Produce seasons ebb and flow in familiar ways. Ramps at the farmers market hail winter's end, and the first July tomato marks the advent of high summer. Even as home cooks have reacquainted themselves with produce seasons, cheese seasons remain mysterious.
Learning how cheeses change with the seasons is key to developing a deeper appreciation. Just as fruits and vegetables come into and fade out of season, the grasses, wildflowers, and legumes cows, sheep, and goats eat do the same. Their milk reflects this changing diet, giving cheese different (sometimes wildly so) flavors and textures as the year progresses.
The Seasonality of Cheese
The cyclical nature of cheese isn't always apparent, since large-scale producers often adjust butterfat and protein in milk to yield a consistent product. But smaller producers who rely on seasonality and pasture-fed livestock aren't standardized in this way. To experience the seasonality of cheese, seek out smaller, artisan producers whose practices favor animals grazed in pastures and create cheeses at their peak flavor, imbued with terroir and the subtleties of each season.
Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese in La Valle, Wisconsin, is one such producer and he provided me with an overview of how each season affects cheese. Carr Valley produces four distinct seasonal cheddars, aged 20 to 60 days, so that each cheese can also be eaten in the season in which it's been made.
Winter Diets Make for Rich and Creamy Cheese
Over the winter, dairy cattle in temperate climates come in from the fields and eat grass that's been stored for the winter as well as silage. At the same time, most dairy cow breeds calve in winter or early spring. The winter diet and calving season makes for milk high in butterfat and protein, which is reflected in the cheese made from it. Winter cheeses are often the creamiest of the seasonal offerings and have mild flavor profiles with notes of straw. According to Cook, when fermented silage makes up part of a cow's winter diet, winter cheeses may have a hint of (the good kind of) funk.
Mellow in Spring, Floral in Summer, Grassy in the Fall
After snows melt, pastured cows return to the fields for grass and clover. The resulting spring milk sees butterfat and protein content drop. Cook notes that this makes spring cheesemaking unpredictable, but well worth the effort for capturing the vibrant flavors of the season. Spring cheeses tend to be brighter and lighter-bodied, with mellow flavors.
In late spring and early summer, grasses, wildflowers, and legumes flourish, and grazing animals have a rich and varied diet. Cook finds that summer grasses and wildflowers imbue summer milk with distinct floral notes, as well as complexity. Later, in fall, as flowers and forage die off, he notes that milk becomes more grassy. With cold weather comes a jump in butterfat and protein, although this transition is more gradual than in the spring.
As for the Goats and Sheep ...
Like cows, goats and sheep follow similar patterns. Although goat husbandry practices vary, many smaller producers rest herds in winter. Sheep, on the other hand, lamb once a year, so sheep’s milk is generally only available late winter through summer's end. As such, sheep milk cheeses tend to reflect the spring and summer in which they are produced. Because chèvre and brebis are made from fresh milk, off-season "fresh" goat and sheep cheeses are often made from powdered milks. Wendy M. Levy, author of Ask the Cheese Snob, recommends fresh goat and sheep milk cheeses be consumed only between March and October.
How to Find Seasonal Cheese (and Why It Matters)
Sourcing seasonal cheese can be daunting — many are aged and shipped after their season, or come from places with varying climates so that one region’s summer may be out of sync with your own. The best way to start is by exploring small-batch, handmade cheeses with the help of a trusted cheesemonger or local cheesemaker. Taste your way through the fresh selections. Perhaps you'll discover that you prefer the grassiness of late-season dairy or the floral notes in sheep's milk cheese.
Understanding how the changing seasons are reflected in the evolving flavors of cheese can lead to new depths of appreciation. I recently tasted a selection of late-winter and early spring cheeses from local cheesemakers and found the knowledge of season and terroir provided me with a much richer experience. Exploring seasonal cheese is an excellent way to connect the food we eat with the places, animals, farmers, and cheesemakers that bring it to us.