Cheese Culture

LOCATION-May 2013
By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards

Cheese adventures in the midcoast and mid-state—shops and creameries from Belfast to Norridgewock to Phippsburg.


The orange fondue pot bought on eBay arrives on the porch in a plain box. My next find is a handful of long-handled fondue forks at an antique shop in Searsport. All we need now is cheese—wedges, hunks, and gobs of the stuff.

That's how this quest starts, inspired by a vintage pot with chipped enamel. (I imagine decades of past fondue parties.) I'm also spurred on by basic cheese curiosity. We keep seeing artisanal cheese displays at markets and on menus in Maine—goat, cow, and sometimes sheep's milk varieties. Even some of Maine's small towns have Euro-style cheese shops. As a starter, I climb the spiral stairs to one of those—Eat More Cheese, tucked away on the back side of a Main Street building in Belfast that's within a few hundred yards of the bayfront's boatyards and brewery. Inside the tiny shop with cheddar orange walls, I step up to the counter and find myself eye-to-cheese with a half-wheel of Saenkanter. Natalia Rose, one of the owners, is working behind the counter, and she encourages me to grab a toothpick and try one of the sample cubes cut from the impressive, golden-orange round from Holland.

I stab a square from the arrangement on a slab of granite, and I can taste cream, salt, and caramel. It's my first melt-in-the-mouth discovery of the day, and between customers who stop in for Gouda and cheddar, I ask Natalia about other varieties in the glass case and on the wooden shelves around us. She shows me a traditional, heart-shaped Coeur de Bray (from Normandy), and a Langres that, she notes, is best served with Champagne poured over the concave top of the baseball-sized round (produced in the Champagne region). There are several Maine-made cheeses, including bloomy rounds from Lakin's Gorges in Rockport and hefty, rustic wedges of Eleanor Buttercup from Hahn's End in Phippsburg. Other European, New England, and West Coast cheeses are in the mix, too—a mini-tour of the world's cheeses arrayed daily for a town of about 6,000.

CHEESEMONGERS BY THE BAY

Russian-born Natalia met her husband, Tony Rose, when they were both working at the Eastland Park Hotel in Portland. Originally from Montana, Tony's family has lived in Maine for about a decade. The pair found a common interest in cheese, and they began making frequent trips to try new flavors from the cheese counter in Whole Foods, and especially at the Cheese Iron in Scarborough. And then one November day in 2011, Natalia and Tony drove north along the coast to Belfast. "The weather was rainy, foggy, and awful, and we still fell in love with the town," says Natalia, who recalls being impressed by the restaurants, Co-op grocery, and "all of its odd, niche shops open in winter—for yarn, fabric, shoes, books." They found an available retail space behind the Northern Lights Gallery, and by April of last year, the couple—with three-year-old daughter, Sophia, in tow—opened the Belfast shop.

I stay seated on a stool in Eat More Cheese awhile and listen in while other customers stop by "for something oozy and spruce-y," and "a nice cheese that's smelly but good." I try to absorb information and ideas from these flavor-rich conversations. (I'm cheese-interested, but I'm no cheese expert.) Natalia explains that she and Tony are fans of pairing cheeses with bread and craft beers, and they sell (and can recommend) beers to try from Maine, New England, and Europe. And they've started to carry French batards made by a baker in Montville. Before I leave the cheese counter with several purchases wrapped in brown paper, Natalia mentions that the mellow flavors of Saenkater are her favorite to pair with her morning coffee. I'll have to try that combination, too.

NORRIDGEWOCK COWS AND CURDS

In the bright noon sun of the next day, I stand in front of a hulking barn and I see (and smell) cows. The Maine Cheese Guild has nearly 70 producer members, and I've come to a source on the organization's online list: Crooked Face Creamery in Norridgewock, along the Kennebec River, northwest of Waterville. The farm and circa-1941 wooden barn is the childhood home of Amy Clark, a 29-year-old cheesemaker. Her parents have owned the property since the 1970s. When I called earlier in the week to ask if it would be possible to visit the cow-to-cheese operation, Amy told me to drive on up, and "bring an extra pair of shoes or clogs." I'd get to see both sides of the operation—the ultra-clean cheese room, and the farmyard and barn stalls laden with straw for cows and calves with big blinking eyes and warm, wet mouths.

A tall, slim woman, Amy is wearing a kerchief and apron when we meet in the brightly lit, white-painted cheese room, and she's up to her elbows in curds and whey. As she stirs the watery liquid and marshmallow-like curds with her arms, she explains that the heated milk and cultures have formed soft curds that she will soon be pressing into rounds. We talk more while I watch her work, and from the nearby barn, I can hear the muffled sounds of mooing and the shuffle of hooves. A small-batch cheesemaker, Amy says she decided to focus on just a couple of cheeses and do them well: an aged Gouda variety (sometimes smoked), and a fresh, whole-milk ricotta that she sells in returnable cheese tins.

