Cheese, glorious cheese: Maine’s award-winning cheeses are ripe for discovery

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By Caitlin Gilmet
Photos by John Finch

THE WORD “CULTURE” is rooted in the idea of cultivation and growth. It can refer to the achievements that help make our society better, more interesting, and more successful, and it can also refer to the bacteria, molds, and acids that help give cheese its unique character. Culture is also an essential concept for Maine’s cheesemakers. Maine is the nation’s fastest-growing artisan cheese producing state. While Wisconsin, Vermont, and California might make more cheese, Maine’s at the front of the pack when it comes to the small-batch, organic, and creative cheeses that win national awards.

StateOfMaineCheeseCo-17SIMPLE MAGIC

The Maine Cheese Guild is the center of Maine’s cheesemaking universe, with more than 80 licensed members in its orbit. Eric Rector is its executive director, charged with supporting, encouraging, and helping to develop Maine’s unique cheesemaking community. “Making cheese is deceptively simple,” he says. “You need milk, salt, enzymes, and culture. It’s simple, and then it’s also infinitely, wonderfully complex.”

The Guild offers an interactive map for visitors interested in discovering new Maine cheeses at www.eatmainecheese.com, and encourages visitors to attend its statewide Open Creamery Day in October. The Guild is also planning a Cheese Festival in Union this

State of Maine Cheese is a conventional and certified organic cheesemaker. Home to the Rockport Marketplace, they offer a wide selection of fine Maine products and cheese tastings.

State of Maine Cheese is a conventional and certified organic cheesemaker. Home to the Rockport Marketplace, they offer a wide selection of fine Maine products and cheese tastings.

fall, and frequently offers cheesemaking classes and workshops featuring cheesemakers from around Maine and the world.

Every year, the Maine Cheese Guild conducts an experiment—they pick one kind of cheese, like romano, and ask members to make their version of the recipe. The milk used might come from cows, goats, sheep, or even water buffalo. The techniques, equipment, and conditions that affect the product’s quality produce wildly different results.

“Cheesemaking is a strange and mysterious process,” says Eric. “There’s microbiology at play, but it’s also an art. People want to experience that creative magic more than ever. That’s what makes this an exciting time for local cheese.”

LOCAL CULTURE

Maine was once a leading producer of milk, but changes to the dairy industry in the 1980s caused nearly 1,200 farms to consolidate or shut their doors as farmers were paid to dump their excess milk. Since then, cheesemaking has emerged as a sustainable way to bring milk to market. Abundant affordable farmland and water, renewed interest in farming as a career, and strong support for local and organic farming have all contributed to a resurgence of small dairy farms across the state.

Cathe Morrill is a longtime cheesemaker and the owner of the State of Maine Cheese Co. in Rockland. Her small business is based in the Rockport Marketplace, which features fine local cheeses and an impressive selection of other local products. Cathe says that Maine has quickly become a “standard bearer of great cheese,” and says that she is energized by the community that has developed over recent years. “We’re keeping a piece of Maine alive,” she says. “A lot of people grew up on this land. I did, and cheesemaking is a way to keep farming with goats and cows, to keep our livelihood in rural areas. We’re keeping traditions alive and developing incredible local talent.”

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Silvery Moon Creamery creates several award-winning cheeses recognized by the American Cheese society.

Members of the Maine Cheese Guild include farms with creameries dating back for centuries and cheesemakers who are brand-new to the craft. Either way, they praise the Guild and the state of Maine for making their work to create artisan cheese possible. Unlike most states, Maine allows producers to sell raw, unpasteurized milk both on the farm and to retail establishments. The guidelines for safe manufacturing of cheese are strict, but a license is easy to obtain, and cheesemakers praise the inspectors and regulators overseeing their industry for their partnership and assistance.

In Turner, Nezinscot Farm (www.nezinscotfarm.com) is Maine’s oldest organic dairy and home to Gregg and Gloria Varney and their five children. Their visit-friendly farm is a destination that includes a gourmet food shop, café and bakery, fromagerie, charcuterie, and a yarn and fiber studio. Gloria is passionate about teaching visitors about health and sustainability because of her background in community health and exercise physiology. “I wanted to be on the farm,” she explains, “and I thought that there must be a better way to teach people about how to be healthy and eat well. When you visit us, you’re coming into my classroom.” She says that cheesemaking in particular lends itself to innovation, and says that Maine’s love for local foods has helped her business to thrive.

