For the past few years the Maine Cheese Guild has organized “Open Creamery Day” as a way for Maine turophiles to meet their local artisan cheese makers and to tour the farms that support the growing artisan cheese community. This year, unlike last, there was little to no press regarding the event and turnout at the farms I visited were nonexistent. While I felt bad for those that opened up their doors to us, it did create a unique opportunity to speak at length with the cheese makers about their passion, the growing politics of dairy farmers and to have some nibbles in a relaxed setting.
Maine is unique to me because of the sheer number of goat cheese producers in the state and last year I spent a good amount of time at Liberty Field Farms in Saco–who received local press, prior to Open Creamery Day, for beating out the much lauded Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog Mini’s at the American Cheese Society Awards. This year, we spent time visiting some local cows milk cheese makers and while we had an agenda of four creameries to get to in four hours, we only made it to half of them.
Our first visit brought us to Spring Day Creamery in Durham. Sarah, the solo cheese maker and local french language teacher, welcomed us late in the morning to give us a quick tour of her small facilities. Like many, she told us how she started making cheese in her kitchen until production threatened to overtake it and she decided to build a small room inside her garage for her growing ‘hobby’. Because she has no dairy animals on site, she outsources her milk locally and dabbles in both goat and cow milk cheeses.
Because I am admittedly burned out on goats milk cheeses, both her blue and washed rind cheeses were pleasantly welcomed. Her Spring Day Blues, aged 60 days+, seemed very fitting with her love of french cheeses as it instantly reminded me of Bleu D’Auvergne. Slightly salty and creamy with a hint of mushroom, this was easily one of the best locally produced blue cheeses I’ve had.
Her washed rind, Basket Case, had a mild nose to it but instantly melted into a creamy paste with a slight bitter bite. Easily it could be compared to a more subdued younger sibling to California’s Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk, who placed second this year overall at the ACS in Austin, TX. Both cheeses are currently residing in the fridge for a Maine cheese plate for later tonight.
Because the community is small and,like most of Maine, everyone knows everyone else she asked if we were stopping down to Winter Hill just six miles down the road in Freeport. Unfortunately, the MCG website had last years info for Winter Hill and I hadn’t planned on making it because it listed a different day. Lucky for us, Sarah called them up and confirmed that they were open and would love to have us stop by. So, after some long chats with Sarah and her wonderful family, we packed up our purchases and headed down the road.
Now, Winter Hill is truly a hidden gem in Maine as they are one of eight dairies in the US that breed Randall Lineback Cattle. These are easily some of the most stunning breed of cattle and the owners, Jim and Kate, sought to rescue this breed from obscurity and we are so lucky to have them in our backyards. While they are only producing one cheese at the moment, a cheddar, Jim knows the value of time when it comes to cheese making. Too many makers are quick to get their products to market, creating a more mild cheddar, but Jim ages his wheels at least 8 months before offering it up to their customers–you can find their raw milk, yogurt and cheese at Rosemont in Portland or, better yet, become a regular customer and pick up directly from them–and you can tell the difference. Not only is it raw, the color is absolutely striking in it’s deep golden yellow paste. Easily, the flavor was sweeter and richer than any local cheddar and, honestly, better than just about any from New England that I’ve tasted…even those from Vermont. After nearly an hour and a half of chatting we left with nearly a pound of cheddar and a pint of their milk.
While many of us are spoiled by getting to know our farmers on a first name basis, not many of us know our cheese makers as well. If you have a free weekend day, I cannot implore people enough to visit the Maine Cheese Guild site for the list of local makers and plan a visit to one of the many creameries that are within a hour or less drive from Portland. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.