Eats: Smile and say Yum! How the experts at Pineland Farms make their picture-perfect, award-winning cheeses.

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There is something fundamentally intriguing about cheesemaking. Maybe it’s that mysterious blending of art and science. Or maybe it’s the fact that the craft of cheesemaking has been around for hundreds of years and modern cheesemakers still belong to a guild. Bottom line, however, cheese just tastes so good.

On the sprawling 5,000-acre Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, the idyllic image of sustainable agriculture meets with thoroughly modern technology within the Pineland Creamery, where Head Cheesemaker Mark Whitney oversees the production of award-winning artisan cheeses. Whitney came to Pineland Farms in 2004 with 10 years of cheesemaking experience. He oversaw the design and construction of the creamery that not only functions as a state-of-the-art cheesemaking facility, but is also ideally suited for the public to come and watch the process.

Giant windows provide ample viewing space to watch the process, from when the milk is pasteurized to when the cheese is pressed and ready to age in the creamery’s coolers. “We want people to come and see the entire process,” Whitney notes.

The creamery, which employs six very fit (cheesemaking is highly labor intensive!) cheesemakers in addition to Whitney, generally produces about 6,000 pounds of cheese a week and expects to make 300,000 pounds of cheese this year.

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On a typical production day, work begins at 4 a.m. and continues throughout the day. During a recent visit I was able to watch Whitney and his crew make a batch of Monterey Jack as well as a batch of cheddar. “What I find most fascinating,” says Whitney, “is that at the start of the day you have liquid milk and by the end of the day that liquid milk has been transformed into blocks of cheese ready for aging.”

What starts out as milk in one enormous vat eventually transforms — through the addition of enzymes — into about 1,500 pounds of solids (curds) in another vat. During that process, cheesemakers rake, shovel and flip the curds until they are partially drained of whey (the watery part of the milk). 

The cheesemakers must then work quickly so the cheese does not dry out and to avoid altering the flavor. They must pack the curd within 15 minutes into dozens of 60-pound molds, which are then placed on a hydraulic press overnight. By the time the cheese is removed from the molds the next day, about 18 pounds of additional liquid have been squeezed out of the cheese in each mold. (The whey is captured and sprayed over Pineland Farms’ pastures and hay fields to help grow sustainable and nutritious feed for Pineland’s cows.)

Cheeses begin with the same basic ingredients — milk, cheese cultures, rennet (containing enzymes) and salt. These ingredients are processed with three key variables: time between steps in the process, temperature and aging. Whitney says it’s the variations along the way that make for different cheeses. “What imparts the unique flavor is the cheesemaker.”

“We’re always experimenting,” Whitney explains. On this particular day, makers separated measured amounts of curd into about a dozen tubs to test new cheeses in development. For instance, in preparation for the Pineland Farms Trail Running Festival May 29–30, they are adding three different types of Smuttynose Brewing Co. beer to three separate test batches. The festival will feature seminars on beer and cheese.

Other tests include a Pepper Jack cheese with habanero and jalapeno, and a Horseradish Jack. Whitney is excited to add Pepper Jack to their line, in addition to Pineland’s Salsa Jack. When developing their Salsa Jack, they had to experiment with lots of salsas before getting it right. “We wanted to create not just a hot cheese, but a unique cheese where the heat just builds up,” Whitney says. He worked with a salsa maker to develop a special salsa that is incredibly hot on its own, yet stands up through the mixing process to finish with a satisfying heat.

The attention to detail has paid off for the creamery, not only in gaining a following among cheese lovers but earning awards as well.

The creamery’s feta took the 2009 American Cheese Society First Place Award for feta made from cow’s milk. And the creamery was awarded four medals at the 2009 Big E Gold Medal Cheese Competition: a gold medal for its Salsa Jack and three bronzes for its Onion & Garlic Jack, its Smoked Monterey Jack and its Smoked Salsa Jack.

A trip to Pineland Farms Creamery is definitely worth the visit. You can watch the process through the observation windows or even schedule your own tour with Brian Mailhot at the Welcome Center (207-688-4539) or Marlene Scheuchzer of Educational Programs (207-926-3919). Of course your visit wouldn’t be complete without stopping at the Pineland Market, where you can purchase cheeses along with local farm-fresh produce and meats. If you don’t have time for a trip to Pineland, a variety of Pineland Farms cheeses are available at many local Maine markets (check www.pinelandfarms.org for a listing) as well as Whole Foods in Portland, and widely through Hannaford and now Shaw’s stores throughout the state.

Pineland Farms Spicy Macaroni & Cheese

Master cheesemaker Mark Whitney prefers his cheese straight up, but if you must turn your cheese into a meal, he recommends Spicy Mac and Cheese.

Ingredients

2 cups elbow macaroni, cooked according to package directions

2½ tablespoons butter, divided

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 ½ cups whole milk

½ pound Pineland Farms Salsa Jack cheese, shredded

3 ounces Pineland Farms Monterey Jack or Colby Jack cheese, shredded

Salt and pepper to taste

 ¼ – ½ cup seasoned bread crumbs

Method

Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a medium saucepan, melt two tablespoons of the butter. Add flour and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for about one minute. Gradually whisk in the milk. Turn up heat and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and begins to boil.

Remove from heat and add cheese a little at a time, stirring to melt. Season with salt and pepper as desired. Add cooked macaroni to sauce.

Lightly grease a casserole dish with remaining butter. Pour macaroni and cheese into dish and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Top with additional pats of butter, if desired.

Bake uncovered at 350 F. for 25–35 minutes. Serve hot.

Serves 4-6

Mac and cheese P.S.: I tried this recipe at home and it was YUM. I’m a late convert to homemade mac-n-cheese because I didn’t think I had the time to make it from scratch. Turns out homemade is so easy to make it’s well worth the little extra time. Since wanting to use more fresh ingredients in our family meals, I’ve tried several different mac-n-cheese recipes, but none of them have been right. It’s the cheese, of course, that makes the difference. The Pineland Farms Spicy Salsa was absolutely smooth and velvety. Though not overly spicy (it’s that darn science, milk, heat thing that I think notched down the bite), this mac-n-cheese was my most creamy and delicious effort. I’ll try it again, but add all Salsa Jack next time.

Go and Do

• Free wine and cheese tasting

Thursday April 15

3 to 6 p.m.

Pineland Farms Market

• Self-guided Creamery tours are available 7 days a week

Stop by The Market/Welcome Center to purchase your $3 pass and pick up information.

Groups are asked to schedule tours in advance.

FMI: Contact The Market/Welcome Center by e-mail or by telephone: (207) 688-4539.

Next week: The perfect lobster roll? Fifteen hundred admirers looking forward to the rolls about to be created at two Lewiston locations can’t be all wrong, can they? The inside scoop.

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