For Cheesemakers, Cows Make All the Difference

American cheesemakers are hungering for a wider variety of dairy cows because their milk makes a finer cheese than the standard Holstein. At Cowgirl Creamery in Washington, D.C., co-owner Sue Conley talks about the different types of cheeses produced by various breeds of cows.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And now our weekly food moment. It's not so easy to find a Jersey cow in America these days, or a Guernsey or a Brown Swiss. But cheesemakers are hungering for those very breeds because their milk can make a fine cheese. This week we paid a visit to cheesemaker and cheesemonger Sue Conley. She's the co-owner of the Cowgirl Creamery, which just opened a shop in downtown Washington.

Ms. SUE CONLEY (Cowgirl Creamery): Well, what happened after World War II is that Americans had lots of kids and somehow culturally we decided that kids should drink a lot of milk. And so where before dairies were looking for high butter fat and protein and solids, they started to look for just bulk in the milk because they were getting paid by the gallon for the stuff. Holsteins produce the milk, so a Jersey, for instance, might produce eight or nine gallons per day, where a Holstein can go up to 12 or 13. So almost all the dairies went to Holstein and the more obscure herds disappeared.

ELLIOTT: Would I notice the difference if I were to, say, get a glass of milk from a Holstein cow or from a Jersey cow? Would I notice the difference?

Ms. CONLEY: Certainly. And you would notice also the Jersey would be yellowish in color. The Holstein would be pure white.

ELLIOTT: And how would it taste different?

Ms. CONLEY: The Jersey would be richer. You know, you would probably not drink as much.

ELLIOTT: It would be creamier?

Ms. CONLEY: Creamier, yeah.

ELLIOTT: Sue Conley says that in Europe they still raise cows more for the butter, yogurt and cheese their milk can provide. And so there it's not hard to find what she calls traditional herds. Like the red cow of Italy's Parma region, the preferred choice of Parmesan makers. Or the Innisfail Shorthorn, a classic cow for English Cheddar. And small regional creameries like Sue Conley's are now pushing American dairy farmers to bring back a wider variety of herds here.

Ms. CONLEY: Cheese makers in America have learned to make good cheese. You know, that's something that's been a real focus for the last 20 years in our small group of American artisanal cheesemakers. So we're all ready for the next step, which is, you know, to really focus on what the animals are eating, what the breeding program is, what's going to give us the best results, the most distinct flavor for the cheese.

ELLIOTT: And farmers are listening to their cheesemaking clients. It is, after all, a kind of codependent relationship.

Ms. CONLEY: So now we have farmers like Jasper Hill up in Vermont. They have a Ayrshire curd, which is a really beautiful milk for cheesemaking. The fat globules are a little smaller and it ages out nicer.

ELLIOTT: Well, I'm ready to get to the cheese and actually taste them.

Ms. CONLEY: Yeah, I wanted to show this. We have a farm in California called Bubalus Bubalis, and they have 400 water buffalo. That's unusual for the United States. But again, they're trying to get this richness of the buffalo milk that is much higher in butter fat and solids than the Holstein, and it has a very distinct flavor. So I want to give you a taste of that.

ELLIOTT: And this is a mozzarella?

Ms. CONLEY: This is a mozzarella made by an Italian cheesemaker in California.

ELLIOTT: Mmm.

Ms. CONLEY: You get that cream?

ELLIOTT: Uh-huh.

Ms. CONLEY: And that holds together really well for the cheesemaker because of that protein.

ELLIOTT: What next?

Ms. CONLEY: This is Tarentaise, and it's made by John Putnam in Vermont, and he has his own herd of Jerseys, and they're grass fed. That means that you should be getting some flavors of his pasture in this.

ELLIOTT: And this is an aged cheese.

Ms. CONLEY: This is an aged. He went to the Alps, studied with a couple of cheesemakers there. And you know, it's never going to be exactly like a Gruyère or a Swiss cheese...

ELLIOTT: Mmm.

Ms. CONLEY: ...but it's very good.

ELLIOTT: Very close.

Ms. CONLEY: Very good. Do you get any of those flavors in there...

ELLIOTT: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CONLEY: ...wildflowers and grasses?

ELLIOTT: It's hard to translate on the radio. This is like one of my favorite types of cheese, I must say. Where do the traditional herds come from. If they're traditional, where do you find - are there old farmers in the U.S. who have had these herds all this time?

Ms. CONLEY: Well, you can buy freeze-dried sperm. One can.

ELLIOTT: Yeah.

Ms. CONLEY: And...

ELLIOTT: So you would have to crossbreed that sperm with a cow that you have that might be of another herd.

Ms. CONLEY: Right. And then you'd breed, breed, breed, to the qualities that you're looking for.

ELLIOTT: Well, thank you for talking with us, Sue Conley.

Ms. CONLEY: Thank you so much. Thanks for coming into the shop.

ELLIOTT: The smell in here is just so nice.

Ms. CONLEY: It does have a nice big smell, doesn't it?

ELLIOTT: Sue Conley is the proprietor of the Cowgirl Creamery.

Ms. CONLEY: I wanted to give you a taste of the Bayley Hazen...

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