Tag Archives: cheese club

Springtime means Sheep Time

I’ve been on a sheep-cheese kick, as of late – its sheep time.  Sampling Umbria’s multitude of pecorinos while traveling through the region this past February (you can read about my trip in my last blog post) left me wanting more of that distinctively fatty and creamy, yet slightly gamey umami punch that you can only get from sheep’s milk.

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Unbeknownst to me at the time, I couldn’t have planned my return from Umbria any better –  I rolled right off the plane and smack dab into the beginning of lambing season. Springtime is the beginning of sheep time in the cheese world. Because of ewes’ lactation period, sheep’s milk isn’t available year round – the season starts in the spring and ends in the early fall. That means that fresh sheep’s milk cheeses simply aren’t available during the late fall and winter, and aged sheep’s cheeses slow down production because of the lack of fresh milk. Basically what I’m saying is, spring is a good time to come home with a hankering for sheep’s milk. Good job, me.

While lots of different cultures around the world make cheese out of sheep’s milk, pecorino is probably the best well known. That being said, it is probably one of the most misunderstood. Many of my customers come to my counter asking for pecorino, but have no idea that, a) it is actually made from sheep’s milk, and b) there are many different types of pecorinos out there. So let’s start with the basics: the word pecorino comes from the Italian word for sheep, pecora. Hence, any Italian cheese made with sheep’s milk is technically a pecorino. This means that in Italy, there are a truly incalculable amount of pecorinos – when I staged at Caseificio Broccatelli, their dairy alone made at least a dozen different styles of pecorino.

At the Via Umbria cheese counter, we’ve carried a few different types of pecorinos over the past year and a half, but three styles in particular stick out – Romano, Toscano, and Sardo. Pecorino Romano, from Rome, is probably the best well known of the bunch. With its grate-able texture and extremely salty flavor, is perfect for seasoning dishes. Our Tuscan friend, Toscano, on the other hand, is much softer, creamier, and milder – a good addition to any cheese plate and a natural fit, in my opinion, to pair with charcuterie. Pecorino Sardo, from the island of Sardinia, however, is my personal favorite. More moisture and complexity with less salt than the Romano, but harder and brinier than the Toscano, this delightful cheese is a happy medium on the pecorino spectrum. It’s good on a cheese plate, grated into dishes, drizzled with honey and served with walnuts, melted over traditional Sardinian bread – you name it, Sardo’s good for it.

I’m pleased to announce that Pecorino Sardo will be the Via Umbria April cheese of the month! Come taste this springtime favorite at our Monthly Cheese Party, next Wednesday April 5th at 7:30pmPecorino_Sardo_Cheese.

Pecorinos on the rise Read more

I've been on a sheep-cheese kick, as of late - its sheep time.  Sampling Umbria's multitude of pecorinos while traveling through the ...

The Tale of Two Accidents

Alice and her Dad

Early last spring, my dad and I attempted to go spring skiing out in Deep Creek, Maryland. Rainy and foggy with lots of slush and mud, we were not entirely successful in our sporting endeavors. It got to the point where one day we looked up at the slopes, and decided to go to the movies instead. Let me tell you, you know the conditions are really bad when the best option is to watch a sappy, poorly written sports movie in an empty theater with sticky floors and the distinctive aroma of old popcorn clinging to the walls.

Even though the weekend itself didn’t exactly go according to plan, it was far from a bust. First of all, I got to hang out with my dad (hi Dad!), which was, as always, a great time. And secondly, I stumbled upon FireFly Farms.

We were on our way out of town when we decided to stop and get some snacks for the road. Driving through the small town of Accident, the FireFly Farms Creamery and Market sign caught my eye. I’d heard the name bantered about by various mongers in DC, and knew that they made goat cheeses. And, well, you guys know me – I’ll jump at any chance to try some new cheeses, so we stopped.

Goats at Firefly Creamery

After tasting through a bunch of their gorgeous, goat’s milk cheeses, I settled on my favorite: Mountain Top Bleu. Made in the Valencay style, these beautiful, surface ripened pyramids are a perfect gateway blue – mild and creamy with just a hint of funk. The piece that I got that day was just the way I like my soft cheeses to be – ripe, oozy, and full of flavor. During the two and a half hours it took us to drive back to DC, we easily devoured the entire thing.

I’ve learned a few things since that inaugural visit to FireFly. Firstly, although Mountain Top Bleu is one of FireFly’s original three cheeses, it was initially made by accident. It came into being when a bloomy-rinded cheese was cross contaminated by a nearby blue. Instead of throwing the contaminated batch away, the cheesemakers created this beautiful hybrid. And it’s a great thing that they did: Mountain Top Bleu is the most awarded cheese in the FireFly repertoire. With twenty individual honors to its name, including a bronze medal at the American Cheese Society conference this past summer and multiple World Cheese awards, this cheese is certainly no mistake. Saveur Magazine even named it as one of the top 50 cheeses in the nation.

