Maine’s second cheese-aging cave is producing cheese ‘the way it was originally done.’

One does not just nonchalantly walk into the cheese-aging cave at The Creamery at Bristolhof.

One approaches reverently, with a measure of ceremony. Voices are hushed as candles and a lantern are lit. Anticipation builds as the seemingly ancient door creaks open. And there they are, nestled shoulder to shoulder on their cantilevered wooden racks, glowing pale gold in the flickering light. Cheese. Glorious cheese.

Surveying the rows of cheese emblazoned with the creamery’s medieval cross emblem makes one’s mouth water. It’s a natural response to want to take the knife from the table, cut a wedge and sample both the Pius (Latin for “pious” — a humble little cheese) and the Radl (German for “little wheel”).

These cheeses, at different stages in their ripening process, aren’t just milk, cultures, rennet and salt. Each, according to the maker, is a unique tribute to the animals in the pasture that created the milk, munching mouthfuls of grasses, herbs and wildflowers. As well as to the weather, mold, bacteria and dust that all played roles in each cheese’s production. And to the individuality of the farmer and the cheese maker as they carried on a tradition that encompasses knowledge, longing, patience, chance and love. And most importantly, to time, the most precious of all commodities. Each bite of cheese is the culmination of many months of aging before the cheese maker can say “It’s ready.”

At The Creamery at Bristolhof, cheese maker Kurt Rauscher, 67, stewards the transformation of creamy milk into rounds of golden cheese. His day begins with an early-morning drive to Lee Straw’s farm in Newcastle to fetch the 18 gallons of raw, organic milk needed to produce three six-pound wheels. That amount is considered a “batch” at this small creamery at the end of a dirt road in Bristol, a small town on the Pemaquid peninsula.

Upon arrival, the milk is immediately heated in a gigantic stainless-steel double boiler until it reaches the right temperature, then cheese culture is added. This culture is hand made by Rauscher from the very milk used to make the cheese.

Next, a critical ingredient, non-GMO rennet (curdled milk from the fourth stomach of a calf), is stirred into the milk. Enzymes in the rennet cause the whey to separate from the curds. The curds are cooked further before being pressed into molds. This removes much of the liquid. The cheese is then salted by hand with sea salt and left to dry further in front of a fan for 12 hours. Finally, it is taken to ripen in the dark coolness of the cave built by Rauscher, who firmly believes in the “old way of doing things.”

ONLY TWO CAVES IN MAINE

Cheese has been around for thousands of years, likely discovered when people storing milk in the stomach of ruminant animals found separated curds and whey.

As the development of cheese evolved, it was often aged in cellars or caves, where temperatures and conditions were cool and relatively constant. With modern refrigeration, that process largely fell by the wayside. But Rauscher’s interest in cheese and in producing it the way it was once made inspired him to consider building a cheese-aging cave.

His hobby-turned-business fits in well with the lifestyle he and his wife, Andrea, have woven together. The couple has lived off the grid for more than 15 years, growing and preserving much of their own food. For Rauscher, a German immigrant who came to this country with his family in the ’50s, it’s important to age cheese “the way it was originally done.”

According to Jessie Dowling, Maine Cheese Guild president, the cave in Bristol is one of only two cheese-aging caves of this type in Maine. The other is a larger cave at North Branch Farm in the Waldo County town of Monroe; both are made of poured concrete.

Rauscher visited the cave in Monroe a couple years ago, then set to work designing and building his own. Measuring 10 feet by 12 feet, with a height of 10 feet at its highest peak, the cave in Bristol can hold up to 720 wheels of cheese and, according to Rauscher, offers the perfect cheese-aging conditions. The temperature is between 50 and 55 degrees, humidity is 90 percent and it has sufficient ventilation — all provided by Mother Nature.

Although initially about the same cost as a walk-in cooler, there’s no ongoing cost for electricity. “The temperature and humidity are completely dependent on the climate in the cave,” Rauscher explained.

