During the winter holidays, cheese comes to the fore—and no one wants to present a milquetoast cheese plate. Luckily, it’s easy to make your selections stand out and please a crowd if you keep a few basic rules in mind: Choose a few different varieties of cheeses so that diverse palates can find something to enjoy. Select preserves, pickles, and honeys to serve alongside that complement and enhance the flavor of the cheeses you choose. Serve your cheese room temperature. And, of course, match your wedges with a delicious brew (or several).
But enough about basics. Want to knock your cheese plate out of the park? Choose the right blue.
Enter Blue Bell, a newcomer to southeast Pennsylvania’s dairy scene. When cheesemaker Stefanie Angstadt moved to Berks County to work at Eckerton Hill Farm—famed for its heirloom tomatoes—she noticed that most of the local artisan cheese in the area was made several counties away. Angstadt’s distant relatives had even settled in the area—Eckerton is located on Angstadt Hill—and soon after, Valley Milkhouse Cheese was born.
Angstadt rents creamery space from Covered Bridge Farm in Oley and sources sheep’s milk in spring, summer, and fall from Amishman Melvin Stoltzfus’ Roundtop Farm in Honey Brook. Year-round, Jersey, Ayrshire, and New Zealand Holstein cows’ milk comes from Spring Creek Farm in nearby Wernersville, where cows graze on certified organic pastures in summer and hay in the winter—making Valley Milkhouse’s cow’s milk cheeses, yogurt, and butter 100% grass-fed.
Blue Bell’s blue-green crags and streaks might look intimidating at first, but a taste reveals a toasty, savory paste with a familiar—but not too assertive—flavor of P. roqueforti in the background. While not quite as fudgy in texture as Birchrun Blue, the godmother of Pennsylvania raw milk blue cheeses, Blue Bell is versatile in texture and can be crumbled, sliced, or spread. It’s a cheese with character—and approachability—that anyone could love. Don’t be surprised if you even see blue-shy eaters sneaking another crumble, especially if you serve it with a dark, molasses-y buckwheat honey to drizzle on top.
To pair in a sequence of cheese and beer combinations, put Blue Bell and its big, yet welcoming, flavor at the end of the line. For an all-local session, start with an oozy, bloomy rind like Yellow Springs Farm’s ethereal, creamy Cloud Nine, a little puff of pasteurized goat’s milk, with a citrusy wheat beer or dry cider. Then move on to a sturdier cheese like Doe Run Farm’s Seven Sisters Reserve, a hard-aged Gouda-style with an umami-rich, toffee-backed flavor. Pair that with a nutty ale or something with a whiff of hops, like Victory Prima Pils.
And then, the main course: Blue Bell’s combination of rich, savory paste; toasty notes that recall a crisp crust of sourdough; and a dénouement of sweet cultured butter. Porters and stouts go well with blues, but it’s important to find one that’s not too smoky or sweet —or syrupy in mouth-feel—which will fight with the cheeses’ savory notes. The mildly sweet coffee notes in Tröegs Java Head support the lactic sweetness singing over top of Blue Bell’s savory flavors, with just a little dark-roast smokiness to counter them. Think of it as a take on the after-dinner-party coffee, the perfect end to an evening of cheese.