AUBURN – Passion is one of the main ingredients in the creamy delights crafted along the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail.
"I told my children not to come back to the farm after college unless they had a passion for hard work," said Tom Murray, who runs Muranda Cheese Co. on Route 96, just south of Waterloo.
His dairy farm is one stop on the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail (www.flcheesetrail.com;http://), a consortium of 15 cheeseries along Seneca, Cayuga and Owasco lakes.
The trail is about 500 miles long and offers beautiful views of the Finger Lakes. Savor the scenery as well as the cheese, but plan on spending two days to cover the whole route.
Pack a picnic lunch and bottle of wine, and don't forget to bring a cooler to keep fragile purchases fresh.
Auburn is a good base to hit the eastern side of the trail in Cayuga County. Seneca Falls provides a jumping off point for the L-shaped western leg in Seneca County.
Some of the farms are tucked into pastoral hillside sites, so it becomes a bit of an adventure to find them all. To avoid getting lost, download a map from the Cheese Trail website.
Since these are all working farms, it's a good idea to check the website for visiting hours, too. Some dairies are open year-round with regular hours. Others have seasonal or irregular hours built around milking times.
All the farms will be open during trailwide open houses from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Many will provide activities like goat milking, cow walking and children's games.
A three-day, wine-and-cheese weekend is scheduled April 26-28, 2013, on the Seneca Wine Trail (www.Seneca-LakeWine.com;http://www.seneca-lakewine.com) and a cheese festival will be held July 27 at one of the member creameries.
>Tour the barn
Murray sees the Cheese Trail as the perfect compliment to all the Finger Lakes wineries. "I also believe cheesemaking and cheese tasting offer small to midsized dairy farmers the opportunity to sustain and grow," he added.
Murray's tasting room has the feel of a wine bar, with a long wooden table offering 17 varieties on glass-covered plates. "Muranda Cheese is served at 85 wineries, 50 restaurants and on a toothpick here," joked Murray.
In a backroom cheese cave, Murray stacks wax-painted wheels of British Cheddar to age for three years. Other shelves contain Red Buddy (Swiss and cheddar blend), Bel Ciello (asiago and provolone), horseradish cheddar, colby and a host of garlic and herb flavors.
During calving season, visitors can tour the barn next door, where Murray's son, Blane, tends to newborn calves. The farm has an award-winning Holstein herd of 187 with 75 milking cows.
"Our cheese is made with raw, unpasteurized milk, which gives it a richer taste and denser, creamier texture," Murray said.
A little farther down Cayuga Lake in Ovid is Vanillen Dairy, the newest cheese maker in the region. Sarah Van Orden makes a soft, creamy cheese called "Morning Glory," which is named after one of her 60 Brown Swiss cows.
Van Orden offers tasty recipes with her spreadable cheese. She also helps develop new flavors of handmade ice cream at Cayuga Lake Creamery (www.CayugaLakeCreamery.com;http://www.cayugalakecreamery.com).
The creamery on Route 89 in Interlaken was recently named the "Top Ice Cream Parlor in New York" by USA Today. The man behind such flavors as Merlot wine sorbet, apple dumpling sundaes or pumpkin ice cream is Jeff Kostick, who has a master's degree in biomedical engineering.
"I like to use locally sourced seasonal ingredients," Kostick said. "I buy ginger from a place up the road or Seneca Lake salt caramel or strawberries from a nearby hydroponic farm."
On a recent visit, he and Van Orden were mixing vanilla custard with her cheese, local berries and Eremita Wine from Lodi to create a small batch of strawberry cheesecake ice cream.
Like Kostick, many of the cheese makers are well educated with degrees in animal science and business. In times of fluctuating milk prices, they see cheese making as a way to help keep alive the family farm.
Kenton's Cheese Co. ([www.kentonscheeseco.com;http://www.kentonscheeseco.com) in Trumansburg produces Bianco, a mild, blooming-mold Brie-style cheese. Cornell University grad Kenton C. Burr is a sixth-generation member of Burr-Ayr Farms and a descendant of Aaron Burr, whose brother, Bradley, settled the family farm in 1837.
"We milk 150 cows daily, producing 10,000 pounds of milk," explained Burr.
"One percent of the raw milk is used to make Bianco, which has earthy tones from the grasses and goes well with Riesling or Chardonnay."
