You’ve probably never heard of cheesemaker Lori Sollenberger, or Hidden Hills Dairy, her farmstead cheese business in South Central Pennsylvania. But if you make a point of trying the city’s most hype-worthy dishes, there’s a good chance you’ve tasted her cheese.
The cheeses from Sollenberger’s 15-head herd of Jersey cows play starring roles in dishes that score accolades from Philly eaters as well as local and national media.
Sollenberger has sold her aged raw-milk cheeses in Philadelphia since around 2010. Old Gold, a savory Gouda-style with a hint of sweetness that’s aged anywhere from 12 to 24 months, developed from one of the first aged cheese recipes she ever made. “I started with a Gouda because it looked simple and straightforward, and it’s cheese I like,” Sollenberger says.
Stand in line long enough for one of Joe Beddia’s limited-edition, Bon Appétit-blessed pie at Pizzeria Beddia in Fishtown and you’ll see him grate a substantial shower of the cheese — so named for the deep yellow color it gets from the high level of carotenes in summer milk — over a fresh-from-the-oven pizza.
“It’s exactly what I want,” says Beddia. “It adds this other dimension of saltiness, this kind of caramel-y richness.” He first encountered Old Gold at the Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market more than three years ago, and it’s remained his go-to finishing cheese since Pizzeria Beddia opened in 2013.
Beddia sticks with a tried-and-true mix of cheeses: Pies are topped with two types of mozzarella from Union, NJ-based Lioni Latticini before they go into the oven. He saves the generous grating of Old Gold on top for just before the pie is served. “The idea is to still taste [the cheese] on its own,” he says. “It’s definitely a huge part of the pizza.”
Hidden Hills cheese also plays a key role on the Friz Wit, Food Underground chef Ari Miller and Kensington Quarters head butcher Heather Thomason’s collaborative take on the iconic Philly cheesesteak. Served monthly “in da cart” at Garage on East Passyunk, it was named number one cheesesteak in the city by Foobooz in March. Miller incorporates Buttercup, a young, smooth-textured cheese with a satisfying savoriness and notes of browned butter, into a Béchamel-based sauce that’s drizzled on the sandwich.
“It just works. It hit the spot. It’s super creamy and melty, it still has a bite to it,” Miller says. The idea for the Friz Wit stemmed from a desire to express the values he holds as a professional chef through a food he loved growing up that’s developed a reputation as tourist bait.
“Your friend comes in from out of town, the first thing they want to do is go for a cheesesteak. And if you have any wits about you, your response is to cringe,” he says. “Let’s make a cheesesteak we actually want to eat.”
While processed cheese product and farmstead artisan cheese couldn’t be further apart in terms of sustainable production, nutrition, and flavor, they can sometimes be used in similar ways—a fact Sollenberger embraces. “I’ve said to people that Buttercup is like Velveeta you can feel good about,” she says. “It’s not a sophisticated cheese necessarily, but it’s really fun.”
The cheese sauce, along with 100 percent grass-fed frizzled beef, caramelized onions and a Ba Le Bakery roll, comprises the Friz Wit. At $10, the sandwich is competitively priced in comparison to its big-name neighbors on the avenue; there’s no comparison in quality of ingredients.
Not every chef who’s caught on to the hidden gem that is Hidden Hills uses Sollenberger’s cheese in heavy fare like pizza and cheesesteaks. Take Boltonfeta, a brined block with lots of bite whose creamy texture comes from its 100 percent cow’s milk recipe. This past winter, Kensington Quarters chef Damon Menapace has featured the lush, tangy cheese in a beet salad with spiced almonds and tarragon.
“There must be a lot of bad feta out there,” Sollenberger says, “because over and over, people tell us how good it is compared to what they’re accustomed to.”
Issues with her aging space — the kind that would require a significant financial investment to address—have limited Sollenberger to making hard aged cheeses, rather than delicate soft-ripened types or whiffy washed rinds. But she’s proud of her offerings, and sees a place in the market for small-batch artisan cheeses that are accessible in style and price: “I think there’s a need for those types of cheeses made well, rather than what you buy in the grocery store.”
Sollenberger once sent samples to Steven Jenkins, the James Beard award-winning author of the classic Cheese Primer, seeking technical feedback. “I got this email back from him just glowing about my cheese,” she says. “But he said, ‘You’re making boring cheeses. I would never sell them in my shop.’ ”
Snobbery aside, wholesaling her products as ingredient cheeses to some of Philly’s hippest chefs makes more sense for Sollenberger than targeting restaurants with a higher price point. “From a marketing standpoint, I like that, because if [a chef is] using it on a dish, they’re using it over and over,” she says. “If they’re using it on a cheese plate, they’ll use it for a couple of months and then move onto somebody else’s.”
With a three-and-a-half hour drive separating her from the city, Sollenberger — who ships her cheeses via UPS for this reason — doesn’t make it into Philly often. Has she gotten the chance to taste these much-lauded dishes?
“No, and I’m peeved at that!” Sollenberger says. “I’ve heard they’re really good.”
Buy Hidden Hills cheeses at the Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market (51 N. 12th St.), the Kensington Quarters butcher shop (1310 Frankford Ave.) and Talula’s Daily (208 W Washington Sq.). Find Hidden Hills cheeses on the menu at Kensington Quarters, Pizzeria Beddia (115 E. Girard Ave.) and monthly Friz Wit pop-ups presented by Food Underground, Kensington Quarters, and Sly Fox Brewing Company at Garage (1231 E. Passyunk Ave.). The next Friz Wit pop-up is Wednesday, April 13, 6pm till sellout.