Beyond Milk: Cheeses and Yogurts of the Finger Lakes

“Cheese – milk’s leap toward immortality.”  -Clifton Fadiman

The making of cheese and yogurt has always been a mystery to me. I know that it takes milk, a little heat, and time to get there, but how do you get such a variety of flavors and textures, from mozzarella to blue, using the same primary ingredient? To find out, I turned to a couple of Finger Lakes dairies to discover the secrets of cheese and yogurt making.

Lively Run Goat Dairy
My first stop was Lively Run, the only goat dairy in the Finger Lakes region. Susanne and Steve Messmer run this small and thriving farm, turning out chèvre, feta, and aged blue cheeses.

We first toured the cheese-making room, where the milk is pasteurized, turned into cheese, and packaged. “This is a family-run farm,” explains Susanne. “Even our two boys get involved with the milking and care of the animals. We decided to try goats rather than cows because of economic factors. Plus we thought that cows would be too large for our young boys to handle.”

After taking me through the entire cheese-making process (you can read about this on the next page), Susanne showed me the aging room, where blue and feta cheeses spend anywhere from 30 to 60 days. Stepping inside the aromatic, temperature-controlled chamber and examining the various devices for keeping the humidity just right, I began to appreciate Susanne’s dedication to good cheese and Steve’s value as farm engineer.

Susanne then showed me the milking parlor and the goats – all 104 of them. With obvious affection, she has named each goat, and has plenty of stories to share about their antics. “Bear is our pickpocket. She’s been known to steal checkbooks and regularly sneaks into our office to devour paper. When she’s being milked, she often steals a couple sheets of paper towels and devours them before getting in line.” Contrary to popular belief, goats will not eat tin cans, but they will chew the labels off.

Why Commerical Cheeses All Taste the Same
Open a package of Polly-O and it will taste just the same as your last package. That’s because large commercial operations use the combined milk from many dairies and standardize the fat and protein components.

When you purchase cheese or yogurt made from a small herd, certain flavors emerge that are unique to the animals themselves. You’ll even notice differences between summer and winter, when the animals are feeding on either fresh or dried foods. It is these unique flavors that drive the explosion of American artisanal cheeses that are handcrafted on small farms.

Meadowsweet Farm
Just around the corner from Lively Run is Meadowsweet, run by Barbara and Steve Smith. They milk their 15 Jersey cows twice daily to produce flavored yogurts, hard cheeses, and kefir.

The Smiths have a loyal customer base that routinely drops by to pick up their yogurt. Barbara describes the yogurt-making process. “The milk is first pasteurized. Then, live culture is added to it, and we let it sit at 110 degrees for a couple hours. Finally, we add the flavoring and package it.” The hard cheeses – cheddar, havarti, feta, and brick – are all made from raw milk and aged six to 18 months.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this family-run operation is how it came to be. Barbara and Steve explain that they used to live in the South, where Steve was an astrophysicist for NASA working incredibly long hours. “With the hour-long commute, I hardly ever got to see the kids,” adds Steve. “So we decided to try family farming, bought into a farm in Canton, and moved the business here to Lodi.”

The couple also homeschools their five children, ranging in age from 9 to 22, all of whom pitch in to help at the farm. “It gives them a greater sense of responsibility,” says Barbara, “and they’re much more capable of contributing in a meaningful way.”

A Family Affair
Both families agree that running a family farm is both rewarding and demanding. “We love to have the kids involved,” says Susanne, “and we get to spend more time together as a family.” Although the work is relentless, these farmers are proud to have built up successful businesses in an age when many family farms are struggling.

“The best part is making our customers happy,” adds Barbara. “And there’s great satisfaction in creating a healthy and delicious product from start to finish.”

It’s said that the first cheese was made when a shepherd herded his goats into the mountains and found himself too far to return home. He located a small cave and stayed the night. In the morning, he inadvertently left behind a vessel of milk he had gathered from his animals. Months later, he returned to the cave to find that the milk had hardened into a firm block of blue-veined cheese. Thinking that the cheese might be spoiled, he took a small bite, only to be delighted at the veritable explosion of flavor in his mouth.

