At the bottom of a narrow staircase and through a door, two large knee-high white boots sit on a black mat soaked in a sanitizing solution. Dr. Emiliano Tatar must step into these boots before entering a space that, though small, has everything he needs: two refrigerators, a large sink and a stainless steel workspace.
Tatar is an artisanal anomaly. From the basement of his home on Mercer Road in Merion Station, he turns milk into aged cheeses. A pediatrician by trade, Tatar took up his rather unusual hobby five years ago. Now his handiwork can be found on menus and in stores throughout the area via his Merion Park Cheese Company.
Tatar shares a love of cheese and charcuterie with his wife. “We were sort of known for having cheese plates,” he jokes.
So he began experimenting. “You get these kits to make ricotta, mozzarella—things that don’t need any aging. It’s basically like cooking or baking,” he says. “I just fell in love with it.”
As he gained confidence, Tatar looked to branch out. Encouraged by friends and family, he sought out an FDA-approved location, initially making his cheese at Nana’s Kitchen at the Kaiserman Jewish Community Center in Wynnewood. But it wasn’t long before he realized he’d need his own spot. After conferring with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, contractors converted a portion of his basement into a sanitized space that meets FDA guidelines.
One of his two refrigerators is modified to control temperature and humidity, serving as a cave for aging cheese. There’s also a vat where Tatar heats milk. A thermometer snakes out of one side, gauging its progress. When it heats to the right temperature, Tatar adds cultures. “That’s part of the art—which culture to put in—because cultures modify flavor and texture,” he says.
Later, Tatar adds rennet, an enzyme that helps the milk turn into curds, which he then separates from the whey before placing the curds into rounded molds. Those molds form the wheels, which must then age and form a rind.
Tatar’s Mercer Road cheese is aged 90 days. His Martha Street variety, aged 60 days, is made in collaboration with the Philadelphia restaurant, Martha, and its fermented beer. In September, Tatar debuted Cynwyd Knoll, for grating over food. “It’s an incredibly fun cheese to make,” he says.
While Mercer Road and Martha Street come in large wheels, Cynwyd Knoll is a small ball covered in pepper, the curd mixed with garlic to give it its flavor. All three are made from milk Tatar sources from a farm in Plumsteadville by way of Oreland. The owner of a small-batch Armenian yogurt-maker Erivan Dairy orders an additional 40 gallons of milk for Tatar, who makes a pick-up several times a month.
Merion Park makes 80-100 pounds of cheese every month. Tatar sells to Bibou, Di Bruno Bros., Tired Hands Brew Café and other area restaurants and retailers. “Every batch is going to be a little different,” he says. “I don’t have a factory or tons of ways to control my environment.”
To learn the cheese-making process, Tatar turned to the Internet and books. He also stumbled upon a community of cheese enthusiasts and tapped the expertise of the Farm at Doe Run’s Samuel Kennedy. “I think he’s the best cheese maker in Pennsylvania and one of the best in the country,” says Tatar.
The two first met at a biannual cheese event in Philadelphia. “I could tell he had a lot of passion for his product and a lot of enthusiasm for the cheese industry in general,” says Kennedy, who helps produce Doe Run’s dozen or so cheeses, many of which have won awards.
Kennedy offers advice, tasting Tatar’s products when he can. He recently threw in his two cents as Tatar developed Cynwyd Knoll. “He’s going through the same stress that I’m going through,” says Kennedy. “He’s just going through it for 80 pounds—I’m going through it for 5,000.”
But it’s good stress. “Right now, I’m in a very happy place,” says Tatar.