Local cheesemakers claim blue ribbon at Farm Show

Julia Scheib
Director of Cheese Cultures Wade Smith smoothes out about four pounds of curds by stretching them into smooth provola at Caputo Brothers Creamery farmhouse in Spring Grove, Pa. on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)

The ricotta that took the blue ribbon for soft cheeses made from cow's milk at the Pennsylvania Farm Show was made in Spring Grove from the milk of East Berlin cows, but it probably doesn't taste like any cheese you've ever had.

That's because it's not made the way most American companies make ricotta, said Caputo Brothers Creamery President Rynn Caputo.

To emphasize the difference between Caputo Brothers ricotta and the kind you find in most U.S. grocery stores, Caputo pronounces the former as an Italian word and the latter in a flat, nasal American accent: "ri-CAH-tah."

On Tuesday morning Caputo, who started the company with her husband David in the summer of 2011, sat at a table in her restaurant and explained the difference between the American way of making ricotta, mozzarella and provolone and the way those kinds of cheese are traditionally made in Italy.

The Old World way: The milk for the company's cheese comes from Apple Valley Creamery in East Berlin. Workers there milk the cows at 4:30 every morning, Caputo said. The milk goes through a low-temperature pasteurization process, then is poured into a 400-gallon vat and cooked.

To start a fermenting process, cultures are added: These are good bacteria that eat up the lactose in the milk, Caputo said.

The fermentation process creates lactic acid and the milk begins to coagulate.

"It turns 400 gallons of milk into 400 gallons of Jell-O," Caputo said. "We cut that Jell-O and when we cut it, the solids make curds, and that goes to the bottom. The liquid goes to the top. That's the whey."

To make ricotta, the whey is heated again (ricotta means re-cooked whey in Italian, Caputo said). This isolates the albumen protein. When made by this process, ricotta tastes like custard because it contains the same protein found in egg whites, she said.

The way large American producers make ricotta doesn't even involve whey. Rather than fermenting the milk, most American cheese manufacturers simply add vinegar or citric acid to milk to curdle it so that proteins and butter fat float to the top. The resulting substance can be stretched into mozzarella and aged into provolone or made into ricotta, she said.

Growth: Since they started the business in 2011, the Caputos have added five employees and started a restaurant that focuses on locally sourced, traditional Italian food. They have also outgrown their home-based creamery, where they make their aged cheeses, and the space they use at Apple Valley.

They deliver mainly to restaurants, some as far away as Las Vegas, said employee Bill McGinnis.

On Tuesday, workers were using an angry-sounding drill to cut away at the floor of a large space behind the creamery's restaurant at 245 N. Main St. in Spring Grove so drains could be installed in the future home of the company's cheese-making operation. Caputo said she hoped they'd be using the 3,000-square-foot space by the first week of May.

Aged nearly two weeks, hand-stretched provola is shown at Caputo Brothers Creamery farmhouse in Spring Grove, Pa. on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)

Making the cheese: On Tuesday morning, head cheesemaker Wade Smith was out in the frigid weather at the couple's farmhouse, finishing up the process of smoking provolone.

To smoke the cheese, Smith uses hay to start a fire in the bottom of a barrel. For 10 to 15 minutes, the cheese hangs above the hay while thick whitish-yellow smoke billows around it.

Smith said his favorite cheese the company makes is its picante provola, which contains picante peppers.

According to Caputo, the company's most popular product is a curd that can be stretched into mozzarella.

The cheese curds the company makes taste much like yogurt — surprisingly tangy. The ricotta is fluffy and sweet and the provola — "provolone" just means "large provola," Caputo said — is creamy and a little tangy.

— Reach Julia Scheib at jscheib@yorkdispatch.com.