With professional guidance from a local architect and the borrowing of an excavator and a crane, Rauscher enlisted help from friends when it came to pouring concrete and setting the Roman arch ceiling into place. The ceiling consists of angled cement slabs inlaid with brick and reinforced with steel rods. The structure, which took six months to complete in the fall of last year, was then covered with five feet of soil. The arched door and facade blend into the landscape and look like they’ve been there forever.

CAVE-AGED CHEESE’S UNIQUENESS

Why would anyone go through all this trouble?

“(For) The enjoyment of feeding people and helping the local food economy,” said Rauscher. “Seeing that grow is important to me. . . . And I like cheese.”

And he likes it done right. Which means tremendous attention to detail in both the making and the aging processes.

Once the cheeses are in the cave, they need to be “managed.” Cheese makers call this stage “affinage,” from the French verb “affiner,” meaning “toward the limit.” It’s when the maturing of the flavor and texture of a cheese occurs. Each type of cheese has a set of unique requirements for temperature, humidity, washing, brushing and turning that ensures the cheese’s proper development.

For instance, Rausher’s Radl ages for three months; Pius isn’t ready for six months. During that time, the cheeses are flipped twice a day for the first two weeks to ensure that they dry evenly. Each cheese also gets a quick brine bath as often as three times a week, and that’s just for starters.

“Unlike the box construction of a commercial refrigerator, where the air lingers in corners and can’t escape unless the door is open, a cave is natural and has its own ventilation system. Whatever microflora (mold, bacteria and dust) is in the cave affects the cheese, making it truly organic. The flavor, the mouth feel, the presentation, what we refer to as ‘the character’ will vary depending on whether the door is opened five times or 10,” Rauscher said. “The good bacteria multiplies, lending taste and character, and the molds offer a flavor component that enters the cheese through the rind.”

Because the conditions of each cave are naturally different and because cheese makers have their own preferences on the way they manage them, each cave-aged cheese is unique. Hence, there’s a certain mystique and historical romanticism attached to the old-world story of cave-aged cheese.

‘AS LOCAL A PRODUCT AS YOU CAN GET’

Now that the cave is finished, Rauscher’s intention is for hundreds of cheeses to pass in and out of its door. He has increased production and plans to peddle his product to local retail outlets. In any given week, The Creamery at Bristolhof’s cheese sells out.

Currently, Radl and Pius sell for $30 a pound. “Some customers buy an entire wheel of cheese at about $125. This is as local a product as you can get and the dollars stay in the community for a long time,” Rauscher said.

If that sounds pricey, Dowling explained, “These prices reflect the pure ingredients used and the time commitment involved in producing a quality product. There are over 80 licensed cheese makers in the state, all producing in small batches.”

The Rauschers plan to offer their naturally aged cheeses, as well as ricotta with natural flavorings and herbs, at locations in Bath, Brunswick, Freeport and Portland. The Creamery at Bristolhof’s cheese is available onsite at 45 Hanley Farm Road in Bristol, at Morse’s Sauerkraut in Waldoboro, at Treats in Wiscasset and at the Weatherbird in Damariscotta. It’s also sold at the Midcoast Winter Farmers’ Market at Topsham Fairgrounds every Friday through April 28, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

For more information or to schedule a visit to The Creamery at Bristolhof, contact Kurt Rauscher at 207-380-1836 or at [email protected] They offer creamery tours by appointment and also will design custom production classes.

Karen Schneider is editor of Northern Journeys Magazine, a quarterly publication that supports the arts. She is also a book editor and has contributed to the Lewiston Sun Journal for 20 years. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Three rounds of cheese from The Creamery at Bristolhof in Bristol display the cheese maker’s logo and batch number.

Kurt Rauscher carries some cheese into the cave he made.

Six wheels of cheese age on shelves in the cave at The Creamery at Bristolhof in Bristol.

This shows the exterior of the cheese-aging cave built by Kurt Rauscher of Bristol. 

Helpers and owner Kurt Rauscher, left, in a plaid shirt, help guide a reinforced concrete slab into place on the roof of his cheese cave last year 

Wood framing and forms were used throughout the process of creating the cheese-aging cave at The Creamery at Bristolhof.

Kurt and Andrea Rauscher at the Midcoast Winter Farmers’ Market in Topsham recently.

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