This is the second in a four-part series of cheese posts. The first was about making mozzarella cheese.
When Marjorie Susman and Marian Pollack bought land in New Haven and began making cheese in 1981, there were no other cheesemakers in Addison County.
Marjorie and Marian make cheese on Mondays and Thursdays throughout the fall, winter and spring. Their cheese room is warm and clean, with a vat in the center that holds 1000 pounds of milk. On Monday morning, after the fresh, raw milk was warm enough and the cheese culture and rennet were added, Marjorie stirred the mixture with a long pole. A floating thermometer bobbed up and down, its needle at around 100 degrees. At first, the soft curds hung limp in the whey, and when I tried a small piece it melted in my hand. But after a while, the curds were harder. Their taste was still milky, but when I bit down, they squeaked against my teeth.
After they drained off the whey, Marian poured in a large container of salt that she had measured out. She and Marjorie leaned into the vat, stirring the salt into the still warm curds with their hands.
"Salt is the most amazing thing," said Marjorie as they stirred.
With salt, the curds were transformed. They still tasted milky — the sharper bite comes later, after the cheese is aged for some months — but the sweetness was different combined with the salt. And all of a sudden, they were very difficult to stop eating.
Once the curds are in the cheese molds, they go onto a metal board to drain more of the whey, and a system of pulleys and levers applies gentle pressure to the curds. After several hours, when they are compacted together, most of the cheese gets a coating of wax. The rest, about 10 percent, goes into the hillside cheese cave (with ornate doors reminiscent of a hobbit hole) to age for a year.
The cheese cave
Each 1,000 pound batch of milk makes just over 100 pounds of cheese. Altogether, Marjorie and Marian make about 7,000 pounds of cheese each year. They sell all of their cheese in Vermont, a great deal of it to the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op.
It's hard to make money in the cheese business, and Marjorie isn't sure what she and Marian will be doing when they decide to retire — gardening all summer and cheesemaking all winter hasn't given them much leftover money to save.
"But you know, maybe it's not all about money," said Marian.
The cheese cooler
Neither one is originally from Vermont. Marjorie studied Animal Science at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachussetts, and Marian spent some time as a probation officer in New York City. But after meeting in Massachussetts in 1976, they took a cheesemaking class with Ricki Carroll. In 1980 they answered an advertisement to work on a farm in Vermont, and the year after that bought the land that would become Orb Weaver Farm.
And their cheese? After the one-day cheesemaking course and a whole lot of experimentation, they settled on their defining cheese — softer than cheddar, and good for melting. And it's turned out to be a pretty reliable process.
"It's such an ancient thing," said Marjorie. "I mean, the milk wants to turn to cheese."
You can find Orb Weaver Farm online at www.orbweaverfarm.com, or on Marjorie's blog at orbweaverfarm.blogspot.com.
Swiss Chard Gratin
Adapted from Marjorie Susman, Orb Weaver blog
1 1/2 bunches swiss chard
1 large shallot, chopped
3 Tbl. butter
2 cups warm milk
3 Tbl. flour
Salt & Pepper to taste
1 cup grated Orb Weaver Cheese
1 cup bread crumbs or Panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
1/4 cup grated Orb Weaver Cheese
1 Tbl. olive oil
Salt & Pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375
Prepare topping by mixing ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
Wilt chard in a large pot. Rinse well with cold water, squeeze excess water out, and finely chop
In a large saute pan, melt butter and saute shallot. When lightly browned, add the chopped chard and saute 20 minutes.
Slowly sprinkle 3 Tbl. of flour over the chard, stirring for 4 minutes, to cook the flour. Gradually add the warm milk and stir until the mixture thickens slightly, about 5 minutes.
Put in a buttered 9" pan, top with bread crumb mixture.
Bake 45-50 minutes. Till bubbly and browned.
(Note: you can also make them in individual ramekins)
Andrea does reporting and online media for the Addison Independent. You can find her on Twitter here or see other Table Talk entries here. Feel free to weigh in on this post or suggest future topics, either in the comments section below or at andreas [at] addisonindependent.com.