These caves are still used today to make one of the most intensely flavored of all cheeses:  Roquefort. And though few American dairies use caves to age cheese, the process is much the same: let bacteria form in milk, extract moisture, and let it age.

Step 1: Pasteurization
In the United States, most milk is pasteurized before it is made into cheese. This process involves heating the milk to 150 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes and then cooling it rapidly. Pasteurization destroys both the harmful bacteria and the good bacteria that give cheese its unique flavor. In France, most cheeses are made with unpasteurized or raw milk. Here, cheeses made with raw milk must be aged 60 days – the time needed for the good bacteria to crowd out the bad.

Step 2: Curd Formation
Milk needs bacteria – and time – to become cheese. And since pasteurization kills the bacteria, it must be added back in, along with various molds that will enhance the flavor of the cheese. These bacteria “cultures” multiply in the warm milk for various periods of time depending on the cheese being created. An enzyme called rennet is then added to the cultured milk to separate the solids (curds) from the liquids (whey).

Step 3: Curd Handling
Curds are handled differently depending on the type of cheese. For soft cheeses such as chèvre, the curds are ladled into cheesecloth and drained. Semi-soft cheeses such as feta are cut into cubes and put into molds. Hard cheeses like cheddar are cut, placed into molds, and pressed to remove most of the whey. At this stage, salt may be added as well or in the case of feta, the cheese may be floated in brine.

Step 4: Aging
Only certain types of cheeses – typically hard cheeses and feta – are aged. This is where the expertise of the cheesemakers shows, since the aging time, humidity, and temperature are critical factors in the quality of aged cheeses. A drop in humidity can cause the cheese to explode like popcorn as the moisture in the cheese seeks to “bleed out” to the drier air.

Wrap with Goat Cheese
Serves 1, Prep time: 5 min, Cook time: 5 min

1 Wegmans Burrito Tortilla, Gordita Style
2 Tbsp goat cheese
2 oz Wegmans Food You Feel Good About Baby Spinach
7 peppadews (about 1 oz), sliced in strips (Mediterranean Olive Bar)
1/4 cup (about 2 oz) roasted red tomatoes (Mediterranean Olive Bar)
1/4 cup (about 2 oz) marinated grilled mushrooms, sliced in 1/4 inch strips (Mediterranean Olive Bar)

1. Spread goat cheese on tortilla.
2. Top with spinach, peppadews, tomatoes, and grilled mushrooms.
3. Fold bottom part of wrap up and roll. Slice in half and serve.

Nutrition info: Each serving (1 wrap) contains 440 calories, 50g carbohydrate (6g fiber), 14g protein, 19g fat (5g saturated fat), 15mg cholesterol and 1120mg sodium.
Recipe courtesy of Wegmans Food Markets Inc.

Getting There
Lively Run Goat Dairy is located at 8978 County Road 142 in Interlaken, (607) 532-4647, Tours are available from April 15th through October; call ahead for groups larger than 10. The farm produces herbed and plain chèvre, feta, and Cayuga blue cheese, all made from goat’s milk with no preservatives or additives. You can find Lively Run cheeses at Wegmans, Lori’s Natural Foods in Rochester, Greenstar in Ithaca, and Good Groceries in Watkins Glen. Call or use the website to order direct UPS deliveries and to find out about additional retailers.

Meadowsweet Farm is located at 2054 Smith Road in Lodi, (607) 582-6954, Tours by appointment only. The dairy offers 10 flavors of organically produced yogurt, kefir, and hard cheeses, and is licensed to sell raw milk. Products are available at the Ithaca Farmers Market, Greenstar Co­operative Market in Ithaca, and by mail order.

What Is Kefir?
Kefir is a smoothie-type drink of fermented milk that provides exceptional nutritional value. This high-calcium beverage originated in the Caucasus Mountains of Eastern Europe, where people have traditionally lived long and healthy lives. Kefir balances digestive bacteria and is ideal for children and people with digestive problems.

by Joy Underhill, photographs by Bobbie Jo Trumbull
Joy Underhill is a freelance and business writer from Farmington. You can reach her at

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