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Say cheese: Follow the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail

An hour southeast of Buffalo along Highway 20A where Western New York’s flatlands yield to dramatic sweeps and valleys, you come to a building that’s stop-the-car handsome. Near Silver Lake in Perry, it’s gray stone with rustic board-and-batten siding and a long balcony near the top. The place looks like a chalet. Swap out the rolling Dansville Valley behind it for snowy mountains, and you could be in the French Alps.

Inside, that European feeling intensifies when you peek into the windows of four authentic cheese caves, built to French specifications. Each long, narrow concrete bunker is 24 feet high; two are stacked to the ceiling with boards holding hundreds of cheese wheels. Enter one and the nutty, salty, yeasty, pungent scent of cheese aging zooms up your nostrils.

“Go in the cave, close your eyes, fly to France,” advises Gary Burley, who built all this.

Burley and his wife Betty are 36-year local dairy farmers who recently began making cheese so they could hand something down to their five millennial kids. They invested $6.5 million in building East Hill Creamery last year.

They now make Alpine-style cheeses with Finger Lakes flavor twists that start with raw milk from their own grass-fed cows. Their 18,000-square-foot production facility and store is a taste of how ambitious local cheese is becoming.

This year's cheese festival takes place on July 22 near Odessa.

East Hill is part of the on-the-move Finger Lakes Cheese Alliance, which is attracting more and more creameries — and public appetite. The local industry group was established as the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail just over a decade ago; last year it grew to 12 members and changed its name to include more of the growing number of producers. This year the alliance is building a permanent pavilion for its Finger Lakes Cheese Festival, an on-the-farm foodie celebration to be held July 22 at a farm near Odessa, around 2-½ hours from Buffalo.

“Driving tourism is a big part of it, but we also wanted to get the word out about our products,” says Alliance communications coordinator Mark Costa. With Costa as our guide, my husband Matt (a former cheesemonger) and I headed out on a rainy spring weekend to sample the region’s cheese production. Our stops ranged from Burley’s showplace at East Hill to smaller up-and-coming dairies to farmsteads that both raise the cows and make the cheese themselves. Together they highlighted the inroads that local cheese is rapidly making.

The misty green land evoked Ireland that day, and East Hill got us off to an impressive start. Every detail was first-class, from the cheese vats (European-made and copper-lined) to the basswood aging boards (wood felled by Burley on his own farm) to the ceiling rafters (Amish-sawed red oak beams joined by mortise and tendon). The shop stocks cheese and New York products like Adirondack maple vinaigrette. Next Burley is building out a museum highlighting the 60 creameries that Wyoming County held in 1900. (East Hill is now the only.)

Best of all was the cheese. A signature type is their comté-style, a firm Alps staple with a nutty, herbal, fresh-grass tang. East Hill also produces raclette, a melty, pungent cousin of the Emmenthaler used in fondue pots; the Swiss often grill and scrape it onto meat and veggies and pickles. We sampled it down the road at Hole in the Wall, a local restaurant, where Chef Travis Barlow served us some of East Hill’s raclette deep-fried with chile-infused honey, and melted onto beef on weck and turkey sandwiches. Clearly, great cheese makes everything better.

Hemlock Ridge Farm

The Slayton family raises 80 organic cattle at Hemlock Ridge Farm near Avoca. They launched their first batch of cheese this year, through Lively Run Dairy Farm and Creamery.

While East Hill, located a few miles from the Burleys’ dairy, is all about the cheese, other Finger Lakes Cheese Alliance stops are more about the farm. Hemlock Ridge is tucked way up on a pitted country road near Avoca; the rattly drive is worth it for the setting alone. Jessie and Kelvin Slayton raise 80 cattle organically there, milking 40 of them in lofty, open-sided barns built by teams of Mennonites. The Slaytons carefully cross Lineback, Brown Swiss, Jersey, Holstein, Milking Shorthorn, and Normande cows to get better grazers and richer milk. The cattle graze on 70 acres of rolling Finger Lakes land.

We hop on the farm’s “jig,” a kind of rugged golf cart that can handle the mud, and Jessie Slayton bumps us over to the field where the cows are munching their grass. I envy them their lunchtime view — it has to be the best spot around for a meal, offering dramatic vistas of the Wheeling Valley. Jessie Slayton wisely plans to build a picnic ground here for visiting families.

