Columbus Day weekend is traditionally a time when Mainers get out to view foliage, go hiking and biking, sip some apple cider and generally have a great time outdoors before the leaves drop and winter settles in.
This year, along with the state parks and apple orchards, why not add some farms to the itinerary and sample some award-winning Maine cheeses?
Open Creamery Day, sponsored by the Maine Cheese Guild, falls on Oct. 13 this year, and about a dozen artisan cheesemakers around the state are participating.
You can visit the Nigerian Dwarf goats at Sunflower Farm Creamery in Cumberland, then eat some lunch that includes chevre, check out a line of goat milk soaps and lotions, and treat yourself to a goat milk caramel.
“Last Open Creamery Day was our first as a state-licensed dairy, and we were amazed by the turnout of so many people interested in goats, local food and farming,” said cheesemaker Hope Hall.
At Silvery Moon Creamery, located at Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook, visitors will be able to sample the provolone that just won a second-place award at the American Cheese Society’s annual competition in Wisconsin. Then you can watch the staff make some queso Oaxaca, also known as Mexican mozzarella.
At Winter Hill Farm in Freeport, you’ll sample the farm’s popular fromage blanc, flavored with seasonal herbs, and meet the farm’s herd of Randall cows, which cheesemaker Sarah Wiederkehr says are “the rarest cows in the Western Hemisphere.”
“We did (Open Creamery Day) last year, and it was great,” she said. “My husband and I kind of tag-team tours, so as people trickle in we gather groups of five to 10 people and take them on a tour of the farm, then walk them through the milking parlor, the milk house and then through the creamery. Then we bring them out to the pasture to meet the herd.”
According to a 2012 University of Vermont study, Maine has the fastest growing artisan cheese industry in the United States. There are more artisan cheesemakers here than in any other state except New York.
Eric Rector, president of the Maine Cheese Guild and owner of Monroe Cheese Studio, says that when his business was licensed in 2006, he was the 17th licensed cheesemaker in the state. Today, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, there are 73.
In 2006, Maine produced about 150,000 pounds of cheese. This year, the state will produce close to 1 million pounds, Rector noted, “so our volume has also been growing substantially.”
“Obviously, Maine’s total cheese production is dwarfed by states like Vermont and Wisconsin who have well-established, large industrial cheese industries,” Rector said, “but Maine’s growth has been all ‘artisan’ based.”
Rector said the variety of cheeses being made by Mainers is expanding as well, partly because the Maine Cheese Guild has been able to bring in experts from all over the world for workshops and demonstrations at a lower cost than places like the University of Vermont, which have higher overhead.
“We’re able to bring people from Scotland, from Canada, from France over to Maine to teach us all about different varieties and how to manage them,” Rector said, “because it’s not just a function of stirring the pot and something magically appears. Cheese is like planting seeds in a garden, where the things you do 60 days before are very important to what you get 60 days later.”
For Winter Hill Farm, cheese is a value-added product that helps Sarah Wiederkehr and her husband, Steve Burger, support the raising of the rare Randall cattle.
The couple took over the farm about two and a half years ago and diversified it, adding pasture-raised chickens and pigs and a small vegetable operation.
“The pigs are a really great complement to the dairy because they really are happy when I make mistakes,” Wiederkehr said. “They get to eat all of the mistakes.”
Wiederkehr has been making fresh cheeses for about a year and a half, including feta, ricotta, a bloomy rind cheese called Frost Gully, and their most popular cheese, the soft, spreadable fromage blanc.
“In the summer, I flavor it with fresh rosemary or fresh basil,” Wiederkehr said. “In the wintertime, we do a garlic herb and a chipotle and an herbes de provence.”
Wiederkehr is always experimenting with different varieties. Currently she’s working on a tomme-style cheese washed in local craft beers.
“It’s been a lot of experimenting and reading and figuring things out,” she said, “and I feel like I have a lot to learn.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:
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