Not Your Great-Grandfather’s Cheese
Berkshire farm-based cheesemaking operations in 1849 produced over one million pounds of cheese annually. Cheese-producing farms in Berkshire County dotted the map from north to south and spilled over the Massachusetts state line into Litchfield County, after which the region’s signature cheese was named.
Litchfield Cheese was based on English Cheddar, a hard and acidic milled-curd cheese with a crumbly texture.
Farm-based artisans in New York and New England led the country in cheese production and export in the mid-19th century by producing large quantities of English-inspired milled-curd cheese. Berkshire cheesemakers produce far less today, but the diversity of their cheeses is greater.
Today, three commercial cheesemakers in Berkshire County produce five cheese styles based on unique processes. Susan Sellew at Rawson Brook Farm in Monterey started making fresh goat milk cheese with her mostly American Alpine herd in 1984. Berkshire Blue Cheese in Great Barrington, made with rich Jersey cow milk, dates to 1998. Cricket Creek Farm began milking its Williamstown herd of Brown Swiss cows in 2004 to produce tomme-style, washed-rind, bloomyrind and fresh cheeses.
Whereas cheesemaking in the past was regionally uniform, the county’s current cheesemakers use distinctly different processes in practicing their craft.
Cheese styles reflect a series of choices made during the transformation of milk into cheese. The cheesemaker first decides which species and breed of dairy animal’s milk to use. Changes in milk quality over the course of the season require accommodations in the cheesemaking process as well. Depending on the intended style, a cheesemaker determines how to set the curd, which bacterial or fungal inoculants to use, how to process the curd, by which method to salt the cheese and how to age the cheese. These decisions dictate changes in temperatures, process times and handling that influence a cheese’s moisture content, texture, aroma and flavor.
The transformation from milk to cheese follows a branching web of cheese styles that all begin with milk, but conclude with cheeses as diverse as Rawson Brook Farm Monterey Chèvre, Berkshire Blue Cheese and Cricket Creek Farm Tobasi.
Rawson Brook Monterey Chèvre exemplifies semi-lactic-set fresh goat milk cheese with a fine-grained high-moisture texture, lactic aroma, bright acidity and mild caprine (goaty) flavor. Susan Sellew has been making this style of cheese for over 30 years. She produces a semi-lactic-set curd by relying on lactic acid bacteria to lower the pH of the milk until the milk proteins coagulate to yield a yogurt-like curd. She also adds a small amount of animal rennet, an enzyme coagulant, to help the curd form over 24 hours. Once drained and salted, the resulting fresh spreadable cheese offers the bonewhite color and fresh uplifting flavors common to the style.
Ira Grable makes the only Berkshire County blue-veined cheese. He and his staff work with Jersey cow milk from a single farm. After heating the milk and setting the curd, the cheesemakers hand-ladle the curd into open-bottomed cheese hoops to drain for 36 hours and form small cylindrical wheels. This slow draining period is important for further acidification of the curd and flavor development.
After draining, the wheels enter a brine tank for 10–12 hours and then cure for three or four days, until their surfaces are dry. Grable and his team hand-needle each cylinder with a threepronged tool to encourage the interior growth of Penicillium roqueforti, the olive-green/blue mold responsible for the cheese’s piquant earthen taste and creamy texture. Berkshire Blue Cheese ages in a climate-controlled room until the action of the mold and slow dehydration have coaxed the cheese to maturity.
Suzy Konecky and her staff at Cricket Creek Farm make Tobasi in reference to soft-ripened washed-rind cheese traditions that date back to the medieval period. After setting the milk with microbial rennet, apprentices gently stir the tender curd pieces as they float suspended in warm whey. These farmstead cheesemakers then fill square cheese hoops with the wet curd, and it drains to condense into a squat block. After brining the new cheese at a rate of one hour per pound, it ages under a regular regimen of washing with a brine inoculated with Brevibacterium linens, the bacteria responsible for the cheese’s persimmon-orange rind, pungent aroma and soft bulging paste.
Cricket Creek Farm also produces the Berkshires’ only softripened bloomy-rind cheese, Berkshire Bloom. The thin disc ripens under a velveteen coat of white Penicillium candidum mold, reaching maturity in three weeks to offer a creamy pearlescent paste and the soft aromas of white mushrooms and hazelnuts. Producing this cheese involves enzymatically set curd that the cheesemakers gently stir but do not cook, dry-salting the young discs and careful controlled ripening that takes place partially in the cheese wrapper.
While the Berkshires no longer prominently figure in United States commodity cheese production, these persistent producers are making a name for the region with their small-batch artisan products.
Cricket Creek Farm has won multiple awards from the American Cheese Society for Maggie’s Round, a tommestyle cow milk cheese. Berkshire Blue Cheese won a silver medal for its smoked version at the 2012 World Cheese Awards, among other honors.
These cheesemakers are earning the Berkshires a reputation for quality artisan cheeses of many styles, rather than the few that once dominated the region.
For retail locations see:
Monterey Chèvre is available at Guido’s, Berkshire Co-op and Berkshire Organics; for a location near you contact, SSellew@verizon.net
1. Loyal Durand Jr., “The Migration of Cheese Manufacture in the United States,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 42:4 (December, 1952): 263–282.
Brent Wasser manages the Sustainable Food & Agriculture Program at Williams College. He believes that food literacy is an important part of a college education. He has created a curriculum that educates students about agricultural systems, cooking, food ethics, food justice and food appreciation in workshops, lectures and field trips. Brent’s book, The Cheese Professional: A Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Serving Cheese, will be published by Wiley at the end of this year.
Brent Wasser is interested in the processes by which plants and animals become food. He manages the Sustainable Food & Agriculture Program at Williams College.