If all goes as planned, early in the new year, the Grey Barn Farm in Chilmark will stock the shelves of the farm’s store with a washed, orange rind, soft, golden cheese called Prufrock. The cheese will take its place alongside organic beef, pork, raw milk, and eggs.
It has not been easy. The project to make an artisanal (handmade) cheese began over two years ago, according to Molly Glasgow, co-owner with her husband, Eric, of the elegant farm off South Road near the West Tisbury town line.
The milk used to produce the cheese comes from the farm’s herd of Belgian belted cows, all grass-fed. Ms. Glasgow said the cheese is certified organic by Baystate Organic Certifiers, a USDA-accredited certifying agent. “It is a great, wonderful cheese,”Ms. Glasgow said.
Ms. Glasgow has wanted to make cheese since she and her husband decided to begin their farming enterprise. They purchased the land, the former Rainbow Farm, in the summer of 2009 and moved to the Vineyard with their two boys soon after Mr. Glasgow, a Massachusetts native and former oil trader based in London, retired from the oil business.
Ms. Glasgow has learned that making cheese is time-consuming and requires an understanding of a multitude of variables that can affect the final product. Describing her first attempts, Ms. Glasgow likened the finished products to “hockey pucks.”
Ms. Glasgow sought assistance. Last spring, after she and a cheese maker she had hired to help realize her dream parted ways, Ms. Glasgow brought on board Jacqueline Foster, a 29-year-old who had grown up in central Massachusetts. An experienced cheesemaker, she was making feta at Mermaid Farm in Chilmark.
Ms. Foster has been working out the bugs, refining and tweaking the process, and learning how to use and understand the variables to produce the best cheese.
Ms. Glasgow said that what Ms. Foster was looking for seemed to correspond to what she had been trying to do at the farm. “It’s been a great six months working with her, taking the milk where it wanted to go,” Ms. Glasgow said. “The recipe we came up with was something I started a couple of years ago.”
When it comes to making cheese, Ms. Glasgow said she realized she was not the artist Ms. Foster is. She said that Ms. Foster “is passionate and excited about cheesemaking. It is great to have her with us.” The farm’s creamery manager, Hannah Maxner, a West Tisbury native, assists with the cheesemaking.
Ms. Foster is a professional cheesemaker who is constantly trying to refine her craft. Last year, she attended cheese workshops at a slow food conference in the Piedmont area of northern Italy, with more than 800 cheese-loving attendees.
After graduating with a degree in culinary arts from Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, she worked as a cook for five years in Ireland. She was hired by Jan Buhrman of Kitchen Porch Catering in Chilmark, which brought her to the Vineyard where she made a variety of mozzarella, in addition to handling other cooking duties. It was while she was with Ms. Buhrman that she began making feta for Mermaid Farm.
“I like the challenge of making cheese,” she said. “There are so many small variables that you have to account for, seasonal changes and all kinds of things you have to keep account of in order to produce a good product. I like the idea of something that is so simple yet so complex.”
She pointed out that cheese is made of only four ingredients yet there are more than 2,500 types of cheese. She said there is no way to reasonably classify cheeses because there are so many small differences between them.
Trial and error
After Ms. Glasgow and Ms. Foster reviewed the recipes that Ms. Glasgow had tried during her first cheesemaking experiments, Ms. Foster chose one she thought could be developed given the coastal Island climate and the characteristics of the Grey Barn cow’s milk. She thought a washed rind cheese similar to those from coastal Ireland and France would work best.
Ms. Glasgow said, “Go for it.”
The primary ingredient of all cheese is milk. The Grey Barn’s Belgian belted cows feed on grass, no grains, from the Grey Barn certified organic pastures and hay. There are 23 cows currently being milked. The milk can vary subtly from day to day, depending on what the cows have eaten and the weather. This has an effect on the cheese making.
The milk is pasteurized. Cultures are added, and the milk sits for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on the acidity of the culture that day. When the pH is right, a vegetarian rennet, made from flowers, is added.
Many cheeses are made from a rennet that is a complex of enzymes from a calf’s stomach, rendering it unsuitable for some vegetarians. Ms. Glasgow pointed out that animal sourced rennet is necessary for making certain types of cheese, but she only uses vegetarian rennet. The milk sits about a half hour, undisturbed, while the rennet curdles or coagulates the milk, forming the curds and whey.
Ms. Glasgow said, “Since our milk varies daily, we have to watch this part of the process closely.” The curd is cut with large sharp knives called cheese harps, and whey is taken out. The curd is stirred and cut repeatedly until just the right amount of whey is left. The leftover whey is fed to the pigs.
“They are very happy pigs,” she added.
The curd is then lifted out and placed into molds that are stacked and flipped and drained several times throughout the afternoon. The next morning they are washed in a brine bath and then washed every other day at first, and then less frequently as they age in the cave, a climate controlled storage room.
“The washing helps to develop a specific bacteria on the rind that gives it it’s unique qualities, aroma and color,” Ms. Foster said. The aging process takes from four to six weeks. The farm can make more than 100 eight-ounce cheeses a day.
They are perfecting the process. To date they have only produced small amounts that they have been completely satisfied with, according to Ms. Glasgow. They sold these at their store, and some has appeared on the menu at the State Road Restaurant.
“We do not want to sell our cheese until we think it is perfect,” Ms. Glasgow said. She and Ms. Foster think they are only a few weeks away from filling their shop’s shelves with Prufrock, where it is expected to sell for $16 for an 8-ounce block. “I am really excited,” Ms. Glasgow said.
The cheese’s name comes from the T.S. Elliot poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” written in 1911. The Grey Barn and Farm has talked to local businesses and off-Island retailers who have shown an interest in selling its cheese when it is ready for market.
While Ms. Glasgow is becoming more comfortable with the cheesemaking, she said that she is not comfortable talking about when she thinks the operation will turn a profit. “It’s tied up in the economics of the whole farm,” she said.
Find information about the Grey Barn Farm at thegreybarnandfarm.com.