Photo: mkorcuska, Flickr
The black-greenish powdery film of vegetable ash that runs through the middle of cheeses is often mistakenly identified as mold. In cheeses, such as Humboldt Fog, this layer of edible ash is purely aesthetic. But, when it comes to Morbier, a French cow's milk cheese, it's all about giving the impression of preserving tradition. Hundreds of years ago the line of ash separated the morning milk from the afternoon milk; sadly, that's no longer the case. Interestingly, this custom is being revived and reworked by an American dairy, Prairie Fruits Farm in Champaign, Illinois. In their pyramid-shaped Krotovina (shown above), vegetable ash divides the cheese into two distinct parts – goat's milk and sheep's milk.
"I wanted a way to combine the elements of the two milks (sheep and goat) but have people be able to taste them separately," says Leslie Cooperband, co-owner of Prairie Fruits Farm. At first, you taste the grassy flavor of goat's milk (usually located below the ash). Then, there's the floral aroma emanating from the sheep's milk portion on top. In short, Krotovina's ash-divide creates the illusion of savoring two separate cheeses under the same Geotrichum rind ("Geotrichum candidum is a type of white mold that produces a very delicate, brain coral like rind," says Cooperband.)
Separating the two milks with a thin layer of ash takes great skill. In fact, it's not until the end of the cheesemaking process that the goat's milk and sheep's milk are placed within the same structure. Cooperband uses two separate vats in which she cuts the curds, and from which she then ladles them into pyramid-shaped molds. After settling in the molds for a couple of hours (the stage when the whey drains and the curd reduces in volume), the cheese is ready to be sprinkled with ash. Above this thin dark border, Cooperband places the sheep's milk curd, the second part of the cheese.
The name "Krotovina" reflects the layered aspect of this cheese. "Krotovina is a Russian soil taxonomy term for a buried darkened layer in the soil," says Cooperband. "I was looking specifically for a term that reflected an ash layer in the soil, which you get in volcanic soils, but apparently it doesn't exist to that level of specificity." This reference to soil science is even more fitting for the cheese since Cooperband is a soil scientist, in addition to being a cheesemaker.
From Adelle to Olga, the variety of mixed milk cheeses produced in the U.S. is outstanding. And while the goat's milk and sheep's milk are separated in Krotovina, the two flavors meld together exquisitely when eaten in the same bite. Krotovina is available seasonally from April through November. Despite its current hiatus, it will be back in stores (from Pastoral in Chicago to Rubiner's in Great Barrington, MA) in late August or early September.