Once introduced to the taste of great cheese, you can quickly become fascinated by it. Curiosity opens wide to not only become intimately familiar with the skill and long hours of work that goes into producing cheese, but also to become aware of all that is required to bring out the delectable and satisfying flavor of the cheese. This high quality craftsmanship elevates cheese from simple foodstuff into the realm of true gourmet.
Due to my (and many other cheese lovers’) interest in this food, I decided to make it my topic this week. This delicious diversion is your reason to take a well-deserved break as we travel down the cheese trail together getting acquainted with the unknown slices of information about one of our favorite foods: cheese!
Some of you may have enjoyed sublime cheeses while traveling abroad and perhaps rarely, if ever, bothered with what is available stateside. We will not leave it in the fine restaurants, but together take the time to learn from several sources. American cheesemakers are turning out world-class artisan cheeses, enough that many restaurants now offer exclusive American world-class cheese selections. We are proud of our cheesemakers in America and particularly proud of the two creameries we have here in New Hampshire.
The culinary world of the 1980-1990s re-discovered old-world cheeses which inspired our American cheesemakers to become an important part of today’s culinary scene. Following with the recent trend of Americans discovering wines beyond Chardonnay and Merlot, regular and decaffeinated, so too, can today’s cheese aficionados revel in the subtle flavor differences of specialty and award-winning cheeses. The more you love your love, the more you want to learn more about your love. So, if you love what I love, come along the “cheese trail” with me.
The Origin of Cheese
The origin appears to be lost in the midst of time. There are however, records of the Sumerians making and consuming cheese that date back to around 3500 B.C. Homer’s 9th Century B.C. Epic, the Odyssey, describes a scene with the Cyclops Polyphemus making cheese and pressing it into wicker baskets.
The Romans raised cheese-making to an art form, as they did for many other things. They flavored their cheeses with various herbs and spices, and also experimented with vegetable extracts in place of rennet. In 59 B.C., the Julius Caesar’s soldiers took cheese along on their march to what is now France, a country known for some of the finest cheeses made.
During the Middle Ages, European monks perfected the cheese-making process and developed some of the famous cheeses of today. And there it stood, until 1851 when a farmer in upstate New York, recognized that his father, Jesse Williams, was the better cheesemaker, started sending milk to him to be made into cheese. Many other local dairy farmers followed suit and Jesse established the first known dedicated cheese factory.
If I have baby-doe eyes I am a Jersey cow. If I am black and white all over, I am a Holstein cow …
Rattling milk pails are almost a thing of the past, but the past is exactly where the doe-eyed Jersey cow and the inquisitive Holstein would like to bring you to teach you about the beginnings of America’s cheese industry. For their great contribution to the enjoyment of your macaroni and cheese, not to mention pizza with its gazillion choice of toppings just waiting for the cheesy melt-down, mmm, these dairy herds deserve our undivided attention.
Cheese making is a very old farm skill that began with our earliest settlers in 1620 at Plymouth Plantation, who brought their tools and knowledge necessary to make cheese. Cheese could be enjoyed with simple foods and could turn a meager meal into a sustaining one during lean times. The variety of cheeses and of the farms that produce them are as broad as the flavors of the cheese. It is both interesting, revealing, and important to remember, cheese is alive and tastes better the older it gets.
Two hundred years ago, every farm had a dozen or more cows and made their own butter and cheese. In the mid-1800s, farmers brought their milk to cheese co-ops, centrally located, commercial cheese making factories, as a way to preserve milk that would otherwise spoil. The traditions and art of cheese making are being revitalized and there is a revival of state family farms.
Milk types and the impact of the seasons
The final product depends on the type of milk used — goat, cow or sheep — as to the flavor, texture and character of the cheese. When using fresh milk, the seasons greatly affect the flavor profile of the cheese. For example, if the animals graze on fresh wild shoots, the cheese will be redolent of flowers.
Goat: Goats have an à la carte appetite for anything growing and green — even to the flowers and bushy stems. Goats can boast that their milk has less fat and tastes lighter and fresher. Goat cheese made during the summer then aged for winter can take on a more intense buttery, earthly essence.
Cow: Cow’s milk produced from April to October is a rich yellow-orange because it is full of natural carotenes. Most cheesemakers include fresh hay in the cow’s winter diet instead of fermented silage. Some operations selling fresh cheese will pasteurize the milk, which eliminates risk of bacteria. When the cow’s milk is left unpasteurized and is naturally aged, it loses none of the natural enzymes which make it easy to digest, and its flavor often reflects the state of the pasture where the animals grazed.
Sheep: Sheep’s milk is often lighter in color than cows’ or goats’ milk cheese and smooth in texture. Sheep milk cheeses are typically made right after lambing season; fresh softened ripened cheese will be ready in late spring, while wheels that are aged for several months will appear on the market in August. For those of you who love aged sheep’s milk cheese, it’s best to stock up for winter enjoyment; once the aged wheels are sold out, it will be another summer before more cheese will be available.
Farmstead cheesemaking increased noticeably in 1980. As you gaze at the dairy herd grazing in a lush pasture, did you know it takes 100 gallons of milk to make 85 pounds of cheddar cheese?
After a country visit to the Sandwich Creamery’s farm, I was reminded of the integral role which farms play in our economic and environmental wellbeing.