University of Vermont alumna Keeley McGarr honed her cheese-making skills in Ireland. Her Keeley's Cheese Co. ([URL]www.keeleycheeseco.com;http://www.keeleycheeseco.com) is located at McGarr Farm in King Ferry on the east side of Cayuga Lake.
After studying at the university's Institute for Artisan Cheese, McGarr learned to make semi-soft, washed-rind cheeses at a Cork dairy farm.
Inspired by the Irish farmstead techniques, she began producing her Across the Pond cheese 2 1/2 years ago from the raw milk of Holstein and Jersey cows. Cave-aged for 60 days, the super creamy cheese is now sold out of a self-serve refrigerator on the porch of her grandfather's farmhouse. She also sells it at gourmet cheese shops, farmers' markets and wineries.
Each cheese maker strives to make artisan products different from the neighbors' goods. Rose Marie Belforti of Finger Lakes Dexter Creamery (www.kefircheese.com;http://www.kefircheese.com) makes tangy, nutty-tasting kefir cheese.
Belforti and her husband, Tim Wallbridge, have been raising rare, heritage breed Irish Dexter cows since 1999 on their 12-acre farm in King Ferry. Belforti has a master's degree in botany from Cornell and began to "engineer" the kefir cheese in 2007 with the help of food scientists from her alma mater.
To create the cheese, she combines the butterfat-rich Dexter milk with kefir "grains," a mixture of living lactic acid bacterium and yeasts. The resulting probiotic cheese is aged for two months and according to Belforti "is even better than yogurt for good digestion and increasing human longevity."
Sue and Steve Messmer and their son, Peter, craft Balkan-style feta, Cayuga Lake marbleized blue and French-style chevre in seven herb flavors at Lively Run Goat Dairy (www.livelyrun.com;http://www.livelyrun.com).
The family started their 22-acre Interlaken farm in 1982 as one of the first commercial goat dairies in New York. They have 21 milking goats, 30 kids, eight yearlings and one happy buck in the barn. Visitors can pet, bottle-feed and photograph the braying herd.
Along with their herd's production, Lively Run gets milk from 350 goats on other farms. A fairly big operation, the creamery has two cheese caves and is expanding its production facility.
With no preservatives or artificial additives, the goat cheese is sold in vacuum-packed chunks, bricks, logs and wheels in both farm and online shops.
Andrew Fish and his wife, Kim Fortin, have a much smaller business at 4 Tin Fish Fish Farm (www.4tinfishfarm.com;http://www.4tinfishfarm.com), a micro goat dairy in Port Byron, north of Auburn.
Both hold down full-time jobs and milk 14 goats daily, along with taking care of 41 kids and yearlings. They make four fresh-wrapped cheeses, a tangy feta and plain, peppercorn and herb chevre.
"The farm initially started as a hobby," explained Fish, "but as our passion grew, we began to shift our thinking as to how we might make it profitable doing what we love."
>Places to stay
Tuxill House (www.TuxillHouse.com;http://www.TuxillHouse.com) is Auburn's newest B&B. Built in 1906 by real estate developer Charles Tuxill, the four-bedroom Georgian-style house has beautiful woodwork, oak pocket doors, stone and brick fireplaces and leaded glass windows. Co-owners Susan Marteney and Audrey Iwanicki began restoring the house in March. Marteney is an ordained minister who can perform marriages at the home.
Barrister's Bed and Breakfast (www.sleepbarristers.com;http://www.sleepbarristers.com) is a village inn in Seneca Falls. The five-bedroom mansion has carved oak mantels, chestnut-paneled dining room, stained-glass windows and large porches. The 1860 home was featured on HGTV's "If Walls Could Talk" program. The B&B was named "Barrister" because four of the past five owners were lawyers.
Planning a visit
To get to Seneca Falls, take the Thruway to Exit 41 and go south on Route 414 to Route 20, which connects with a number of roads on the Cheese Trail (www.flcheesetrail.com;http://www.flcheesetrail.com).The Cayuga County Office of Tourism at 131 Genesee St. in Auburn offers free maps, brochures and friendly advice. For an online map, try http://tourcayuga.com/farm-to-table/finger-lakes-cheese-trail;http://tourcayuga.com/farm-to-table/finger-lakes-cheese-trail/.