Lexington cheese maker becomes a master at creating artisan offerings

Microbiologist becomes a master at creating artisan offerings

swthompson@herald-leader.comSeptember 29, 2011 

A few years ago, Ed Puterbaugh read Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and was inspired to learn to make cheese at home.

At the time, he never dreamed it would turn him into a master cheese maker.

Puterbaugh, a clinical microbiologist, experimented with making cheese for several years, and last October his hobby became Boone Creek Creamery. It took two years for the state to understand his cheese making process and approve his operation on Palumbo Drive.

"The state has never created an environment for artisan cheese makers," he said. There are 1,200 dairy farmers in the state and only nine cheese makers.

Puterbaugh now makes 30 6-pound wheels of cheese weekly, and several top chefs in the area use his blue, cheddar, Gruyère, Emmental, Asiago and gouda.

There are 500 cheeses in Puterbaugh's "cave," a 12- by 12-foot temperature- and humidity-controlled building, and they are not the run-of-the-mill variety. There's Abbey Road, an Old English cheddar with organic sun-dried tomatoes, and a new one that will be introduced at The Incredible Food Show.

All of Puterbaugh's cheeses begin with the same process, and how they turn out depends on bacteria and ingredients he adds.

Organic milk from JD Country Milk, a Mennonite dairy farm in Logan County, is poured into a vat surrounded by water that is heated to 86 degrees. Bacteria and rennet are added.

"The selection of bacteria is my own choice, and that produces the flavors that I want," he said. "It's about timing, pH and stirring, and the way you handle it. Nothing goes into cheese to give it cheddar or gouda flavor. Stirring by hand, I retain more of the flavor that's trapped in the curds.

"Think of these curds as being little sponges, full of milk fat and full of flavor. You can take a sponge and squeeze it, and lose all the good stuff that's in it."

As the curds and whey separate, the curds are poured onto a draining table. For Abbey Road, Puterbaugh adds salt and organic sun-dried tomatoes. The curds go into molds and are pressed overnight. The wheels are cooled and then placed in the cave.

Abbey Road was named after The Beatles song. "We were listening to the Beatles one afternoon, and it popped into my head, and since it's English cheddar, that's the connection.

"If I wanted to make an Abbey Road that was a grating cheese, I would let that cheese become very acidic so that it would become much drier and crumblier as a finished cheese. If I wanted this to be a nice soft, sliceable cracker cheese, then I don't let the pH develop as much," Puterbaugh said.

Other exclusive cheeses include My Tuscan Sun, an Asiago cheese with sun-dried tomatoes and basil; Kentucky Derby, with a hint of mint and bourbon; Rhapsody en bleu, which combines the qualities of blue Stilton and French blue; and ginger rhapsody, a classic English blue with added ginger.

"Blues are my pride and joy. I love the flavor, and it's a little different technique, making the blues," he said.

He is feeling much like an expectant mother, poised for the birth of his Sassy Redhead. The English cheddar, with whole peppercorns and red pepper flakes, and rubbed with red paprika, has to age 90 days. It will be ready for tasting a couple of days before the Incredible Food Show.

"Nobody has tasted that cheese yet. There's no way to taste it," he said. "That's the frustration and beauty and charm and pitfalls of cheese making."

"I have pretty good confidence that it will turn out edible. Will it be exactly what I want? I will taste it and then say, how can I make this better."

Puterbaugh offers artisan cheese making classes. You can sign up at Boonecreekcreamery.com or at The Incredible Food Show on Oct. 8 at Lexington Center, 430 West Vine Street.

Reach Sharon Thompson at (859) 231-3321 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3321.

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