Cheesemakers and Cheesemongers Lead a Bay State Food Revolution.
When Luca Mignogna started making mozzarella in Massachusetts almost a decade ago, he didn’t realize he was part of something big. He just wanted to share the flavors of his native Italy, to carry on a craft he’d learned from his grandfather — to show Americans that when cheese is made right, it doesn’t need to be slapped on pizza or tucked into a sandwich to be enjoyed.
Today, Mignogna, the owner of Wolf Meadow Farm in Amesbury, is one of about 30 artisanal cheesemakers in the Bay State who create more than 100 cheeses from Martha’s Vineyard to Williamstown, the North Shore to the Berkshires. Many of these cheeses have won prestigious national awards. One could even say that Massachusetts is closing in on Vermont, its cheesemaking rival to the north.
Many of Massachusetts’ artisan cheesemakers are based in the Merrimack Valley. When they are not milking cows, bottle-feeding goats, and stretching or smoking mozzarella, they’re often hosting visitors at their farms or production facilities for demonstrations, tours and even classes.
Such public interactions don’t always come naturally to these small-scale producers, who might prefer to ply their craft in a quieter, more solitary fashion.
But every artist needs a promoter, and the Massachusetts Cheese Guild actively champions these cheesemakers, including sharing samples of their cheddars, chevres, blues, bries and more at farmers markets, restaurants and retail shops so the public can taste for themselves the exquisite cheeses being made right in their backyard.
At many of these promotions, the feedback is the same: “I had no idea there were so many good cheeses being made in Massachusetts!” That’s according to Peter Lovis, president of the Massachusetts Cheese Guild and owner of the The Cheese Shop in Concord, who savors any opportunity to sing the praises of locally made cheeses and sells several of them in his store.
In fact, some people might not realize that Massachusetts has been on the cheesemaking map for quite a while.
Beth Falk, the owner of Mill City Cheesemongers in Lowell and executive director of the Massachusetts Cheese Guild, prominently displays a map of the state with pinpoints for each cheesemaker, including Westfield Farm in Hubbardston, which she says was one of the first producers of goat cheese in the U.S. about 40 years ago.
Falk typically stocks about a dozen Massachusetts-made cheeses at her store, where she also hosts a popular Community Supported Agriculture-like program for local cheeses. She has dubbed it a “CSC” (Community Supported Cheeses), and it includes a variety of regional cheeses — fresh, aged, earthy, bloomy, you name it. “We have every type of cheese here in Massachusetts,” she raves.
People are receptive to learning, Falk says, for several reasons. In general, there’s a desire for a more intimate connection to our food, to know where it comes from and to stay local. In addition, she says, the demographics in Massachusetts are ripe for such receptivity — residents care deeply about their food, supporting sustainability and local farming, and they get the importance of “voting with their forks,” so to speak.
Falk enjoys visiting local cheesemakers, hearing their stories, and she will often share tidbits about their backgrounds — how they trained in France, for example, or how often they must feed their baby goats.
Another retailer in the MV also relishes the proximity to artisan cheesemakers and the intimacy that fosters. Abbie Batchelder, the owner of Joppa Fine Foods in Newburyport, recently helped cheesemaker Erin Bligh of nearby Dancing Goats Dairy with bottle-feeding the babies during kidding season, even hosting them at her home so she could keep up with their feeding schedule.
“I had 45 goats come through the house!” she says, adding that this experience showed her firsthand the rigors of cheesemaking.
To an outsider, the cheesemaking lifestyle might sound glamorous — learning how to make Camembert in Normandy or burrata in Puglia, for instance — but that’s far from reality.
“I see a lot of amateurs wanting to get into this business,” says Giuseppe Argientieri the owner of the Mozzarella House in Peabody. “It’s not a summer job. Cheesemaking is complicated, involving art and science and rules for food safety. It can take 30 years of training to learn properly.”
For artisanal cheesemakers who approach their craft as purists at every stage of the process, the trade clearly demands a high degree of stamina while they work long hours to oversee the quality of the milk, the proper care and treatment of the animals and the cleanliness of the facility. They also have to manage staff and tackle all the demands of running a small business.
But those in the business wouldn’t have it any other way.