Sunday, November 28, 2010

Making Cheese During the Depression

Norridgewock, Maine

Bernard Hilton was born 87 years ago in 1923.  I met him at my church and he mentioned that his great-grandmother, his grandmother and his mother all made cheese.  In fact, he thought he had an old press in his attic and if I wanted to see it, why he'd bring it right down.  (Bernard is from Maine so he talks like that.)

Well, of course I wanted to see it!  I went right over to his house in Deerfield, MA and spent a lovely afternoon pumping Bernard with questions.  This is what he told me:

Bernard's Childhood in Norridgewock, Maine

For the first six years of his life, Bernard and the rest of his family lived with his father's mother, Kate Hilton.  She and Melvina, his great-grandmother, taught Bernard's mother to make cheese.  Actually, Melvina was widely known to be the best cheesemaker in the vicinity.  She lived to be 101. 

Melvina Holt Butler, Bernard's great-grandmother

There was no refrigeration back then (except ice), so they stored the milk in the cellar.  Skimming the milk was a chore, so Bernard's father used to say  "Women like Jerseys and Guernseys because they can take the cream off with a fork."

In 1929, Bernard's father bought his own farm down the road with a big house, a 75 acre field and 20-30 other acres of land.  He paid $1500.  This was such a big investment for him that he stayed awake nights worrying about how he would pay the interest on the loan.  Bernard was somewhat disappointed with the new house because it didn't have indoor plumbing.

Bernard's grandmother, Kate Hilton

Soon, there were 9 children in the family.  (Later, all, except one, went to college.)  Bernard's father did whatever he could to make a living.  He started out with Herefords and then acquired 5 or 6 purebred Holstein heifers.  Bernard remembers his father as "the best hand milker I ever saw."

Unfortunately, it turned out that most of the new heifers had Bang's Disease and they had to be slaughtered.  So, then, Bernard's father got more sheep.  He would slaughter the lambs and take them around to restaurants, etc. in the back of his old Franklin car ( he had removed the back seat).

Bernard's father, Ralph Hilton

In the winter, his father had to go to the lumber camps up north.  He brought his own horses and he stayed there except for a few visits home.  Once Bernard went with him to the camp.  On the way there, in the night, his father found the trail (the most well-used road) by lighting matches to see the fresh horse manure.

In 1933, the height of the Depression, he didn't work at the camps.  He told his son the wages weren't enough to pay for the wear and tear on his clothes, let alone the horses.  Bernard honestly can't figure out how they survived that year.

Later, in the fifties, Bernard's father became a state representative and then a senator.  He was Chairman of the Agricultural Committee.  In 1964, he was voted "Farmer of the Year" (but everyone said that was just because that same year, his wife was voted "Mother of the Year" and they didn't want him to feel left out!)

Bernard's mother, Lora Hilton,
Maine's "Mother of the Year" in 1964

Making the Cheese

During that same year, 1933, Bernard's mother made cheese every day.  When she first started doing it, Bernard's father slaughtered a calf for the rennet.  He hung it in the attic to dry.  Every day, Bernard's mother broke off a small piece of the stomach lining and brought it downstairs for the cheese.  (By the time she was done with that rennet, she was able to buy pills (rennet tablets) which were much more consistent.)

Draining rack which was covered with cheesecloth
In the early morning, she took 10 gallons of warm milk, straight from their cows and poured it into a big washtub.   (There was no heating of the milk at any point.)  She added the rennet and after an hour or so, she cut the curds and drained them on a rack covered with cheesecloth (which Bernard says was available everywhere).

By that evening, she put the curds in the press.  They were pressed overnight, and the next day, she chopped up the curds and salted them.  Then, she pressed them again for another day.  Bernard says they had to watch the color of the whey as it ran out of the wooden molds because if it was white, they had too much weight.

The smaller of Bernard's mother's two presses


His mother had 2 presses because she made cheese every day.  One was the press Bernard still has and the other was much larger.   He doesn't know who made the hoops (molds) because they had been in the family for generations.  (His great-great grandfather was a stagecoach driver from Augusta to the Canadian line.)

When the cheese was sufficiently pressed, it was rubbed with butter and put on shelves in a closet off the dining room.  His mother would try to age it, but with 9 hungry kids, it never really matured.  They all loved the cheese, so they would go in there and cut off a wedge when they wanted it.  They always referred to it as Cheddar.

His mother also made butter and he and his brothers and sisters had to help with the churning.  She sold her butter for 17 cents per pound.  Bernard told me his Uncle Harry was able to sell his butter for over 40 cents per pound because "he had good bugs" (bacteria).  His butter had a much-coveted sweet taste.  He was able to keep it cold in a box he had made and kept in a cold water spring.

