Following our superb breakfast at O'Rourke's Diner in Middletown CT we hurried off to Colchester for an appointment I had made to visit, and talk shop with fellow artisan cheese maker Mark Gilman, of Cato Corner Farms and to see his operation.
The farm was humming. This is one of Mark's busiest weekends of the year. They are coordinating the packaging and other preparations for two very large, once-a-year, special festival events, on top of getting ready for the numerous regional farmers' markets they attend and supply as well as servicing their regular weekly wholesale accounts.
It was a logistical nightmare (at least it would have been for me) but Mark, while obviously keeping very busy, seemed to have a good handle on everything. He multi-tasked well, directing a small, swarming cadre of workers efficiently and effectively. To their credit, they all seemed sharp, caring, motivated and well-versed at the wide variety of disparate jobs going on simultaneously.
That he had been willing to have us come here now, during our very limited time in the area, despite all these extra demands on his time give you a glimpse of what a gracious man he is.
Outfitting us in the requisite disposable over-booties, making sure we had appropriate hair restraints and slipping into his own clean-room boots he began the tour in what had once been his aging "cave". Basically a walk-in cooler with humidity controls it was now use for storing ready-to sell stock. Today it was packed floor-to-ceiling and front to back with dozens of large plastic RubberMaid containers, all neatly labeled with the name of the market or festival, or customer it had been packed for. Amazing.
We moved through the sanitizing footbaths into the cheese making room. A wall of warm, humid air hit us especially hard, coming from the cheese-holding cooler and my eye glasses fogged up immediately. Here, Mark introduced us to two of his hard-working helpers. They were cleaning up and scrubbing the room down having just fininshed their cheese-making activities for the morning. At this point Mark got called away to sort out a order-filling question and we had the chance to chat for a while with the guys. They were funny, knowledgeable, and really seemed to enjoy their cheese-making duties at the farm. Thanks guys.
Upon his return, Mark took us down to his current aging room - a true cellar. Oh, if I could only bottle that aroma...! In the dairy's large basement Mark has set up a near-ideal cheese aging environment. Naturally temperature-buffered from being underground and having lots of therrmal mass in its masonry floors, walls and ceilings, the environment need only to be occasionally tweaked to adjust for seasonal swings .
In this long room, Mark has set up lots (and LOTS) of simple block-and-board shelves, with just enough room between to ensure good airflow in and around his cheeses and barely enough for he and his workers to get in and do the regular periodic turning and aging, brushing and washing (IE affinage) that the hundreds of cheese require.
We spent a lot of time in the cellar. Mark seemed very comfortable here, away from the hustle and demands of the organized chaos going on above us and I finally got to ask him some in-depth questions about his operation. In addition to being extremely knowledgeable about his cheeses and cheese-making in general, he was endearingly open, thoughtful and honest about the some of the difficulties the farm has and does face as a business.
We talked about regulators and competitors, the economy, bankers and insurance headaches, feed supply and overhead costs, "high maintenance customers", and market share. Poor Cynthia and Jim must have been about bored to tears but I'm sure it was a bit cathartic for both Mark and me.
I really didn't want to leave the solace of the aging room but Mark said the one thing that could have motivated me best, "Want to sample some of my cheeses?" OH YES, PLEASE! So back up the slick wooden steps we trudged, back up into their wrapping/packing/sampling area.
This room too was jam-packed with in-progress preparations for the weekend. Stacks of legal-for trade market scales competed for space with piles of hotel pans, rolls of labels and more partially-filled bins of product, ready for distribution. A steady stream of busy-bee employees came through, each focused on their task at hand, non phased in the least by a request from Mark or another worker "Oh, and can could you also make sure that... gets done"? "Sure, No problem" came the answers, and off they went.
Mark helped Patrick get a few more orders ready to go so that there was room on the table for our tasting, and asked another worker for a list of wheels form the cellar he wanted to cut into.
Soon a section of space was open enough on which to work and Mark began. He started, naturally, with his gentlest cheeses, talking about each - their provenance and development, giving us small pieces to try as he spoke.
He worked his way slowly through to some slightly stronger cheeses. We got to try an exceptional and rare cheddar and then moved on to the blues and finally to his "stinky cheese". At one point during the tasting he was interrupted for a few minutes when one of his retailers arrived for his weekly order. It was interesting listening to their respectful and productive discourse where it was clear that they each understood how mutually beneficial their relationship was - so different than the typical, almost adversarial, relationship between many wholesalers and their retailer counterparts.
We enjoyed all of Mark's cheeses and put together a large list of ones to buy that he and a helper quickly cut, wrapped, and bagged for us. I was more than happy to pay full retail price to help support this incredible farm (not to mention help assuage my guilt for co-opting so much of his precious time this morning), but Mark still gave us a generous discount.
Not wanting to take any more of his time, but also wanting to at least see "the girls" We asked if we could just wander around a bit on our own. "Of course", he said.
|Mark, the proud (and deservingly so) cheese maker|
to be continued...