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Maine Cheese Industry Making a Comeback
07/02/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

For years, the headlines have been mostly grim for Maine's dairy farmers. At least 200 dairies have shut their barn doors over the last 10 years or so, reflecting a downward slide that's been going on for decades. Many would agree that a farm can't survive by milk alone these days. So a growing number of dairies are getting by with the help of a time-honored product that's making a comeback. As Jennifer Mitchell reports, Maine is resurrecting its cheese-making past.

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"This is my dairy - which is a work in progress going on 20-plus years now," which, in Maine, makes Caitlin Hunter of Appleton a veteran cheese maker.

With time and experimentation, Appleton Creamery has become famous for so-called bloomy rinded cheeses, which a consumer might recognize as a rich, French-style Saint-Andre, or perhaps a Camembert. She's won national awards for this cheese.

"Oh yeah - it's buttery, it's fruity, it's got a wonderful texture, it's got that nice chalky mold, mushroomy flavor," says Eric Rector. "It's just a meal on a cracker."

And Rector should know - he's president of the Maine Cheese Guild. He's been in the business for seven years, making cheese on his farm less than an hour away from Hunter's farm.

"I started out making white mold cheeses and wasn't very successful at it, and then I started trying to make blue and - BOOM - it just happened. And so I just continued making blue."

But for Caitlin Hunter, blue cheese posed a bit of a challenge. "I tried for years to make a blue cheese and absolutely failed. When I started making white mold cheeses, I couldn't go wrong. So this farm wants to make bloomy rinded cheeses."

The lesson here, they say, is that your own little bit of Maine determines what the cheese is going to become. If you give the exact same recipe to a dozen different cheese makers around state, you get a dozen different cheeses which can't really be duplicated anywhere else.

There are many variables that go into determining how a vat of milk is going to transform itself into the creamy substance we call cheese, from the types of bacteria that just happen to be present, to the types of mold in the environment, to the time of year, the type of feed, the animals' own unique chemistry, the temperature, and the humidity. All are factors.

That means that there's virtually no limit to the types of cheese that can potentially be made - and the cheeses that are made here, says Rector, are truly unique to Maine.

"I think you should expect to have cheeses that look maybe visually recognizable, but when you taste it, you say,'Oh. What is that?' Because it doesn't taste what you would expect," he says. "Maybe something that looks like a Camembert but would have a completely different flavor profile."

Since World War II, most of America's cheese has been mass-produced, with processed "cheese food products," such as Velveeta, outselling traditional cheese. But Maine's cheese-making history stretches back as far as its farming past, where families produced their own milk, cream, butter, and simple farm cheeses.

One of these local variations, which was created by a 19th century creamery in Monroe, was called "skipper cheese." Rector says it also went by another name: blow fly cheese.

"We all dread that cheese of course," Rector says, because blow fly cheese was actually exposed to a certain type of fly, which would then lay its eggs inside the cheese.

"The eggs would hatch into the larva, and then the larva would tunnel into the cheese," he says. "And in the course of tunneling into the cheese, they would pre-digest the cheese, much like we depend on penicillium candidum to pre-digest the Camembert."

Some fans of the product were known to enjoy it with the maggots alive and crawling off the cracker. New standards governing food safety put the lid on Monroe's finest - and, fortunately, says Rector, no one has any plans to try and bring it back.

Instead, Mainers are making multiple new varieties with the more conventional mold methods - and with apparent success. Maine has the fastest-growing cheese industry in the country. In 2006, there were just 17 cheese makers in the state; now there are more than 70. The only state that has more is New York.

If the demand stays high, and the marketing is there, cheese could provide some relief to a troubled dairy sector, says Caitlin Hunter at Appleton Creamery. "If you want a dairy, you have to figure out a way to add that value. There's just no money in fluid milk. It's really, really tough. It's really tough."

Hunter says she has local markets for all the cheese she makes, and there's plenty of room for expansion throughout the state.


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