The farm-to-table movement is growing in Northeast Ohio thanks to a return of family farms, the growth of new urban farms and the availability of year-long farmers’ markets. The region’s tops chefs benefit from the proximity of local produce and the quality of local products. Like Mackenzie Creamery’s goat cheese, winner of ten national awards.
Jean Mackenzie looks out the kitchen window of her home in Hiram, onto the old woods she and her partner Jim Zella like to explore. “And we have found morel mushrooms and beautiful wildflowers and tremendous wildlife so it’s a very special place. We feel honored to sort of, we view it as we’re the stewards right now. Make it better and pass it on.”
Listening to NPR
Trim, close-cropped, pert and personable as the Pan Am hostess she once was, Mackenzie had never been a farm girl. But she and Zella share a love for the land. So when it was about time to retire, they bought Hiram’s Stonewall Farm. Soon after, they thought they’d figured out what to do with it. “I was driving to work and Jim was driving to work independently in our cars and we were both listening to NPR. There was a program on the demand for goat meat in this country. So we said let’s try it.”
They failed, because they were both too kind. “The first time that we sent the animals to slaughter, Jim and I looked at each other and said, ‘No we can’t do this because we just became too attached.” She says it was a big mistake to give them names.
They quickly abandoned the original plan and sold most of the herd but kept four of their favorite goats as pets. “ Izzy, Patches, BeesKnees, and Sukie.”
Focusing on the cheese-making
After taking what she calls a life-changing class in cheese-making, Jean decided to focus on making goat cheese and let others raise and milk the animals.“Amish farmers who are making excellent milk for us. So there’s a saying in cheese-making, good milk makes good cheese.”
What Jean calls the “make room” is a free-standing structure not far from the farmhouse. It’s filled with stainless steel vats, cabinets, gleaming work tables and machinery.
MacKenzie Creamery’s workforce is small and quiet: four Amish girls who live nearby. “So the girls are anywhere from 14 to 15, they’re very young. But they also are very excited about the opportunity here. Hi, ladies. This is Amanda and Rachel and Susan and Emmae.”
A Little Beehive
“She’s getting the pasteurizers ready for the milk to be pumped so you can see that the stainless steel lines that come in have been all hooked up with the hose and the milk will be pumped directly into that pasteurizer. She’s going to put the…she already has the leak detector valves on.
“This is reaching its top. No, it’s stopped. They’ve just stopped. They’re doing so many things at once. They’ve got the tank filling with hot water. They’ve got this filled; now they’re going to fill that. And they’ve got the cheese going. So it’s a little beehive.”
One of the girls pours Courvoisier cognac into a mixture of cheese and chopped figs. Local chefs have found inspiration in these concoctions.Craig Fitzgerald of Chagrin Falls’ West End Bistro recently served a four-course dinner infused with Mackenzie goat cheese. “He took our Sweetfire, which is a black raspberry with habanero sauce, and rubbed it on pork tenderloin. Then he took the rest of the sauce and the chevre and made a bread pudding. It was over the moon. It was just great.”
Jean keeps dreaming up sauces to fold in. “I fall asleep thinking about them and I have probably a hundred recipes in my head that we haven’t used yet.”
She plans eventually to make a hard goat cheese but now it’s all soft and spreadable. “Very much like cream cheese. Sort of cream cheese made with goat’s milk. That’s really simplifying it. But it’s just a really lovely fresh cheese and depending on how much you dry it, it can be crumbled, it can be spread, softened and spread. Actually I have some chefs who request that we dry it a little bit more and other chefs who just love it the way it is because they can make sauces and ice cream. Jenny’s ice cream, all of their goat cheese ice cream is made with our chevre.”
Chevre is French for goat.
Christina Luck’s assistant manager of Akron’s West Point Market cheese shop. “We have a Spanish one over here. It’s mild but it’s tangy and creamy and really lovely it’s a great cheese. French. Holland. What are the milder ones? Probably the local ones. We have this one here, Ornery Goat from Ravenna which is, most of her stuff is really mild. She has flavored and then we have Mackenzie Chevre from Hiram.”
At the store, quarter pound tubs of MacKenzie chevre sell for about 9 dollars. But you can buy them online for 7.
For her specialty sauces, Mackenzie has local sources. She grows her own basil and baby garlic bulbs, or scapes, for her signature Scapegoat pesto, and gets the filberts she mixes in from her neighbor’s hazelnut trees.“We try and source all of our products in Ohio. It’s not always possible. The figs. The black truffles. But wherever we can, it’s Ohio products.”
A growing market
In 2007, hers was the second goat cheese creamery to be licensed in Ohio. Lake Erie Creamery near the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo was the first, opening in 2006. Today Northeast Ohio has five goat cheese operations and Ohio has a total of eight.
Jean Mackenzie’s a little worried about the market getting saturated, but she’s also beginning to turn a profit, and she can’t believe her luck. “It’s very much a ‘pinch me’. It’s very much ‘Is this really happening?”
Jean Mackenzie, head cheesemaker and owner of MacKenzie Creamery in Hiram.
Next week we sample some local salsa. Join us for that next Friday on Quickbites.