Full Circle: Reviving a Family Tradition of Cheese-Making

Often, it takes a few tries to get something just right. So it was for Lourdes Smith, who worked as a pastry chef at New York City’s Le Cirque, as a mystery shopper for Marriott and a technical support engineer for Microsoft Word (among other things), before reviving her family’s tradition of mozzarella making. Smith is the owner and cheesemaker behind Fiore di Nonno, which crafts fresh mozzarella, burrata (in various flavors), string cheese, stracciatella and scamorza right here in Somerville.

“I’ve been in the food business for over 30 years,” Smith said. “I tried to get out, but I kept coming into the food business.” But Smith was unhappy, so she asked herself, “what do I know?” And one word popped into her head: fresh mozzarella.

In 1908, Smith’s great-grandfather sold his dairy farm in Italy and came to the United States. By 1913, he had a robust cheese-making business in Hoboken, N.J., which Smith’s grandfather took over in the late 1920s. A few decades later, the store, Fiore’s of Hoboken, was sold to one of the former stock clerks who kept the tradition of making fresh mozzarella alive.

“I went to the store as a kid and watched cheese making,” Smith said. When she decided to start her own business making fresh mozzarella seven years ago, Smith returned to the source and asked the man who had bought her family’s store to teach her. He gladly did and Fiore di Nonno was born.

At first, business was tough. Smith was working out of Crop Circle Kitchen in Jamaica Plain and after a year of not making much money, she wanted out. So she went to interview for a job at Taza Chocolate, but instead of hiring her, the company encouraged Smith to keep at cheese-making. Taza offered Smith a kitchen to rent and she got to work in her new Somerville home.

What happens in the Fiore di Nonno kitchen is something akin to a dance, with a few cheese-makers moving about the room crafting fresh batches of the company’s products. The cheese is made fresh to order daily, including what’s sold at local farmers markets. Customers call Smith by 6 a.m. and have their cheese in hand by the afternoon. From there, it’s served all over the region in various ways.

Though many New Englanders eat mozzarella primarily in the summer when tomatoes are at their peak, Smith is working on getting people to eat it and her other cheeses more consistently year-round.

“In New York and New Jersey, people know fresh mozzarella and eat it all year,” Smith said. “People here see it as a means to an end to eat tomatoes.”

Smith encourages cheese lovers to pair it with eggs and vegetables, or make a pizza with it, in the off-season. Or even try it with a sweet jam, as she tasted at a mozzarella bar in Rome. That was the inspiration for Fiore di Nonno’s fig burrata.

Smith enjoys creating special cheeses for chefs, such as the za’atar burrata and string cheese, which were made for Ana Sortun of Oleana. Smith also sells a cheese called scamorza, which has a longer shelf life and is better suited to winter cheese eating. There will even be a smoked version of this cheese created in a partnership with Dave’s Fresh Pasta that Smith will bring to local farmers markets.

To craft such fine cheese, Fiore di Nonno sources local ingredients, like Carlisle Honey from Tyngsborough and milk from Shy Brothers Farm in Westport.

“It took me a long time to source local milk,” Smith said. “Dairy farms are in rapid decline.” But Smith persisted and has developed a formula that produces the perfect fresh cheese.

And all of this hard work has paid off, as Fiore di Nonno took home top honors in the soft unripened cheese category at the American Cheese Society’s awards in 2011. Smith’s stracciatella beat out 18 other cheeses to nab the prize.

“It was very exciting to win, very cool,” Smith said.

Just in time for the holidays Fiore di Nonno is offering special gift boxes of handcrafted fresh cheese. You can get a taste of Fiore di Nonno’s delicious fresh cheese (and order a gift box) at the Winter Farmers Market, which runs on Saturdays (December 1-April 13) from 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m. at Arts at the Armory (191 Highland Ave.). 

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