For now the Slaytons live in a refurbished 1886 schoolhouse on the land with their young daughters, Madeline and Caroline, who toddle around petting the cows. Madeline tells us how she used to help milk every day “when she was little.” She’s now 6.

The essayist Clifton Fadiman called cheese “milk’s leap toward immortality.” The Slaytons’ milk, chosen the Northeast’s best by Organic Valley in 2015, is just now making its leap. Their first batch of Hemlock Ridge cheese had been made the previous week by Lively Run Dairy Farm and Creamery. The Interlaken goat farm, which the Slaytons chose for launching their private-label cheese, made 405 pounds of cheddar using their organic milk.

Jessie Slayton is eager to start developing flavors, like a spreadable raspberry jalapeño, with Lively Run. Three years into dairying, they’ll still be handing most of their milk over to Organic Valley but are thrilled to be diversifying into cheese. “I want to learn about flavors and how things happen,” she says.

Heaven Scent Farm

Twenty minutes away, cows are also center stage on Heaven Scent Farm. If the strong earthy bite of cow-smell in the air slows down drivers on State Route 371, the Amish-built pine farm stand invites them to stop the car entirely and scoop up some cheese. The little 10-by-10 stand could be one of those trendy tiny houses, complete with windows and flower beds outside. Coolers and mini-fridges inside are stacked with cheese. A blackboard sign says, “Honk if you need service.”

If you honk, chances are good you’ll get pun-loving dairy farmer Jerry Stewart, who describes himself as the farm’s “big cheese.” Stewart raises a small herd of Jersey cows, which produce higher butterfat and protein content. Stewart happily introduces the cows by name as they come up to us for a nuzzle: Champagne, Morgan, Missy, and an April Fool’s Day calf called Tricky among them.

Stewart, too, gets help from a local creamery in producing cheese from his milk. First Light Farms makes his line of flavored “Jersey Jacks” with names that evoke their tastes: Dillicious, Holy Smokes, Pizza Jack, and a spicy Devilish Jack are among them.

“We’re not selling all our milk into cheese, but we’re trying to gain some traction,” Stewart says. “We’d like to move into other cheese if we make it here on the farm.”

Regular events at places like Heron Hill Winery that pair their cheese with local Finger Lakes beverages, including wine and mead, help build enthusiasm and sales in the meantime.

Festival grounds

The cows and cheese come together at full-on farmstead creamery stops like Sunset View. The farm is situated near Odessa, with a grand old Italianate monitor home that looks more bed and breakfast mansion than humble farmhouse. Several generations of the Hoffman family, including one of the four children and two of the four grandkids, immediately bound out to introduce us to Rosetta and other two-month-old calves nosing at feed buckets in their hutches out back.

We also meet Carmella Hoffman, family matriarch and linchpin of the Finger Lakes cheese scene. She started making cheese in 2004, when only one other local farm was doing it, taking a four-day crash course in cheesemaking and borrowing $175,000 to build her own production room.

“I said we’ve got to do something different,” she remembers. “We can add value to this farm.”

Among Hoffman’s largely raw-milk cheeses are a complex young cheddar, a bright and buttery Italian style called Bel Paese, and a unique type she calls Heritage that’s like a softer Swiss-Parmesan. She says she is “astronomically proud” that the Heritage, an experiment, turned out so well. Next she hopes to start producing a Havarti in her 290-gallon vat. It’s an altogether impressive production considering she still works as a town clerk, tax collector, and court clerk — cheesemaking just fills her farm hours.

Hoffman also helped found the Finger Lakes Cheese Alliance and has hosted the Finger Lakes Cheese Festival five of its six years. Now there’s the growth of both to oversee. The latest short course Hoffman took was on agritourism, and she’s revved up about the possibilities. Signs are up all over the property explaining the uses of various buildings for self-guided tours. A retail store features cloth baskets Hoffman sewed herself, and she plans to open a bigger one across the lane in a work space. An open pavilion is now going up on her land, too, beams rising in what will be 190 feet of covered space, with big peaked rafters.

On festival day, nearly 75 vendors will set up there, all selling products that are homemade or homegrown. The family-friendly celebration will include three bands and a DJ, plus a bounce house and a giant Plinko board. Hoffman will sell plenty of cheese, and help others do the same, and that may be the best part of seeing the Finger Lakes Cheese Alliance expand over the past decade-plus.

“It’s gratifying to see other people that are going to be able to sustain their farms,” she says.

For farm hours, addresses (including a handy map) and info on the upcoming Finger Lakes Cheese Festival on July 22, visit

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