“I had a little tiny cheese aging room and I went out one morning and the entire room from floor to ceiling was covered in blue mold! I was like, ‘This is the end, it’s been fun.’ ”
By Lauren Wilson
In a man-made subterranean cave tucked away in Colchester, CT, 18,000 pounds of raw cow’s milk cheese slowly ages, waiting for the day when it will be ripe, complex or stinky enough to grace the pages of Saveur Magazine, be served to the patrons of Per Se, and stock the cases at Murray’s.
These unassuming little farmstead cheeses are handcrafted using a very traditional (but not all that common) cheesemaking method where the milk used for production is provided by the farm’s very own herd of cows. And the unassuming folks that make these cheeses are Mark Gillman and Elizabeth MacAlister, a mother-son team who decided to venture into cheesemaking about 14 years ago as a way of making the farm more economically viable.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon I dropped by the Grand Army Plaza greenmarket, grabbed a blanket and enjoyed some shade with Liz MacAllistor, founder and farmer of Cato Corner Farm.
So Liz, you are originally from Rhode Island. How did you end up on a farm in Connecticut?
I was a part of the ‘back to the land’ movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s and then lived in California for a while before coming back to the Midwest and settling in Connecticut on a piece of family land.
Have you done anything outside of food or have you always been involved in the food world in one way or another?
Oh no, I have done all kinds of things. My husband was in the theater and I was a bus driver, a case worker (social work), a bar waitress, almost everything, but I food has always been important in our lives so ….
That’s where you ended up….
Exactly, and we realized that one of the things about cheesemaking is that a knowledge of cheese and how it should taste and what’s good versus what’s mediocre is an important thing to have if you’re going to make it.
So how did you become interested in cheese? Did the farm always produce cheese?
Well, no, actually. My former husband and I bought the farm in 1979. Originally we raised sheep and goats, mostly for meat. We didn’t milk the sheep, though we did milk the goats and I made a little cheese from that milk.
But I’ve always been surrounded by good cheese. My father was crazy about cheese. I have a million stories about him and cheese. He used to go to Canada and bring back all kinds of cheese like Fromage D’Oka and all kinds of cheddars. I grew up on Canadian cheese — I never had processed cheese. We had Federal Hill in Providence, which had a lot of wonderful imported Italian cheeses. And when I was growing up, Rhode Island had three farm-made cheddars. They’re no longer there, but they were wonderful.
So there was sort of a ‘good cheese’ standard there that I just never questioned. Eventually I realized that we needed to start pulling additional income from the farm, so we decided that cheese would be a good thing to do. Take our few cows and start making cheese. We’ve been licensed since 1997.
So how did you make the transition from meat farming to cheese farming? How did you learn to make cheese?
I started out making goat cheeses because I had all that goat milk from the meat farming. And I was selling a little bit of it (illegally of course). And then it was the usual thing where you’re not making any money from farming. Actually Connecticut was great at that time, they had a program for small farms called “How to Save The Farm & Keep The Cows” and it wasn’t just for dairy farmers, but the idea was to make value-added products.
So I thought “oooooh, maybe that would be good!” Then I had a little formal training, I went to California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and took a cheesemaking course there, which was a technical course that was extremely helpful.
And then we had a Canadian mentor who is in Lancaster, Ontario — her name is Margaret Morris. She was truly wonderful in those first few years. We could call her up in pretty much any situation and she would always have an answer for us. We still do all our supply business with her.
I also worked with the Connecticut Department of Agriculture and there were three or four of us who were interested in making cheese. One of them was a friend of mine who had sheep, and she was transitioning to milking her sheep and wanted to start making sheep cheese.
She got a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant — they were small grants but I thought “what the heck!” I wasn’t sure if I would get it or not, but we ended up getting a week’s worth of training with a Belgian cheesemaker which was really good because I went from the huge Cal Poly thing to working with someone who knew how to finesse the cheese.
And from him I learned to make what is probably our most popular cheese, Bridgid’s Abbey, and he also clued me in to some of the secrets of washed-rind cheeses.
We also have done some fun things – we got some recipes that came out of the British Museum of Science, old recipes from like the 1900s.