Hoop and follower Bernard made to teach cheesemaking
Bernard's Life Today

Bernard keeps in touch with his large, extended family.  He is proud of his sister, Pauline, born in 1932, who won the milking contest at the University of Maine while she was a student there.  His sister, Caroline (next below Bernie) has a daughter and her family is milking 1600 cows with a round milking parlor that holds 100.  One of Bernard's nephews runs the family farm and milks 250 cows.  His wife talks about making cheese, but she is way too busy.

Whey was drained from the hole in the front into a bucket while
the cheese was being pressed.

Bernard joined the service after high school and when he returned to New England, he took a job as a farm manager in Gardiner, Maine.  After 7 years, he applied for the position of Farm Superintendent at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst where he worked for 33 years until he retired.  While he was there, one of the dairy specialists asked him to teach a class on cheesemaking.  For that, he made the large steel mold (above) and the base for his press (at right).

Bernard has a blog with many wonderful stories about his childhood.  Check it out at

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A WISEWOMAN Makes Her Own Cheese!

WISEWOMAN is a program funded by the Department of Health and Human Services through the CDC- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  With programs throughout the country, the mission of WISEWOMAN is:

"To provide low-income, under- or uninsured 40- to 64-year-old women with the knowledge, skills, and opportunities to improve diet, physical activity, and other lifestyle behaviors to prevent, delay and control cardiovascular and other chronic diseases."  (from their website)

Mary O'Connor first contacted us last January when she had the idea to teach cheesemaking through the WISEWOMAN program in Michigan.  She had taken an advanced workshop with Jim Wallace, and, since then, she had been busy teaching her friends to make cheese.  When the class became a reality, Mary asked if we could contribute a few Mozzarella kits.  We did, and Mary wrote the article below about the event.

The Power of Cheese
Changing Lives One Batch of Mozzarella At a Time
By Mary O'Connor

Muskegon, Michigan- They were ordinary women gathering on an ordinary day in an ordinary place. In fact, an onlooker wouldn't be blamed for failing to take note of the small group as they assembled in the kitchen at the Michigan State University Extension office in Muskegon, Michigan on that cool April afternoon. But something quite extraordinary was about to transpire, something almost magical. For the first time, each woman there would transform milk into cheese-Ricki Carroll's famous 30-Minute Mozzarella to be exact-and link to generations of women before her in the ancient art of cheese making.

Hackley Community Care Center Cheesemaking Class (L to R): Marjean Rhods, Jackie Stapples, Cindy Mitchell, Noreen London, Callie Sierra, Donna Davis, Debra King, Mary O'Connor, Amy Thommen

The half-day class was sponsored by WISEWOMAN, which stands for Well-Integrated Screening and Evaluation for WOMen Across the Nation, a program designed to help women reduce their risk for health challenges and improve their overall health by eating healthy, being more physically active, and not smoking.

Program coordinator Callie Sierra began the event by talking about healthy food choices and the fact that many women don't get enough calcium. Cheese, of course, is an excellent source of calcium. But like all good things, it must be eaten in moderation. Portion sizes, how to read nutrition labels, and what to look for on the ingredient list were also discussed. Cheese maker and instructor Mary O'Connor followed with a brief presentation on the history of cheese and demonstrated how easy it is to make at home.

Jackie Stapples stretches her mozzarella cheese just before the taste test.
After a brief discussion about safe food handling and sterilization techniques, the group gathered around the stove to watch the rennet do its work. Within a few minutes, each participant was kneading her own little ball of soon-to-be mozzarella and swapping life stories, healthy recipes, and exercise tips. Somewhere in that mix of laughter, trips to the microwave, and more kneading, the cheese worked its magic. Seven women who began the day as strangers bonded around a shared experience of creating something nourishing and ancient and beautiful with their own hands. By the end of the afternoon, they were singing and clinking glasses of sparkling cider as they toasted their accomplishments.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Michigan Dairy Institute and an in-kind donation from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, each woman took home her own mozzarella kit and recipe, along with the memory of a wonderful day spent in the company of kindred souls and a renewed commitment to living healthy. The pilot program was so successful that more classes are being planned, including bread making-cheese plus bread equals homemade pizza! In the words of one of the participants, "I never knew I could do something like this. Now, I can't wait to show my family!" And that is the power of cheese.

Hackley Community Care Center is a nonprofit organization that provides essential services to Muskegon County families who are in need of medical and dental care. For more information, please visit

Monday, November 22, 2010

Landeria Farm in Olathe, Kansas

Kathy Landers

She's Making Over 15 Varieties of Farmstead Goat Cheese!

