Tuesday October 01, 2013 | 07:09 AM

During the month of October (National Cheese Month!), The Root is embarking on a short series celebrating Maine cheese makers who have the attention of cheese lovers from near and far. For this series, The Root is collaborating with Shannon Tallman, American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (one of two in Maine) and Specialty Cheese Buyer for Whole Foods Market.

Dr. Paul S. Kindstedt’s book Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization is an excellent read for anyone interested in cheese. According to his research, cheese making dates back to before 6000 BC when Neolithic farmers experimented with heating and storing dairy products in ceramic pots. Centuries later and thousands of miles from their predecessors, over 71 licensed cheese makers in Maine are continuing the tradition of producing cheese from milk. Each has a story about how they adopted their approach to cheese making, why they make the cheese(s) they do, and the trial-and-error experiences each endured to create that special cheese. Their work does not go unnoticed as proof of the loyalists who line up early at farmers’ markets to get their hands on their favorite Maine-made cheese. Cheese experts have been taking notice of Maine cheeses for years. At the 2013 American Cheese Society (ACS) competition, the largest North American cheese competition with a record 1794 entries this year, four Maine cheese makers placed in the top three in their category.

Cheese resting at Spring Day Creamery.

Tucked back on a country road a few miles from Freeport, Maine, Sarah Spring of Spring Day Creamery in Durham can often be found making cheese in an 1848 farmhouse she and her husband renovated. After making yogurt for 40 years (15 of those in a small village in the Brie region of France) Spring woke up one morning and realized she could make something else with milk. Nearing the end of her teaching career Spring and her husband completed construction of a small, state-licensed cheese room in 2008. It is from this place she makes fresh, mold-ripened, and aged cheeses, two of which have won American Cheese Society awards. Spring won 1st place for her “La Vie en Rose” mixed rind cheese in the original recipe category at the American Cheese Society 2012 competition, and in 2011 placed second in the made from cow’s milk with a rind or external coating category for her “Spring Day Blues”.

In the beginning of her career as a cheese maker, Spring made Feta and Fromage Blanc and Chevre. “Those were very straightforward and that’s where I said I’m going to make something else,” said Spring.

While still teaching, Spring worked for months on figuring out different iterations of cheeses, bringing her colleagues samples for feedback. Bloomy rinds (soft cheeses coated with Penicillium candidum),  like those she enjoyed in France and blues, especially Roquefort (a king of blue cheese made with sheep’s milk), are her favorites and the ones that inspired her in the beginning. “If I could raise sheep and make only a blue with sheep’s milk I would love that,” Spring said.

When I heard this, it prompted me to ask the obvious question, “What’s the difference between working with cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, and goat’s milk?” According to Shannon Tallman, the fat structures are different, the protein amounts are different, and the minerals are different. “They all act different,” Tallman said. “If you handle goat’s milk too roughly, you’ll start getting that bitter goaty tang (barnyard funk that people don’t like) that’s actually a defect of it. You have to be very gentle with it.”

Spring said even pouring it or pushing goat’s milk too fast through whatever one is pumping it in could damage it. Spring found it very satisfying to work with goat’s milk, and when she transitioned from goat’s milk to cow’s milk (because she couldn’t get goat’s milk in the quantities she needed anymore), it was a big adjustment period. “Cow’s milk feels more watery when you are working with it,” she said. Currently, she buys milk from Bisson’s in Topsham and Pineland Farms in New Gloucester.

Tallman likens cheese making to baking, “There is no improv in cheese making, because it can go horribly wrong. Like baking, you have to follow the recipe. Then there are things like the weather that you kind of have to say go with God.”

For her part, Spring tries to maintain a sense of humor, like on particularly hot summer days when it is really hard to make a cheese and there are multiple layers of difficulty with sanitation, ripening, etc. That is when Spring has to adjust her recipes, and once when a batch of cheese would not ripen, she had what she calls a “Peter Pan sale” at a farmers’ market. “I had a whole batch of Evangeline that would not ripen,” Spring said. “It refused to mature, so I sold them all for $3 a piece and everyone said they were really great. They were hard as rock, but they melted them, and did all these things. Someone called it Peter Pangelene.”

Q&A with Sarah Spring

ST: I’ve always been amazed at the fact that you haven’t been making cheese in the grand scheme of things for very long, but you play with the things that most cheese makers are afraid of. You play with penicilliums (for blue cheese and bries) with B-linens. You went big. When did you start delving into that? What motivated you to go from the basics like the fromage blancs, the crème fraiches, and then it seemed overnight to the AP class?

SS: I stuck my neck out big time and in fact every year when ACS rolls around I kick myself, why am I doing this to myself, especially anything washed. For years I was practicing on every surface of the kitchen things draining into different containers. It took me no less than a year to get a bloomy rind that was almost okay. It’s such a challenge to me, I’m always amazed at other cheese makers who just jump right in there from almost day one and go oh I’m going to make those now. I can’t believe they do that, because it took me so long to get to that point.

SK – Your time in France differentiates you from most other Maine cheese makers. How did being surrounded by a different culture, one in which you had seven kinds of cheese on your table every day affect you?

SS: I think maybe I became hard wired for taste where I ate enough different kinds of cheese. We ate so many kinds of foods you don’t even eat here at all. All about time you spent on something, not do it quickly, get it out of the way mass produce it. Not like that at all.

I once visited a baker in France who was a friend of the family. He let me sit in for a day while he was doing some of his stuff, and I asked him how did you do this and what did it take to do this part of it and he would always answer me with “Ca se faut avec le temps” it takes time…It was all about time and attention and being able to watch over your product and being very, very discerning, very critical of what’s okay and what’s not okay.

(L-R) New cheese washed w/ a beer, bloomy rind: Evangeline, blue: Spring Day Blue

Tasting Notes by Shannon Tallman (for a complete list of Spring Day Creamery’s cheeses go here
Evangeline - soft-ripened ashed cheese: The pyramid was young, with a slight cream line at the rind. The center was sweet, like a glass of fresh milk, while the edge lent more acidity and salt to the bite.

Spring Day Blues - aged blue: Her blue is a very mushroom forward blue, though not overwhelming to the palate. It comes across as a part mash up with the flavor profile of Bleu D'auvergne from France and the consistency of Gorgonzola Piccante from Italy.

Basket Case - washed rind: By far my favorite of her cheeses. While it's a washed rind (think Taleggio, Limburger, etc), it is not a cheese that harasses or offends the nose. The paste of the cheese is creamy and smooth, while the rind finishes the cheese on a distinct peanut tone.

Marinated curds: Also known as "squeaky cheese" because of the noise they make against your teeth, these were a day old and still had a good bit of squeak to them. Many of the ones I've had in the past always had a sour profile to them, but these lacked that acidity and had a very balanced profile.

Spring Day Creamery cheeses can occasionally be found at Treats in Wiscasset, Forage Market in Lewiston, and Eventide Specialties in Boothbay Harbor. For farmers’ market information go here

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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