March 13, 2010

Carving out a niche

— Anne Tripp had a hard time explaining to her family and friends why it was such a big deal that her Saco Bay Dusk, a bloomy rind cheese, won a gold medal at this year's American Cheese Society competition in Chicago.

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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Friday, October, 3, 2008: Amanda DesRoberts trims a peppercorn Havarty style cheese in the Silver Moon Creamery at Smiling Hill Farm. Sunday cheesemakers all over Maine will open their doors to the public for Open Creamery Day.

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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Friday, October, 3, 2008: Amanda DesRoberts processes cheeses in the Silver Moon Creamery at Smiling Hill Farm. Sunday cheesemakers all over Maine will open their doors to the public for Open Creamery Day.

Tripp's goat cheese is made in four-gallon batches in her little cheese room at Liberty Fields Farm in Saco. It beat a goat cheese from California's Cypress Grove Chevre, one of the premiere artisanal goat-cheese operations in the country.

''I got first, and they got second,'' Tripp said. ''I was just on cloud nine when I found that out. I can't give my friends and relatives enough of an example, so I'm like, 'It's like winning the Emmy,' or 'It's like getting picked for the Olympic team.' ''

Artisanal cheese making is thriving in Maine, and the rest of the world is beginning to take notice. Last year, Maine cheeses won 17 awards at the national competition. This year, there were fewer Maine entries, but local cheese makers still took home seven awards.

On Sunday, the public will get a chance to peek behind the curtain at 20 Maine farms where artisanal cheese is made. Members of the Maine Cheese Guild are opening their cheese houses from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the second annual Open Creamery Day.

The hosts range from folks such as Caitlin Hunter, who has been making cheese at Appleton Creamery for years, to Spring Day Creamery in Durham, where owner Sarah Spring has just turned her hobby into a licensed cheese-making operation.

There will be demonstrations of cheese making at many of the farms and sampling of a wide range of cheese, including fetas, bleus, cheddars and mozarellas. A variety of cheese will also be for sale.

About 400 people came through Silvery Moon Creamery at Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook last year to watch cheese makers at work. Silvery Moon just moved into a new cheese room, and on Sunday, Amanda DesRoberts will be stretching the mozzarella that's made from the milk of the 45 Holstein cows at the farm. Visitors will be able to taste a bit of the warm mozzarella before moving on to watch the bandaging of the creamery's cheddar in cloth for aging.

''There's nothing like mozzarella before it's been refrigerated,'' said Jennifer Betancourt, president of the Maine Cheese Guild and co-owner of Silvery Moon Creamery. ''It's just got a spring to the bite.''

Cheese lovers are kind of like a cult, Betancourt said. ''If you love it, you really love it, and you can't get enough of it, and you want to learn everything you can about it.''

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to milk a herd of goats and make your own chevre, here's your chance to pick the brains of those who have gone before you.

Tripp, who has a herd of 18 goats (mostly Nubians), said she's found that an open farm day like this one ''does bring out people who are thinking of starting some kind of venture like this.''

A couple who visited her farm last year on Open Creamery Day are now members of the Maine Cheese Guild and are in the process of becoming licensed.

Why all the recent interest in artisanal cheeses? Tripp, who sells her cheeses mostly at the Kennebunk and Saco farmers' markets, thinks it's tied heavily to the ''eat local'' movement.

''I'll have people at the farmers' market come up, and they might prefer organic, but that's not their main goal,'' she said. ''Their main goal is to support the local economy, local farmers, and know that their food hasn't traveled hundreds of miles to get there.''

There is also, of course, the taste. Artisanal cheeses can vary from batch to batch, even cheeses made from the same recipe.

''That's the amazing thing about cheese,'' Tripp said. ''You can make the recipe all you want, but as you start working with your milk in your environment and what your goats are eating and where they live, it takes on absolutely its own taste. It's called terroir.''

This Sunday, taste the terroir. Your tastebuds will thank you.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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