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The Hudson Valley Series is set in the fictional town of Baily Falls, 90 minutes away from New York City. With beautiful farms (and studly farmers), a kooky diner owner, and a cast of quirky characters, the place feels like an adult version of Stars Hollow. Cream of the Crop by Alice Clayton, released this past Tuesday, is the second book in the series, but it can be read as a stand-alone.
Natalie Grayson is a city girl with a high-powered advertising career, a passion for all members of the dairy family, and a curvy figure that she loves to strut around town. Most of the time she has men eating out of the palm of her hand.
But one man is turning Natalie into a speechless puddle of whey every week at the Union Square Farmers Market: the taciturn dairy farmer and cheese maker Oscar from Baily Falls. Built like a bull, with tattoos down his muscled arms, thick dark hair held back with a leather tie, and a distinctive scar through his left eyebrow, Natalie’s usual sass and take-charge attitude desert her in his glowering presence.
As luck would have it, Baily Falls needs an advertising campaign to boost tourism, and Natalie jumps at the chance to manage it. With the help of her best friend Roxie, she’s spending every weekend upstate, getting closer to Oscar’s cow herd, getting closer to Oscar’s cheddar, and getting much closer to Oscar.
Basically, imagine a modern Joan Harris and cow-driving Khal Drogo churning a whole lot of butter, and you have one hell of a steamy weekend read. With a lot of cheese.
The real love affair in this series, however, is the food. Book 1 in the series “Nuts” revolves around the organic farmer Leo and a Roxie, the slightly crazy chef and baker. “Cream of the Crop” puts local cheeses front and center. Clayton has done her research here, taking us inside the creamery to see the laborious process of cheddaring. And while Natalie quickly discovers that she’d rather eat cheese than make it, there’s a passion and respect for the craft and the hard work that goes into every one of Oscar’s creations.
So in honor of Natalie and Oscar and all their creamy endeavors, we’ve put together a selection of local cheeses to accompany your read (or your belated weekend beach party or just make an excuse because it’s cheese). The selections below are from the Hudson Valley and surrounding areas in the Northeast.
Look for them at a cheese shop/specialty foods store near you, or try Whole Foods and Kroger (featuring outposts of Murray’s Cheese). They can also be ordered through Murray’s Cheese.
When choosing your cheese, look for a textural variety. Include a soft, bloomy-rind; a semi-soft, and a harder aged one (these sex puns just write themselves). Arrange from the mildest flavors to the boldest. If you’re eating a lot of cheese, it’s good to have some roughage on your slate (grapes, dried fruits, and if you want to be true to the Hudson Valley Series here, do include some nuts). Pair with a favorite wine and a sexy book.
Bloomy rind, cow
Natalie falls as much for Oscar’s bloomy rind as she does for the man himself. This young cheese is soft and gooey on the inside, with a hint of mushroom in the rind. Extra cream is added to the milk before the curd is formed, and triple crèmes by name definition have a minimum 75% butterfat. Now wait, don’t panic, get off that treadmill and back to the cheese slate! Fat content in cheese is weighed in parts per dry matter, so ounce for ounce, a spreadable cheese is less fattening than a dense dry cheese. Indulge away in these rich beauties.
Bloomy rind, cow and goat
Two different milk varieties meld together to form one beautiful unctuous entity. Kunik hails from the Adirondack Mountains, and is always a crowd pleaser. 75% goat milk in the center, surrounded by 25% buttery cow milk, these hand-made pucks are fluffy in texture and so light that you can easily eat the entire wheel.
Stretching the shadow of the food shed for this pick from Virginia, but the opportunity to present Natalie’s name-sake cheese could not be missed. This is a washed-rind cheese, with a fudgy texture and grassy, barnyard notes.
Legend has it that back in the middle ages, the monks looked at the molds growing on their wheels of setting cheese and said eeeewwwwwwwww unclean unclean unclean! They washed their cheeses in anything available – saltwater brine, beer, brandy – and thus changed the composition of the cheese.
Washed-rinds are the “stinky” cheeses, with pungent odors and distinctive flavors. Grayson is on the milder side of the spectrum and is a good introduction to develop a palette. Other excellent local examples are Hudson Red from Twin Maple Farms in the Hudson Valley, and Von Trapp’s Oma (yes, those Von Trapps!).
A unicorn of a cheese, much like meeting a dairy farmer who looks like Jason Momoa and can take time out from cheese making and cheese selling and cow tending to tend to his woman. Verano is made in the spring, aged 3-5 months, and ripens in August. As sheep are very seasonal with their milk production, it’s impossible to keep this cheese around all year. You may have to wait a few weeks, but it’s well worth it. In the meantime, try their Invierno, a mix of sheep and cow.
Harder aged, cow
There isn’t a cheese monger in the Northeast who doesn’t get a dreamy look in the eye when talking about Mateo Kehler. He is our ultimate curd crush. Along with his brother Andy (also crush-worthy), the Argentinians started Jasper Hill Farms in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. They’ve expanded operations to include a state-of-the-art aging facility and distribution center, which has revitalized the cheese making tradition in Vermont and allowed everyone to enjoy these Northeast beauties. They’re the true Oscars of the cheese world.
Cabot Creamery approached the Kehler brothers to create an artisanal special batch cheddar in 2003. This traditional English-style cheddar is bandaged-wrapped and aged 10-15 months. Sharp, a little nutty, with a caramelized sweetness and a crunchy texture.
So what is that crunch in harder cheeses? They’re called tyrosine, and they’re formed when the proteins chains break down during the aging process, leaving behind a small, crunchy deposit. When our bodies break down the tyrosine, it activates a pleasure center in our brains and makes us feel content.
Natural rind, cow
Jasper Hill is so wonderful we’re featuring two of their cheeses (honestly you could build a stunning lateral tasting with all their offerings). Bayley Hazen is a “gateway” blue, meaning those who swear they hate blue cheese usually end up liking this one. It has a fudge-like texture, with a dense and creamy paste and subdued peppery flavor. Protip: pair with dark chocolate.
Have a cheese question or want to discuss your local favorites? Want a West Coast Version of a local cheese slate? A Wisconsin version? Let us know in the comments!
Traveling turophile. News junkie. Brooklynite. Amateur mixologist. Not a hipster. Follow me on Twitter @Curdherder