By Aaron Estes, Cheese Editor
Lucky for us, there are several cheesemakers out there who are on a path to change that... and I get excited about the progress within the cheese world when I see young and exciting cheesemakers enter the scene.
Keeley McGarr of Keeley’s Cheese Co. in King Ferry on Cayuga Lake is one of those individuals making a difference.
When Keely first studied Animal Science at the University of Vermont, she didn’t necessarily plan to become cheesemaker. The idea was to study at the University to help out more at home on the family farm. After all, milking approximately 185 Holsteins and Jerseys on a daily basis takes quite a bit of knowledge and experience in supply management.
But, the dairy industry as a whole is in a bit of a crisis right now.
As I have mentioned in other posts, dairy farmers have no say at all in their milk pricing. The co-op has a set price, and the farmer either sells it at that price, or doesn’t. This is a pressing concern as individual farms continue to try and develop price strategies and business models.
After a work-study program at Shelburne Farms in Vermont, and taking a couple of classes at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC), it soon became apparent to Keeley that the idea of becoming a cheesemaker was worth exploring.
Knowing that New York does not have many washed-rind cheeses, and being a fan of softer cheeses in general, Keely decided to intern at the famed Gubbeen’s in Ireland.
Gubbeen’s award-winning cheese is a surface-ripened cheese that has been produced since 1979. While there, Keely learned their processes and returned to New York to apply what she learned. After some experimentation, Keeley’s Cheese Co. started producing cheese in March of 2010.
Aged for 2-3 months in their natural cellar, the sticky orange rind is wonderfully pungent, but not to a point that would turn the beginning cheese lover away from the board. At room temperature, the semi-soft paste becomes unctuous and coats the tongue with a buttery flavor with a hint of yeast on the finish. There is an earthiness that I really like about this cheese. It doesn’t hit you over the head right from the start. It develops slowly, and culminates with a finish that keeps you reaching for more.
This cheese is a perfect pair to the wonderful rieslings of the region. The wine's fresh acidity will provide a bright counter to the rich and creamy paste, and will continually refresh the palate for another bite.
“It all starts with the milk,” said Keeley, as she explained her process to me over the phone. The McGarr Farm has a rotational grazing program in place that has a tremendous affect on the overall quality of their milk.
This is a true Farmstead product in that all of the milk used for cheesemaking comes from their family herd. The herd is on grass from April to October with some corn, grain and hay rationed in as well. Today, only 3% of the milk is used for cheesemaking purposes.
Keely plans to make cheese year round, with adjustments made throughout the year, as the fat content and character of the milk changes with the seasons.
When I asked her about the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail, Keeley was excited about the prospects and future events in the works. Their farm is just down the road from King Ferry Winery and Keely is already experimenting with wine washes from their winery. The relationship between wine and cheese will continue to be explored in the months to come. With the number of events that have been planned in conjunction with the various wine trails, and the open house events that will begin this coming May, Finger Lakes Turophiles have a lot to be excited about.
Keeley’s cheeses can be found in Farmer’s Markets and select shops throughout the state.