Even in the dead of winter, the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market is a great source of locally-produced vegetables, pasture-raised buffalo meat, and artisan baked breads. Not surprisingly, the selections are significantly limited compared to the bounty that can be found from late spring through the fall, but there is still quite a bit that can be found and enjoyed. Just make sure you show up early: although the FreshFarm website lists the market's winter hours as 10-1, I have seen vendors breaking down as early as noon when there's a chill in the air.
The changing seasons and colder temperatures have less of an impact on dairy products than they do on produce, so it should come as no surprise that most of the local cheesemakers who sell at the Dupont Market are still going strong through the winter. One of them, Blue Ridge Dairy, has been catching my eye from the first time I saw them set up at the Penn Quarter Market. Their hand-chalked sign advertising yogurt, cheese and creme fraiche from Jersey cows' milk caught my eye, and the samples on offer made the sale even before I had a chance to ask about them.
Since that first encounter, I have learned quite a bit about Blue Ridge Dairy through conversations with the sellers and the Atlas of American Artisan Cheese. Located in Leesburg, Blue Ridge turns out fresh cheese and cultured milk products using milk from Jersey cows. Paul Stephan, who has been working at cheesemaking for almost a decade, cultures the milk at his facility and then stretches the curd by hand to make his fresh mozzarella, which is sold in 8-ounce balls for $6. Other fresh cheeses are also hand-made, including a naturally low-fat small-curd ricotta and lightly sweet and creamy mascarpone.
Some of Stephan's most flavorful offerings, however, require a little more attention. Feta is aged for two months before the 8-ounce squares are offered to the public, and their tangy bite is well worth the wait. Slow-churned cultured butter is silky and rich, with a definite flavor and a higher fat content than what you'll find on most grocery shelves. It is supposed to be excellent when used in baking, though I have not used it in that capacity myself.
And the most distinct of his offerings, for my money, is a smoked version of his fresh mozzarella. Using applewood, which is popular with enthusiasts of barbecue, turkey and bacon for its deep, slightly sweet smoke, Stephan uses the "low and slow" method of bathing the mozzarella in wave after wave of applewood smoke until the finished product emerges with a latte-colored skin and an aroma more like bacon than anything else. These smoked balls of mozzarella are sold dry in 8-ounce portions for $7, and a little goes a long way. Unlike the fresh mozzarella, whose delicate taste and soft, moist texture encourage you to keep coming back for more, the strong smoky flavor is almost overwhelming when eaten by itself. If you've ever tasted a packaged smoked mozzarella like the ones that can be found in Safeway and Giant (or even the ones that can be found pre-packaged at Trader Joe's), you will be hard-pressed to identify this as even remotely related...the taste is so distinct, the texture so much less rubbery.
It begs to be used in cooking, paired with caramelized onions or other semi-sweet flavors where it mellows into the taste equivalent of a deep bass rhythm. Blue Ridge Dairy's applewood smoked mozzarella is wonderful on homemade pizzas, as well, where it can stand up to spicy ground sausage and sweet red peppers with equal aplomb. It can be melted atop crostini or paired with fresh tomatoes and basil for a twist on a standard caprese. Whatever you do with it, just make sure not to overdo it or you will find yourself overwhelmed by the smokiness to the detriment of your other ingredients.
Blue Ridge Dairy can be found year-round at the FreshFarm Markets in Dupont Circle, Courthouse and Penn Quarter (check the FreshFarm website for each market's hours and dates of operation). They also sell some of their products through Whole Foods, but it's far more fun to walk up to Paul or one of his assistants at the market, take a taste, and get to know the people who make this delicious local cheese.