Trekking the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail
This summer, Innovation Trail partner station WXXI has been uncovering hidden gems from across the Finger Lakes region. You may remember Rachel Ward’s toe-wiggling flight with the flyboys of Yates County.
Well, this week, I’m changing my trail loyalties. Bye bye, Innovation Trail. Keep your tech and economy reporting. It’s dairy time. I’m casting in my lot with the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail!
Andrew Fish is herding goats – and it’s actually going pretty smoothly.
“They’re like, ‘yeah right buddy – you let us out, there’s no way we’re going back in now’,” he says, as he guides them around.
Andrew and his wife run 4 Tin Fish Farm. The name is a play on his last name and the last name of his wife – Fortin.
“We’re thinking about adding ‘Goat Dairy’ to it,” Fish says, “because we’ve been out tasting cheese a couple of times and we’ve had people stop and go, ‘Is that fish cheese?’”
Contrary to what some people apparently assume, the cheese at 4 Tin Fish Farm is from goats – they’re the heart of the operation. Andrew and his wife milk 12 goats in all. They make feta and chevre for local restaurants and a few retailers.
As with the other fromageries I visited on the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail, one thing is clear at 4 Tin Fish Farm: these people are passionate about dairy.
“I love interacting with the animals. I love making the cheese. I love having a product that we make that people enjoy,” says Andrew. “They really are getting a high-quality product that comes from a place where I know the animals are cared for really well.”
Andrew and his wife are relatively new to the cheese game. They got their first goats in 2006, started making cheese as a hobby, and only recently decided to make a business of it.
It’s a side business, and that’s part of the appeal. When Andrew’s not making cheese he’s the executive director of the Cayuga County Chamber of Commerce.
“For what I do for my day job it’s very balancing,” says Andrew. “Being a chamber director, I’ve got a lot of interaction with businesses and, you know, a lot of suit and tie – that kind of thing. To be able to then come home and milk a goat and shovel poop, it’s very balancing. I know that sounds strange, but it really is.”
They each have their own reasons, but the cheese makers of the Finger Lakes really seem to love what they do.
Nevin Martin is the owner of Hillcrest Dairy. I met him there, along with WXXI intern Dan Locke, in a grassy pasture in front of a big pack of happy cows.
He tells me to watch their mouths as they eat.
“You’ll notice their tongue comes out and they just grab a handful and tear it off.”
I ask if this is pretty much what they do all day, and he answers that they could.
“They like this as good as I like to watch ‘em.”
About three-quarters of Hillcrest’s business is milk, but the family-run dairy also makes cheese.
“We say we go from the cow to the carton in hours – not days,” says Nevin.
That process begins with the cows. Nevin says all 70 of them are all-natural and growth hormone-free, and they spend at least six hours a day grazing in the fields.
“Most [farmers] do not feed fresh grass,” he says. “That’s the same comparison as eating fresh vegetables from the garden versus eating canned things ... and we all know that fresh things out of the garden are way far better for you.”
Nevin has been in the dairy business his entire life. Cows with names like Cranberry, Peg and Flo chomp away contentedly as we stand nearby – not a moo to be heard. Nevin tells me that’s because cows don’t moo when they’re happy, and these cows are too busy eating to be malcontented.
We leave Nevin and the cows and head west. Next stop: Keeley’s Cheese Company.
Keeley’s is run by a woman named Keeley McGarr. Word on the trail is that she got married the other day, so we hear she might not be around.
We heard right: no one’s home. But on the front porch of the old farmhouse there’s a dorm room fridge and a handwritten sign that reads:
“Self-serve cheese + eggs. Cheese as marked. Eggs $3/dozen. Leave money in wooden box. Make your own change. Thank you for being honest!”
We grab a cheese, make some change and hit the road.
We learn from a brochure that Keeley’s cheese comes from the nearly 200 cows out back and that the farm has been in the family for three generations.
“Funny cows, funny cheese”
Before long, we’re hanging out with the cows of Finger Lakes Dexter Creamery.
“This is Angie,” says Rose Belforti, as the cow examines the microphone. “See, she gets jealous. She wants all the attention, so she’s pushing everyone out of the way.”
Rose and her husband run the place. And Angie is a Dexter – that’s the petite breed of cattle the farm is partially named after.
When it comes to what she likes most about making cheese, Rose says the cows are a big part of it.
“I love being with cows,” Rose says. “And handling the milk is beautiful because it’s a pure food. Raw milk is a totally different product than pasteurized.”
The cheese Rose makes is called kefir cheese. You may know of kefir as a yogurty drink, and Rose’s cheese starts with the same stuff. It’s really rich in the good-for-you variety of living micro-organisms, which makes for what Rose calls the “weirdest cheese you’re gonna find.”
“[The kefir culture] allows us to do a lot of stuff,” says Rose. “Some [of the cheeses] are nutty, some are pungent, some are tangy, some are, like, smoked. Some of the cheeses are moist, some of them are firm, we have grated cheese, we have all kinds of cheese.”
Rose says kefir cheese is particularly conducive to the kind of tastings you’ll find at the region’s wineries.
“It’s kinda like cheese theater,” says Rose. “They can taste it, they can tell us what they’re tasting, and then they can name it for us. It’s fun.”
Rose says the year-old Cheese Trail has helped stoke a growing awareness of the region’s artisanal cheeses.
The trail has 13 stops in all, the next open house is in October and there’s a lot of friendly cheesemakers – and animals – along the way.
It’s worth getting a move on, because as Rose points out, “cheese is a temporary, wonderful thing – right?”