Get up close and personal with a water buffalo at the Maine Water Buffalo Co in Appleton.

Get up close and personal with a water buffalo at the Maine Water Buffalo Co in Appleton.

THE BUFFALO SHUFFLE

Innovation is a way of life for the Farrar family of Appleton and their herd of water buffalo. They’re Maine’s only water buffalo farm, and one of the only of its kind in the country. In 2008, Jessica and Brian Farrar visited a nearby farm to buy one of their kids a guinea pig—and wound up falling in love with a visiting water buffalo.

After plenty of research and a big leap of faith, they were in business as the ME Water Buffalo Co., selling buffalo meat and the kind of mozzarella di bufala that could previously only be found in Italy. Their cheese was an instant hit because “it’s fresh, not shipped from overseas,” says Jessica. “Maine’s cheesemakers are prospering because we’re the kinds of people who have to do things a little differently. People are able to visit our farm stand and see the buffalo, so they have a truly local food experience. We bring a fresh perspective on what’s possible to farming and cheesemaking in Maine.”

At Silvery Moon Creamery in Westbrook, cheesemaker Dorothee Grimm says that the creamery’s home, Smiling Hill Farm, has been in the same family since the 1700s. “It’s a special thing, that this farm has been operating for so long,” she says, noting that its relatively urban location close to the Maine Mall and Portland Jetport is also unique. Dorothee or another cheesemaker arrive at 4:30 in the morning on cheesemaking days to begin pasteurizing milk and ladling it into molds. Unlike large-scale manufacturers that process thousands of gallons of milk in a day, or that might push a button to add rennet and culture, Silvery Moon’s cheesemakers are handson all day long. Dorothee helps to decide which cheeses to make, manages production, fills and ships orders, and turns and monitors wheels of cheese as they age. “Mainers appreciate something made by hand,” she observes. “We have strong food infrastructure, including food co-ops and farmer’s markets that allow us to bring incredible artisan cheeses to local people efficiently.”

Many local markets offer a selection of fine Maine cheeses, including this one at the Rosemont Market & Bakery in Portland.

Many local markets offer a selection of fine Maine cheeses, including this one at the Rosemont Market & Bakery in Portland.

THE WINNING WAY

Silvery Moon Creamery is one of a growing group of Maine cheesemakers to have won prestigious awards from the American Cheese Society. Caitlin Turner of Appleton Creamery has also won multiple awards, including first place for her Camella cheese and chevre. As the founding President of the Maine Cheese Guild, Caitlin has been making cheese in Maine since 1979, and she’s passionate about helping new cheesemakers develop the skills and confidence she’s learned over the years.

“I love producing a farm to table product,” she says. “I love my goats! And I love the magic of turning milk into cheese.” She credits the Maine Cheese Guild with helping to educate a new generation of cheesemakers while elevating Maine cheese locally and nationally. Eric Rector of the Maine Cheese Guild says, “It’s gratifying to see Maine cheesemakers win national awards, and it’s fun to enter these contents against your peers to see if you measure up. But the really exciting thing is sharing great cheese with others—that’s why we do this.”

Cathe Morrill of the State of Maine Cheese Company agrees. “We’re not in competition; there’s too much great stuff going on. We’re an industry that has people from every generation participating, and we’re having so much fun. The awards are not the story; it’s the hardworking people of Maine and their passion that really makes this special. And you can get a cheese in Maine that’s as good as anything you’d find in France or Italy.”

FORCE OF HABITAT

It’s more than just pride in Maine that makes cheeses so special—it’s Maine itself. Jamien Shields runs North Island Creamery at Turner Farm, a diversified organic farm on North Haven Island. She recently won an American Cheese Society award for her Whitecap, a softripened goat cheese, and she says that the island itself shares some of the credit for great cheesemaking. “We get salt air and fog on the island,” she explains. “That brings nutrients to the grass. We also have new pastures because we cleared part of a spruce forest in 2009, and all of that input affects the ways our cows make milk.”

She’s talking about terroir, a term borrowed from winemaking and other artisanal crops like coffee. North Island Creamery’s Jersey cows enjoy native grasses, hay, and non-GMO grain brought to the island by boat. Jamien says that this contributes to the “clean, sweet flavor” of the cheese made from their milk. She’s currently experimenting with a fresh, spreadable fromage blanc, and is excited to roll out a washed rind cheese made with beer from her island neighbor’s nascent brewery at Calderwood Hall.

