Locally, spring cheeses from area farms have never been more interesting. Several seasoned cheesemakers have developed new cheeses for the spring lineup, like Keswick Creamery's pyramid-shaped Frosty Morning and Shellbark Hollow's Blooming Ash. Plus, the Amish-owned dairy King's Kreamery has collaborated with Kristian Holbrook, one of the area's great cheesemakers (formerly of Doe Run), to develop the dazzling doughnut called "Ring of Fire."
These are just a few of the delicacies I was surprised to find when I roamed Reading Terminal Market on a recent Sunday. The market does a hefty cheese business these days, from Valley Shepherd Creamery on the 11th Street end to the Fair Food Farmstand's burgeoning all-local counter on the 12th Street side. For a spring sampler, you might start with a braid of fresh Valley Shepherd mozzarella, then surf the cases at Salumeria and Downtown Cheese (known for rare French imports), and finish up at Fair Food for a couple of local beauties.
Then, sprint home with a baguette under your arm, spread out your cheese on a nice cutting board, and host a "change of seasons" brunch or lunch. This would be a good time to set out the preserves you made or bought last summer, along with a bottle of Prosecco, rosé, wheat beer, or farmhouse saison. Toss a salad of tender greens, herbs, and radishes, and you may just cast off Philadelphia's rainy spell.
Here are four must-try soft cheeses - mostly local - that express the beauty of spring milk.
Cloud Nine. The rumpled rind on this little bath bomb conceals a dense center of grassy goat cheese the consistency of marzipan. The smell is earthy and grassy, the taste sweetly tangy with just a hint of black pepper emanating from the rind. Yellow Springs Farm in Chester County is revered for delivering balanced goat cheeses, and this relative newbie is truly lovely. Try pairing it with a dessert wine, like the Asian pear wine from local company Subarashii Kudamono.
Cloud Nine, $36 per pound at the Fair Food Farmstand, or order directly from the farm in Chester Springs. Information and tours at www.yellowspringsfarm.com.
Ring of Fire. Amish dairyman Eli King has teamed up with cheesemaker extraordinaire Kristian Holbrook (of Hummingbird cheese fame) for this otherworldly wonder. No Lord of the Rings party will be complete without this cheese on the board! Made with goat's milk, this little doughnut is rolled in paprika, then ripened briefly. The cheesemaker uses Brevibacterium linens, a funk-inducing bacterial culture, to create an unusual flavor profile. Hot, creamy, and funky, this cheese is sure to become legend .
Ring of Fire, $10 per circle, at the Fair Food Farmstand and Di Bruno Bros.
Robiola Castagne. Cheese or fairy gift? You decide. Robiola is a generic term for the soft mixed-milk cheeses of northern Italy. The pastures of the Piedmont and Langhe regions produce incredibly flavorful milk, making for cheese that exudes wildness. Wrapping these cheeses in chestnut leaves adds earthy flavor, plus a little drama. Peel the leaves open, and you'll find a gooey round with a crepe-thin rind. This is an excellent cheese to pair with hard cider. If you can't find Robiola Castagne, try the widely available La Tur, or look for Luigi Guffanti's Robiola Due Latte - it won an award at the Fancy Food show in 2013 and is beginning to appear in local cases. Its round yellow label is easy to spot.
Robiola Castagne, about $8 per round, La Tur, $24.99 per pound, at area cheese counters.
Frosty Morning. Keswick Creamery in Newburg, Pa., has done the unthinkable: by combining the farm's luxe Jersey milk with goat's milk from a neighboring farm, the creamery has created a pyramid-shaped cheese in the style of Valençay, an iconic French cheese made in the Loire Valley. Traditionalists may shudder since Valençay is strictly a goat's milk cheese, but here, the combination of milks creates an amazing mouthfeel, thanks to that Jersey cream. The result is pleasantly tangy and sweet. The name "Frosty Morning" comes from cheesemaker Sara Marie Kelley's first horse - a fitting name for a cheese that is sure to become a runaway success.
Frosty Morning, $14.95 per pyramid, at Fair Food Farmstand and at farmers' markets in Camp Hill and Carlisle.
The Philly Farm & Food Fest on April 13 in the Pennsylvania Convention Center will host a number of local cheesemakers who will be sampling their cheeses. For tickets, visit: www.phillyfarmfest.org