Monday, May 17, 2010

Artisan Cheesemakers #2 Hillman Farm

Carolyn and Joe Hillman
Colrain, MA

Is it really possible in "this day and age" for a couple to make their living high on a hill off a dirt road with a few goats and an aging room?  It is if you make good enough cheese.  Carolyn and Joe Hillman live off the land with an outdoor wood furnace providing all their heat (including hot water), and they make world renowned cheese.

We're not exaggerating.  In 2004, they won "Best American Cheese (All Milks)" at the prestigious World Cheeses Awards in London.  They have also won several gold medals at American Cheese Society competitions.  In fact, they won 1st prizes in their categories every time they entered.  They stopped sending their cheese to competitions because "There's no point. We always win."  Besides, competing is expensive and they like to keep things simple.


Let's start at the beginning.  Fifteen years ago, Carolyn worked in the deli section of the Brattleboro Co-op, which is next to the cheese section.  She would look at the different cheeses and think-I could make that.

So, she took Ricki's Cheesemaking 101 workshop and, like everyone else, started making paneer and queso blanco.

But Caroline believed she could make a living from cheese, so she and Joe began acquiring what they needed.  (This was no easy task considering they live 1500 ft above sea level in the middle of nowhere where everything is at least 17 miles away.)
Fortunately, Joe can build and fix anything.  Joe even bought Caroline her first book about making cheese and, of course, Kosikowski.  To learn more about it, Carolyn started taking classes and took a trip to France in 2002, with Ricki and Jim Wallace.

At first, they only made aged cheeses because they didn't have a pasteurizer.  Then, they gradually found used equipment and built (themselves) a dairy barn.  When Carolyn needed something, Joe built it.

For example-when she needed presses, she made them in cardboard so Joe would know what she wanted.  He welded them together and mounted them on the wall.  Their first 60 gallon vat cost $50 and Joe reconfigured it to work for them.

Ten years ago, they had 45 goats.  Since then, they have downsized to keep their lives sane.  Now, they manage a closed herd with 25 milkers.  When the kids are born they are bottle fed and kept in a warm area of the barn.  They virtually imprint to Carolyn and Joe.  The result is the friendliest goats you will ever see.  Carolyn milks the nannies twice a day.  Each one yields around a gallon per day. 

Murphy is a livestock dog and he stays with the goats to protect them whenever they're outside  (Their other dog, Abby is a mouser.)

We asked Carolyn why her cheese is so good.  She didn't know, but later she e-mailed a thoughtful response:

It's all in the details. Starting with our goats, they are healthy and exercise outside on pastures and rock ledges. They eat as goats should eat- grass, brambles, brush and our own harvested organic hay.

We keep an eye on milk quality. Our milk is handled well, chilled quick, never churned in a pump.  Our cheese is made with skill, care and consistency.  We're dedicated to making really good cheese.

Their Handmade Facility
 This is where the goats are milked.  The milk can sits on the rolling stand and then it is carried into the next room where it is filtered and pasteurized.
Most of the milk is pasteurized because much of their cheese is not aged for more than 60 days.
They do not pasteurize their aged, hard cheeses.
This room has many functions, including weighing and wrapping the cheeses.
Another view of the make room.
This picture was taken through a window.  We did not go into any of the make room areas because of the possibility of contamination.  Carolyn runs a tight ship!
 Carolyn shows the slate wall on the front of her aging "cave."
We peeked in the door where the cheese is aging.
Carolyn shows how she brushes off the "bad" mold.
Carolyn makes a certain amount of cheese every week-enough for them to live on and that's it.  There is no farm store.  She doesn't welcome the public because of possible bacterial contamination.  (Also, they have work to do!)

Every Saturday, in the season, she carts their cheeses to the Farmer's Market in Northampton,MA.  If you're in the area, you can purchase:  bottled pasteurized milk, fresh cheeses, mold-ripened cheeses, raw milk aged cheeses, raw milk Feta, Greek style yogurt, and sometimes goat meat.  Other places you can buy their cheeses are listed on their website-

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