Kathy Landers has raised every single one of her 100 goats, maintaining what is called a "closed herd" of registered American Alpines.  From them she gets about 130 gallons of milk a day.  With this milk she makes hard and soft cheeses, including Chevre, Swiss, Brie, Camembert, Mozzarella, Feta, Gouda, and Cheddar. 

Kathy's daughter, Samara

In August, at the American Cheese Society Festival of Cheeses in Seattle, I happened to sit down next to Kathy's daughter on the stairway.  She mentioned that her mother had entered two cheeses in the competition.  So, we went to the Farmstead Cheeses table where I met Kathy and William James, the two master cheesemakers from Landeria Farm in Kansas.  I snapped a few pictures of their cheeses: 

"Prairie Moon," Kathy Landers Cheesemaker
"Prairie Pearl," William James, Cheesemaker

William James

When I came back to Massachusetts, I wrote to Kathy and asked her how she began making cheese.  She answered:

We made cheese for the family at home, but mainly fresh cheese like farmers cheese. I began seriously experimenting with cheese when we lived in Alaska.  I had 4 kids, and a herd of goats. This was in 86. The hardest part was finding some place warm enough to age the cheese!

As a child I milked the family cow.  When I went to college, of course I went out and bought my own cow.  But there was too much milk for just me, so I traded in the cow on a goat.  I was hooked!

The hill above her aging cave.

I was a little confused, so I asked her if she thought most college students bought their own cows!  She responded:

You'd have to have known my Mom.  There were 6 kids in our family, and Mom figured we'd be ahead raising our own food.  We grew a 2 acre garden and put everything up for the winter. We had chickens, ducks, a horse, sheep, geese, our own milk cow, beef from her calf every year, and plenty of hands to make it all happen.  My job was working in the garden and milking.  We made our own butter, pickles, sauerkraut, jams, etc.  We lived really well.

Her milking parlor.

So it seemed reasonable to me.  I'd been milking every morning and night for as long as I could remember, and after a couple years of college I rented a 40 acre parcel with a trappers cabin on it.  It was cheap, only $50 a month, but it only had a wood stove for heat, the kitchen drain had plugged up at some point and was fixed by hacking a hole in the pipe where it went outside, and one night the whole big front porch fell off the house! But, I could grow my garden, have chickens, and a cow.

So I canned, collected eggs, had fresh chicken once a week, and milked that cow.  The day I found that cow standing in my kitchen looking for grain was the last straw.  Have you ever tried to back up a cow? She gave way too much more milk than I could use anyway, so I bought a goat from my landlady.  She had babies, and they gave milk too, and pretty soon I had a small herd of goats.  Goats have short tails (ever been smacked in the face by a muddy cow tail at 6 am?), poop delicate little round goat berries ( cow pies?) and don't break your foot if they step on you.  Love at first sight.

Aging her cheeses.

We moved to Kansas after several moves post Alaska, each time due to my husband's job.  Each move I'd pack up the animals and kids and start over.  We've been in Kansas for about 10 years now.  I'd been selling cheese and offering free cheesemaking classes from the house for about 6 years here when the popularity of both became too intrusive.  We decided to build a place for me to do my thing.

Since I was building something, I decided to make it Grade A.  The original concept was for a small 1 car garage type of building, but then it seemed I'd need a bathroom, a place for my lab, a place for a boiler, etc.  So, the project grew.

Today I have a 35 by 50 foot heated and air conditioned facility with two 18 foot overhangs.  One of the overhangs is enclosed and climate controlled for the boiler, whey tank and cold and hot water bulk tanks.  Attached to the make room is a passageway to the subterranean aging cave.  I buried the stairs to the cave under 9 feet of dirt, so there is a large hill sitting next to the cheese barn.

The goats are milked in the milking parlor that takes up one end of the barn, with the milk passing through the wall to the bulk tank in the cheese make room. 

Landeria Farm cheese is available at Dean & DeLuca and at The Better Cheddar in Kansas City, Pendelton's Country Market in Lawrence and at the Lawrence Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Here's a great little video about Landeria Farm.  (There are some good shots of Kathy's "microcreamery" and her cave.) 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Boggy Meadow Farm in Walpole, New Hampshire

Making Farmstead Baby Swiss, Fiddlehead Tommes and Jacks

Stan Richmond sat behind a desk for most of his working life.  But when he was 53, five years ago, he made a big change.  He came to Boggy Meadow Farm to be a cheesemaker and he hasn't taken a seat since then.

