We city dwellers might not realize it, but a lot of artisanal food is crafted on our doorstep. At a time when “local” is the dining watchword, the state agriculture and tourism agencies have joined with farm, winery, and dairy industry groups to launch a new edition of the Massachusetts Wine & Cheese Trails. They include 29 wineries and 18 cheese makers, and many welcome visitors to their facilities and, especially, their farm stores.
The Central Massachusetts trail, where blue highways are about as fancy as the roads get, makes a good, if long day trip from Boston. The country roads look little changed from the horse and buggy days, a reminder that the orchards and dairy farms of the Massachusetts heartland have fed the Bay State for centuries.
Ten-year-old Hardwick Vineyard & Winery, for example, sits on the 1795 Giles E. Warner Farm. The Samek family is only the fourth set of owners and they cleared 150 acres to plant the vineyards and build the winery.
“We used the trees for the barn,” explains co-owner Jenn Samek-Lutkus. “We had a portable sawmill brought in and they cut the timbers on site. It’s all mortise-and-tenon construction — not a single nail.” The 5,000-square-foot facility houses everything from fermentation tanks to the aging cellar to a spacious second-floor tasting and sales room.
Using hardy Finger Lakes rootstock, the Sameks planted 10 acres in French-American hybrid grapes to make six wines. Jenn, her husband, and her parents hand-pick all the estate grapes. The Giles E. Warner, a dry wine fashioned from Seyval grapes, is the closest to a classic European wine. Sweeter wines made from Catawba, the foundation grape of the country’s 19th-century wine industry, are popular, but the best seller is a blend of grape wine with cranberries from a nearby dry bog. Called Massetts Cranberry, its sweet-tart profile complements Thanksgiving dinner well.
Just six miles away on beautiful back roads, Robinson Farm has milked cows for 120 years. Ray Robinson and his wife, Pam, grow organic vegetables and sell grass-fed beef and raw milk from the 40-cow herd. In 2006, they began to consider cheese-making as a way to escape the thin margins of traditional dairy farming. “I’ve always been fond of Swiss cheese,” says Ray, “and once we had the name ‘Robinson Family Swiss,’ we were on our way.” Punning name aside, Ray notes that “there are a lot of good farmstead cheddars. We needed to do something different.” They took classes and began trial efforts.
“We practiced in the kitchen,” says Pam. “Then we graduated to the laundry room, and then to the milk room.” By July 2010, the Robinsons were making cheese for sale. The raw milk is piped warm from the milking parlor to the Dutch cheese vat and ultimately is pressed into round forms that yield 22-pound wheels. Aging varies from three to nine months, depending on the variety. In all, the Robinsons produce about 15,000 pounds a year.
In addition to the Swiss-style cheese, you can sample Tekenink Tomme (a rustic, sharp alpine style), the complex Prescott (a nutty Comté style), A Barndance (a buttery homage to French Abondance), and Hardwick Stone (an American brick style). Around Thanksgiving the Robinsons expect to release their first wheels of semisoft Taleggio-style washed-rind cheese. Cheeses are available from a few refrigerators in the anteroom of the cheese-making facility.
By comparison, the store at Smith’s Country Cheese in Winchendon is one-stop country gift shopping, with decorative items as well as food products from other farms. Owner Dave Smith was a pioneer in Massachusetts farmstead cheese when he began making Gouda-style wheels from the milk of his Holstein herd in 1985. Now the company is one of the best established in the Commonwealth, and its farmstead Gouda, cheddar, and Havarti-style cheeses are sold in grocery stores, natural food shops, and most of the state’s wineries.
But going to the source lets you see how the cheese is made. Call in the morning to check whether production is scheduled that day. If you miss the live action, a video at the entry details the process. The factory store sells the whole line of cheeses, including plain, aged, and smoked Gouda, and the relatively new and well-received chipotle-rubbed Gouda. Bargain hunters favor the bags of Gouda trimmings, which are perfect for making fondue.
Crystal Brook Farm is located in Sterling, the onetime heart of Bay State dairy country. “I’ve owned the farm since 1985,” says Eric Starbard. “My great-grandfather bought it in 1920. He milked cows all his life. I milked cows for 20 years before I switched to goats.” He and his wife, Ann, bought their first herd of dairy goats in 1998, and within a few years the goats had displaced the cows.
Ann often handles the twice-daily milking (6:30 a.m. and 5-6 p.m.) of the 55 or so goats that provide milk for Crystal Brook’s cheese-making operation. Goats too young to milk have the run of pens behind the barn, while the milkers move freely between the hay feed in the barn and the open green pasture — always under the watchful eye of gigantic livestock guard dog Pearl. (She is nearly the size of a small black bear, but extremely affectionate.)
Eric makes cheese every other day, producing about 13,000 pounds of soft goat cheeses — chêvre — per year. Logs are sold both plain and flavored from the refrigerator in the tiny cheese shop. There are also goat cheeses marinated in olive oil and herbs. Goats are bouncy, joyous creatures, and the memory of seeing the sprightly milkers makes the cheese taste even better when you get it home.
In contrast to the small-farm intimacy of Crystal Brook Farm, nearby Nashoba Valley Winery is the closest thing to a California-style wine-country destination in Central Massachusetts. The estate sprawls across a rolling hillside in Bolton with picnic areas as well as seasonal pick-your-own fruit operations. The winery’s store and tasting room are big and packed with products. Nashoba Valley Winery began as a pioneering fruit winery in 1978, but in recent years has branched out into vinting traditional grape wines, brewing beers, and distilling spirits. (There’s definitely a drink for everyone — except the designated driver.) Moreover, the winery boasts a very good farmhouse restaurant (J’s) that specializes in New American cooking paired with Nashoba Valley wines.
Gorgeous farmland persists in the suburbs inside Interstate 495, even if you have to leave the back roads for the busy highway to get there. Located just through the woods from Framingham’s corridor of shopping malls, Eastleigh Farm exudes a charming rusticity. Since 2009, the dairy farm has focused on selling raw milk from its farm store.
Cheesemaker Sue Rübel also uses the milk to make Nobscot Artisan Cheese. The cheese make-room stands behind glass windows in the store and visitors might catch Rübel ladling curds into bags on Tuesday midafternoons, or mixing and packaging cheese all day on Wednesdays. Now that farmers’ markets are closing for the season, she plans to make cheese behind those windows on Sunday afternoons.
Rübel began with spreadable soft cheeses from pasteurized milk. She is gearing up for production of aged, raw-milk cheeses that she hopes to begin selling around the holidays or just after the New Year. The 95 cows (mostly Jerseys with a few Guernseys and Swiss Browns) produce high-butterfat milk, which makes the cheeses rich and buttery. Visitors are welcome to watch the afternoon milking. Herdsman Greg Mack brings the cows into the milking barn a dozen or so at a time.
“They’re so beautiful,” says Karen Mack, Greg’s wife. “You just want to hug them.”