How did you get your hands on those recipes?
They were on the web! There was a Caerphilly recipe, and there was a blue cheese recipe. And they actually turned out to be incredible recipes. When you make them with your own milk you get your own distinctive cheese. I mean, a lot of cheese is like that. You take a traditional recipe and make it your own because you have your own milk and your own regional persona.
Yes, the whole concept of terroir works for cheese too.
Exactly right, and that’s definitely what we’ve always tried to achieve!
Is there anything that really stands out in your mind about your time starting out as a cheesemaker? Any funny stories, or challenges, you’d like to share?
Well, there were a million challenges (laughs)! In 1997 when I was just starting out by myself (Mark didn’t come on as the cheesemaker until 1999), I had a little tiny cheese aging room and I went out one morning and the entire room from floor to ceiling was covered in blue mold! I was like, “This is the end, it’s been fun.”
So I called the University of Vermont and this lovely man told me, “Blue mold, no problem, just go in there and wipe it all off.”
So I kept going.
And that reminds me of a story about my father, who was in the Normandy invasion. He was a doctor and the public health officer for the army. One day these two GIs came running up to him and said “Ugh, Dr. Lewis we found this awful place, it just smells terrible. Should we blow it up?” So he said “No, let me go and investigate.” So he went along and he found this little cheese cave full of stinky cheeses! The GIs thought they were a health hazard. Stinky French cheeses were not something they had had any contact with before.
We actually had a similar experience. We were shipping 42 kilos of Hooligan from our place to the Wesleyan College cheese co-op and UPS destroyed it. They said it smelled too bad. Stinky cheese is still misunderstood!
So let’s talk about your cheese. What kinds of cheeses does Cato Corner produce?
We actually have a big variety. And one of the reasons we did that was because of the greenmarkets, which we started coming to in 1999. We decided that it would be good to have a ‘traveling cheese store’ of sorts that offered a nice variety of cheeses so people would come and taste.
I think our specialty now is probably the washed rind, stinky cheeses. We have about 5 or 6 different kinds of those. And that came right out of my father brining back Fromage D’Oka from Quebec, which used to be made by the monks. Now it’s a factory cheese but originally it was made in a monastery in Quebec.
Speaking of Quebec cheeses, I had a really wonderful blue cheese from Quebec at a Cheese Society meeting recently, it was half sheep and half cow’s milk and it ALMOST made me want to get sheep.
But right now your herd is all Jersey cows, right? They produce wonderful milk for cheesemaking.
Yes, they do. And we have a really good time with changing from the winter milk to the summer milk, which is quite different.
Can you talk a little bit about the seasonality of milk and how that impacts which cheeses you make?
Well, I’ll start with the summer milk. When the Jerseys are on grass and eating all kinds of different things their milk becomes very, very yellow, like almost golden colored and it makes just beautiful cheese. For aged cheeses, summer milk makes a wonderfully flavorful cheese. And that’s where you will get a lot of terroir. We can taste the difference between one of our cheeses and someone else’s cheeses. Not that it’s better, it’s just distinctive.
When they come off grass in the fall and go on hay, the butterfat content of the milk just skyrockets overnight (in the spring it drops). If we could do it the best way, in the winter we would only make the washed rind cheeses that love cream in the middle, cause we don’t standardize we just use whatever milk is coming in. So the winter cheeses are much creamier and richer. It’s actually hard to make some of the cheeses we love to make in the winter because there is too much butterfat in the milk.
Do you make any bloomy rind cheeses?
No. Our cave — which we built ourselves and is really just a bunker that we put a hill on top of — [pauses] but we have so many different kinds of cheeses in there (including blue cheese) that we are almost positive that a bloomy rind would just get overwhelmed. You need some place that’s safe for them. We had an intern who tried to make some bloomy rinds and age them upstairs, not in the cave with the other cheeses. And they were good, they were very good, but we can’t produce them regularly.
Do you seek out any special or interesting local ingredients? Herbs to be used in fresh summer cheeses, for example?
