In 1998, milk was declared the official state drink of Maryland, a designation that well reflects statistics from 2021, which reveal that 875 million pounds of milk were generated by 42,000 cows residing on Maryland’s 340 dairy farms. Impressive numbers, right? But Maryland’s connections to the dairy industry reach even deeper, to 1858 when innovative Maryland dairy farmer, Charles Benedict Calvert of Riversdale in Prince George’s County, helped found the first agricultural college in the country, the Maryland Agricultural College (now known as the University of Maryland at College Park); he then went on to help establish the United States Department of Agriculture in 1862.
Despite these rather remarkable associations with dairying, Maryland was not known for producing aged hard cheeses. Fortunately, a new day has dawned in Maryland! High-quality aged hard cheese is now being made by several artisanal cheesemakers scattered across the state.
Maryland’s Cheese History
In a 1672 letter to his father, Maryland Governor Charles Calvert complained that “he could not find decent cheese anywhere in Maryland. With the exception of one skilled woman.” Calvert’s observation reflects the settlement patterns of early colonial Maryland when men outnumbered women by six to one. The art of making good quality cured hard cheeses was women’s work; therefore, the lack of good cheese in early Maryland reflects the colony’s shortage of female settlers. Early settlers made do by preserving their milk in the form of butter or by making soft, spreadable uncured farmer’s cheese. This type of cheese eventually became known in Maryland as smearcase, a term derived from schmierkase, the Pennsylvania German word for soft cheese (you may recognize that this is also the name given to a local Maryland cheesecake).
Those who wanted aged and cured hard cheeses had to import them from Great Britain, the Netherlands, or even other American colonies. Imported cheese, particularly Cheshire, Gloucester, Gouda, and Edam, arrived in very expensive large wheels weighing on average from 30-60 pounds each. Alas, this might explain why, in 1769, six wheels of cheese were stolen from an Annapolis warehouse owned by future Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll. Maryland’s reliance upon imported good-quality hard cheeses actually lasted well into the 21st century because rules and regulations deemed it illegal in Maryland to make cheese using raw unpasteurized milk, an essential ingredient in good quality aged hard cheese.
Happily, in 2013 the use of raw milk in aged cheeses was finally made legal in Maryland; consequently, Maryland artisanal cheesemakers are now able to produce high-quality hard cheeses good enough to compete with the best cheesemakers in the world.
Road Trip for Maryland Cheese
Three Maryland cheesemakers deserve special notice for their award-winning products: Firefly Farms in Western Maryland, Chapel’s Country Creamery on the Eastern Shore, and P.A. Bowen’s in southern Maryland.
This creamery and flagship retail shop are located in Accident, about three hours from Baltimore and Washington D.C. Firefly Farms makes an array of cheeses from locally sourced hormone and antibiotic-free fresh goat’s and cow’s milk. Try their Cabra la Mancha, a washed-rind firm goat cheese that has won numerous Maryland, US, and international awards.
Another of their winners is Carpenter’s Wheel, a firm goat cheese cured for at least six months in Crown Finish Caves, a series of old tunnels located in Brooklyn, New York, where lager beer was once stored. This cheese is not only tasty but reflects its local origins well—each wheel is imprinted with a hex design commonly found on many western Maryland barns. And don’t miss their Bloomy Breeze Brie, a creamy, delectable cow’s milk brie.
Can’t get to Deep Creek? Firefly Farms operates a retail shop in the Clipper Mill neighborhood of Baltimore. Both shops offer cheeseboards using the Firefly range of cheeses in addition to other delicious domestic and imported varieties, as well as a wide range of gourmet products. They also sell a unique cheeseboard-flavored gelato made with goat cheese, fig jam, and Marcona almonds.
Vaughan Cheese Counter & Bar & Chapel’s Country Creamery
Set your course to North Beach and spend some quality time at Vaughan’s where cheesemonger extraordinaire, Megan Vaughan, will wow you with her carefully curated selection of cheeses. Vaughan is a CIA trained chef who gained extensive cheese knowledge from her experiences working at New York City’s Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, and Saxelby Cheesemongers, where she was a protégé of the late Anne Saxelby, owner of the first shop in the U.S. devoted to American artisanal cheeses.
If this wasn’t enough to lure you to Vaughan’s, you can order a unique experience where mozzarella is pulled to order at your table. You will be amazed as the art and science of cheesemaking are presented before your eyes!
Vaughan only stocks cheeses made by people (and their animals) with whom she has built a relationship, therefore guaranteeing her customers will get high-quality cheeses made with care, including ones from Maryland makers.
She stocks products from Firefly Farms and Chapel’s Country Creamery in Easton, where owners Holly and Eric Foster make award-winning cheese from their award-winning dairy herd. Incidentally, the Fosters fought hard to get the State of Maryland to rescind its prohibition against raw milk cheeses. Vaughan sells Chapel’s Woodbine, a hard aged cow’s milk cheese with notes of citrus and almonds, and their Chesapeake Brie, a mild cow’s milk creamy brie, among other varieties. Chapel’s full range of products can also be purchased from their online shop.
P.A. Bowen Farmstead
This dairy farm is located in Brandywine amid the beautiful pastoral landscape of Southern Maryland. For those who like to know the source of their food, it doesn’t get any better than at P.A. Bowen’s—you can wave hello to a milk cow or two as you drive into the working farmyard.
If sourcing local award-winning cheese is your aim, then grab hunks of their Reserve Chesapeake Cheddar, Aquasco Jack, and Prince George’s Blue, all winners at both the American Cheese Society Competition and L.A. International Dairy Competition. Bowen’s makes other varieties, as well, including their unique and smooth Dreamy Creamy, which is basically blue cheese without the blue veins.
Lead Photo: Firefly Farms
About the Author
Joyce White developed her love for food history while working as a museum educator at various historic house museums and sites in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. She has a B.A. from William Smith College, an M.A. in American Studies from Penn State University, and has studied food history with leaders in the field at various historic sites in England and the US, including training at the Barry Callebaut Chocolate Academy in Chicago. She offers a variety of programs, including “Dining in Colonial Maryland,” “Early Maryland Spirited Drinks,” and “An Early American Christmas.” Learn more at atasteofhistory.net