'Tis the Season for some Cheesin'
Many of my customers are shocked to find out that cheese is seasonal. Yep, you read that right – cheese is a seasonal food product. “But Alice,” you might be asking yourself, “how can that be? Cheese is not like a fruit or vegetable that pops up out of the earth or suddenly materializes on a branch – how can cheese ever be “out of season”?”
There are a few main points to consider when talking about cheese seasonality. One place to start is the lactation period of the animal who is providing you with the delicious milk for your cheese. Different types of animals give milk for varying amounts of time after breeding – for sheep, it’s eight months, goats clock in at about eleven months, and cows have a lactation period of about 13 months. Since, despite some farmers best efforts, animals always breed at the same time of year, this means that for a few months out of the year, cheesemakers working with goats or sheep have no fresh milk to work with.
Another component in cheese seasonality has to do with how long the cheese itself ages for. For fresh cheeses like chevre and sheep or goat’s milk ricotta, which require no aging time, this means that they are only made when fresh milk is available – usually March through about October. For cheeses that do require aging, seasonality plays a part as well, but you need to factor in the aging time to figure out when that particular cheese’s season starts and ends. For example, if you have a goats milk cheese that’s aged for three months, it’s will stop being available at the end of the milking season plus three months. For cheeses that age for longer periods of time, availability isn't as much of an issue. However, the quality of the milk and the resulting cheese will still be affected by when the milk was collected.
So what does that actually mean? Milk is milk is milk, right? Well, not so much - as we all know, we are what we eat, and there are few instances where this is as obvious than with milk. The difference between milk from an animal who has been eating lush, fresh grass and herbs during the spring and summer, and an animal who has had mostly dried, concentrated fodder during the winter is night and day. The flavor of that summer milk will more readily showcase the terroir of the region – particular combinations of wildflowers, grasses, herbs, and other greenery that the animals consume tend to become apparent in the milk. This nutritious summertime feed also has a positive effect on the milk’s protein and butterfat content. As such, many cheesemakers will only make certain cheeses with spring and summer milk in order to achieve full flavor potential.
This doesn't mean, however, that summer milk is always better than winter milk. In fact, one of my favorite cheeses, Rush Creek Reserve from Uplands Cheese Company, only uses the heavier, more fat-laden late fall/early winter milk of cows who have almost exclusively been eating hay. And believe me, you'd be hard-pressed to find a cheesemonger who thinks that Rush Creek is an inferior cheese. Heck, if you're a living, breathing person who has functional tastebuds and has had the pleasure of tasting Rush Creek Reserve, you know it is one of the best things that you've ever had the pleasure of putting in your mouth.*
So that's a lot of information to keep in your head, right? I mean, when you go out to buy cheese, what are the odds that you're going to be thinking about lactation periods and the pros and cons of summer vs. winter milk? What's a cheese-lover to do? Well my friends, it's time to get cozy and get to know your local cheesemonger. That's what we're here for - to get you the best of the best depending on the time of year, what's available, and what's tasting good. Ask them not what their favorite cheese is, but what's tasting good at the moment. I promise, you won't be disappointed.
*Can you tell that I super duper love this cheese? Because I super duper love this cheese.