More cheese, please!

Clean, sharp, rustic, musty—a pile of dreamy dairy gives us all the feels

Photo: Tom McGovern

Raise your hand if you’ve ever “accidentally” forgotten to say when as the server was grating Parmesan onto your bowl of pasta. Or if you’ve ever taken a bite directly out of the wedge of brie you bought to kick off dinner. We’ll be the first to admit: The way (whey?) to our hearts is with a bunch of cheese.

On particularly prolific days, the sisters at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery might make 800 pounds of gouda, each 2-pound disc dipped in a protective red wax coating before being sold or shipped. Photo: John Robinson

Praise cheeses!

Crozet nuns make cheese to nourish the body and the soul

By Erin O’Hare
The 12 sisters of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet rise early. Very early. Quarter past three in the morning, to be exact, when the sky is dark and the hillside is quiet and still.

It’s an hour when the heart and the mind are fresh says Sister Maria, one of the younger nuns at the monastery.

It’s an hour when the heart and mind are still as the hillside, adds Sister Barbara, who has lived at the monastery since it was founded in 1987. Together, they follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, a set of rules for monastic life that emphasizes peace, prayer and work, written by Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century.

The sisters’ morning routine consists of community prayer, then individual prayer, readings and Mass. They shower, eat breakfast, make their beds—regular morning things. Some mornings, they head to the cheese barn just down the hill from the church and make cheese, creamy gouda with a mild flavor that, among other things, makes a deliciously melty grilled cheese sandwich.

Sister Barbara Smickel shows off the fromage of the nuns’ labor. Photo: John Robinson

The sisters at Our Lady of the Angels come from all over the world to live a modest, fulfilling life in Crozet. Sister Barbara grew up in Southern California and Sister Maria in Spain; they have a sister from Haiti and another from India, each of them called to religious life for a different reason. While the monastery receives generous donations from various folks in the community and from all over, the sisters have living expenses just like anyone else—groceries, toiletries, doctor’s appointments, eyeglasses—and they support themselves with their cheese business. Plus, adds Sister Barbara, the profits allow them to “give something to the poor.”

The gouda begins with a Mountain Milk Hauling delivery of whole milk that comes from grass-fed cows raised on a Mennonite farm over the mountain. “It’s really great milk,” says Sister Maria, who oversees the cheese production process. It’s visibly “creamy, beautiful milk.” The day after the milk arrives at the monastery, a few sisters walk down the hill to the cheese barn to begin the pasteurization process by 4am. “It’s a really nice hour to start pasteurizing milk,” Sister Maria says with a warm laugh that echoes through the hallway below the chapel stairs.

Once the milk has been pasteurized—heated to a temperature that kills any harmful bacteria present in the milk—it’s cooled to between 88 and 90 degrees and transferred into the cheese vat, which Sister Maria says looks something like “a mini swimming pool,” industrialized.

Making cheese is a multi-step process that includes separating the curds and whey (left), then pumping the whey out into the pre-press vat to act as a landing pad for the curds (right). Photo: John Robinson

Then it’s time to add the cultures to the vat full of pasteurized milk. “I call them ‘my creatures,’ because they do a big job, so they deserve some respect,” Sister Maria says. Using paddles, the sisters stir the cultures into the milk before adding the rennet, a coagulant; the cultures rapidly raise the acidity of the milk by consuming the milk sugars (i.e. lactose) and converting it to lactic acid, disabling certain bacteria to help the rennet better separate milk into solid curds (used in the cheese) and liquid whey (a byproduct). Then there’s more stirring, separating, cutting, over and over until the cheese mixture is of the right consistency—like that of Jell-O or custard.

From there, they slowly add hot water to raise the temperature of the curds in order to make the curds more even in texture, a crucial step in the making of exquisitely smooth gouda.

Then, the whey is flushed away and curds are cut by hand and packed into forms, pressed into approximately 2-pound discs and immersed in a salt brine before curing in a refrigeration room. The entire process takes a full day, and the sisters still have to pray, clean, cook and participate in various religious duties depending on the liturgical season.

In the four days after the cheese is made, a special rind is hand-painted on each individual cheese, which allows the cheese to breathe as it ages. Before a cheese is sold or shipped, it’s dipped in a bright red protective wax coating.

This is all pretty standard for gouda, a type of cheese that originated in the city of Gouda (pronounced “how-da,” not “goo-da”) in the Netherlands. But there’s a secret ingredient in the Our Lady of the Angels gouda: As the sisters make the cheese, they pray for the people who will later eat it.

