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. Continued...