Tour de Cheese. Massachusetts Day One.
It’s late September, and there is a slight chill in the air here in Boston. It’s not until the humidity of the Summer leaves, that you realize that you don’t hate the humidity - the humidity is the reason for those long warm Summer evenings, and you want those back, don’t you?
At 9 am, I step onto my beloved touring bike (Kona Sutra), with what feels like a layer too little of clothing on.
Today is is the first day of my second Tour de Cheese. My first tour in July was through Vermont. Not all of Vermont, and not all the Vermontian (?) cheesemakers, but a handful. And in the end, I managed to see classic juxtapositions of cheesemaking today - the raw natural beauty of Livewater Farms, and the chemical factory power of Cabot.
Now it’s September, and it’s Massachusetts under the microscope. The days are shorter. The days are cooler. The campgrounds are all closed. The approach of the tour has to be different. The daily distance to travel on the bike is less, although the farm count is a bit higher. My overnight stays will be in either AirBnBs or family run hotels. Masks were necessary in VT, and they will be on this trip as well.
It’s a no brainer to wearing a mask. Please, wear a mask.
As a side note; for these long trips, I use an app called Komoot, made by a German company (called Komoot!). Komoot helps you plan multi-leg bike tours, taking into account your bike type, speed, fitness etc. etc. It’s great to map out routes in areas I don’t know, because it keeps you to minor roads, where the traffic is less, or where the sights are better. And so, this is what I have relied on for this trip too.
Today’s leg was only 100 km/60 miles from Boston to Hubbardston, MA. And as always with these trips, getting out of Boston and the Clinging-Cities is the slowest and worst part. I know several ways to head West, but I let Komoot guide me this time.
Brookline, ok. Brighton, ugh. Waltham, really? Weston, finally. The algorithm had clearly decided it wanted to ride along the Charles River Bikeway, which was better than I expected, and not too busy (I left home at 9 am), although a few dog walkers would pop up every now and again.
West, and onwards.
Why Hubbardston? Westfield Farm is based there. Westfield make mostly goat’s cheese - and it seemed like a good place to start, allowing me to head west and north a bit, so I could eventually end up in Williamstown and turn south and east.
As expected the overall route was pretty straightforward - keeping me to the minor roads, an occasional dirt/gravel road, and even one of push-the-bike-uphill-through-a-forest road.
One highlight I wanted to see but, somehow I missed it is the Central Tree of Massachusetts. There’s a tree in Rutland which makes the geographic centre of MA. I biked up this horribly long hill (called Central Tree Road) only to see nothing of note. No tree, no sign. Nada. Surprisingly, I didn’t curse that much, mostly because the road flattened out, with new tarmac. Something which will please all bike riders…
After the tree-that-wasn’t, the next stop was Hubbardston, and the Westfield Farm.
Now, Westfield Farm is owned by Bob and Maggie Stetson, who I found out actually lived in Roslindale (where I set out from this morning). They lived there in the 90s, before moving to the farm in 95, when they bought the cheese operation.
We had carried Westfield’s cheeses for a long time at Boston Cheese Cellar, but I’d never met Bob, or seen the operation, so this was my chance.
Bob gave me a tour of the ‘Farm’ - there are no goats here. The previous owners had up to 80 goats, but they sold the herd before Bob moved in because it wasn’t cost efficient. That was in the 90s. Imagine now…
We talked a bit about how the pandemic had affected the Farm - and it was significant. The majority of their normal sales were to restaurants, and as we know, restaurants were the hardest hit by the COVID-19 shutdown. Over 80% of sales were lost, and they are back up to about 50% of normal.
All 6 of the local goat farms where he sourced his milk have now closed, because of the lack of sales – caused by the shutdown. Now he has to source milk and curds from elsewhere (not locally). [This is the economic ripple effect, an editorial for another time.]
The operation at Westfield is incredibly well organized. The old milking parlor is converted into a cheesemaking area and aging rooms. And ‘new’ barn (from the 90s) contains some aging space but mostly the packaging and logistics (shipping) area.
Neither Bob or Maggie were in cheese before they bought Westfield - Bob was a writer for a trade magazine (he admits he wasn’t very good) and Maggie was store manager at Allendale Farm in JP. But, how hard could it be, right?
The previous owner had built a good reputation on some well executed cheeses, and so they had a solid springboard to go from, and they did indeed grow the business. Not so much with expanding the number of cheeses made, but focussing on the ones they could do well (and at scale) - the fresh goat, the fresh cow, and a few herby/flavoured ones.
Bob told me a good tale of their disastrous cloth-wrapped cheddar experiment, and how not only did they have way too many cheese mites (they thought) appearing, but also how difficult it was working with raw milk - and not the usual pasteurized (for the goat and fresh cow). It sounded like the cheeses were bloating and cracking internally - which reminded me of the sort of troubles you get when you don’t own the herd. Changes in feed can affect the milk microbes, which in turn can affect how the cheese ages/behaves - ask me another time to tell the tale of Joe Schneider and Stichelton.
Apparently people still ask for the Cheddar - it was last made 15 years ago.
2020 has been a shitty year for many reasons, and we still have a few months to go. But, from what I see of Bob and his streamlined operation at Westfield, the Farm will pull through, assuming that sales stay where they are.
But, kind reader, it wouldn’t hurt to send some cheesey love his way, right?
You can order most of his goat cheese online at http://chevre.com
Just don’t ask about the Cheddar.