People often include prayer requests along with their cheese orders—for sick family members, for upcoming weddings or births. “We know about these things, and we know that each family, each person, has their own difficulties and struggles, and also dreams and hopes. So we pray for that. It’s our way of reaching out,” of connecting with others outside the monastery, says Sister Maria.

Sister Barbara, who oversees the business end of things, estimates the sisters make cheese about 32 times per year, and on particularly prolific cheese-making days, they might make 800 pounds of cheese. When all is said and done, they produce around 20,000 pounds (10 tons) of cheese each year. About 75 percent of the sales are mail and online orders, while the other 25 percent comes directly from the monastery. Anyone can drive up to the church, ring the bell and a sister will come help with a purchase.

Sister Barbara wants more local folks to know that while the sisters spend much of their time up on the hillside in Crozet, they venture into Charlottesville often—always while wearing their religious habits, so that they’re easy to identify—to buy groceries, visit the doctor and run other errands. And they welcome visitors at the monastery, too.

Sister Maria imagines that many people believe that monastic life is leisurely. And while it’s a peaceful life and it’s a disciplined one—cheese-making, in particular, is hard work. It helps the nuns stay grounded and connected to the many people in the world who work hard for their earnings. “It’s not like we are a few feet above everyone else,” she says, adding that days are not given easily to anyone. “Our life is not something strange,” says Sister Maria. “It’s real. In the same way our cheese is real and good and creamy, so is our life.” 

Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. Photo: John Robinson

What makes it so gouda?

The Our Lady of the Angels gouda is the perfect buy for all you Goldilockses of the cheese counters. “Easy eating, not too strong, not too mild, but just right,” says Feast! cheesemonger and cheese buyer Sara Adduci, adding, “it’s such a comfort cheese for us.” She especially loves telling her customers that this cheese is made by a group of nuns who use it to support their lifestyle.

Adduci suggests putting it on a cheeseboard paired with sweet peach chutney from the Virginia Chutney Company and, if you’re tempted, a glass of Early Mountain Vineyards rosé. It also makes a slammin’ grilled cheese and adds a little extra creaminess to scrambled eggs.

The sisters have a gouda consumption method, too: Toast two slices of bread, top the toast with a few slices of gouda and nuke the whole thing for about 20 seconds. “It’s irresistible,” says Sister Barbara. “It was made to melt!”—EO

Queso cotija atop nachos at The Bebedero. Photo: Tom McGovern

Los quesos de Mexico

Stuck on cheddar, American and Swiss? There’s a world of cheeses out there beyond the usual standards. In the kitchen at The Bebedero, chefs Cesar Gazpar and Yuliana Perez are busy cooking elegant Mexican fare that makes use of authentic cheeses from various regions south of the border. “We try to bring the best flavors of Mexico into our cuisine,” says Perez. We sat down with them to learn about a few of those flavors.

We started with queso fresco, probably more well-known in this country than some other Mexican cheeses. Some might compare it to feta, says Perez, but its salt content is not at all overpowering and it’s essentially a mild white cheese with a slightly chewy texture and a friendly spirit. “We tend to use queso fresco in a lot of dishes because it’s very versatile,” says Perez—meaning it’ll never overtake a dish, but will only add complexity.

Next up: cotija. This one, with origins in Michoacan, has a pitted, crumbly texture, a somewhat dry character and a flavor that’s sharp, salty, sweet and tangy all at once. It’s delicious. “We use this with things that are saucy, like an empanada with sour cream,” says Perez. “The saltiness plus the sourness balances really well.”

Asadero cheese is stronger still—sharp and acidic—and has a color and texture more like cheddar. “We use this for cheese sauce or soup,” says Perez. “It has more elasticity”—a stringy structure that won’t turn runny. Its strong flavor pairs well with spices, like morita powder, a smoked sundried hot pepper.

Another melting cheese is Chihuahua. In fact, it’s known as the “quesadilla cheese,” says Gazpar. It’s handy for making fried empanadas, too: anything that requires a cheese that will, mozzarella-like, hold its consistency when it melts—creamy, earthy and delectable.—Erika Howsare

Photo: Tom McGovern

For kids and everybody else

“Universally popular” is how Josh Hunt, owner of Kardinal Hall, describes the mac‘n’cheese his beer hall serves. “At any table of four, it’s a good bet someone will order the mac ‘n’ cheese.”

