NEW GLOUCESTER — As tasty as the work can be, Mark Whitney figures few children grow up wanting to be a cheesemaker.

After all, he didn’t.

The Stockbridge, Vt., native tore down buildings for a demolition company, worked as a maintenance mechanic and served as a migratory beekeeper before getting a job on a New Hampshire dairy farm.

“I initially started working in packaging and receiving orders, but I found that it was the actual cheese-making process that interested me,” Whitney said.

“I enjoyed very much seeing vats full of milk in the morning, and by the end of the day, you had a solid block of cheese,” he said. “Then, aging over months, it would turn into something else.”

The metamorphosis intrigued Whitney, who was in his late 20s when he became the cheesemaker for Boggy Meadow Farm in Walpole, N.H.

Advertisement

Now 41, and in his 10th year as the cheesemaker and creamery manager for Pineland Farms Creamery in New Gloucester, Whitney is a kind of cheese fanatic.

He studies cheese the way a sommelier studies wine.

Cheeses have color, largely determined by fat content, and textures that speak to the moisture and the hand-on contact with the cheese during production, he said.

He has even taken cheese vacations, visiting producers in England and Italy.

“I don’t think in the last 20 years, my wife and I have ever taken a vacation where I didn’t visit a cheese place,” Whitney said. He figures he’s visited about 50 facilities.

Sometimes, he simply just shows up and asks to speak to the cheesemaker.

Advertisement

“Each cheesemaker can follow the same recipe and come up with a different cheese,” he said.

They all have their own way of separating the curds and whey, of drying and cutting the curd, adding salt or manipulating the flavor-creating bacteria.

“That’s what I love about cheese,” he said. “It’s what interested me from the start, when the only cheeses I knew were cottage cheese and Cabot cheddar.”

At Pineland, Whitney’s production and recipes have been a clear success.

He spent almost two years, from 2004 to 2006, designing the farm’s creamery, where tanker trucks full of milk arrive and their contents quickly are pasteurized, poured into 2,000-gallon vats and turned into curd.

The creamery makes a baby Swiss, a pepper jack, a Monterey Jack, feta and cheddar — lots and lots of cheddar. It’s the biggest seller and sold in three varieties: a mild, aged for six months; a sharp, aged for a year; and an extra-sharp, aged for two years.

Advertisement

“New Englanders love the sharp cheddar cheese,” he said.

In the Midwest and along the West Coast, folks tend to buy milder cheeses. And of course, there’s Texas, where peppers give the cheese gusto.

Every summer, a Whitney-created hatch chile cheese is sold in Whole Foods stores in the Southwest.

“We get to play around and create flavors,” he said. “That’s where the real fun part of creating cheese comes in.”

It’s the part he loves the most. It’s obvious, even to a stranger.

In his office, talking with suppliers on the phone, Whitney’s voice is all business.

Advertisement

Then he plucked a white coat off a rack and walked into a refrigerated storeroom. There, amid the pallets overflowing with cheese, the cheesemaker softened and smiled.

And in a corner, he plucked two blocks of cheddar off a rack with “Whitney” written in marker across the label. Everyone, including the boss, gets to take a little cheese home.

Whitney planned to eat his straight. No melting. No getting stuffed between a burger and bread.

“I never get a cheeseburger,” he said. “I’d rather have the cheese on the side.”

But there are some dishes he abides. He likes poutine, the French-Canadian concoction of French fries and cheese curd topped with gravy.

And he recalled a Greek dish that had its own special sauce.

“They do a little square of cheese and they pour their really hard alcohol (the licorice-like ouzo) over it,” he said. “They flame that over the cheese. When that goes out, the cheese is all gooey.

“I like that,” Whitney said.

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.