I have long been a fan of Mecox Bay Dairy cheese, which I first tasted at the farmers market in Westhampton in the summertime a few years ago. Since I am (somewhat of) a food fanatic it didn’t take me long to become a regular and befriend Peter, whose father Art Ludlow runs the family farm. (Here is a great video on YouTube of Art talking about the farm and his cheese.)
It took me a few years, however, to finally screw up my courage and ask if I could come out and help make cheese. I guess all those farmers market purchases paid off because my request was met with an affirmative. And so it was that at 5am on the Monday after Thanksgiving I hopped into a Zipcar (a Prius – see, I am offsetting my carbon footprint!) and drove out to Bridgehampton to, if not help, at least participate in the fun.
Mecox Bay Dairy makes 5 cheeses – 6 if you count the blue cheddar as distinct from the regular cheddar:
- Atlantic Mist: a camembert style, soft cheese (also my favorite)
- Farmhouse Cheddar: self explanatory
- Blue Cheddar: the above, with some blue mold mixed in
- Sigit: a gruyere style cheese
- Shawondasee: natural rind tomme
- Mecox Sunrise: washed rind tomme (stinky and delicious!)
They work with all raw milk from a herd of 9 Jersey cows, whose high-fat content milk is ideal for cheese making. Because the milk is raw (=unpasteurized), the State of New York requires that the cheeses must be aged at least 60 days. The Atlantic Mist is best when very young (60 days or close to), but the cheddars, gruyere and tommes are often aged upwards of 6 months.
On Monday I helped make the cheddar, and there was also some gruyere action going on. Upon arrival I was given a piece of sheet plastic with some string tied on it to wear as an apron. I had been told to wear waterproof shoes and short sleeves and it was good that I had followed instructions since soon I was shoulder deep in curds and whey. That’s right, not elbows, shoulders. The milk for the cheddar had been sitting in a big steel vat for a few hours with the cultures and had congealed into a big white-jello like mass. The first step was to “cut the curd” with a metal and wire contraption that made first vertical, then horizontal cuts. And then we stuck our hands in and started mashing it up with our fingers, into as small pieces as possible. It felt sort of like warm jelly, or maybe very loose panna cotta (which makes sense – cooked cream and solidifying milk), and occasionally we’d come across a particularly large bit that was hot inside. I felt like a kid playing with something very messy and fun to play with. Soon, in spite of the plastic apron I was pretty well covered in whey.
Having spent an hour or two separating the curd, it was then time to pack it all back together again in the cheddaring process. This began by scooping the curds out of the whey with a large strainer, and dumping it out onto a stainless steel counter, slightly graded to let the liquid run off into a plastic bucket. Once all the curd was out, we let it sit a few minutes, then cut it into large blocks and flipped each one over to the opposite end of the counter. Let sit fifteen minutes. Repeat four or five times, then do a final dicing into 1-1.5 inch cubes with a big double-handed curved knife, salt liberally, pack into molds lined with cheese cloth, cover and stack so the curds get weighed down and pack together. For the blue cheddar, we sprinkled a bit of blue bacteria over the cubes before packing.
After about half an hour, you flip what is now starting to be a wheel of cheese, and put back in the mold. Later that day, the wheels are removed from the molds and left on shelves in the aging room (a cool, dark, pungent, delicious place).
I departed with a nice wheel of Atlantic Mist, some Sigit and a piece of Mecox Sunrise. Not bad for a morning’s work!