Allison Lakin, founder and owner of Lakin’s Gorges Cheese, told us cheese sales peak three times a year: April (maybe cheese makes people optimistic for spring, she speculates); July through August (picnic season); and the holidays, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. We called her up to talk cheese at the height of that last busy season, got advice we liked about cheese platters for New Year’s (start with your favorite cheese and build from there) and learned what cooking salmon had to do with her cheesemaking career.
HELLO GORGEOUS? We’ve always wondered, what’s in the name? It’s a nod to Cornell, her alma mater. “They have this bumper sticker, ‘Ithaca is Gorges,’ so that is my little sort of in-joke.” Do people get it? “Some do, some don’t, and that is fine, because it is fun to have a little pun in there.”
FIRST COURSE OF SALMON: Cornell is famous not just for the gorges that surround the campus, but for its food programs. But Lakin was an anthropology major and didn’t take a single food-related course. “That is not where my life was when I was at Cornell.” After graduating, she spent nearly 15 years working in museums, but food, she said, did keep popping up as a theme even in her museum work. Such as the time she spent gathering data about Native American dances at Tillicum Village in Puget Sound for her honors thesis. “I learned how to prepare salmon on a cedar stake cooked around an alder wood fire. That was my first anthropological introduction to food.” Then there were the Mug-Ups at Mystic Seaport.
SAY WHAT? While working as an interpreter at the Connecticut-based Museum of America and the Sea, Lakin had the job of preparing the traditional sailors’ coffee break on a coke-burning (a fuel usually made from coal) stove aboard one of the ships. “It would be snowing up on deck, and I would be baking a pie and have a pot of coffee going. Visitors would be looking at the interpretative exhibits and they would make their way aft and be overwhelmed by the smell of the coffee and the pie.”
SAY CHEESE: At a gig working on an educational farm in New York state, she learned how to make cheese, using old-fashioned recipes for hard cheeses. She loved it and spent three years there. But it was another decade, and a move to Maine, before she was able to start her own business. “2011 is when I finally said, ‘I am not getting any younger.’ I said ‘I need to have control over my life, and I need to be doing something that gives me pleasure.’ ” She walked out of her job working for a performing arts group in Camden and walked into the State of Maine Cheese Company.
OFFICE SPACE: She asked owner Cathe Morrill if she could rent space in the creamery. The answer was yes, and that is still her home base. She’s learned a lot from cheesemaker David Baker, who gives advice and feedback. “It’s nice having another cheesemaker in the room so you can say, ‘Man, the milk is being weird today.’ ”
DOWN EAST DAIRY: Lakin uses only milk from Tide Mill Organic Farm, taking delivery of an average of 150 gallons a week. “I am trying to participate directly in the agriculture. Terroir is very important in cheese, as it is in wine, and by working with a single farmer I know what it is going into the grass, the cows and the milk.” Her first cheese to make it to market was ricotta (the other two, a Morgan and her Opus 42, needed three months to age). “I built my customer base from there.” She marketed straight to wholesalers and restaurants (Francine’s Bistro in Camden was her first restaurant customer). No farmers markets for her. “I realized early on as a one-woman operation that to stay sane and keep my energy level up, I needed to make that decision.”
EXPANSION: Although she’s expanded her repertoire considerably since then, Lakin still makes those original cheeses. The Opus 42, a nutty, slightly sharp, semi-firm cheese she makes in a 6-pound wheel, was served at the James Beard House in New York in January (one of several times Lakin’s cheeses have made it to the foundation with Maine chefs). The Morgan, which she describes as salty and grassy, is her “sleeper cheese.” “It’s only now, four years into it, that people are really getting into it.” It makes, she said, a “really killer grilled cheese.”
EXPERIMENTS IN CHEESE: She’s playing with combining her cheesemaking skills with other Maine-made goods. This fall she collaborated with Cellar Door Winery in Lincolnville when they were doing their crush, ripening her cheeses in batches of both must and pomace (byproducts of winemaking). She made 24 (3-pound) wheels which she said were “phenomenal.” But we can’t have any. “I sold them in nine days,” she said.
SPEAKING OF: Where can a lowly cheese lover get Lakin’s cheeses? Her website, www.lakinsgorgescheese.com, for starters. And she delivers to many wholesalers along the Route 1 corridor (Thursdays are delivery days, during which Lakin drives 250 miles with 30 to 40 stops). “It doesn’t make sense to hire somebody to do the deliveries and also, I want that direct customer contact.” She also ships to stores in New York, Boston and Atlanta. Close to home for Portland residents? “The Portland Food Co-op has the best selection of Maine cheese in the state,” Lakin said.
GOOD CHOICE? Looking back, was walking off one job into an unknown the right move? Absolutely. “I have joy in every single day, which is an incredible gift. And there is a lot of music that goes into the cheese.” Huh? “I listen to a lot of funky music when I am making the funky cheeses. And the soft cheeses get a lot of Americana. Like Bruce Molsky and early rockabilly, early blues. American roots.” It’s very American cheese.