Cheese Guild working to boost dairy
WESTMINSTER, Md. — Before the Maryland Wine Festival’s Saturday Sept. 21 morning opening, a panel of four judges from the local food scene gathered to taste the cheeses offered by the creameries at this year’s festival. It’s an event the Maryland Cheese Guild hopes will be moved to a more prominent time during the weekend’s festivities.
“We’re talking with the festival organizers to have it done in front of an audience,” said Alicia Clugh, founder and secretary of the guild, pointing to a similar competition held annually the last few years for homemade cheese during the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair. “It gives the panel of judges an opportunity to educate people about the flavor profiles and helps the audience understand the effort that goes into a locally-made artisan cheese.”
She also noted that a more prominent placement of the judging would advance exposure of a Maryland-made agricultural product, a key goal of both the guild and its member creameries. It’s a point on which Mike Histon, shepherd and owner of Shepherds Manor Creamery, agreed. “Marketing is still the hardest part of the whole business,” he said.
Toward that end, the guild has been working to expand its members’ presence at different festivals throughout the state. Unfortunately, said Clugh, they’ve been hindered by county health regulations.
“For the bigger festivals, there’s a lot of work behind the scenes,” said Don Brower, one the current owners of Whispering Breeze Farm, which creates a variety of cow’s milk cheeses. Added to those efforts, “in Carroll County, [where both his farm and the Maryland Wine Festival are located,] you have to have a health permit for everything,” he continued.
It’s an issue the guild is hoping to solve during the next state legislative session, pointing to the increased demand for raw milk cheeses. “Why not get a sampling permit for the whole year and be subject to inspections versus having to get a permit for every single festival or farmers market you participate in,” asked Clugh.
“Because many of our members rely on festivals for sales and marketing, festival permitting is just one example of the hurdles a small business, like our members, face in trying to sustain and expand their businesses,” she said.
“If permitting could be easier, faster and cheaper,” she continued, “it would be a dream come true. Not only would you not have go through the same thing every time, sometimes with the same county multiple times during the year, but you also would not be nickel and dimed with multiple permitting fees all year long.”
Despite such hurdles, all four creameries at this year’s Maryland Wine Festival reported continuing evidence of their industry’s expansion within both the state and the region.
The Best-in-Show award from the festival’s early morning gathering of food judges went to Shepherds Manor Creamery. It was the second time in as many months that Shepherds Manor had walked away from a show with a top prize. In August, they had won a national gold medal from the American Cheese Society for their Fetina cheese in the Sheep’s Milk Feta category.
Whispering Breeze Farm has been receiving additional exposure at wine festivals thanks to Tom Shelton of Bourdeleau Vineyards & Winery. During an appearance at Wine in the Woods in Columbia, Md., Shelton forgot to bring the cheeses he usually pairs with some of his wine tastings. Browder said he offered his cheeses in their stead, and since then, Shelton has been promoting Whispering Breeze’s cheeses along with his wines.
Caprikorn Farms, which produces 100 percent Certified Organic pasture-fed goat cheeses, recently partnered with Perfect Truffle in Frederick, Md., to sell goat cheese truffles at all their farmers’ markets and festival events this year. The Frederick chocolatier makes the truffle’s ganache using their Chesapeake Bay Chevre and provides the hard chocolate shell. Additionally, Caprikorn continues to expand the local Maryland retail outlets where their cheeses can be found.
Firefly Farms, primarily known for its goat cheeses and dubbed “the grand-daddy of the Maryland cheese” by Clugh and others due to its longevity in the cheese business, is opening a second retail location at Whitehall Market in Baltimore. “It’ll be similar to our Accident location in Western Maryland,” said Chad Dewitt, director of retail operations for Firefly.
“We won’t be able to, at least initially, do wine and cheese pairing events, but we will be offering educational opportunities, such as mini-classes,” he explained. “We’ll also have a nice wine, cheese and charcuterie selection.”
Clugh pointed to Firefly’s new store along with a possible new spring wine festival as exciting new opportunities for the guild to continue to raise the profile of Maryland cheese. “Although Maryland is not known for its cheeses right now, hopefully new opportunities like these will work to change that.”
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