My quintessential local cheese platter wouldn't have been very large 15 years ago.
But cheesemaking around Philadelphia has progressed so dramatically I could not find a platter big enough to hold all my current favorites.
We've gone from the elemental fresh chèvres of early days to an increasing array of cave-aged wonders, varied milk sources, and experiments with molds and boozy washes that add real complexity.
With small farms now embracing the added value of cheese in the dairy lands of Lancaster and Chester Counties, as well as Central Jersey, this collection of 15 beauties is redefining the region as a unique cheese destination.
1. Shellbark Hollow Farm Sharp: From a local goat cheese pioneer in Honey Brook, this tart, fresh cheese is one of the purist expressions of French-style chèvre around - tangy, herbal, moist, and great for cooking. The preferred goat cheese canvas for many local chefs.
2. Birchrun Hills Farm Red Cat: Sue Miller has transformed her mild-mannered Fat Cat into racier Red Cat by washing the rind in a brine laced with a funk-inducing bacteria called B. linens. It'll never be as oozy as Époissses, but this cheese expresses a deeply earthy, mushroomy tang when warmed - especially in fondue at Hungry Pigeon or a mushroom lasagna at Fork.
3. Birchrun Hills Farm Birchrun Blue: Creamy and dense with a mellow tang that turns fruity and earthy on the finish. If there's a better blue in the region than this richly marbled specimen from Sue Miller's Holsteins, I haven't tasted it.
4. Millwood Springs Organic Blue: My second-favorite Pennsylvania blue comes from Eli Esh's Amish milk and is crafted at Misty Creek Dairy in Lancaster. It's denser and saltier than Birchrun, with a constellation of blue-gray pockets that crackle against a creamy yellow fudgy paste.
5. Yellow Springs Farm Cloud Nine: This firm little golf-ball-size beauty is a next-level goat with multiple textures – a rumpled rind on its snowball exterior giving way to a creamy halo near the crust, then a fluffy core that tastes like fresh milk with a high-toned acidity and salty ping.
6. Yellow Springs Farm Yellow Brick Road: One of several goats that Yellow Springs makes in a cave-aged tomme style, this one is washed in Victory Hop Devil beer. The balance of earthiness and tang on the crust, plus a clear note of goat's milk flavor, is what makes this so exceptional.
7. Valley Shepherd Creamery feta: Created as a local reply to the Greek financial crisis, this blend of sheep's and goat's milk from Central Jersey is one of the creamiest, freshest fetas around, and is still firm enough to slice. It has a natural piquance that still tastes like the farm.
8. Valley Shepherd Creamery Shepherd's Basket: Nothing quite reflects the mission of this Central Jersey sheep farm (and Reading Terminal outlet) like Shepherd's Basket. Despite the craggy, cave-aged, Basque-style crust, which gets rubbed in olive oil for five months, its interior melts in velvety crumbles that express the uniquely rich tang of sheep's milk.
9. The Farm at Doe Run Hummingbird: Everyone likes a creamy cheese, but I find many too boringly one-note. Not so with Hummingbird. This Robiola-syle bloomy rind oval is made from cow's milk (blended with sheep's milk in warmer months) and oozes when ripe, but also retains a fresh and farmy lactic twang that tastes like custard on the finish.
10. The Farm at Doe Run Bathed in Victory: Doe Run makes many great hard cheeses (St. Malachi, Seven Sisters), but I also love this semi-firm round made in Trappist style. It gets brined, then bathed in various Victory beers, which lend a fruity note. Irresistible as a snacker, but also as a melter.
11. Hidden Hills Dairy Old Gold: This aged raw-milk beauty from south-central Pennsylvania is best known as the cheese Joe Beddia grates over his famous pizzas. Gouda may sound like a strange choice for pizza, but it works because it shows an exceptional balance of butterscotch notes with a piquant sharp bite.
12. Ely Farm Washington Crossing: This award-winning aged raw cow's milk cheese from a Bucks Country family farm that dates to the late 1700s is reminiscent of a young Gruyère but finishes with the sweet nuttiness of a Gouda. Good milk and careful aging make it a gem.
13. Cherry Grove Farm Full Nettle Jack: The raw milk jack cheese from a Lawrenceville farm gets the oniony zing of spring nettles, which lends a citrusy tang. A favorite in the flavored-cheese genre.
14. Calkins Creamery Vampire Slayer: This garlic- and herb-flavored cheese from the Honesdale creamery is a favorite among Buffy fans. A flavored cheddar that has a bite.
15. Valley Milkhouse Witchgrass: The ash-dusted pyramid is typically a goat's milk shape. But this cheese is definitely a cow's milk delight, with a runny halo of cream beneath the bloomy rind and a long, buttery, grass-fed milky finish.