No. First, we can’t make any fresh cheeses unless we pasteurize, and we don’t pasteurize at all. One year we pasteurized some milk in a vat, in May or June when the cows had just gone out, and we made these wonderful little fresh rounds with an indentation in the top that you fill with fresh berries. But the inspector almost died! And we have a wonderful inspector, but he put the kaibosh on it because we didn’t have a formal system in place for pasteurizing (laughs). So that was a fun little experiment. Once in a while we still have a customer who asks for it.
But we are small, and we haven’t got another room to do anything with pasteurization. We’ve talked about it, but that’s really not our specialty. And we are kind of overwhelmed, I mean, we make 15 cheeses as it is. [It's] one of the problems we would like to solve, because we have demand for some of those washed rind cheeses all through the year it’s a little bit of a problem for us to make them in the summer because they are not the same. So we keep educating people, but seasonality is not something that people accept.
Are there any new products that you are working on? Or any seasonal cheeses that will be available soon?
Nothing formally, but every once in a while we try something new. And some of the experiments have been outstandingly successful. We made our own Gruyere-type cheese a couple of years ago that we called “Dairyere.” And that’s very good. But we are always constrained by the size of the cave. We would do more if the cave was bigger.
What are your best selling cheeses?
The washed-rind stinky cheeses are pretty popular. And then Bridgid’s Abbey, which is a very approachable young cheese, kind of a Belgian-style cheese without the washed rind. And then there’s Bloomsday, which is probably our most popular cheese.
Bloomsday is actually Mark’s own cheese. Bloomsday is June 16th, which is the day that the story in James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place. In Ireland they celebrate Bloomsday, it’s a big deal. So Mark was making cheese on Bloomsday one year and he didn’t have some culture he needed and so he substituted something else, and then the hot water ran out so he couldn’t wash the curd for the second time. So he made this cheese, and he said “Oh, we will just keep it and see how it goes.” So we kept it for a whole year, and first cut into it on Bloomsday of the following year, and it turned out to be very, very good! And we now make it all the time. Every year we make it on Bloomsday, and age it for one year.
Where does the name Cato Corner Farm come from?
We live on Cato Corner Road. And Cato Corner Road was named for a freed man who had been a slave in Connecticut. It was recorded in the town records that this man, Cato Ramson, was given three acres of land and a mansion when he received his freedom. He had fought for his master in the revolutionary war. And that’s who the road was named for. In fact, we have a cheese named after him, Cato Ramson Blue.
What’s a typical day in the life of a dairy farmer/cheesemaker like?
Well actually, I don’t make cheese anymore. Mark makes the cheese, but I am the herdsperson and I do marketing and the greenmarkets. My day starts at around 3:15am, and I work for most of the day (not just eight hours!) and Mark makes cheese four days a week – Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday. And if we have too much milk he might have to make it another day. So he comes in around 8:30am on those days and makes cheese for most of the day. He also deals with all of the wholesale business.
What does the future look like for Cato Corner Farm?
That’s an interesting question. We sort of don’t like to think about it (laughs). I mean, I am 67! And I don’t feel like ever retiring but I sort of have to be a little realistic about it. I do the farm part, and I think it would be possible to find somebody to do that. And we’ve had some talented cheesemakers come through too. But Mark is only in his 40s so he’s not worried about having to retire.
When you’re a farmer but also a cheesemaker, you get both sides of the coin. You get all the problems of farming, problems that all dairy farmers have like the weather and the cost of things, and then you also have the production part, and so we’ve toyed around with the idea of selling the cows and buying milk.
But, we can’t really buy the milk we want. Buying raw Jersey milk…in fact I think that there is a regulation in Connecticut that you can’t buy raw milk from another supplier to be used in your product. You can only do it farmstead style.
And that way you get to control the environment that your cows live in, and happy cows make wonderful milk, which makes the best cheese.
Exactly, I believe that more than anything. It’s my mantra. It’s a whole way of looking at food.
You can find Cato Corner Farm every Saturday at the Grand Army Plaza and Fort Greene greenmarkets. You can also find a full list of restaurants, stores and other greenmarkets that carry their cheeses here. Keep up-to-date with what’s happening on the farm on their Facebook page.