Her high school sweetheart, Josh Clark, also grew up on a dairy farm. Both went to college and left Maine to pursue non-farming careers, but after a few years decided to come home, get married, and reconnect with a farming lifestyle. "Instead of a honeymoon," Amy notes, "we bought 20 cows." These days, 30-year-old Josh is up around 4 a.m. every morning to milk their herd of registered Jersey cows that have names like Cora, Libby, Minnie, and Cricket. (One of Amy's responsibilities is to name and bottle-feed the new calves.)

Calf-naming aside, this is hands-on, hard work. Josh minds the cows and Amy uses dozens of gallons of fresh milk every week to make the cheeses, which the couple then sells to restaurants and at the Skowhegan Farmers' Market. "We're in a good place," Amy says, talking about the interest around Skowhegan for farm-fresh produce and foods. "Food here is so different and better now than when we were in high school." So far, the creamery is able to sell everything it produces, including the whole-milk cheese that's used in the ricotta-filled ravioli of Pasta Fresca, made by Blue Ribbon Farm in Mercer. (I taste some of this pasta later, and it's tender and delicious.) By the time I wave goodbye to Amy and Josh at the farm, I've looked across pastures, patted the flat foreheads of grass-fed cows, and hung around with the farmer and cheesemaker. When I smear some ricotta on a hunk of baguette for the drive home, I feel a thankful reverence for the Clarks' teamwork and results—from cows to milk to cheese.

TO BATH FOR BLUE

For one more at-the-source adventure, photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I drive to the peninsula just south of Bath and follow an unpaved road to a blue Cape where Hahn's End cheese has been produced since 2000. I can't remember when I first tasted one of the aged wedges with a crumbling texture that Debbie Hahn makes, but the Comtè-like City of Ships cheese has lingered in my mind. The tagline on the Hahn's End packages is "the Cheese Stands Alone," and indeed Debbie works mostly alone at her craft. Her husband, Drew Hahn, helps with marketing and equipment.

Originally from Houlton, Debbie earned a degree in chemical engineering at the University of Maine well before she and her husband decided to take a cheesemaking class in western Massachusetts "as a fun weekend getaway." On the drive home from that event, the Hahns were already talking about the possibilities of a cheesemaking business venture. She remembers finding local sources of unpasteurized milk through the late Russell Libby of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. She's involved with the Maine Cheese Guild that has since formed.

We talk about all this while she shows me the 200-gallon vat that's about as big as a queen-sized bed. To get this essential equipment for heating milk and creating the curds inside the house, a wall had to be temporarily removed. The vat is now the primary feature in a corner room of the Hahn house that's been converted solely for cheesemaking. I ask to see the cheese cave, and Debbie obliges, leading the way downstairs to a room with a concrete floor and one below-ground wall cut into the rock and ledge that she says helps keep the room naturally cool and the humidity at about 95 percent. Neatly arranged on racks, the 400 or so rounds weigh in at about ten pounds each and look like flour-dusted loaves of bread. The natural rinds are beige white, and aromas that are both pungent and earthy fill the air. Debbie and I start talking about the role of mold in the cheese process, and soon I'm eager to try her blue cheese. "I wish I still had some Blue Christmas," she says of the blue rind cheese she often makes around the holidays—"and the anniversary of Elvis's birthday." Not even a chunk of it is left, though, and she admits it's one of her personal favorites. (Beyond cheesemaking, by the way, Debbie has been learning to play acoustic guitar. And I notice a hallway display of rock and roll memorabilia outside of the cheese room, including vinyl albums and concert tickets.)

I'm in luck, nevertheless. She cuts into a gorgeous, tall wedge of her Bleu Velvet that's veined with inky streaks and tastes tangy and sharp, and is as rich as butter. Debbie is humble about the wonderful cheese she makes. Instead, she'd rather talk of Maine's impressive slow food movement, the diverse farmland climates from the ocean to the mountains, the new crop of enthusiastic young farmers, and the markets and restaurants that support local food—including the weekly markets at Camden, Bath, and Boothbay where she brings her cheeses to sell.

MELTING POT

For some, it may be an abomination to take good cheese and melt it, but I'm still eager to fire up the fondue pot. Peter Frank and I take the pot and some denatured alcohol to light the flame, and set up for a cheese-centered lunch at his cabin on a chilly day—including apples, a yeasty baguette from Borealis Breads in Waldoboro, and ales from Geary's and the Maine Beer Company. Following the endorsements for matching cheese with beer—Debbie says she likes those pairings, too—I choose beer this time, instead of making a classic fondue with white wine and kirsch.

The wind is causing birch branches to tap on the windows as we get all ingredients on the table. We grate, we taste, and we twirl the bubbling, melting, and melding cheeses onto hunks of bread and slices of apple. Among those we try are City of Ships from Hahn's End, natural rind Gouda from Crooked Face Creamery, and Katahdin Cheddar from State of Maine Cheese Company in Rockport. Somehow in our dairy-inspired indulgence, we carelessly allow the flame's heat to scorch the last of the cheese in the bottom. But I still love every gooey bite, and we've got more to unwrap. Watch out Vermont and New York. Watch out France, for that matter. Maine's got the cheese now.