The definition of farmstead as it relates to cheese really is quite specific: It means that the cheese is made on the same farm where the animals live, and that all of the milk for the farm's cheesemaking comes from those animals. This means that no milk is purchased from other dairies.
One can make a few generalizations from a farmstead designation:
- The cheesemaking operation is probably fairly small. Most family-run operations are farmstead if they're not using milk from neighboring farms.
- Cheesemakers that use the milk that comes from their own animals have a unique ability to understand and regulate the quality of the milk and they're better able to alter cheesemaking according to seasonal or climactic variations in milk. There's a certain level of quality control inherrent in this manner of cheesemaking.
- Farmstead cheeses are made from milk that hasn't travelled very far. This makes for cheese that's more eco-friendly and milk that hasn't been as agitated, which can affect quality.
- It could be argued that it's easier to make raw milk cheese in a farmstead operation. When not dealing with milk that's been transported from multiple milk sources, cheesemakers don't have to concern themselves with the possibility that the milk has been contaminated in transit or, for that matter, on someone else's farm.
- Cheese that's been made on a small scale isn't industrial. And we like that. Farmstead cheeses are produced based on a make- and economic-model other than the one upon which mass-produced cheeses rely. It's an obvious but vital component to point out about farmstead cheeses.
It's a good word to know. Ask your cheesemonger which cheeses are farmstead and try to support the little guy!
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a Cheesemonger and the Director of the Cheese Course at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City. She is currently an assistant chef on The Martha Stewart Show.