TOPSFIELD — There must be other houses north of Boston with cement-lined underground structures, probably built during the Cold War for protection from the Soviet missiles and nuclear fallout that never came.
But doomsday has nothing to do with the space Elizabeth and Peter Mulholland are building into the hillside below their farmhouse. This will be a cheese cave, intended to safeguard their goat-milk tomme and cheddar from the vagaries of heat, light, and humidity as they age.
By putting cheese in the cave, Elizabeth says, “you’re allowing the natural ‘terroir’ of the area to go back in that cheese.”
Terroir is a term used most often in wine-making, referring to the natural qualities of a specific place, including climate and terrain. With its rambling barn and tree-lined driveway, Valley View farm sits on a hilly side road a short drive from the Topsfield Fairgrounds. But it’s also right at the intersection of movements for more local, natural, artisanal foods, and more energy-efficient production.
The Mulhollands got their first goats and began making cheese from their milk about 20 years ago.
“It just evolved that it made sense to try to use the property for a business,” said Elizabeth, whose family moved to the farm in 1977.
Last year the Mulhollands made and sold 7,000 pounds of cheese, mostly soft varieties. The goat herd has grown to about 60 Nubians, more than half of them milkers, which gobble up the grass in the pastures below the house.
Now they’re putting roughly $100,000 into building the cave, where they can age harder cheese for months. They’re paying for the project with their own money, state grants, and a successful Kickstarter Internet fund-raising campaign, ending Sunday, that raised more than their target of $18,000. Premiums for supporters ranged from “a personal thank-you from the kids” (young goats) for a $10 pledge up to harvest dinner tickets and a private farm tour for four for $1,000.
The staple Valley View chevre comes plain or flavored with herbs and ingredients like chipotle pepper. The Mulhollands also make feta and the Camembert-style New Meadows and Harmony cheeses. (Harmony is a blend of the goats’ milk with Jersey cow milk from Appleton Farms in Ipswich.)
The cheese is sold to restaurants in Boston (the high-end L’Espalier) and on the North Shore (Amesbury pizza gurus the Flatbread Company), as well as at stores and farmers markets.
“I absolutely love it,” said Mary Reilly, chef of Enzo Restaurant & Bar in Newburyport. She uses the chevre in cooked dishes, such as a tomato tart, and has regularly served New Meadows and Harmony as the restaurant’s “one perfect cheese” course.
“Nubian goat milk doesn’t have that incredible barnyard-y, goaty flavor that for some people is a turn-off with goat cheese,” Reilly said. “It’s a very clean flavor. You taste the milk, you taste where it’s coming from, without the distraction of that riper flavor some goat cheese can have.”
All of those cheeses are soft styles, though. With the cave project underway, the Mulhollands have begun to experiment with harder, aged cheeses, notably a tomme-style cheese called Pingree Hill, aged four months on open shelves in the cheese-making room in the barn. Elizabeth cuts open one of the 5-pound wheels and offers a sample. It is a dry, crumbly, complexly flavored cheese, reminiscent of a Parmigiano-Reggiano or a Grana Padano.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to serve several iterations of their tomme” in the cheese course at Enzo, said Reilly. “They’re always a little bit different, which is part of the excitement. But they really get some remarkable depth of flavor.”
The Mulhollands have two sons, Andrew, 14, and Henry, 11. Elizabeth’s mother, Mary Brown, who still owns the farm, lives with them and handles most of the deliveries. Besides the Nubians, the farm menagerie includes their dog Sophie, a wirehaired pointing griffon, and about 30 chickens, whose eggs are sold.
Peter grew up in Ipswich and works at a local investment firm. He was wearing slacks and a monogrammed dress shirt when he came home recently to offer a cave tour. But he’s the one who does the milking most mornings, letting the goats through a gate that leads directly to the milking platform — and out another gate into the barnyard and pastures afterward, where their forage choices also contribute to that idea of terroir. The Mulhollands have part-time help now for the evening milking. Total production is around 25 gallons a day, with considerable seasonal variation.
“I like that closed loop,” said Reilly. “They not only are making the cheese, but they know exactly where their milk is coming from.”
The milk collected in a five-gallon pail is filtered and chilled, then stored until they have enough collected to pasteurize in a steel vat. Then specific bacteria cultures are added and a small amount of rennet. After a period of ripening, the curds are processed in different ways depending on what kind of cheese is being made. With the fresh chevre, the cheese can reach stores shelves in as little as two to four days after cheese-making begins.
The harder cheeses are pressed into wheels and soon will be laid on open shelves in the cave to age for three to eight months. The Mulhollands hope to add 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of production the first year. They’re still evaluating how much of the additional production will be made by adding cow’s milk cheeses and blends, and how much additional goat’s milk they’ll need.
The wooden front wall of the cave is roughly semicircular, like a Quonset hut, set into the face of the hill below the house and going back 28 feet. There’s a poured cement floor, and the rest of the 12-foot-wide structure consists of four prefabricated cement arches that were trucked to the site. The sides, back, and top are all covered by earth, more than five feet of it on top.
“Probably a train could drive over it,” Peter said, “I just like the visual effect of the arches. I thought they were really neat.”
Family and friends pitched in, including by bringing equipment like an excavator and a crane.
“We couldn’t do this without all the people that come by and help,” he said.
The cave temperature will be in the ideal 52- to 55-degree range much of the time. But even with ventilation and cooling systems in place, maintaining the cave temperatures should be 95 percent more energy-efficient than it would be in an above-ground space. That energy saving, combined with development restrictions on the farm, has helped the Mulhollands win two state grants totaling about $50,000.
Finish work on the interior of the cave is still to be done, along with retaining walls and landscaping. But it’s happening.
“We’ll have cave-aged cheese available just as people come out of their winter hibernation,” Elizabeth said.Joel Brown can be reached at email@example.com.