Mountain Top Bleu

I was also impressed to learn about FireFly’s commitment to sustainability, both with regards to the farmers that they partner with and to the environment. FireFly is a small cheesemaking operation on the Allegheny Plateau region of Maryland, and they use milk from six goat farms within a 30 mile radius of their shop. By working closely with these farmers, and implementing a mutually beneficial contract, Firefly assures that the farmers are committed to “humane animal husbandry and restrict the use of antibiotics, hormones, and animal feeds that have been treated with chemical or synthetic fertilizers”, while also paying them a fair price for their milk that doesn’t penalize producers for “under-production” in winter months, nor “over-production” in summer months.

Additionally, FireFly is very conscious of their energy consumption. Instead of using energy-hungry machines, they’re committed to handcrafting and wrapping each of their cheeses. Furthermore, as of the summer of 2015, one third of the energy used by FireFly comes from their newly installed solar panels.

It is my great pleasure to announce that not only will Mountain Top Bleu be Via Umbria’s October Cheese of the Month, but that FireFly Farms founders Mike Koch and Pablo Solanet will be joining us for our monthly Cheese Party! Please join us on Wednesday, October 5th to eat, drink, and learn all about this wonderful local cheese and these awesome cheesemakers!

Alice Bergen Phillips
Alice Bergen Phillips

A visit to FireFly Farms Creamery in Maryland Read more

Early last spring, my dad and I attempted to go spring skiing out in Deep Creek, Maryland. Rainy and foggy with lots ...

Feta: A Love Story

Most people who eat cheese have had some sort of interaction with feta or, more accurately, feta-style cheese. They think of it as the salty yet bland crumbles that sit unnoticed on top of iceberg lettuce, or the saline blocks that adorn many a badly made pasta salad. I used to be one of these people. As a self-proclaimed salt-fiend, I didn’t mind feta, but it certainly wasn’t interesting and didn’t even crack the top 50 in terms of cheeses I liked and cared about.

Fresh Feta Cheese

And then, at the ripe old age of 20, I spent a summer in Greece, and a whole new world opened up. A world that contained copious amounts of delicious, savory, complex, versatile feta.

I was volunteering on a Skyrian pony farm on the Greek island of Corfu for the summer with my sister (and yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds). While we weren’t getting paid for our hours of manure-shoveling and pony-grooming, we did have our room and board covered. This gave us access to some of the freshest and most amazing food I’ve ever tasted, including homemade feta. Every week, a lady who lived down the hill from our little pony enclave would bring a giant ceramic basin filled with brine and a large, white block of homemade feta. I had eaten feta-esque substances before, but never anything with this much zest and character. We would cut hunks of feta off of that block and eat them for lunch with cucumbers and tomatoes from the garden, and homemade bread. It was absolute heaven.

Coming back to the US was a rude awakening for my new found love of feta. Where did the squeaky, briney, zesty, puckery cheese that I had grown so fond of go? Why were people settling for such inferior imitations? Up until 2002, the name “feta” could mean anything – anyone could use it for any cheese, regardless of milk type, origin, or production method. This lead to a lot of really, epically boring cheese bearing the name “feta”.

Luckily for the cheese world, in 2002 feta became a protected designation of origin (PDO) cheese. This means that only cheeses that are made from sheep’s milk, or a mixture of sheep and goat’s milk, and have been produced in a certain way from specific parts of Greece may be called “feta”. This makes it much easier for consumers to tell the difference between real feta and inferior imposters.

Cheese Maker

Not all fetas are created equal, however, even within the PDO designation. I’ve hesitated bringing the cheese to the Via Umbria counter for fear of choosing one that turned out to be bland or boring.

As good fortune would have it, however, I was lucky enough to meet the team at Essex St. Cheese. Rather than importing many different types of cheese, Essex finds the best of the best and brings in only a handful of cheeses, with each type only having one producer. Their bar is extremely high, and I was so excited to find out that they were importing a particularly fantastic feta from the island of Lesbos. This PDO cheese, made by third generation cheesemakers, M. Tastanis, is made entirely from sheep’s milk that has been collected from local shepherds. The salt used to salt both the cheese and the brine comes exclusively from the Kalloni salt flats, giving this feta a taste that can truly only be found in Lesbos. Additionally, the cheese makers stay as close to tradition as possible, which means that the process of making this feta is essentially the same as it was in Homer’s time. Tasting it brought me right back to that summer in Corfu – bright and fresh, with flavors of fresh yogurt, cream, and the ocean.

I’m beyond thrilled to announce that this feta from M. Tastanis in Lesbos, Greece is going to be our August Cheese of the Month! It’s a spectacular way to explore a true taste of tradition and place, and also a beautiful compliment to late summer’s bounty of fresh produce. Come taste it at our monthly cheese party on August 3rd and learn all about how gorgeous feta can truly be.

Alice Bergen Phillips
Alice Bergen Phillips

Transport yourself to Greece with this cheese Read more

Most people who eat cheese have had some sort of interaction with feta or, more accurately, feta-style cheese. They think of it ...

‘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”?”


