Jackee Foster: A passion for cheesemaking on Martha’s Vineyard

Ms. Foster has big ideas for cheesemaking on the Vineyard, specifically for goat's milk cheese production. — Photo by Jason Danielson

If you want to know anything about cheese, ask Jackee Foster of Oak Bluffs. Ms. Foster is a cheesemaker and cheese connoisseur who is responsible for developing cheeses – mozzarella varieties – for Jan Buhrman of Kitchen Porch Catering and feta for Mermaid Farm. She also teaches cheese workshops for Ms. Buhrman and, on her own, hosts cheese tastings for private clients.

Ms. Foster, a 2005 graduate of Johnson & Wales, learned the craft of cheesemaking from Lourdes Smith, a third generation cheesemaker who is the proprietor of Fiore di Nonno, makers of handcrafted, small batch mozzarella in Somerville. At the time she was offered the job of cheesemaking assistant, Ms. Foster was trying to figure out where she could carve out her culinary niche.

The Lancaster native had just returned from Ireland, where she spent five years working in restaurants and helping to start up two new venues. Although she had originally gone to rural western Ireland for a four-month internship, she ended up settling in Dublin because of the culinary renaissance that was taking place while she was there.

“At the time they were right in the swing of the Celtic Tiger [period of rapid economic growth],” she says. “People were moving there from all over Europe. These cultural influences were reflected in the variety of cuisines, which ranged from French classical to Asian.”

One of the chefs that Ms. Foster worked for was dedicated to the revival of traditional Irish food using all local ingredients. “In the city all these ingredients were coming from local farms. I had farmers dropping off eggs, dairy, pig trotters from a farm five miles away. I would go to the docks for fish at five in the morning. That was exciting for me. I had never seen that.” She adds, “The local food movement wasn’t big in the States at that time. It was just a trend.”

Upon her return to the U.S., Ms. Foster moved to Boston and tried to figure out the next direction for her career. “I was looking for something more focused. A different lifestyle where I could get connected more back to the land.” The cheesemaking assistant job fit the bill. “In Ireland I visited three or four cheesemakers, but I never thought it was something I could do,” she says. “I thought – you grow up on a farm, you make cheese.”

Once Ms. Foster started apprenticing with Ms. Smith she says, “I got completely into it. I took every workshop possible.” Much of her academic training came from The Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese with one of the world’s leading lactobacteriologists. Of the school, Ms. Foster says, “It’s for budding cheesemakers and chemists. There’s a chemistry focus – something that was not really in my background. Cheesemaking is all about that.

“That pushed me in my work with Lourdes,” she continued. She also wanted to start experimenting with other types of cheeses. “When an opportunity came up working on the Vineyard for Jan Buhrman, I jumped at the chance,” she says. “She wanted me to work with Mermaid Farm milk in her kitchen with the idea of eventually getting me over to the farm on a contract basis. They had the facility all ready to go and after a full season with Jan, I moved to Mermaid Farm in fall 2010.”

Ms. Foster worked on developing feta cheese for the farm. Although she is Greek, Ms. Foster says that she wasn’t that interested in feta. “I thought of it as a really boring cheese,” she says. However, she experimented with the recipe until she came up with something that she was happy with. “It’s a typical French-style feta,” she says. “It’s not as dry – not as bland in flavor, because the milk is so good. The cows are out in grass in season. I tried to make it not too salty. Salt should only be used to enhance, not to mask flavor.”

After she had perfected the feta and passed along the technique to others on the farm, Ms. Foster moved on to to other projects. Currently she is sharing her skill and expertise through a variety of tastings, workshops, and demonstrations. In March she participated in a Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard event at Morning Glory Farm. This summer she will continue with a series for Ms. Buhrman’s culinary and agricultural experiences. For the third year in a row Ms. Foster will host five-hour hands-on cheesemaking workshops that include a family style meal using the cheese prepared in the class, and a tasting of six to eight American farmstead cheeses paired with American wines.

Some of Ms. Foster’s favorite cheeses come from artisan cheesemakers whom she has worked with or visited. “I love all Vermont cheeses,” she says. She is particularly fond of Jasper Hill’s Winnimere, a soft, stinky cheese wrapped in spruce bark, and a rustic goat’s milk tomme from Twig Farm.

Ms. Foster has a new venture – currently in the embryo stages – that she hopes will help facilitate production of goat’s milk cheese on the Vineyard.

“Since I started, I’ve been wanting to get into goat’s milk cheese,” she says. She is currently researching the possibility of setting up a mobile cheesemaking unit and a mobile milking parlor for use by local dairy farmers. “The idea is to build this infrastructure that can go mobile. There are other people on the Island who would like to be doing something like this.”

She notes that this type of arrangement is popular in Europe. Last fall Ms. Foster attended the four day Slow Food International Cheese Conference in Italy where both a mobile cheesemaking unit and a mobile milking parlor were on display. Earlier this month, she visited with a Vermont vet and farmer who designed a mobile unit to facilitate cheesemaking at the Craftsbury County Fair.

As with all of her endeavors, Ms. Foster is gathering as much knowledge and hands-on experience as possible. Of a recent trip to northern California she says, “I tried to visit as many small goat farms as possible. If someone is willing to let you look around at their facility, that’s the best way to learn and get new ideas.”

Mermaid Farm feta is available at their farm stand, the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market, Cronig’s Market, Morning Glory Farm, Fiddlehead Farm, and the Scottish Bakehouse.

To book a private cheese tasting and demo you can contact Jackee Foster at Thecurdword@gmail.com.

To find out more about Kitchen Porch’s cheesemaking workshops and other culinary experiences, visit kitchenporch.com.