Words by Allison Lakin
Old Techniques, New Tricks
Maine Craft Cheesemakers Conserve, Collaborate, and Market Collectively
Cheesemaking is alchemy. The maker changes milk into cheese via equal parts science, art, and magic. But even the magic part requires a degree of efficiency if a cheesemaker is going to be environmentally and economically sustainable.
The basic method for crafting cheese hasn’t changed much in 4,000 years. Innovation, then, comes down to three things for Maine cheesemakers: adapting their processes to be more efficient, collaborating with other food producers to create original cheeses, and building larger distribution networks.
If you ask any small cheesemaker which single task most consumes their time, they will likely reply, “Washing dishes.” While not all that innovative, careful dishwashing removes fat and protein residues from cheese equipment and prevents contamination. But we’re always looking for ways to conserve water.
When I built my facility in 2017 at East Forty Farm and Dairy in Waldoboro, I knew I would transition over time to sourcing all the milk I use in my cheese from my own cows. But as I build up that farmstead milking capacity, the milk I buy from Springdale Farm in Waldo gets pumped into a refrigerated bulk tank so I can save the time and water it takes to wash dozens of buckets daily.
After pasteurizing a vat of milk, it is common practice to flush the insulated vat jacket with cold water to reduce the milk’s temperature from 145 to 90 degrees. This can send hundreds of gallons of water down the drain. To avoid this, we buried a 250-gallon cistern we call The Egg below the frost line. A pump circulates water between the pasteurizer and The Egg, letting us reuse rather than waste.
While the alchemy of cheese production has held steady over time, gone are the days of setting a kettle of milk over a wood fire and setting the cheese in a cupboard to age. Processing and aging equipment require electricity, and food safety regulations govern all modern cheesemakers. To make their businesses environmentally sustainable, Maine cheesemakers have turned to solar power with the help of USDA renewable energy grants.
Installing a solar-powered system at Spring Day Creamery was a philosophical decision, says founder Sarah Spring. “We believe in choosing renewable energy sources whenever we can for the good of the planet,” she says. Spring Day’s 42 solar panels in Durham generate enough electricity to power her home and the creamery’s pasteurizer, heat pumps, lights, fans, and round-the-clock temperature controls for two cheese aging rooms.
Balfour Farm in Pittsfield operates entirely off grid, running on a solar system plus a diesel backup generator for peak energy times. To cater her cheese production to a smaller electrical draw, cheesemaker Heather Donahue says she moved away from yogurt production and is concentrating on aged cheeses that don’t require pasteurization.
As milk is transformed into cheese, the water in the milk separates from the curds as whey. Making one pound of cow’s-milk cheese yields nine pounds of whey. Dumping whey is not an eco-friendly prospect but feeding this high-protein liquid to pigs yields moist and nutty meat in the end. At East Forty Farm, our Tamworth/Gloucester Old Spot/Large Black breed pigs turn their snouts up at plain water if whey is on offer. Building relationships with livestock farmers across the state has given many Maine cheesemakers a sustainable way to handle their whey.
Maine cheesemakers are not short on collaborators. Farmers raising goats, sheep, cows, and even water buffalo stand at the ready. Each type of milk imparts different flavor characteristics to a cheese.
Popular “washed rind” cheeses are made by tapping into Maine’s wide selection of beers, wines, and spirits. Those include Appleton Creamery’s goat cheese, which is washed with Sasanoa Brewing Co.’s saison, and Silvery Moon Creamery’s Fore River Tomme, which gets a bath in Maine Mead Works’ semi-sweet mead.
Cheesemakers also use local seaweed to add flavor and texture to their cheeses. Products made with seaweed include Appleton Creamery’s Dulsea, a bloomy-rind goat cheese with Maine Coast Sea Vegetables dulse flakes; Kennebec Cheesery’s Chèvre Furikake, a goat’s cheese rolled in Ocean's Balance Seaweed Sprinkles; Silvery Moon Creamery’s Casco Bay Dulse, a freshcow’s-milk cheese with applewood-smoked dulse from VitaminSea Seaweed; and my own Lakin's Gorges Rockweed, a square, bloomy-rind cheese with a ribbon of bladderwrack seaweed in the center.
Maine cheesemakers have taken an innovative approach to marketing their cheese during the ongoing pandemic. Many makers have partnered with chefs who are selling baskets of local goods to their customers, including Erin French at The Lost Kitchen in Freedom, Christian Hayes at The Garrison in Yarmouth, and Jef Wright at Sur Lie in Portland.
Others have set up farm shops, and more cheeses are making their way into local food cooperatives. The Maine Milk Mavens, brainchild of Fuzzy Udder Creamery owner Jessie Dowling, is a centralized wholesale order and delivery collaborative that distributes cheese from 10 Maine makers to retail locations from Bar Harbor to Kennebunk.
Pineland Farms Dairy Co. has set a goal of being the locally made option in every major grocery store in Maine. “Look at all the cheddars there are from other states—we want to be the cheddar made with milk from Maine farms supporting our local farming culture,” says Mark Whitney, president of that Bangor-based cheese operation.
After meeting with the Maine Cheese Guild and learning about makers’ struggles to expand their markets outside of the state, cheese marketeer Holly Aker created Local Goods Gathered, which ships Maine cheeses to customers throughout the northeast based on seasonal availability and cheesemakers’ surpluses. She also works with the guild to promote Maine cheese through the Victory Cheese Box program, a national initiative that markets cheese by state to interested turophiles.
The beauty of cheese is that it is a literal slice of terroir. The grass eaten by the cows in a field is transformed into milk that tastes of that place. The alchemist cheesemaker turns that milk into a unique amalgamation that can be served at any table, anywhere. Make this year be the year you experience the breadth of flavors Maine cheese has to offer.
Rustic Apple Galette with Lakin’s Gorges Opus 42
This is simple and delicious because the cheese baked inside the pastry enhances the taste of the apples. Lakin’s Gorges cheesemaker Allison Lakin recommends spelt flour for this recipe.
Makes 1 (8-inch) galette
6 tablespoons cold butter
1 ½ cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup finely grated Lakin’s Gorges Opus 42 cheese
2 cups thinly sliced, slightly tart, somewhat dry apples
Heat oven to 400°. Cut butter into flour until you get grains the size of peas. Add sugar and ¼ cup ice water and mix until you form a smooth dough. On a floured surface, roll dough in a 12-inch circle and transfer it to a baking sheet. Sprinkle cheese around the center of the dough, leaving a 2-inch border all the way around. Layer the apples artistically to cover the cheese. Fold the edges of the dough up over the apples, leaving the center open. Bake until the apples are soft and the dough is lightly browned, about 35 minutes.