Farmers support and share information with other local farmers. Your local farmers are competing with large produce importers from neighboring countries. Seek out your local Farmers Market for the freshest produce and products. At Farmers Market you get to know personally the family who grows the food. Great friendships are born between the grower and cheesemaker at their farm location or at the farmers market. And food tastes even better if you personally know your local grower or cheesemaker!
Exchange of dollars between farmers, cheesemakers, and the citizenry helps to keep the economy in our area, builds and improves communities. If farmers are not supported, all the open spaces will be sold to developers. In the past, too many farms were lost to lack of support.
Tom & Lisa Merriman
134 Hannah Road
North Sandwich NH 03259
Spring gloriously arrived. I sought out the Sandwich Creamery where Tom and Lisa and younger family members, Will and Charly, keep the creamery humming. Their creamery started in 1995, tucked into a small valley at the northern edge of New Hampshire’s Lakes Region. The creamery produces farmstead cheeses and their numerous ice cream flavors are also a draw. All their cheeses are made by hand in small batches using time honored methods. They are committed to a product that helps people stay connected to their local farms. Visitors are welcome and can purchase products in a beautiful country setting or find their products at major chain stores, specialty shops, area restaurants, web retailers or farmers markets.
They invited us to try their cheese menu:
Cheddar: Traditional farmhouse aged cheddar using open vat method.
Smoked Cheddar: Aged cheddar is maple fired smoked at least 24 hours.
Brie: Theirs is not stabilized and does not have preservatives added. Unlike imported brie, it ripens naturally with a wonderful flavor and edible rind.
Coulommier: A delicate French cheese, little brother to the Brie. It is named after the locality of Seine-et-Marne where it once sold on the market. It tastes gentle when young, grows nuttier with more tang as it ages.
Jersey Jack: Mild flavor, creamy textured, relative of cheddar.
Caerphilly: First made in the Welsh town of Caerphilly in about 1831. The brine baths in which the cheese is soaked in overnight seals in the moisture. It has a fresh clean taste with firm yet moist flaky texture.
Visitors from the U.S., Canada, and from across the big pond have visited the Sandwich Creamery. Each visitor’s location is designated by a red dot on their wall map, and they are all over the map!
If you have the pleasure of meeting the Merrimans, give them my best regards.
Boggy Meadow Farm
13 Boggy Meadow Lane
Walpole, NH 03608
Boggy Meadow Farm is a working farm, rich in beautifully cultivated farm land. Your eyes immediately notice the broad expansive fields of 400 acres of this venerable farm which enjoys the melody of the bordering Connecticut River which adds to the pleasant panoramic view. The farm was purchased in 1822 by Jonathan Mason, a retired U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, and has been owned and operated by his descendants to this day. It is a farm which feeds a milking herd of 260 cows, with a total herd size of 500. All the farmland is protected by the Monadnock Conservancy and the New Hampshire Society of Forests.
Their cheeses are based on old alpine recipes and raw milk from their own herd of cows. These farmstead cheeses are honorable and distinctive. Their cheeses are made by hand once a week in a barn across the dairy parlor. The cheese making day begins at 5 a.m. and finishes at 11 a.m. The cheeses are all natural, using vegetable rennet, and the milk could not be fresher.
Existing customers who have known their cheeses as Fanny Mason Farmstead should note they have decided to retire the name of their great-great-great-Aunt Fanny Mason from their label. The cheese is now labeled Boggy Meadow Farm, named after the farm itself. Their cheese labels are unique and eye catching, each kind of cheese is identified by a farming scene, such as a farmhand named Harold Harris. Harris has worked the farmstead for 46 years and has enjoyed every year of it, not to say, he’s proud to be an identifiable figure on their cheese product.
There is another person of a different Mason generation featured on their newest cheese product — Fiddlehead Cheese — who is the child of the current farm owner. Standing in a field of fiddlehead ferns, she adorably adorns their farmstead cheese labels. The labels are also accompanied by a unique wooden button stamped with a Heifer cow, (you know, the black and white cow) with the promotional motto: Made on the Farm.
“Stan Richmond the Cheesemaker Man” and his associate, Paul Besaw, are proud of their craft, and content to be an important part of the cheese production. Their welcoming smiles really do say, “cheese.” All of the different phases of cheesemaking are given in this article, so that you may truly savor each and every selection of cheese. Flavor is keener and more appreciated, especially when you are acquainted with the Cheese Artisan.
Visitors are welcome but necessary to call or e-mail as to when the cheese will be made. Here is a rundown of the wonderful cheeses they produce:
Baby Swiss: Buttery, nutty, sweet flavor with a firm texture that ages in 60 days.
Smoked Swiss : A blue-ribbon winner at the American Cheese Society; maple smoked.
Jack Block: A mild cheese, very smooth and creamy – goes directly to the refrigerator for 60 days.
Jack Block Salsa: Hot and spicy, distinctly smooth
Fiddlehead Tomme : Natural rind, cave aged over 6 months, rich semi-hard cheese. Similar to the Haute Savoie Region on the Swiss border.
I wish to thank Stan and Paul for their wonderful greeting and hospitality during my recent visit to Boggy Meadow Farm.
Happy cheesemakers make world-class cheese!