Champions of Cheese

In the just-published fall issue of the cheese magazine Culture there is an article on Maine creameries. I was the lucky photographer who got to spend two days shooting interesting people, endearing goats and amazing handcrafted cheese in the lovely Belgrade Lakes region of the state for this story. I’ll add a link to this post when the article appears on line, but for now, hurry to Rabelais, Whole Foods, or the Cheese Iron and get your very own hard copy.

My first stop on a drizzle-filled June day was Kennebec Cheesery. Run by New Zealand native Jean Koons, the creamery is located on the farm her husband Pete grew up on in Sidney. I got there in the midst of morning milking of the goat herd, which was quickly and efficiently being handled by Craig Allen. I gave myself an additional assignment to get good portraits during this trip as that is something I haven’t had the opportunity to do much of lately. In my short time with Craig, I felt he embodied the classic Maine personality (if I can, as a non-Maine native, be so bold as to call it that!): hard working, no nonsense, proud, curious and accommodating. I hope those things come across at least a little bit in this photo.

Craig Allen, ace goat milker at Kennebec Cheesery. His pet peeve: goats nibbling on his ear.

The next few hours were a whirlwind of activity as I documented Jean and her helper making and packaging several varieties of cheese, Jean’s son Ben feeding the adorable kid goats, and other scenes around the farm. You can find Jean at the Portland Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays (set up across from Longfellow Books), or if you miss her there, Aurora Provisions and K. Horton in Portland also carry her tasty creations. I am particularly partial to her feta. Visit the creamery’s web site for more info.

Cheesemaker Jean Koons salting a slab of feta.

Goat cheese rounds awaiting packaging.

Carol Godfrey adds various herbs and spices to olive oil in which goat cheese will be marinated.

Kids (and a lamb at far right) enjoying a liquid breakfast. Don’t you just love the udderly clever pail?

In the afternoon, I made my way over to York Hill Farm, tucked away on a scenic dirt road in New Sharon. John and Penny Duncan were at the forefront of the artisanal cheese movement in Maine. They’ve been at it for 27 years and their incredibly organized and tidy operation is a testament to their experience, as is their beautiful cheese. It was here that I learned just how curious and friendly goats are. As soon as I entered their barnyard, every zipper, buckle and strap I had on me was being nibbled and prodded and otherwise explored. It was really quite endearing except when the nibbling was so persistent that it was difficult to press the shutter with a steady hand! They definitely made me laugh out loud though, which is always a good thing on assignment.

The goats at York Hill Farm include Nubian, Alpine and Saanen. The Nubian have the crazy ears that make me think of The Flying Nun.

Penny Duncan with a member of the herd.

The goats at York Hill Farm are fed whey, a by-product of the cheese-making process, daily. Notice the dripping beards; their table manners leave a little something to be desired.

My most jaw-dropping moment at York Hill was entering the cheese cellar where they age their renowned Capriano, a hard dry-aged goat cheese with a beautiful orangey-red rind. As I stood there practically drooling, Penny said something like “What? You’ve never seen a cheese cellar before?” “Well, no,” I stammered,  “actually, I haven’t!” It was just like what I had imagined though: brick-lined walls, dark, rows upon rows of varying size wheels of cheese with rinds in different states of ripeness. In addition to select Portland restaurants and at the farm itself, York Hill cheese can be found at Whole Foods and many specialty food stores in the Northeast. If you’re lucky enough to find their creamy Bucheron or the Capriano, snatch them up without a moment’s hesitation. They’re heavenly.

Goat cheese draining. Lots of it.

Rows of beautiful wheels of Capriano in the aging room.

The finished product: Capriano and Bucheron.

Following an incredibly peaceful night and morning at The Lakeside Loft on (by which I mean practically on top of) picturesque Minnehonk Lake in Mt. Vernon, where gracious proprietors Christine and Wayne made me feel incredibly welcome (an offer of a glass of wine after a 12-hour day is music to the ears, as is a cup of strong coffee the next morning), I took some shots of the quaint “downtown” area of Mt. Vernon.

The Lakeside Loft in Mt. Vernon offers a uniquely picturesque lodging experience.

Next I made my way up the road to Barbara Skapa’s Echo Ridge Organic Cheese. Inspired by her upbringing in France, Barbara makes a variety of French-style cheeses with organic cow’s milk that she gets from a farm just up the hill from her home. Clearly passionate about her second career as a cheesemaker, she delighted in telling me about the process of making and aging her cheese even though she wasn’t making any the day I was there. Her light-filled, big-enough-for-one-person cheese-making room is surrounded by colorful rooms decorated from her past life working in international development, lush gardens, guinea hens and dogs; it is a lovely setting for handcrafting edible works of art. Her washed-rind Reblochon is a wonder to behold visually, as well as on the palate. Its tender saffron-colored rind that forms during two months of aging melds in the mouth with the oozing, pale yellow interior. You too can experience the wonders of Echo Ridge cheese by stopping by the self-serve fridge at Echo Ridge, Aurora Provisions, Rosemont markets, or Fore Street in Portland.

Barbara Skapa in her petite cheese-making room.

Wrapping a pyramid of Valencay.

Selles-sur-Cher, an ashed round cheese aging in the dairy.

Skapa’s saffron-colored washed-rind Reblochon reaches perfection during two months of aging.

The self-serve cheese-purchasing area.

It was such a thrill to see the inner workings of three different creameries in the same region, all doing their own thing in their own way with skill, commitment, devotion and joy. It’s clearly incredibly hard work: goats can’t wait a day to be milked if you don’t feel like doing it, stores and restaurants expecting deliveries wouldn’t appreciate it if you called in sick and there are all the challenges of running a small business, but it’s heartening to see more and more people making a go of these cottage industries in our fair state. Many thanks to the gracious cheesemakers at Kennebec Cheesery, York Hill Farm and Echo Ridge Organic Cheese for sharing so much of their time, knowledge and cheese with me.

5 thoughts on “Champions of Cheese

  1. Cindy Wokas

    Amazing Stacey-

    Just beautiful work. I thought you couldn’t get any better. I’ve saved your food calendars and have some of your early black & white calendar photos framed in a row above our bed.

    Sounds like you and Scott are doing very well up in the north country. Please give him my best.

    Cindy

    BTW – The table’s doing fine. I’ll leave it to you in my will :>}

    Reply
    1. Stacey Cramp Post author

      Thanks, Cindy! That is so nice to hear. Hope you’ll get the 2012 calendar: https://blog.staceycramp.com/2011/07/07/its-here-its-here/
      Will send Scott your regards. Oh, that table! Scott still loves to tell the story and I feel worse than ever about it as I’ve gotten quite into collecting mid-century pieces! Oh well, just another few decades or so and I’ll get it back! Hope all is well with you and Randy.

      Reply

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