To the pleasure of many, the UConn Creamery is once again making cheese. The driving force behind this renewed enterprise is Dennis D’Amico, a food microbiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science who is an expert on artisan cheese making. D’Amico, who grew up in upstate New York, set out to become a medical doctor with the intention of specializing in sports medicine. As an undergraduate at the University of Vermont (UVM), he majored in nutrition and worked in a functional foods lab where the goal was to develop foods with enhanced nutritional benefits, which tied in with his interest in sports medicine. However, when he began work, the lab had funding to address food safety issues related to recent bacterial outbreaks in raw milk and apple cider; specifically they were looking for ways to ensure the safety of these food projects. D’Amico was put to work on this project.
After completing his BS degree, D’Amico embarked on an MS and was offered a position in the lab to finish the project he’d started as an undergraduate. The day he defended his thesis, another researcher at UVM, Catherine Donnelly, offered him an opportunity to work with her on a new project. D’Amico found himself far from the orthopedic doctor he originally intended to be, but he was drawn to this field of research and decided to continue at UVM in pursuit of his PhD.
Says D’Amico, “I called my parents and they asked me, ‘what are your goals?’ And I said all I knew was that I really liked what I was doing. And they told me, ‘if you like what you’re doing, then do it.’”
In 2004, while working toward his PhD, D’Amico was involved with the establishment of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, a center for public and private education, technical outreach, and basic and applied research to support the regional and national industry. In addition to doing his research, teaching microbiology to undergraduate students and taking his own classes, D’Amico was charged with creating and teaching public courses for the Institute.
In the years following the establishment of the Institute, Vermont’s artisan cheese industry grew rapidly. Struggling dairy farmers started making cheese to supplement their income.
Following the completion of his PhD, D’Amico was appointed full-time as a senior research scientist at UVM and the Institute. He did research and conducted workshops for producers. He focused on food safety and in his research sought answers to questions from farmers. Over time, D’Amico became an expert on food safety in cheese making whose advice is sought by producers from all over the country.
“I remember that in November 2010, my phone started ringing off the hook; before then it was just crickets,” he said. “I’d go to conferences, and people had no interest whatsoever. Then two [bacterial] outbreaks made national news and people started paying attention to food safety related to artisan cheese. I was one of the few people actively working on it, and that’s when my job really took off.”
D’Amico began conducting public food safety courses around the country, something he continues as part of his work as a faculty member at UConn.
“I always tell people, we should educate before we regulate. Teach them how to do it, teach the regulators how to help,” he says. “Should we just shut down [the farms] when someone gets sick? Or should we build an infrastructure to prevent illnesses?”
Despite his success in Vermont, D’Amico wanted a new challenge. When he saw the announcement for the UConn faculty position, he submitted an application. He joined the Department of Animal Science in August 2013.
“It’s everything I wanted: teaching undergraduates, doing research I like, and making a connection with the community,” he says.
Making cheese at UConn starts with milk from the award-wining dairy herd on Horsebarn Hill, which is pasteurized at the UConn Creamery. A few basic steps then turn the milk to cheese. Specific bacteria and enzymes are added to turn the liquid milk into a gel, which is cut into cubes and treated with heat to draw off any remaining liquid. The solids, known as curds, are salted and pressed into a mold. Cheese makers manipulate and vary these steps to create different kinds of cheese.
Two types of cheese made at the creamery are available at the UConn Dairy Bar: juustoleipa and queso blanco. Juustoleipa is a Finnish cheese that is baked, not cured. Reheating does not cause it to melt, and it is best eaten warm. Queso blanco, processed at a much higher temperature than juustoleipa, does not involve bacteria or enzymes.
These cheeses are a little out of the ordinary, but not to D’Amico.
“I’ve never known any different. Abnormal to me was going to the grocery store and buying a vacuum packed piece of cheese, all one color with a label on it. I got into dairy with raw milk and weird, funky European cheeses.”
D’Amico is eager to expand the UConn Creamery’s contribution to UConn culture. “I want to see an increase in the variety of products made, and in student and community interest. People already know about UConn Dairy Bar ice cream, and I want cheese to be an extension of that – something for alumni to have, something for the University to be proud of. We can show students and the public the great products we make, and that this isn’t just a facility for cranking out product.”
D’Amico has big plans for the future. He is applying for grants, setting up his research lab and working with undergraduate students. Additionally, he will continue his nationwide food safety courses, with eight already planned for 2014.
While staff at the creamery work to meet the growing demand for its famous ice cream, D’Amico wants to fully utilize the creamery’s capacity as a research, teaching and extension facility. “The real focus is to bring the teaching, research, and extension pieces all together in the creamery,” he says. “Yes, it’s fun to make cheese – but look at all the science behind it, look at how cool it can be. We need to get that focus back on agriculture and small-scale food production.”