Philadelphia cream cheese was invented in 1872, named in a deft marketing move to associate the soft cheese bricks with Philly's high-quality dairy farms. Despite its enduring branding, though, the grocery store staple was never made in the City of Brotherly Love. Now, nearly 150 years later, Philly can finally claim its own version.
Cheesemaker Yoav Perry recently introduced The Real Philly—technically a schmear, since it's made with whole milk instead of cream. Perry crafts the spread, along with a host of other interesting, innovative, and downright delicious cheeses, from Pennsylvania milk at Perrystead Dairy in the heart of the city's South Kensington neighborhood.
Calling himself Philly's first urban cheesemaker, Perry opened earlier this year, much to the delight of neighbors. When he tells people what he does, "the only thing that would make them more excited is if he said he was an astronaut," said his wife, Rhalee Perry. "Their whole faces light up."
The cheesemaking journey started in New York City, where Perry and his family were living before moving to Philadelphia. He couldn't find yogurt in the grocery store without thickeners and stabilizers. "Yogurt is just milk and cultures and nothing else," said Perry. "So I started making yogurt at home."
Homemade yogurt was the gateway to making labneh, and finally, cheese. "The minute I made it, I was just taken aback," he said. "It was total magic."
Perry's education came, at first, in the form of online cheesemaking forums, cheese-making manuals, and trial and error. In the beginning, he couldn't find a diverse enough range of bacterial cultures and tooling, so he imported from France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Then he started a business selling them to a community of cheesemakers hungry for more interesting and varied offerings, eventually shipping to about 35 countries and 700 professional producers and hobbyists.
Eventually, the cheesemaker sold ingredients to Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, which led him to show off samples of a Fromage Faisselle—a ladled version of fromage blanc—to some of the kitchen staff. "It's more custardy, it's beautiful and decadent, and they sell it in a farmer's market in France." Perry's cheese was a hit—it was slated to stay on the restaurant's menu for one season, but remained for three seasons, about nine months.
If impressing the team behind Eleven Madison Park—consistently listed among the world's best restaurants—was any indication, Perry is good at making cheese. But when he considered opening a dairy, the financial numbers didn't make sense in New York. Perry and his family moved to Philadelphia in 2016, eventually opening Perrystead Dairy inside a warehouse in South Kensington.
In the neighborhood, the cheesemaker found a robust maker community, filled with a growing roster of breweries, distilleries, and a new urban winery. He also found a steady stream of prime milk. "The dairy in Pennsylvania is absolutely incredible," he said. "The quality is enough to justify making world-class cheese right here."
Di Bruno Bros. Intergalactic cheese
That world-class cheese includes a seasonally-rotating roster of varieties like the Atlantis, washed in Atlantic Ocean seawater and six kinds of edible seaweed, and Intergalactic, a floral, cow's milk cheese coagulated with thistle rennet—a tradition dating back to the Roman Empire. (At a recent food maker's market Perry hosted at the dairy, the crowds were raving about these beautiful little wrinkly-rinded cubes of buttery perfection. It's set to get a wider distribution outside of Philly, throughout the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and California.)
It also includes Perry's Real Philly schmear, a loose rendition of what he made for Eleven Madison Park. The fluffy, probiotic-infused cheese is made with only three ingredients: cultured milk, enzyme, and salt.
"This is not a lab experiment," he said. "It highlights the amazing milk here. You cannot do this with crappy milk." He points out that making a product with so few ingredients means there's nothing to hide behind. The process involves a slow fermentation that creates active, microscopic carbon dioxide bubbles inside the curd, which translate to silky spread. Incidentally, the Real Philly goes well with some of the city's best new bagels, or anything else worthy of its tangy decadence.
For Perry, the inspiration behind making the Real Philly schmear was to make an American-rooted cheese. "Cream cheese is the only thing out there that's American original," he said. Cheddar hails from England, Brie from France. Even "American" cheese originated in Switzerland.
On the whole, Perry's focused on making original cheese that aren't a mimic of Europe's regional cheeses, and on showcasing high-quality milk, which injects much-needed resources into Pennsylvania's struggling dairy farm industry.
If you see the Real Philly, or any Perrystead cheeses—sold at Philly's famed cheese institution DiBruno Bros., and Riverwards Produce—snag them now, because he's probably already working on something new.
"I don't have to make the same cheese over and over again," Perry said. "You can build a brand where [customers] know they get a high-quality product that is creative and interesting and approachable and not esoteric. It's just fun and absolutely delicious."