CONCORD — Giuseppe Argentieri is slicing into a glistening white orb of mozzarella and handing out samples to a crowd circling his display. “This is so fresh that the milk the cheese is made from was three days ago in the cow,” says Argentieri, a native of Italy, who uses milk from local herds to make cheese for Mozzarella House in Peabody.
The cheese maker is one of 14 Massachusetts artisan and farmstead producers who are at Verrill Farm to launch the new Massachusetts Cheese Guild, a nonprofit consumer education group. The guild comprises cheese makers, retailers, distributors, and cheese enthusiasts who can sign up online for $25 to receive notices about tastings and events. “We’ve set this up to be a composite of all aspects of the cheese business, those who love cheese, along with the artisans who make it,” says Barbara Hanley, the guild’s president and a business partner at Shy Brothers Farm in Westport.
Hanley pulled in 21 cheese makers and three trade sponsors underwrote the guild’s formation — importer and distributor Seacrest Foods in Lynn, The Cheese Shop in Concord, and Shubie’s Marketplace in Marblehead. When she put the word out, close to 20 trade members joined and dozens of cheese-loving consumers signed up.
The vision for a guild came to Hanley two years ago when she and cheese makers Pam Robinson of Robinson Farm in Hardwick and Ann Starbard of Crystal Brook Farm in Sterling participated in a tasting in Vermont. The three had never before met. “We’re really an isolated group,” says Hanley. “In a couple of hours we learned so much from each other.” When the women saw a tent for the Vermont Cheese Council, a collaborative group to promote the state’s handcrafted cheeses, the trio agreed they needed to start a similar organization.
The women also decided they would mentor aspiring cheese makers. Making and selling farmstead cheese can be a way to sustain a struggling dairy farm. “There’s plenty of room for people in the business,” Hanley says.
Massachusetts’ long history of cheese making began with the milk-producing cows that the Colonists brought to Plymouth in 1627, several years after the first settlers, says Kathleen Wall, Colonial Foodways Culinarian at Plimoth Plantation. “Dairy farming was disappearing and now it’s coming back in little ways. It’s encouraging that there are people around keeping enough cows that they can make cheese,” she says.
Another undertaking for Hanley is advocating for the cheese makers to acquire a space at the Boston Public Market, a permanent year-round farmers’ market on Blackstone Street, near Haymarket, slated to open next year. “If we don’t claim a place at the table, someone who sells European cheeses is going to be there,” says Hanley.
As late afternoon light streams into Verrill Farm’s greenhouse, visitors are sampling more than 40 cheeses. Thimble-shaped Hannahbells from Shy Brothers Farm line one table. Tangy and creamy, the little bells are a riff on a Burgundy-style cheese, and some are flavored with lavender, rosemary, and shallot. Ira Grable from Berkshire Blue in Great Barrington has his butter-colored blue cheese, made with unpasteurized Jersey milk, and it’s creamy and less pungent than Roquefort or Stilton, and slightly grassy.
One curiosity is Grable’s smoked blues, which are cold-smoked at the monastery of the Monks of New Skete in Cambridge, N.Y. Another display holds bloomy-rind goat cheeses made from milk of Oberhasli and Saanen goats at Ruggles Hill Creamery in Hardwick; the rounds have an earthy rind and wonderful citrus flavor.
Hingham resident Marge Schiller, who is here with a friend, says she acquired an appreciation for the complexity of cheese making after talking to the producers. “I’m blown away [that] these are local,” she says.
Massachusetts Cheese Guild