Eric Rector of the Maine Cheese Guild cites Maine’s “unique grass-growing terrain” as a critical factor in helping to create great cheeses. “Grain is expensive, and it has to travel far. It makes sense for a variety of reasons to grow your own food. That’s why you get that taste of place in Maine cheese—the cheese expresses the unique qualities of the milk, which reflects its unique pasture. The pasture plants in Maine’s hills are very different from those you’d see at a saltwater farm, and here we have mountains and ocean in close proximity. It’s not unusual to see very different cheeses from farms a mile apart.”

Award-winning goat cheeses and baby goats? Find all of this and more at the Appleton Creamery.

Award-winning goat cheeses and baby goats? Find all of this and more at the Appleton Creamery.

EDIBLE ART

Nezinscot Farms’ certified organic dairy cows eat grass seasonally and fermented grass, or haylage, in the winter. “They’re treated well, and they eat a lot of greens,” says Gloria Varney. “Every farm is a little different, of course. The animals are fed differently, the air is different, the inside of the barn has its own smells and character.”

Gloria says that cheesemaking is an art as much as it’s a science. “I learned early on that it’s a visual and physical medium. You’re taught to stir the curd until it’s the size of a grain of rice, but you really have to learn what feels right. If you squeeze the curd lightly, it pops. You look for those key features in the cheese, and you try to develop consistency. The cheesmaker’s on board the whole time, and there are lots
of factors to consider, like the air, the humidity, if it’s a low pressure day. So many things: light, heat, timing, just plain messing up a step, can affect how it turns out.”

Cathe Morrill of the State of Maine Cheese Company echoes the sentiment that cheesemaking is part science and part art. “It’s the artistry that makes it special,” she says. “Frankly, every time you make a cheese, it’s a little different. You stick to your principles and standards, but it’s a living art. The most important element is the cheesemaker. It’s the difference between Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin; everybody has their own special signature and passion for the craft. We should sign our cheeses like paintings!”

Developing your own preferences is most of the fun part of exploring Maine’s artisan cheeses, says Eric Rector of the Maine Cheese Guild. He describes the stages of a camembert to help explain how personal taste is entirely subjective. “A young brie or camembert is buttery, firm, and a little chalky,” he explains. “Some people love it at that stage. “As it ages, the long chain proteins break down and it starts to ripen. It might ooze off the plate. You can detect a whiff of ammonia as those amino acids break down. Some people love that stage, four weeks later. It’s the same cheese—there’s no wrong answer.”

Eating Maine cheese is all about discerning what you love: the taste, smell, look and feel that give you hints about where your chevre or cheddar came from and how it was made. There’s no better way to learn about Maine and share a taste of place.

This Cheese Stands Alone: Award Winners to Seek Out and Sample

These cheesemakers have also won one or more American Cheese Society awards. Look for their products at farmer’s markets, in specialty stores, and visit their websites for information on visiting, classes, and more. And visit the Maine Cheese Guild’s online map for information on all licensed cheesemakers: www.mainecheeseguild.org.

Barred Owl Creamery
Whitefield
www.hamiltonfarm.wordpress.com
Organic Feta, 1st Prize 2015
Hot Pepper Jelly Chevre, 2nd Prize 2015

Crooked Face Creamery
Norridgewock
www.crookedfacecreamery.com
Whole Milk Ricotta, 3rd Prize 2013

Hahn’s End
Phippsburg
Facebook.com/HahnsEnd
Petit Poulet, 3rd Prize 2011

Pineland Farms Creamery
New Gloucester
www.pinelandfarms.org
Smoked Cheddar, 3rd Prize 2013
Pepper Jack, 3rd Prize 2013
Feta, 3rd Prize 2010
Salsa Jack, 3rd Prize 2010
Spreadable Salsa Jack Cheese, 2nd Prize 2010

Swallowtail Farm and Creamery
North Whitefield
www.swallowtailfarmandcreamery.com
Ricotta Salata, 2nd Prize 2015

Spring Day Creamery
Durham
www.springdaycreamery.com
Spring Day Blues, 2nd Prize 2011

Tide Mill Creamery
Edmunds
www.tidemillcreamery.com
Little Bloom, 1st Prize 2015

Winter Hill Farm
Freeport
www.winterhillfarm.com
Tide Line Farmstead Cheese, 3rd Prize 2015

York Hill Farm
New Sharon
www.yorkhillfarmmaine.com
Ripened Chevre Roll with Ash, 1st Prize 2015
Cipriano, 3rd Prize 2011

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