It's easy to get out of the city here in New England. From Boston, a 30 minute drive gets you outside I95, where you'll probably see more trees than houses, but you have to go a good two hours drive in any direction, North to New Hampshire, or West towards the Berkshires, or (arguably less so) South towards the Cape, to find larger expanses of open space.
Our two hour trip to Cato Corner Farm near Colchester, CT, took us deep, deep into farm land. The large cities in Connecticut seem smaller, the open space seems so much more open, and the farms seem so perfectly situated, it's as if they grew up with the land around them.
Cato Corner Farm is a family owned business, owned and run by Mark Gilman and his mother Elizabeth, and has been since the 70s. Raw cow's milk cheese making is only a relatively recent addition - in 1997. They make fifteen cheeses throughout the seasons, which you will find rotating through our cheese cases at Boston Cheese Cellar. We're especially fond of the washed rind cheeses, such as the Hooligan and Drunk Monk.
The team at Boston Cheese Cellar was lucky enough to tour the farm as well as lend several hands in the cheese making process of Brigid's Abby - a rich monastery style cheese from the winter's milk of their herd of Jersey, Holstein, and a couple of Normade cows.
As with every good cheesemaking facility, the day starts with getting clean, which means changing into T-shirt and shorts, aprons, hairnets, wellington boots, and scrubbing up.
By the time we arrived, the day's milk was already coagulated in the large stainless steel vat, and the next step was cutting of the curd, using a manual cheese harp. The curds pieces settled in the whey, and 4 pairs of arms and hands dove into the mix to keep the curds from clumping, and to keep them slowly moving.
It's rather a fun experience swishing around in a tank of curds and whey. The eddies of whey gathering around your arms as you move them about, with the clumps of curd feeling like schools of fish darting this way and that, to escape your fisherman's clutches underneath the surface.
Enough fun and games.
It was time to make cheese, which means getting rid of the whey, and stacking the curds to continue to drive moisture out before being 'hooped'. Draining of the curds is literally achieved by pulling the plug on the big vat - and out went the whey, onto the floor, and into the drain. I couldn't help thinking of all that amazing whey-made ricotta flowing away - but without pasteurization (since this is raw milk, remember), it would be impossible to sell.
Hooping of the curds is just a name for moving the curds into forms, by using the form itself as a cookie cutter in the curds. The forms are filling with curds, topped with a 'follower', and then flipped to help make an evenly distributed cheese. Once all 26 forms were created using all the curd, they are mounted onto a light cheese press. Compare this press to that at the Keen's Cheddar - quite a different beast!
After a short press the forms were then taken, flipped and pressed lightly again. After that its off to the ageing cave for the cheese— and that's exactly where we went too!
Built into the hillside the beautiful ageing cellar at Cato Corner is reminiscent of a small French or Italian cheesemakers cave.
Cheeses of all different types and ages line the walls. Young Hooligans, look brash and fresh, whereas the older ones have aged, picking up their beauty spots and character along the way.
There are wheels or Womanchego, Dairyere, Fromage, and even a a long line of wheels held under the surface of brine in the brine tank. I can't help but think of the Dead Marshes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy - pale faces staring up from below.
And all at 55° F.
The last step for us is to explore the farm, meet the cows and see the milking parlour. Luckily for us, it is milking time, and the mixed herd of about 40 cows are waiting their turn in the large hanger at the back of the farm buildings. It deflects the wind, and keeps a surprisingly large amount of heat in for the cows. And forty cows produce a lot of heat.
As we politely greet the herd, we are stared down quite brilliantly by a couple of Jerseys and one Normande. Never get in a staring-contest with a cow. They have a natural unblinking skill honed over days of standing and chewing the cud. Complete professionals.
Behind the shelter is the milking parlour and feed room. The milking comes first, and the reward is the feed. Eight cows stand happily in the milking stalls for each milking, which takes maybe 15 minutes - and they clearly enjoy it. It must be a massive relief to have all that milk and weight released.
Their udders are rinsed, checked for any issues, and the milking cups placed on, which are quickly filled by gushes of milk. The milk is piped and pumped straight away to the milk storage tank, right next to the cheesemaking room, and it seems we are back at the beginning.
This very much sums up the farm and cheesemaking facility here at Cato Corner. It's a tightly integrated, small scale and careful operation. Within maybe 100 feet of each other is the milking parlor, the milk storage tank, the cheesemaking room, the cheese shop and the cheese cave.
In one short, straight line, the milk is transformed into cheese, aged and sold. Every step displays levels of care and attention, from the photogenic herd of happy, healthy cows, to the white Wellington boot sanitizer baths, to the daily cheesemaking notes, and to the chilling briney baths in the ageing caves.
This dedication to quality at every level is how you make great quality raw milk cheese, and that's exactly what Mark does day in day out.
Stop by the shop, and taste some to see what we mean.