Mozzarella in the Heart
Handcrafted Cheese at Amesbury’s Wolf Meadow Farm
Luca Mignogna talks about cheese the way other people talk about fine wines. He waxes poetic about the smell, the texture, the rich taste. He admits that many of his previous jobs — and possibly a relationship or two — were cultivated to bring him closer to cheese-making perfection. And not just any cheese. “I’ve always been working with mozzarella in my heart,” says Mignogna, 40, who now has a place to work with his hands as well — Wolf Meadow Farm in Amesbury. Mignogna’s state-of-the-art cheese-making facility produces small batch, traditionally crafted cheeses that are sold in-house and at shops and farmers markets around the Merrimack Valley.
The shop at Wolf Meadow Farm also carries locally produced sauces and pastas, and eventually will sell simple but delicious sandwiches, too. “We hope to be more than a place just to buy cheese,” he says.
Oh, but what cheese it is. Rich and creamy, with a buttery mouthfeel reminiscent of a fine ice cream, Mignogna’s mozzarella is as different from the supermarket version as a thoroughbred is from a backyard party pony. One bite just isn’t enough. “Mozzarella, it is one of the most beautiful cheeses and should have lots of complexity,” he says.
Mignogna learned his craft on his grandfather’s farm in Campobasso, Italy, where, he says, people make cheese the way New Englanders tap maple trees for syrup. When Mignogna came to the United States in 2003, he honed his food skills in the restaurant business in California, but was still drawn to cheese-making on the side, sharing his results with friends.
“I started to realize I could do this as a living,” he says. So he took classes, then returned to Italy to work in dairies for about six months, trying to combine what he’d learned in school with what he remembered from his grandfather. He settled in New England in 2008 because of the seasons, which bring a variety and richness to a cow’s diet and thus to the milk. For a time, he shared cheese-making space with a colleague in Topsfield, but eventually decided he needed more room and different facilities to meet his goals.
He considered space in Boston, but during his research, he was so impressed with Artichoke Dairy in West Newbury that he searched for a place nearby. “I could go to Boston and drive an hour to get milk, or I could be near the source, near the ladies,” he says.
It’s the “ladies” — shiny, plump cows — who are responsible for the rest of the cheese’s flavor. “I’m not a genius — cheese has been made for hundreds of years. The ladies have to have a nice life, free access to water, to be happy, to be treated with love. What the [cows’] owner does is reflected in what I sell.”
In addition to mozzarella, Mignogna sells several other varieties of cheese, including ricotta, caciocavallo — similar to an aged provolone — and caciotta, which is soft and has a mild flavor. Wheels and round balls of these cheeses age on shelves in a pristine back room. The fresh mozzarella, on the other hand, is sold just hours after it’s made. “Milk in the early morning, cheese on the table by that same night,” he says.
Depending on the time of day, customers at Wolf Meadow Farm might catch a glimpse of Mignogna laboring in the bright, industrial-looking workroom, surrounded by stainless steel vats. A bit like bread, the cheese must be pulled, and although he has a machine to do it, Mignogna prefers to stretch it by hand.
“I don’t want to give the fun to technology,” he says. “Also, machines can’t read a batch to see what the milk needs. The fermentation can change depending on the weather.”
For those who want in on that fun, Wolf Meadow Farm offers cheese-making classes. It’s a hands-on experience in making primo sale, a strong young cheese. “To make the experience magical for them, it is exciting for me — that’s worth more than money,” he says.
And he’s more than happy to share the secret of creating good cheese. “The fat in the dairy, the cream, creates the amazing taste. I hold onto as much cream as I can.”
For those who worry about their cholesterol, Mignogna urges a moderate approach. “Everything is good to try in life, but not too much,” he says. “You don’t need two pounds — you can have two slices and be satisfied.”
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Wolf Meadow Farm