I never met a block of cheese I didn't like and I'm not alone. The human race has been in love with cheese for thousands of years. It is a staple food as well as an art form. What more than likely started as a happy accident with a little bit of milk carried in the lining of a sheep's stomach, has become an integral part of our eating pleasure.
But what is cheese without wine? M.F.K. Fisher once said that wine and cheese were ageless companions. James Joyce said cheese was milk's corpse. Both were right, but one clearly had a much more appetizing opinion. The combination of the two is the yin and yang of culinary heaven. The Romeo and Juliet of the food world, only with a much happier ending.
Several years ago, my husband and I had our own cheese discovery. We took a course offered at one of the colleges in our area. Layered in tiers, there were 50 different wheels of cheese — some of them big enough to drive if you slapped a V-6 engine on.
After a full description of each tiny village where they were painstakingly made by hand, we got to taste. Eyes bulging and mouths watering, we slapped 50 slices of cheese on our tiny plates. After the tenth slice and enough milk fat to choke a horse, we called it quits.
We may not have finished our plates, but we never forgot the experience. These cheeses were not mass-manufactured, vacuum-packed bricks with a "sell-by" date and a picture of Pocahontas. Almost all of them were European masterpieces made from the milk of animals that were lovingly tended and called by name.
That was in 1997. Today, artisanal cheese is no longer solely European. The cheese made in the United States often rivals those made for generations across the pond. Unfortunately, when most people think of American cheese, the image that comes to mind is usually bright orange and wrapped in plastic.
But artisanal cheeses from California and Vermont have been slowly dominating the market. Some of that is due to the increase in popularity of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farmers markets, which is how most consumers purchase them.
"We don't have a huge national presence," said Laura Downey, co-owner of the Fairfield Cheese Company. "Vermont has done a lot to promote their products, but not Connecticut."
Connecticut, however, is lucky enough to be peppered with a number of dairy farms that make their own cheese. And, many of the products have won widespread recognition and prestigious culinary awards as well. We have a virtual "cheese trail" in our own backyard.
So why is it that so many of us don't know about it?
"It's the best-kept secret," said Brenda Cote, co-manager at Meadow Stone Farm in Brooklyn, that makes cheeses from both goat and cow milk.
For those who make the trek along the wine trail, which has two main pockets on either side of the state, there are glorious nibbles of fabulous cheese just waiting for the taking. It's just a matter of knowing where to look.
"I love our cheese producers," said Bridget Riordan, events manager at Chamard Vineyards in Clinton. "We carry Beaver Brook Farm, Cato Corner and Beltane Farm currently."
All three producers are well known in the state. Cato Corner Farm in Colchester won awards last year for their cow's milk cheese from the American Cheese Society and the Connecticut Specialty Foods Award. Their cheeses can also be found on menus in restaurants from Hartford to New York City. Beltane Farm in Lebanon has gained a reputation at farmers markets for the style and quality of their fresh and aged goat cheeses. Their business has exploded in just the last two years. Sankow's Beaver Brook Farm in Lyme has also gained widespread praise for their farmstead cheese made from sheep and cow milk. They are featured on the menus at La Belle Aurore in Niantic and the Dressing Room in Westport.
"We were high-end from the moment we started 15 years ago," said Suzanne Sankow, co-owner of the farm with her husband, Stan. She said they target the farmers markets where people are willing to pay for good cheese. "That's where the chefs find us."
Riordan said that promoting local gastronomy is essential to Connecticut's continual growth in tourism. "What is Connecticut known for?" she asked. "Someday it will be food! People should expect to enjoy local cheese with local wine when they visit a vineyard. Do you have to go to Europe to get this experience?"
Like Chamard, many of the state's wineries will carry local cheeses or refer customers directly to the farm. Paul Trubey, owner of Beltane Farm, said there is a regular referral system on a "mini-trail" in his area.
Caroline Moroch, Priam Vineyard's events coordinator, said they refer guests to Cato Corner and Beltane Farm all the time. "They often send people here and we'll do the same," she said. "Wine and cheese go together so well. There's a sense that we're all in this together."
Cato Corner and Beltane Farm are less than 20 minutes from each other with Priam Vineyards only six minutes away from Cato Corner. Stonington Vineyards and Maugle Sierra Vineyards are a half-hour drive from Beltane in the other direction.
"Lots of people are making a connection to where their food comes from," said Trubey, "and lots of people like to see where their cheese is made."
The other cheese producers in the state also hope to gain recognition, but they all expressed the desire to remain small. The overall feeling was that growing too large would mean losing their connection with the product as well as their customers.
Mark Gillman, the cheesemaker for Cato Corner Farm, takes their products on a two-hour trek to the markets in New York City. "When there are 10,000 people going through the market," he said, sporting protective hairnets for his curly auburn locks and his curly red beard, "you sell more cheese."
In its simplest form, cheesemaking is the process of converting milk by coagulating the curds and removing the whey. But there are a number of variables involved, like what kind of milk is used; whether the milk is pasteurized or not; how long it is aged; and what other ingredients are added that will affect its flavor.
But, the craft of making cheese is not unlike the craft of making wine. Quality ingredients yield quality products. Much like the wines from Long Island, the Connecticut wines have been gaining popularity. The wine trail has become a tourist attraction, particularly in the summer and early fall. The eastern trail is heavy on the cheese while the western spoke is heavy on the wine. Just pick your poison.
So the next time you find yourself hungry and looking for an adventure, why not come along on our journey across Connecticut to find something new? The cheese is waiting for you.
Most of the farms have websites which list where their products are sold. Whether it's a farmers market, a small boutique or your favorite restaurant's cheese platter, you can find the closest cube with the click of a mouse.
