AMESBURY — You won’t stumble upon Wolf Meadow Farm. In fact, driving down a residential side street here, you might think your GPS has led you astray. That is, until you discover “farm” is a bit of a misnomer. Wolf Meadow Farm is housed in an industrial-looking building that shares space with an engineering firm. It’s in this most unlikely location that you’ll find a small operation that has been crafting traditional southern Italian farm cheeses from local milk since last October.
The interior walls are lined with repurposed pallets and siding reclaimed from the room’s former life as a microscope manufacturing facility. The worn wood gives warmth to an otherwise sterile space, primarily a glass-encased cheesemaking area. All white walls and stainless steel, the cheese room is the kind of cube you enter with a hairnet. This combination — farmhouse meets laboratory — sums up the narrowly focused mission of cheesemaker Luca Mignogna. He is re-creating the cheeses he grew up making and eating in the southern Italian town of Campobasso, using techniques he perfected after years of practice and studying the science of cheesemaking at the University of Vermont.
He produces fresh milky mozzarella, black truffle-studded scamorza, salt-encrusted ricotta salata, and caciocavallo (translated as “cheese on horseback”), a labor-intensive, aged provolone-like cheese rarely found in the United States. The 40-year-old Mignogna, with salt-and-pepper hair, scruffy beard, and thick Italian accent, lives in an almost manic pursuit of perfecting a New England-made version of these traditional cow’s milk cheeses.
The Italian cheesemaker is offering classes this month and next on how to make ricotta and primo sale; the cost is $60 per person but they’re sold out. The cheeses are sold at the farm for $14 to $20 per pound.
After moving from Italy to California, and managing restaurants for a decade, Mignogna began making cheese for friends. Word spread quickly of his mozzarella, and he was soon overwhelmed with requests. He decided that if he was going to make cheese for a living, he wanted to understand, on a scientific level, the process he observed as a child making cheese with his grandparents. He headed to Vermont to take several courses on cheesemaking through the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont.
But UVM wasn’t the only draw of New England. In California he missed the seasonality of the milk, which tastes different depending on the time of year and what the cows are eating. The milk for Wolf Meadow comes from Artichoke Dairy, a small farm located just a few miles away in West Newbury, with about 45 cows — “the ladies,” as Mignogna calls them. Mignogna says his relationship with farmer Bruce Colby is essential to the success of his product; he believes Colby’s happy, healthy cows produce exceptional milk for his cheese. “I try to see what the milk is telling me, the humors of the ladies, the moisture in the air, the life of the barn, all affect the milk.”
While Mignogna is listening to the milk, Christina Barbieri, 26, is running the business. The two met working in restaurants, and Barbieri, who speaks fluent Italian (her grandparents grew up on an island off Capri, and she spent time living in Florence) signed on to open the dairy. She handles the books, manages the marketing, and helps with the cheesemaking. For years before Mignogna opened Wolf Meadow, he collaborated with an Italian cheesemaking friend — at their respective dairies in Italy and the United States — comparing notes, adjusting techniques, and finally, agreeing on a relatively standardized process. Just as every Italian grandmother has her own recipe for sauce, every Italian cheesemaker has his own method for cheese.
Mignogna is at Artichoke Dairy, then Wolf Meadow Farm, from the early hours of the morning to well into the night. One day recently, he headed to the Artichoke barn to pick up milk from cows who had been milked a few hours earlier, and take it back to Wolf Meadow to gently pasteurize it. Mignogna’s process can take hours, but according to him, it retains the flavor lost in commercialized flash-pasteurizing methods.
By 11 a.m. he is ready to make primo sale (first salt), a bright, fresh cheese. He separates the curd from the whey in a giant kettle with rennet and packs the curds into molds. Today he has enlisted the help of a friend and part-time cheesemaking assistant, 21-year-old Hakim Truitt.
They also make fresh ricotta (translation: “re-cooked”) by boiling the remaining whey and adding white vinegar. Fluffy white curds float up to the surface. These clouds of fresh cheese are gingerly scooped out of the vat. Handle them roughly and the pillowy clusters will fall back down to the depths of the pot.
Mignogna is not one to rush the slow process. His mozzarella can take from four to 10 hours, depending on the humidity in the room, the acidity of the milk, and how quickly the curds cool. He gathers a bit of squeaky cheese in his fingers, dips it in cool water, and stretches the curd to a thin membrane, inspecting it’s texture. He repeats this process every 10 minutes for close to an hour.
“The milk will tell me when it’s ready,” he says. Customers, who stand clustered at a viewing window, are delighted when Barbieri brings them a sample of still-warm mozzarella.
Wolf Meadow Farm 91 High St., Amesbury, 978-201-1606, www.wolfmeadowfarm.com