Perhaps the attraction lies in those happy childhood memories of a cheap, boxed version of the dish which, when you’re 7, tastes pretty awesome. But we’re talking about a whole different animal here, something that can speak to a grownup.

The standby dish has evolved since Kardinal Hall opened in 2015. Currently, chef Willy Marques tells us, the three cheeses that make this mac sing are cheddar, smoked gouda and mozzarella. He sautées the cheddar and gouda with heavy cream, milk, garlic and a little mustard—“to give it acidity, so it’s not a one-note flavor,” says Hunt—before cooking the pasta al dente (to avoid mushiness) and mixing in the sauce. Then—only then—does he add the mozzarella. Heated under a broiler for half a minute in a cast-iron serving dish, it becomes a stringy delicious topping to complement the looser cheddar/gouda sauce below.—Erika Howsare

Photo: The Kama Photography

The perfect recipe

Pimento cheese—that gooey spread traditionally made with American, mayo and pimentos—is a divisive topping. It can be too intensely cheesy, or turn off folks who don’t like olives or, as Brian Yoder experienced, is sometimes too soggy to even qualify as a spread.

Still, says the Carousel Kitchen owner, “I felt like pimento cheese was an important enough Southern staple that it was worth my time to tweak and explore, as I do with most things I cook.”

He started with aged cheddar, but eventually settled on a recipe with smoked gouda, fire-roasted peppers and smoked paprika and other herbs (no pimentos in sight!).

“Chives add a bit of bright, fresh flavor to balance the smokiness,” Yoder says, “while whole-grain mustard and peppercorn blend give it a subtle bite without too much heat.”

Yoder suggests using the spread, which he sells at the City Market and other local vendors, on sandwiches instead of mayonnaise, on a grilled cheese, on barbecue sandwiches or even fried in wonton wrappers. “The possibilities are nearly endless,” he says.—Caite White

Pimento DIY

To make your own version of pimento cheese, Yoder says there are plenty of good recipes online to use as a starting point. He recommends using a quality aged or smoked cheese. Then add in little mayo (“less than the recipe calls for—you can always add more at the end”).

As for the pimentos, “Traditional, jarred pimentos work fine,” he says, “but can be substituted with smoked, fire-roasted, hot or Spanish peppers.” Then try adding in other ingredients—caramelized onions, chives, green onions, Latin American spice blends, parsley, etc.

Caromont Farm’s Gail Hobbs Page. Photo: Beyond the Flavor

Of the land

Artisanal cheese expresses unique characteristics in unique ways

By Shea Gibbs
Can cheese taste of the land where it’s made? Absolutely, but local cheesemakers say to call that taste “terroir,” the term used in the wine world to describe the way environment affects flavor, and that might be a stretch.

“It’s a dreamy term,” says Gail Hobbs Page, cheesemaker and owner of Caromont Farm. “A lot of people don’t really understand it.”

Indeed, Kyle Kilduff, co-owner of creamery Twenty Paces, says only a few cheese producers in the nation truly express terroir in their finished product. Kilduff says place can show itself in cheese in two ways: 1) Through the local grasses the animals eat and 2) Through yeast and bacteria native to the region. But almost every artisanal cheesemaker uses some outside feed and cultures.

“If you’re feeding the animals grain or hay that you brought in from all over the place, that’s a step away,” Kilduff says. “If you’re using commercial cultures, that’s another step away.”

That’s not to say small batch cheese isn’t a unique or expressive product. Craft producers can influence their finished cheese in many ways to make it more interesting and unpredictable in flavor. “The big thing is artisanal cheese doesn’t need to express terroir to be good,” Kilduff says. “Beer doesn’t express terroir 99 percent of the time, but it still showcases quality ingredients and technique.”

Goats fed primarily grass, as opposed to hay and grain, do tend to produce raw milk with a distinct flavor. Hobbs Page says when the spring grasses come in, the cheese produced is “lighter and cleaner” and can be used to produce a “lemony-like cheese.” In the fall and winter when grass is scarce, the resulting cheese is too creamy and dense.

“The farm has its own little ecosystem going on,” Hobbs Page says. “We’ve learned the cheese takes time, and it has to do its own thing.”

Caromont’s ecosystem extends to the aging process. When Hobbs Page first started aging cheese, for example, she was keeping her cave too clean. The cheese came out with a hint of chemicals.

“We don’t do fancy aging. We do natural rind,” she says. “At first, I was so worried I was going to hurt somebody, so I would go in my cave every day and clean it. But the cheese never got a chance to ‘live’ and was very boring.”

