mildew. The consistency was softer and more cheesy, a little earthy and less sharp and slightly more pungent. Brent explained that this type of cheese ripens from outside in, gets gooey and oozy inside while the exterior dries up as it ages
Bastardo del Grappa
This was my personal favorite of the cheeses I tried. Another of the fruits of Brent’s travels in Italy with his local business partner, it comes from the Friuli Venezia region near the Grappa Mountains
It is a cows milk washed rind cheese, with a smooth creamy and pale yellow mottled exterior. On tasting it, I found it had a delightful sweet smokiness in flavor
Habanero Pepper Jack
Last but not least, I couldn’t leave without trying The Cheese Guy’s version of this more mainstream Artisan American Classic
This cheese is seriously spicy with extreme heat to taste and is based on a creamy Sweet Jack American style of cheese derived from the milk of Amish pasture raised (free range) cows
It would be great for Mexican dishes quesadillas and omelettes, or if you fancy it, a seriously hot mac and cheese!
I will share more about my visit to The Cheese Guy on our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds but in the meantime, if you want to try these fantastic cheeses, you can find them in specialty stores in 10 US States including: Whole Foods, DeCiccos, Fairways, Adams, Fairacre Farms and Morton Williams
Happy Cheese Eating January and beyond!