For R.I. creamery, a curd mentality

By Leah Mennies
Globe Correspondent / June 23, 2010

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PROVIDENCE — In the make room of Narragansett Creamery, cheesemaker Louella Hill stands next to a 2,000-gallon vat of just-pasteurized milk. Thanks to a recent sprinkling of cultures, the milk has just begun to set, trapping yellow clouds of butterfat in its gelled surface. Hill briefly presses her gloved hand against the surface, and the handprint left behind indicates that the milk will soon be ready to transform into fresh mozzarella curd. “That’s cheesemaking right there,’’ she says.

Rubber boots, hairnets, and white coats are the daily uniform here, where ricotta is kettle-heated and hand-dipped, queso fresco hand-crumbled, and feta brined in sea salt. Owned by husband and wife team Mark and Pattie Federico, the creamery represents the artisan cheese division of Providence Specialty Products, an institutional cheese wholesaler and family business.

Products have Rhode Island-themed names like “Divine Providence’’ for gouda, “Atwell’s Gold’’ for aged Italian-style cheddar, and “Newport Pearls’’ for marinated mozzarella balls. This summer at farmers’ markets in Boston, Pattie Federico and a team from Narragansett will be doling out samples and recipe advice under the Narragansett Creamery awning splashed with the motto “feathery, fresh, squishy, stinky.’’

“Most people haven’t ever milked a cow or grown their own salad,’’ Hill says. “So I think we are a valuable thing to the community to be producing something we all enjoy every day and that’s not being shipped from far away.’’

The creamery was launched in 2007 after Hill, then the director of a group of Rhode Island farmers’ markets, realized that there wasn’t a single piece of locally produced cheese for sale. “I thought [Rhode Island cheese] didn’t exist; actually, in truth, in a quiet corner of the city, there was Mark Federico busy every day,’’ says Hill.

Federico, a cheesemaker for over three decades, had only been producing cheese for wholesale buyers. Now he’s selling retail. “Cheese is a science, but it’s an art. And that’s the fun part of it,’’ says Federico. “And [in] the artisan division, every batch might come out a little different.’’

With milk delivered twice daily from a local co-op and pasteurized in-house, the creamery’s freshest products — ricotta, yogurt, and mozzarella — are its top sellers. “You can get yogurt that is two days out [of the farm],’’ says Hill.

Narragansett Creamery has also played a role in bolstering the local dairy industry. “People more and more want to know where their food comes from and want to know it’s as local as possible,’’ says Ken Ayars, chief of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Agriculture. “A Rhode Island cheese is more desirable than a Wisconsin cheese or a California cheese.’’

Only a portion of the creamery’s milk comes from Rhode Island dairy farms because of trucking routes and high demand, but the creamery has tried to do its part to initiate a burgeoning cheesemaking community in the state and has taken on interns from local dairy farms.

“I hope we are helping to open the door and offer resources and support for ourselves as an educational venue,’’ says Hill. “I hope that every dairy farm in Rhode Island gets their own farmstead cheese operation going. That would be fantastic.’’

Narragansett Creamery cheeses are available at farmers’ markets on Tuesday at Harvard University and Copley Square; Wednesday at Davis Square, and Thursday in Plymouth. For more information go to www.richeeses .com.

Leah Mennies can be reached at