All photos/art by Michael Piazza
The past decade could be called the “Great Cheese Awakening.” After years of processed slices and fat-free cheddar, Americans have finally discovered the cheese course, fallen in love with artisanal producers, and begun to understand why the French have some 250 or more varieties of fromage in their arsenal.
But talk to Dave Smith of Winchendon, Massachusetts, a plain-spoken dairyman who’s been making farmstead cheeses for nearly three decades, and you realize that American cheesemaking has deeper roots than you might realize. Smith, who begins each day by milking 200 Holsteins at 4 a.m., came to cheesemaking the old-fashioned way–out of economic necessity–when he decided that there must be a better way “to capture more of the dollar” from the tanking wholesale milk business. So in 1985, he began making Gouda, and later added Havarti, smoked and aged Gouda, and cheddar.
Americans were hardly clamoring for local cheeses at that time–but in the past two and a half decades, demand has climbed steadily; last year, it was estimated at more than 33 pounds per person. “We were probably part of the first movement of artisanal cheesemakers,” Smith adds, as he heads for the doorway of the cheesemaking room, where Ashley Girouard is cutting curds. Because Smith’s operation makes farmstead cheeses using milk from its own cows, the truck travels a mere 800 feet from the milking room to here, where ultra-fresh milk is pumped into a giant vat, mixed with rennet and a starter culture–a different one for each cheese–and heated. Heat causes the protein in the milk to coagulate, which, in turn, produces curds. Cutting the curds, as Girouard is doing, forces out the liquid whey. Then the cheese is lifted into forms, stacked, and pressed before being carried to the aging room. Each step is done manually. “Our cheese develops a little personality from all the hands-on work,” Smith muses.
In this era of cheese love, Smith’s products enjoy a niche. Robust, flavorful, reasonably priced, and clearly American-made, his cheeses may grace a restaurant tray or bolster a weeknight dish, holding their own against the more-expensive brands. His cheese is found in supermarkets and specialty stores, at the farm’s store, and at farmers’ markets, where Carol, Dave’s wife, and his daughter, Jennifer, do the selling.
At heart, Smith is still a dairyman. Cheese, he says, concentrates milk’s nutrients. From 12,000 pounds of milk come 1,200 pounds of cheese, a distillation that pleases a man who oversees milking three times a day all year round. It’s never-ending. “But that’s my passion,” Smith says.
Smith’s Country Cheese, 20 Otter River Road, Winchendon, MA. 800-700-9974; smithscountrycheese.com