George Bowerman wasn’t arm deep in Palatine Valley Dairy’s stainless steel curding vat Monday, which is a break from his usual schedule.
He hung up his rubber gloves and hairnet for the day to drive out to Syracuse and collect a gold medal at the New York State Fair for his black olive and roasted red pepper cheddar.
Monday is usually cheese-making day, but Earl Spencer, owner of Palatine Valley Dairy and Bowerman’s father-in-law, wasn’t perturbed at the delay. Bowerman had earned the day off.
“Sometimes I think he just worries the cheese good,” Spencer said. “He’s always out there checking it, making sure it’s all perfect.”
According to Spencer, there are a few reasons Palatine Valley Dairy’s cheese took home the statewide prize.
“My father always said you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” he said. “The same goes for cheese.”
The dairy uses milk from Potter Farm, just five miles down the road. Potter’s milk comes from Jersey–Holstein hybrid cows, which yield a higher protein and butterfat content, the main sources of flavor, Spencer said.
“And we don’t take anything out of the milk,” he said. “A lot of these big plants skim off the good stuff, make butter, ice cream. You can’t do that and expect a good cheese.”
But once the huge twin tanks are filled with milk, it all comes down to the cheese maker, which is where Bowerman comes in.
“He gets all the credit here,” Spencer said. “We do all this by hand, so there can be variation.”
From the tanks, the milk is separated into curds and whey in a vat much like a room-length steel bathtub. That’s when things get complicated. The whey must be drained and seasonings added, all at the right times in the right quantities or the cheese will turn acidic and become bitter with age.
“If you don’t do everything just right,” Spencer said, “you can get out a cheese after two years thinking it’s going to be great and it will taste just awful.”
Palatine Valley Dairy’s refrigerator room is kept at a chilly 46 degrees, rather than the industry standard 55, to slow the aging process and further prevent bitter cheese.
“It tastes pretty good to me,” Rick Tice said Monday of the black olive and roasted red pepper cheddar. Tice was tasting samples provided at the dairy’s store at its plant at 68 E. Main St., “but it’s the third variety I’ve had and they’ve all been good.”
Despite the gold medal, Spencer doesn’t plan on leveraging the success into expansion. There are 35,000 pounds of cheese aging in the facility, six people on the payroll and 150 New York grocery stores waiting for orders, and he plans to keep it that way.
“The medal is the icing on the cake, really,” he said. “Our customers love our cheese, that’s what matters, but to have the experts tell us it’s the best, that’s great.”