The seasonality of cheese depends on two main components. The first factor 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 animals tend to breed at the same time during the year (as opposed to farmers being able to stagger their animals breeding cycles throughout the year), this means that for a few months out of the year, cheesemakers working with goats or sheep have no fresh milk with which to make cheese.


The second component 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 going to stop being available at the end of the milking season plus three months. For cheeses that are aged for a much longer time, the seasonality isn’t as much of a factor and are available more or less year round.


There’s another seasonal factor in cheesemaking that has less to do with milk availability and more to do with the quality of milk produced – what type of food is available to the animals during their milking season? As we all know, we are what we eat, and there are few instances where this is as obvious as 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 dried, uniform fodder during the winter is night and day. The flavor of that summer milk showcases the terroir of the region – particular combinations of wildflowers, grasses, herbs, and other greenery that the animals consume all become apparent in the milk. This nutritious summertime feed also has a positive effect on the milk’s protein and butterfat content. As such, certain farmers will only make cheese using spring and summer milk and forgo cheesemaking with inferior winter milk.

Whew! So what does all of that mean for Via Umbria’s cheese counter? Well, we’ve got a seasonal treat to showcase for our next Cheese of the Month – delicious, fresh sheep’s milk cheeses from Landmark Creamery in Wisconsin. These little one ounce buttons, named Petit Nuage, or “Little Cloud” en francais, are only made April – September, when the sheep are being milked and are munching on delicious spring and summer Wisconsin grass. Bright and citrusy with clean flavor and a distinct, sheepy tang, these little wonders are gorgeous summer treat that are great paired with heirloom tomatoes and olive oil for a simple salad, topped with fresh or grilled stone fruits like peaches or nectarines, or simply smeared on a baguette and enjoyed on their own.

Don’t miss out on this gorgeous cheese – sign up for our Cheese of the Month Club and get a half pound of Petit Nuage to enjoy during July. Swing by our next meeting, Wednesday, July 6th, and to taste and learn all about your new favorite summer cheese!

Alice Bergen Phillips
Alice Bergen Phillips

The seasonal factors in cheesemaking Read more

Many of my customers are shocked to find out that cheese is seasonal. Yep, you read that right - cheese is a ...

For the Curd Herd

Yes, you read that right. Via Umbria is thrilled to report that we’re starting our own Cheese of the Month Club! Here’s the deal: every month, members will be able to pick up half a pound of one of our beautiful cheeses, selected by me, your friendly neighborhood cheesemonger! The cheeses will vary based on season and what is tasting particularly delicious at the moment. We’ll kick off every new month with a tasting event–an evening at the store when you can pick up your new cheese, taste it, learn about how to pair it with beverages and condiments, and ask any questions you may have. It’s a great way to expand your cheesy horizons and try something new and exciting!
The First Cut

Since we’re an Italian store, we decided to kick off this exciting new venture with Parmigiano-Reggiano, the “King of Cheeses.” A classic for a reason, this delicious giant is renowned the world over for its nutty, sour, fruity character. Not to be confused with generic, dusty “Parmesan”, real Parmigiano-Reggiano is, by Italian law, only produced in a handful of provinces in Italy: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Mantua.

Made with partially skimmed raw cow’s milk, the Parmigiano-Reggiano curds are initially packed into 100lb wheels and loaded into stainless steel molds so that they can take on their wheel shape. (Fun fact: the whey that’s siphoned off from the curds during this step is traditionally fed to pigs used for Prosciutto di Parma.) After a few days, the molds are removed and the name “PARMIGIANO-REGGIANO” along with the the plant’s number and the date are printed onto the outside of the cheese. This is an easy way to spot a real wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano–only the real thing will have its name emblazoned on the outside of the wheel. After spending a few weeks in a brine bath to absorb salt, the cheese is then allowed to age for a minimum of 12 months, and a maximum of 36. After being checked for quality and passing inspection, these cheeses make their way to cheese fans around the world.


People have been enjoying Parmigiano-Reggiano since at least the 13th century, and with good reason–it is one of the most versatile cheeses on the planet. It can be grated over pastas, shaved over salads, stirred into soups or risottos, or just cut into chunks and eaten as is. While most people think of this as a rock hard cheese, when it’s first opened and unoxidized, the interior of the wheel, or “heart”, is very soft and full of moisture. It’s only after being exposed to air that the cheese dehydrates and becomes drier and less flavorful. It’s for this reason that we always recommend buying a large chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano as opposed to pre-grated or sliced–the less surface area that’s exposed to air, the more moisture your cheese will retain and the less flavor you will lose.

You’ll have a chance to taste the heart of the Parmigiano-Reggiano when we open our newest wheel at our kick-off Cheese of the Month Club event on Wednesday, June 1st. We’ll taste, talk, drink, and generally get to know all about our inaugural cheese. You can find more information about the Cheese of the Month Club here. Can’t wait to see everyone there!

Alice Bergen Phillips
Alice Bergen Phillips

An all-new cheese club at Via Umbria! Read more

Yes, you read that right. Via Umbria is thrilled to report that we're starting our own Cheese of the Month Club! Here's ...