“I’d like to think of myself as a ‘micro-cheesemaker’ — one level above ‘nano,’” jokes Emiliano Tatar. “‘Nano’ sounds very wimpy.”
And there’s nothing wimpy about the boldly rustic and aged raw-milk cheeses Tatar makes at Merion Park Cheese Co. By day a pediatrician at Nemours in Wayne, Tatar (a.k.a. “Doctor Cheese") is an exacting sort who’s up to speed on the ways of bacteria and biochemistry. So when he decided he wanted to take his hobby to the next level, he had his facility — located inside the washable walls of stainless steel-clad basement in a Lower Merion housing development — certified as legit by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
He’s skipped right past the usual start-up genres of fresh and soft-ripened cheeses to focus on the somewhat more challenging field of slow cave aging, whose long-horizon payoffs can be as much an art as they are a science to manage. He’s succeeding admirably with some well-crafted styles that you don’t often see in America, including a signature called Mercer Road that, with its crumbly, tangy nutty paste and earthy cellar crust, falls somewhere between a British country cheddar and a crumbly Cheshire, with just enough creaminess in its firm center paste to give it a sense of richness. The Cynwd Knoll, based on a Swiss Belper Knolle, is a truffle-sized nugget of aged garlic cheese rolled in cracked pepper that’s akin to a hard Boursin favored for grating over pastas.
My current favorite is an American original especially suited for Philly Beer Week: Martha Street. Tatar was inspired by Dutch bierkäse, but just as much by the innovative gastropub called Martha in Kensington, whose barrel-aged saison is used to make this unusual, dome-shaped beauty. Tatar employs a Dutch-washed curd technique that veers off Gouda production by replacing some of the whey that gets mixed back into the curds with beer, exchanging the sweetness that usually develops with Gouda for an added acidity from the sour ale. With a healthy tint of annatto to give it that deep orange hue, it develops over 70 days in Tatar’s cellar to something quite complex. Its spiky dome of bloomy rind turns hard, white and earthy with a tomme-like cellar crust, and while its heart is firm, almost like a very densely aged old Colby, that still conveys the richness of its raw Bucks County milk shaded with so many other notes — a rustic whiff of mountain cheese, a residual tang from the beer, and then, finally, a shade of butterscotch on the finish that calls out its distant Gouda lineage.
Tatar’s early efforts add sophisticated new creations to Pennsylvania’s growing craft-cheese scene. And “growing” is the key term here for the Merion Park Cheese Co. Tatar’s cheeses takes months to mature, and he’s still producing a relatively tiny (dare I say “micro”) amount, enough so that Di Bruno Bros. bought the entire stock of Martha Street and is releasing it this week at just two of its locations (Rittenhouse and Ardmore). But if Philly Beer Week is an opportunity to celebrate our love of local beer craft, this is one beer cheese that brings it all full circle. — Craig LaBan