Some things were just meant to be.
It is fitting then that the first offering from Narragansett Creamery, Rhode Island’s only artisan cheese producer, be named “Divine Providence.” In Providence, the fledgling venture found not only the right conditions — a populace newly committed to local and artisanal eating — but the right equipment and resources to launch the venture. Since the introduction of bacterial culture into milk is the foundation of cheesemaking, let’s just extend the metaphor and say that in Providence, Narragansett Creamery found the right culture.
The Narrangansett Creamery backstory wends through Maine, New York, and most fittingly, Italy. But it really picks up speed in 2006, when Louella Hill, a local food advocate and cheesemaker, sensed that the time was right for Rhode Islanders to have a cheese they could call their own.
“Artisan cheeses were so in, local foods were so in. There were lots of local tomatoes, but not a lot of value-added foods to be eaten at the other ends of the year,” she says.
After copious research devoted to the prospect of making Rhode Island’s first cheese, Hill learned that she missed that opportunity. By about 15 years.
Since 1989, cheese had been produced in Providence’s Olneyville section by Providence Specialty Products, a family-run company making mozzarella, ricotta, and feta for wholesale distribution in New York and New Jersey. But because they were shipping their products in bulk to other states, the company operated in relative obscurity. And while they were a small cheese company compared to the major producers, they were too big to be considered artisanal.
According to Hill it took only one meeting with owner Mark Federico for both to realize how much they could benefit from each other’s experience and goals. She wanted a small-batch cheese that foodies and locovores could feel proud about and find readily. He wanted new audiences and continued growth for his life’s work as a cheesemaker. It was providential, you might say, that they met. And so the Narragansett Creamery division was born.
“I had the recipes,” says Hill. “Mark said, ‘tell me what you need.’”
He gave her a 40-gallon stainless steel figure-8 shaped tub, a practically doll-sized tub compared to the three giant rectangular troughs that dominate the cheesemaking room at Providence Specialty Products. “We started making the cheeses and we were selling them four months later at the AS220 Winter’s Farmers Market. But before then, we easily brought over 150 pounds of handcrafted artisan gouda to a local pig farmer.”
Many happy pigs benefited from her efforts at perfecting the cheese and eventually she arrived at Divine Providence. Now Narragansett Creamery cheeses, in their distinctive blue and gold packaging showing a wave of milk being poured from a pitcher, can be found statewide and year-round at farmers’ markets, as well as in a number of restaurants that highlight locally sourced ingredients.
At Chez Pascal, on Market Mondays, chef/owner Matthew Gennuso builds entire menus from his finds at the neighboring farmer’s market, which usually include Narragansett Creamery cheeses. At Rue de L’Espoir, the locally made ravioli is stuffed with Narragansett’s fluffy ricotta.
Divine Providence, and its sister cheeses, like the aged Atwell’s Gold, the kettle-heated Renaissance Ricotta, and the Salty Sea Feta, all of which bear names reflective of their provenance, have become local treasures.
“There are people out there who truly love cheese and they just bask in our samples,” says Hill. “They’re just in love.”
These days, both divisions of the cheese enterprise are flourishing. Providence Specialty Products continues to turn out roughly 100,000 pounds of cheese a week, and since 2007 has won top honors in both national and international competitions for its feta and its ricotta. And Narragansett Creamery, with its 1,200 pounds of cheese a week, continues to gain new fans and devotees everywhere it’s sold. Together, they brainstorm new cheeses and related products that they try in small batches at the markets to gauge customer support. Again, you might say it’s the culture that influences the cheese.
“Rhode Island is the perfect place for this in a lot of ways,” Hill says. “It is by nature local. It’s a great place for change to happen. It’s so micro that anything’s possible."