After traveling from Spain to Seattle to southwest Ohio, artisanal cheesemaker and Madrid native Cecilia Garmendia is finally home.
Lamp Post Cheese, a business she co-owns with her husband, Ryan Tasseff, opened its first shop on Oct. 24 in downtown Lebanon on 107 E. Mulberry St.
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The window-lined shop houses a cheese production space that includes an aging room, retail area and tasting room. Their focus is unmistakably on local and regional artisanal producers and the surrounding community.
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The retail area offers cheeses from producers such as My Artisano and Urban Stead in Cincinnati alongside other Ohio cheeses that include sheep milk cheese from Kokoborego in Mount Gilead, goat-milk cheese from Lake Erie Creamery in Cleveland and grass-fed cow milk cheese from Canal Junction Farm in Defiance. Cured meats from North Country Charcuterie in Columbus round out the local lineup.
The shop also carries some European items such as Gouda cheese from Holland and quince paste from Spain.
The tasting room, which includes a bar, seats about 25 people. It's open on Friday and Saturday evenings with limited service and a short menu of cheeseboards with cured meats, wine and canned beer. Look for local and regional beers such as MadTree and Hoppin' Frog and wine from Skeleton Root and Meranda-Nixon.
"We're planning events like wine-and-cheese and beer-and-cheese tastings, along with cheesemaking classes," Garmendia said.
You can peer into the production room from the sidewalk. In there, Garmendia expects to make around 1,000 pounds of cheese monthly. She hopes to be up and running in a few weeks and add her own cheeses to the retail area at the end of January.
Cheese as a part of everyday life
Garmendia is a uniquely qualified cheesemaker: She has a Ph.D in biology.
"There is a lot of science in cheese," she said. "There's plenty of microbiology, chemistry and physics. There's also the engineering part of setting up the equipment."
Upon earning her doctorate in Paris, Garmendia got a research job in Seattle, where she met her now-husband. However, it wasn't long before she started to miss the cheeses she enjoyed in Europe and the culture that existed around them.
"In Spain or France, cheese is an everyday food," she said. "Here, it's something special. I miss the part of it being more casual."
Eight years ago, she took classes to learn to make her own.
When she and her husband moved back to France for a couple of years, her hobby took a back seat. However, when the couple relocated to Lebanon for her husband's P&G job three years ago, it rekindled her cheesemaking aspirations.
"I decided this was a good place to start a business and stopped (my career in) research," she said.
Fortunately, she still gets to use her hard-earned scientific skills.
Sharing is a big part of cheesemaking
Many factors play into the quality of cheese, starting with the quality of milk. Garmendia buys hers from Swallow Hill Jersey Dairy in Jamestown, Ohio.
Regulations prohibit the sale of raw milk for drinking, but its use is allowed in cheesemaking if the cheese is aged for at least 60 days.
Other variables such as pH, cheese cultures (mold and bacteria), time and temperature also affect the final cheese product.
Lamp Post is known for its Haya, Apollo and Toby cheeses. Its Haya cheese is inspired by Tomme cheese, made predominantly in the French Alps and Switzerland. The Spanish-inspired Apollo cheese is a semi-soft cheese press-wrapped in cheesecloth and aged with a light rub of paprika and olive oil. The Toby cheese is a slightly sharp English-style cheddar wrapped in cheesecloth and brushed with butter.
In time, Garmendia hopes to incorporate more of the naturally occurring cultures in raw milk and use fewer of the commercial ones. Pasteurizing milk destroys all inherent cultures, turning it into a "blank slate." The addition of commercially available cultures produces cheeses that are predictable and consistent — benchmarks that industrial cheese producers want.
However Garmendia is not so much interested in predictability as she is in teasing out the subtlety of "terroir," which she says is present in the naturally occurring microorganisms of raw milk.
"You have original cultures that are different from other places," she said. "You have the flavor of the place, the terroir. I like the variability and surprise of seeing how it comes out."
The shop is home to Garmendia in more ways than one. Not only does she live just blocks away, she now has a place to craft cheeses from her European upbringing and make them more accessible to the community.
"What I really like about cheesemaking is that you can share it," Garmendia said. "I really like sharing food with people."