The Big Cheeses

Brin d' amore. Lindsay Morris photo
Brin d' amore. Lindsay Morris photo
Mount Vully. Lindsay Morris photo
Mount Vully. Lindsay Morris photo

By Dawn Watson

When it comes to cheese, there isn’t much that Michael Cavaniola doesn’t like.

Regardless if it’s coming from cows, sheep, goats or buffalo, the owner of Cavaniola’s Gourmet Cheese Shop (and Cellar and Kitchen) in Sag Harbor and Cavaniola’s Cheese
and Gourmet in Amagansett is guaranteed to find something that tickles his fancy and tempts his taste buds.

“It’s kind of a sick thing,” he admits. “I like it all and I’ll try anything you put in front of me.”

His personal favorites are cheeses from the French Pyrenees, he says. But if it’s a small batch that’s well made, odds are that he’s going to love it.

Danni Grecu, manager of The Village Gourmet Cheese Shoppe in Southampton is of similar mind. She hasn’t yet met a cheese that she’s not game to try.

“You gotta keep an open mind,” she says. “And an open eye, too, for the next big thing that cheese lovers are going to want to try.”

Two local cheese makers whose artisanal products have customers clamoring for more include Mecox Bay Dairy in Bridgehampton and Catapano Dairy Farm in Peconic.

Mecox, owned by the father-and-son team of Arthur and Peter Ludlow, is famous for its Farmhouse Cheddar. The local dairy’s Mecox Sunrise — an American Cheese Society winner — and Mecox Sigit are also big sellers, says Peter.

American consumers have gotten savvier about their food and quite particular about their cheese, he reports. That’s why good small-batch dairies like his are doing so well.

“People are more in touch with where their food is coming from and have a greater appreciation for different tastes than what’s mass-produced,” he says. “They are desiring more distinctive flavors.”

Mecox’s Sunrise is a perfect example. The orangey-colored cheese, a washed rind tome, is a “stinky” cheese with a semi-soft consistency, he reports. Like all the Mecox cheeses, it comes from grass-fed Jersey cows, which produce high-fat, high-protein milk.

“It’s pungent, but it’s delicious,” says Peter.

At Catapano on the North Fork, the tastes are milder, says Karen Catapano, who owns the business with her husband, Michael. But the small batch, artisanal idea is the same.

Voted Best Goat Cheese in the USA by the American Cheese Society several years running and Best Sheep Cheese in 2013, the Catapanos’ soft creamy chevres and rich sheeps’ cheeses are in high demand.

A selection of cheeses from Catapano Dairy.
A selection of cheeses from Catapano Dairy.

The secret is that the farm keeps the four male “stud” goats away from the approximate 100 members of the female stock — which includes white Saanens, Alpines, Lamanchas, Nubians and Toggenburgs — during milking season, says farm manager Deb Slak.

“The boys are gamy,” she says. “The ladies are more mild.”

The small herds of goats and sheep are also groomed, fed and milked at the same times every day and kept safe from outside elements, reports Catapano. Living stress-free lives also greatly affects the quality and taste of the milk, she says.

The goats are allowed roaming time, adds Slak. But believe it or not, they aren’t really the grass eaters that people think they are.

“Sheep are grazers but goats are grain and hay eaters,” she says. “Contrary to popular opinion they are picky. Sometimes they’ll eat clover. But they don’t do tin cans.”

When it comes to the taste of the end product, the treatment of the animal is of the greatest import, says Lucy’s Whey co-owner Lucy Kazickas, who sells a selection of personally curated cheeses at the Springs farmers market on Saturdays and at a brick-and-mortar shop at Chelsea Market in Manhattan.

The cheese monger says that she’s impressed by the number of quality cheese makers that have popped up on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes regions. She reports that New York State has definitely seen a new crop of small dairy farmers/cheese makers “who are making some awesome cheeses.”

“It’s happening everywhere … and all share a passion for their animals and the cheeses they make,” says Kazickas. “That is why the cheeses taste so good. They are made with love!”

Brin d' amore. Lindsay Morris photo
Brin d’ amore. Lindsay Morris photo