As most of you know, making cheese commercially is hard, physically demanding work.  Stan is the only full-time cheesemaker, so he does everything there is to do, from raking the curds to carrying the cheeses into the aging rooms to wrapping and shipping the final products.  But, Stan grew up on a farm and he loves the work.

Paul Besaw raking the curds

He has two part-time helpers, Joe Sawyer and Paul Besaw.  Paul is Stan's uncle.  He was enjoying his retirement from a career as a carpet installer (that's a tough job, too!) when Stan called him into service at the farm.  How can you refuse your nephew?

Joe Sawyer

Joe grew up down the road from the farm.  He took the short course at UVM and completed it in record time (130 hours during his 2 week vacation from his job!)  Now, he works at Boggy Meadow one or two days a week, he works for Fed Ex full-time, and he works at Vermont Shepherd part-time making sheep cheese.

In addition to that, he is now leasing space from Vermont Shepherd to make his own Tomme cheese in the Pyrenees style (we'll have more about that when he begins selling it in March, 2011) AND he makes cheese at home!

Joe first learned how to make cheese with our book, Home Cheese Making.  When he makes it at home, he uses 4 gallons of milk at a time and he ages his cheese in an old refrigerator.  He sprays the inside with water to keep the humidity up.  In the summer he's too busy, but this time of year, he makes cheese (Gouda, Blue, etc.) twice a week.

Boggy Meadow Farm is located on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River in one of the most beautiful areas of southern New Hampshire.  It's a large farm with 1000 cows (mostly Holsteins) and 300 of them are milkers.  It has been owned by generations of the same family since 1822.

 The red house is for the farm workers.  The owners live up the road.
The make room is on the left, the store is in the middle and the house is on the right.

When Stan came to the farm five years ago, he apprenticed with the previous cheesemakers.  They were already making Baby Swiss, natural rind Tommes, and a few Jacks.  Stan added many flavors of Jacks to their repertoire, including pepper, sage, dill, garlic and parsley.  He also added fiddleheads to the Tommes (available online).  The Jacks are sold at their farm store and at local stores, but they don't make enough of them to sell online.  Their main product is their Baby Swiss for which they won first place at the Eastern States Exposition last year.

Making the Cheese

Boggy Meadow has a very unique way of making their cheeses.  As you can see in the pictures below, their vat is huge- it holds 10,537 lbs of milk.  (In the end, this yields only 950 lbs. of cheese.)  From this one vat of milk, they make three different cheeses together.  The differences in the cheeses come from the aging process alone.

They make cheese (from fresh, raw milk) 26 times/year, mostly on Sundays, because this is the only day they can all get together.  From this one vat, they make three kinds of cheeses- Swiss, Tommes and Jacks at the same time.

They do everything by hand because the automatic features of the tank stopped working five years ago.  In the picture below, Stan goes down one side with the horizontal cutter while Joe works the other side with the vertical cutter.  Then they change places.
There's a little bit of finishing off to do at the end where they started.
While Stan and Joe cut the cheese, Paul cleans off the cutters and gets ready for the next step.  (Behind him there's an observation window so folks can watch everything from the farm store.)
After the cut curds heal for 5 minutes, Paul and Joe rake them for 40 minutes.  This is basically "back breaking" work, but they make it look easy.
When the curds have been raked, some of the whey is drained from the tank.
The whey is pumped into this huge holding tank and then poured on the fields.
After draining, the curds are washed with hot water and raked again.  When they are ready, they are separated into the three groups (Baby Swiss, Tommes and Jacks) and handled slightly differently until they go to their own aging rooms.

The cheeses that are pressed in the molds below get cut into 2 lb. blocks.
The presses are run off a compressor.
You might wonder about the Propionic bacteria that is added to Swiss cheese to make it form "eyes."  It was added with the culture and it is there in all three cheeses, but because they are aged at different temperatures and humidity, it only affects (makes eyes) in the Swiss.  This is a technique Stan thinks the original cheesemakers at the farm learned in the Alps.

The Tommes have natural rinds, so they are aged at 50F.
They need to be brushed frequently.
The Baby Swiss are cryovaced and aged for 60 days at 70F.  The Jacks are aged in a refrigerated trailer at 38F.
Selling The Cheese

You may purchase Boggy Meadow Farm cheese at their website-  At their  store they offer free samples of their cheeses and a few other local products.  (While you are there, don't forget to check out the observation window.)  You may also find their Baby Swiss and Tommes at stores throughout the New England area.

13 Boggy Meadow Lane
Walpole, NH 03608
Tel: 1-603-756-3300
Toll free: 1-877-541-3953