Way out in northwest Massachusetts, you will find Cricket Creek Farm. It's at the end of long dirt road, which itself is at the end of a long, seemingly endless river of tarmac spewing out from the city of Boston. It may be a long drive, but the beauty of the countryside, and the final destination make it all worthwhile.
Cricket Creek Farm has been through a number of iterations, from being a large dairy farm only which produced liquid milk for market, to its current form of a small artisanal farmstead cheese producer. It is one of a small collection of farms in Massachusetts which make raw milk cheeses, and also sell their raw milk (on the farm only, of course). The farm and operation is owned and run by Beth Lewand - who made the jump from owning a cheese shop in Brooklyn, to managing Cricket Creek Farm in September 2017.
We were lucky enough to see Cricket Creek on a stunning Spring day in April. Most of the mud had dried up, the grass was starting to green, and the cows were itching to be turned out into the pastures — Beth assured us it would be within the next week or so that they would get their wish.
The herd owned by the farm is about 70 strong, which includes a few bulls, with the cows being a mix of Brown Swiss, Jersey, and Devon Red - all known for their high quality milk. Of course, good quality milk means good quality cheese. There are about 30 - 40 cows giving milk for cheese at one time.
Our day started with a tour of the farm. It's really quite small, yet running at full capacity, even with a complete staff of 8 or so (including interns etc.). With it being Spring, we were lucky to see some new calves from the herd, as well as some heavily pregnant mothers - and also the farm pigs with their new litter of piglets. Because the pigs are fed on whey (the byproduct of cheese making) and waste cheese, their existence is completely farm-contained.
All the cows are field grass fed, which helps them to make their rich milk. The farm also has a complex rotational system in place to help them juggle the grazing with the harvesting of hay for the winter - which will maintain the quality feed the cows get throughout the year.
The milking parlour is now quite small, since the farm has reduced it's size significantly from the days when the farm produced only liquid milk. It's now the right size for the amount of cheese that is made, and the amount of raw milk which is bottled. Anymore milk and one can tell that things would get quite out of hand. The milk from the parlour is piped directly to a chilled storage tank, and from there either to the bottling system, the pasteuriser or the cheese vat.
Not only did our trip get lucky with great weather, but we also timed it perfectly to make some cheese. In the make for the day was Maggie's Round, and Maggie's Reserve.
The milk was set, had just been cut in the stainless steel vat, and was currently being cooked at 100 F, to help shrink the curd and give it the right solidity. It was now hooping time - essentially gathering up the curds into the Maggie's moulds and starting the draining process. The amount of whey produced from cheese making is always impressively large, and the speed at which the curd start to naturally take to, and hold, their shape is likewise something that needs to be seen to be appreciated.
Where does the cheese go after the draining and flipping? Well, the ageing caves of course. The caves are rarely caves nowadays, normally just a temperature and humidity controlled room. Cricket Creek has two small rooms. One is used for the harder cheeses, like the Maggie's Round, and is kept around 55 F and 85% humidity. The other is used for the softer cheeses, like Tobasi, Sophelise, and Berkshire Bloom, which is also 55 , but nearer 95% humidity.
Ageing cheese - or affinage - is not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of flavour!thing. Each cheese has it's own requirements, like Maggie's Round, which needs to be flipped or brushed to make the rind brown and tight, rather than fluffy and grey (from the natural moulds). The soft cheeses, not only need to be flipped, but also the entire stock needs to be rotated around their room, since the temperature and humidity is not evenly distributed, and this will affect the ageing, and therefore the final cheese.
At every stage in dairying and cheesemaking, small changes can make a large difference in the final cheese.
From the care of the herd, to the rotation of the grazing, to the seasonal milk variations, to the changes in temperature and humidity within an enclosed room. The amount of variables to mind, and to keep within paramteres is overwhelming, and nothing short of impressive.
As always, trips to farms and cheesemakers are humbling, and this trip was no different.
Life in Boston never seemed so simple!