A queso, beer

At Crozet’s Fardowners, you don’t have to look far down the menu to find the signature beer queso. Its tasty, tangy, gooey goodness graces nachos (of both the tortilla chip and tater tot variety), cheesesteak sandwiches and Fardowners’ mammoth Goodwin Creek soft pretzels. But this popular cheese sauce gets its most crucial secret ingredient from a brewery just down the road.

“We wanted to recreate the classic, delicious queso dip, but with our Fardowners spin on it, by blending in a local light lager,” says owner and executive chef Mark Cosgrove. “Fardowners has become known for our unique craft beer selection, and I have a long history of cooking with beer and at brew pubs.” And with its headquarters just a few minutes away from the restaurant, Starr Hill Brewery’s Jomo lager made a perfect addition to the mix.

Cosgrove and Fardowners chef Matt Grinstead developed the recipe, which blends Jomo with American cheese, cream, Mexican chili powders and smoked paprika, “slow-cooked until it reaches the perfect consistency,” Cosgrove says. “We go through about a gallon a day.”

Cosgrove expects beer queso to stick around on Fardowners’ menu for the long haul. “After all,” he says, “who doesn’t love beer and cheese?”—Nathan Alderman

Bufala buffs

With one foot in Charlottesville and the other in Colombia, Buf Creamery creates award-winning cheese

By Nathan Alderman
In sunny pastures in the Andes mountains of Colombia, South America, herds of water buffalo gorge on grass. Here in Charlottesville, delicious, pillowy mozzarella di bufala from their milk sells at local Whole Foods and Kroger stores. Between those two points lie a hemisphere’s worth of obstacles. Charlottesville-based Buf Creamery has spent years finding clever ways to get around them.

Water buffalo yield richer, creamier milk than cows, packed with more protein and nutrients. But their all-grass diet means they produce a lot less of it. Their skittish nature makes milking tricky. And the resulting milk and its products are delicate and quick to spoil.

CEO Alejandro Gomez Torres founded Buf (pronounced “boof”) in his native Colombia in 2009, started operations in 2010, but didn’t actually begin shipping out cheese until 2012. In those “two years of trial and error,” Torres says, he and the Buf team learned how to get more milk by giving the buffalo a “spa day” before milking, complete with soothing showers. In temperate climates, grass-fed milk’s flavor and composition can change with the seasons; Buf mixed milk from herds on two sides of the same mountain, subject to alternating wet and dry weather, to get consistent organic, grass-fed milk year-round.

Torres consulted Italian experts to find the right techniques and bacterial cultures that could turn high-lactose buffalo milk into lactose-free cheese with a lengthy 45-day shelf life. He enlisted local chefs to make sure his product met their high standards. And Buf piggybacked on the existing infrastructure of Colombia’s established cut-flower industry to keep its milk and cheese properly chilled and spoilage-free from the farms to its factory to your plate.

After two years of exporting cheese to Chile, Buf’s mozzarella’s made it to the U.S. in 2014. Ever since, says Torres, “We’ve been growing a little bit every day.” Buf won best mozzarella at the 2016 American Cheese Society Competition, and scored No. 2 and No. 3 honors for ricotta and burrata in 2017, respectively.

When establishing a U.S. headquarters, “Virginia was my first thought,” Torres says. He had worked at Brookview Farm in Goochland County after college, and the terrain around Charlottesville reminded him of home. “I cannot live without mountains,” he says.

And while he’s back in Colombia now, supervising Buf’s growth, he speaks as warmly of Charlottesville as he does of his buffalos’ mountain home: “We love to be a part of both worlds.”

Just bury us beneath this beautiful board from Feast!, please. Photo: Tom McGovern

Now boarding

So you wanna make a cheese platter? We asked Feast! cheesemonger Sara Adduci to create the board of her dreams (and ours).

Harbison from Jasper Hill Cellars (Vermont)

“This gorgeous, spruce bark-wrapped beauty is a guaranteed showstopper at a party. Just throw a spoon in the top and serve with crusty bread or (gasp!) potato chips.”

Esmontonian from Caromont Farm (Virginia)

“This firm, raw goat’s milk cheese is dense and bright, with just the right amount of goaty twang. Perfect with a drizzle of local honey on top.”

Manchego 1605 from Finca Sierra la Solana (Spain)

“A gem in a sea of Manchegos. This raw sheep’s milk cheese is rich, nutty and tender. Try with a sip of dry sherry and a slice of Jamon Serrano.”