Sankow's Beaver Brook Farm
Stan and Suzanne Sankow
139 Beaver Brook Road, Lyme
The farm offers at least six different sheep's milk cheeses aged for a few months or longer, along with yogurt, gelato and raw milk. They also sell their own lamb, lamb stew, sausage and chili as well as sweaters made from sheep's wool. Their cheese products sell for around $20 per pound in their shop and area farmers markets. They are open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cato Corner Farm
Mark Gillman and Elizabeth McAllister
178 Cato Corner Road, Colchester
Gillman runs the cheese production while his mom, McAllister, runs the farm business. Nearly two dozen different styles of cow's milk cheese are made on premises. The cheeses are aged in their underground cave for two months up to a year and a half. Cato Corner does sell wholesale online; consult their website for an order form. Their shop is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
59 Taylor Bridge Road, Lebanon
They make a fresh, French-style chevre that sells out quickly at farmers markets, at which 85 percent of their cheese is sold. They also make feta as well as some aged goat cheeses. Their smallest log of chevre retails for about $8.99. They host special tastings at the farm in the spring and autumn from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Mike Shaw and Kim Abell, co-owners
Taylor Bridge Road, Lebanon
This one is a little hard to find on the Internet. Shaw and Abell have been raising cows for only about five or six years. They just moved to a location closer to Beltane Farm where they use those facilities to make cheese of their own. They prefer to stay small for now. Abell said she has watched Beltane's business grow so quickly that she wants to take it slow. You will pass M&K Dairy on your way to Beltane Farm.
Meadow Stone Farm
Jeff Grenier and Brenda Cote, co-managers
199 Hartford Road, Brooklyn
They raise and milk the goats themselves to make about four or five different flavored chevres, ranging from Italian herb and chive to cayenne and occasionally wasabi. All of their hard cheeses are made from cow's milk from the We-Lik-It Dairy in nearby Pomfret. They also sell goat soaps and lotions from their shop. They are open Saturdays from 1-5 p.m. and on Tuesdays by appointment only.
Bush Meadow Farm
Nancy Kapplan, co-owner
738 Buckley Highway, Union
They make small batches of goat cheese in eight-ounce containers that they sell in their restaurant. All of their products are part of their daily menu. They have flavored chevres in dill herb; chipotle garlic; tomato, bacon and horseradish; roasted garlic and spinach, and occasionally strawberry, maple cinnamon and cannoli. They also carry a goat feta and cheddar made from another farm's cows' milk. A host of other products are available in their restaurant, including maple syrup, jams and preserves. Their retail hours are Saturdays and Sundays from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Sweet Pea Cheese
151 East Street, North Granby
While they also have milk and Greek-style yogurt from the cows they raise, they make their own fresh chevre in a garlic, oregano and olive oil flavor as well as an orange honey flavor. They also make feta cheese. Goat milk soaps are available in their shop as well. They are open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. In the fall, they have a corn maze that's always popular with the littlest cheese lovers.
Butterfield Farm and Griffin Farmstead LLC
30 Copper Hill Road, East Granby
The farm is still owned by the Clark family and Bryson manages the goats. With a motto of "Promote the Goat," she makes flavored chevres, drinkable yogurts in eight-ounce "chugs" and flavored milks. She also makes a goat Gouda that is very popular with her customers. She mainly sells her products at farmers markets, so call ahead for an appointment. Griffin Farmstead cheeses are sold to local restaurants, area farmer's markets and farmstands, and the Clark family also produces goat-milk soaps.
Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center
116 Johnson Road, Falls Village
This retreat center has been a relaxation haven for New Yorkers since the late 19th century. Originally meant as a vacation spot offering relief from the city, the center moved to Falls Village in 1956. Since then, they have shifted their focus to include sustainable agriculture. They raise goats and sell the feta, chevre and yogurt they make. Much of the cheese is available through their CSA and at the farmers markets they sell to. But the rest of it is available in their on-premise store. The store is closed Saturdays for the Sabbath but it is open on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and during the week. All products are certified kosher.
Editor's Note: This story was corrected to reflect that both Butterfield Farms and Griffin Farmstead LLC products are made on the same location.
Starting the trail from its eastern side, stop off at Bishop's Orchards Winery in Guilford or Chamard Vineyards in Clinton, both right off I-95. Continue on to Lyme for Sankow's Beaver Brook Farm. From there, you can go one of two ways. You can head up I-395 toward Norwich to hit the wineries of Holmberg, Maugle Sierra, Jonathan Edwards, Stonington, and Salt Water Farm.
Or, you can head up Route 156 to Route 82 and pick up Route 11 to Colchester. In thirty minutes, you will find Cato Corner Farm and Priam Vineyards. Take Route 16 to Route 207 and in another 20 minutes you will find Beltane Farm in Lebanon. Head to Brooklyn by following Route 207 to Route 203 and then pick up Route 6. After a little over a half an hour, you will be at Meadow Stone Farm.
Continue on to Pomfret and Woodstock on Route 44 to Taylor Brook Winery and Sharpe Hill Vineyard. By taking Route 169 to Route 197, you can end your eastern spur with Bush Meadow Farm in Union.
On the western trail, you could start as low as Jones Family Farm Winery in Shelton and wind your way through Litchfield County toward Torrington. But since the best cheese spots in that section of Connecticut are far north, you may want to make a short trip from Rosedale Farms & Vineyards in Simsbury and then head up to Sweet Pea Cheese in Granby and Butterfield Farm in North Granby. The winery and farms are only minutes from one another.
For another alternative, take a trip to Litchfield for a visit at Haight-Brown Vineyard. Head up Route 63 to Falls Village and visit the cheese shop at Adamah at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center where they make goat cheese on their sustainable farm. Then head north making a quick pit stop off Route 7 in Canaan at The Land of Nod for a little dessert wine.