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Happy Cows Make for Tasty Cheese

Photos: Lisa Nichols/Bread & Beast Photography
Photos: Lisa Nichols/Bread & Beast Photography

At Cato Corner Farm in Colchester, Connecticut, top-notch cheese starts with happy, healthy cows. The farmstead creamery is owned and operated by the mother-son team of Elizabeth MacAlister, who manages the herd of Jersey cows, and Mark Gillman, who oversees cheesemaking. Although the family has been raising livestock since the 1970s, MacAlister started making cheese commercially in 1997 so that the farm could become self-supporting. Gillman joined the cheesemaking operation in 1999.

“We added varieties as we went — most of our cheeses are inspired by something that we like, but are not intended to mimic or replicate a specific cheese,” Gillman explains. “We played around until we found something that might remind you of a Manchego or cheddar or whatever, but it’s not that exact style.”

Continuing, he said, “Something that makes our cheese special is the fact that the majority of it is made from raw milk, in a grass-based system. There are a number of small farms in this country and Europe that are doing this, but that number gets smaller and smaller every year.”

Cato Corner Farm milks a herd of 40-50 Jersey cows year round. The cows graze outdoors from early May through late November and eat locally-grown hay in the winter. Their diet is supplemented with a small amount of grain.

“The flavors of the milk and cheese are different as you move through the seasons. That’s something we not only acknowledge but celebrate — this is a summer batch, so you might taste a lot of the grassy notes,” says Gillman. “That gets to the handmade, artisan nature of the product: the batches can be a little different.”

He explains that Cato Corner Farm’s soil, pastures and aging cave all provide a specific taste of place. “Raw cheese has so much more depth of flavor. You’re capturing all of the microorganisms that come from the feed and from the environment. Those layers of flavor are in the milk and then in the cheese.”

Gillman and his team make 16 different varieties of cheese, and he says that guiding customers to a cheese that will fit their tastes is one of the most rewarding aspects of his work. One of Cato Corner’s best known cheeses is Hooligan, a washed-rind cheese Gillman describes as “fairly pungent in aroma but not as strong in taste, with creamy texture and just a bit of slightly more crumbly, higher acidic center, so you get a nice gradient.” Another top seller is the aged Bloomsday. “It’s got some cheddar acidity but it also has nuttiness and sweetness,” he says.

“We’re truly a pasture to palate operation,” he adds. “It starts with the cows and it starts with the pastures. Just as there are fewer and fewer places making raw cheese, there are fewer and fewer farmstead cheesemakers in this country…It’s a lot more work to take care of the cows than to make the cheese! But I think it’s so important to what we do. We know our animals, we know what they’re eating, we know their milk. Our ability to control the quality of the cows and the milk the cows are producing, and that the cows are healthy, that’s so fundamental to what Cato Corner Farm is about.”

AUTHOR

Stacy Brooks

Stacy Brooks is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist focusing on food and travel. Her writing has been published in Hemispheres, Midwest Living and Wine Enthusiast, and she blogs at Tangled Up In Food.

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