Monastery Gouda from Our Lady of the Angels Monastery (Virginia)

“This is one of our go-to comfort cheeses. This semi-soft, cow’s milk round is easy-eating, mild, delicious and holy!”

Schnebelhorn from Käserei Butschwil (Switzerland)

“Complex, rich, meaty, nutty, spicy and full of those little textural bits we call cheese diamonds. This is the cheese you want on your scrambled eggs.”

L’Amuse Signature Gouda from L’Amuse Fromagerie

“This two-year aged cheese has flavor for days, the crunchy bits you find in long-aged cheeses and a bit of butterscotchy sweetness.”

Commander Chicory from Twenty Paces (Virginia)

“This big hunka blue from here in C’ville is a great one for folks who think they don’t like blues. Perfect crumbled on sweet tomatoes.”

Alp Blossom from Sennerei Huban (Austria)

“Semi-firm, meaty, savory, with an undercurrent of herbal, floral magic.”

Sofia from Capriole Goat Cheese (Indiana)

“A zippy little goat’s milk cheese with two parallel lines of vegetable ash through the center. I love this one with a glass of Sancerre.”

Essex Street Feta from M. Tastanis (Greece)

“Softer in texture, and with a depth of flavor that goes way beyond just salty. I love this feta with Greek olive oil, fresh thyme and crusty bread.”

Domitilla from casArrigoni (Italy)

“While this washed-rind cheese might look intimidating, it’s quite mild and sweet. Add some Castelvetranos and a bottle of Arneis for the win.”

Photo: Tom McGovern

Formaggio from scratch

When Lampo Neapolitan Pizza opened in 2014, chef/owner Mitchell Beerens and his team couldn’t find fresh cow’s-milk mozzarella—fiore di latte—that met their standards. “So it was an easy decision,” Beerens says, “to make our own.”

Beerens had learned the process—heat cultured mozzarella curd in a salt bath, then shape it by hand—while working for local restaurateur Vincent Derquenne at Bizou. Now, “We make fiore di latte almost every day,” he says, in 30- to 50-pound batches, the rough equivalent of one to two infants, by weight. “The whole process takes about two hours from curd to cut cheese ready to top our pies.”

With hundreds of pizzas served each day, good cheese matters, especially since Beerens estimates that the fiore di latte tops 70 percent of them. And he’s still looking for ways to ensure that Lampo’s cheese remains a cut above the rest. “We haven’t found a high-quality curd locally,” he says, “but would be stoked if that was available.”—Nathan Alderman

Photo: Keith Freeman

In the thick of it

If a cheese plate seems like something only fancy fromagiers (we made that up) have, these handmade spreaders strike the right balance between rustic and sophisticated. Forged from bronze or stainless steel, they’ll strike an artistic note on any cheese plate. $44 and up,

Photo: Tom McGovern

Grilled cheese, squared

It’s tough to make a bad grilled cheese sandwich, but here’s the thing: It’s also possible to make one that’s way, way better than what most of us manage at home.

Exhibit A: the grilled cheese sandwich at Tilman’s Cheese and Wine, on the Downtown Mall. It looks unassuming, with its ciabatta-bread exterior almost completely hiding the cheesy insides from view. But bite into it and amazing things happen. First you break through the savory crust, robust yet near-flaky all at once. Then you encounter the cheese.

“We played with different cheeses,” says Tilman’s co-owner Derek Mansfield. He and partner Courtenay Tyler eventually settled on a blend of aged Wisconsin cheddar and domestic Swiss—sliced, not shredded, so as to ensure even temperature throughout the sandwich, and packing a wonderfully forward and complex flavor.

Tilman’s won’t reveal the true secret ingredient of the grilled cheese, namely the fat that coats the outside of the ciabatta before it goes into a panini grill (press for four minutes, Mansfield advises, then cut in half before pressing a minute or two more). But anyone can figure out that serving this thing with a cup of creamy tomato bisque puts it over the top. The soup is herby and has a slight kick, and drowning in it are garlicky croutons that contrast with the subtle flavor of the ciabatta. Oh, and you can add prosciutto to the sandwich, too, on request.

Pure, sophisticated comfort.—Erika Howsare

Photo: Tom McGovern

Gimme the scoop

Like, it probably shouldn’t work? But this Esmontonian and dark chocolate gelato—made with the aged Caromont Farm goat cheese and shaved dark chocolate—at Splendora’s totally does. The brine from the cheese mixes with the bitterness of the chocolate, resulting in what owner PK Ross calls “a fancier pants version of stracciatella.”