How the Tumino Cheese Company brought Italy to the Finger Lakes

On her many trips to Europe, it wasn’t uncommon for Mariann Fessenden to leave clothing and shoes behind to make room in her suitcase for cheese.

She, along with partners Sue Prokop and Elisa Tumino-VanAmburgh, had talked for years about recreating and selling the cheeses they fell in love with in northern Italy. All three grew up on dairy farms— Fessenden in eastern New York, Prokop in the Catskills and Tumino-VanAmburgh in a small city outside Sicily, Italy—and all three previously worked in the dairy industry.

But it wasn’t until last fall that their dream came to fruition. Tumino-VanAmburgh, who previously worked in a cheese research facility in Italy, had just completed her food sciences degree from Cornell University and though a friend of a friend, met a cheesemaker in Italy who agreed to help mentor them.

Tumino-VanAmburgh took on the job of head cheesemaker, while Prokop takes care of inventory, records and organization and Fessenden handles marketing and the website.

With support from Cornell’s Food Processing and Development Laboratory, the Tumino Cheese Company made it first batch of cheese in December 2015.

Their signature cheese, Fessenden said, is Old Gray Mare, named after the horses used to power ferries on Cayuga Lake around the turn of the 20th century.

A wheel of Tumino's Malvie cheese, a type of toma cheese.

The cheese is a whole milk toma cheese aged anywhere from 30 to 300 days, depending on the fat content of the milk used. When fattier Jersey cow milk is used, the cheese is aged closer to the 30-day mark, creating a mild, milky cheese Fessenden compared to a French brie. As the cheese ages, it becomes dryer and the nutty, piquant flavor intensifies.

Tumino-VanAmburgh uses no mechanical pressing and turns each wheel by hand to ensure proper mold coverage.

“It’s something that would have been made in the mountains of Italy,” Fessenden said.

Wheels of juniper-studded song cheese, a semi-hard cow's milk cheese.

Wheels of juniper-studded song cheese, a semi-hard cow's milk cheese.

They also make variations of Old Gray Mare—one with whole black peppercorns named Kidders, named for the old Kidders Landing port on Cayuga Lake, and Song, named after Song Mountain, which is flavored with whole juniper berries.

Fessenden said the juniper, which lends a subtle cedar and pine flavor to the cheese, is characteristic of northern Italy.

Along with Old Gray Mare, Song and Kidders, Tumino Cheese Company will be sampling Razzle’s Choice, a semi-hard toma flavored with red pepper flakes, and Captain Ogden, a sharper, more pungent toma make with part-skim milk and aged at least six months. In total, they produce 12 types of fresh and aged cheese.

That selection best shows off the range of their cheeses and challenges eaters’ perceptions, Fessenden said, comparing the perception of New York cheese today to that of New York wines 20 years ago.

“Cheese is on the cusp,” she said.

They currently sell their cheeses throughout the Finger Lakes and as far north as Rochester, but Fessenden said they have their eyes on New York City. When asked how their cheeses will stand out, she pointed to a relative lack of locally-produced natural-rind Italian toma on the market, plus unusual flavor combinations and ease of pairing the cheeses with food or wine.

At the end of the day, for Fessenden, Tumino-VanAmburgh and Prokop, it’s about three long-time friends, their families and cheese.

“It’s super fun,” Fessenden said. “We really just have fun doing this.”