By: Matthew Spiegler
Maine is known for its rocky coastlines, fog-draped pine forests and pots overflowing with lobsters, but in recent years it has established a place for itself on the cheese map as well, with the number of dairies and creameries rising steadily, and some excellent cheeses accompanying these developments. On a recent spring weekend, I got a chance to visit one of this new generation, at Winter Hill Farm, in Freeport, Maine.
Set inland about 15 minutes drive from the coast, in an open stretch surrounded by 55 acres of rolling pasture and mixed forest, Winter Hill Farm is owned by a trust and managed by Steve Burger and Sarah Wiederkehr, a young couple with two children, who live at the farm. Started over a decade ago by Jim Stampone and his wife Kate LeRoyer, the farm had as one of its central missions the preservation of the Randall Lineback breed of cows. When they retired in 2011 the trust purchased it and Sarah and Steve began to manage it.
Randall’s are known as a “landrace” breed, which is to say that they are uniquely adapted to the local climates and condition in which they dwell — in this case the rugged New England landscape — and are used for milk, meat and draft. They are a sturdy, hardworking animal, but don’t produce as much as milk, so over the decades they have been replaced by more productive breeds, and almost went extinct in the 80’s, before a small group of farmers worked to preserve them. Today the Randall’s status is listed as ‘critical’ by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), but farms like Winter Hill ensure that they won’t be going away any time soon.
Cheesemaking was added to the mix about four years ago, with the construction of a small cheese house. The farm also added some Jersey Cows to the herd, to ensure a steadier supply of milk. The cheesemaking operation has been growing steadily since then, and when I visited they had just started moving cheese into two brand new aging caves. Sarah, the head cheesemaker, has been gradually expanding the line of cheeses, with 6 or so now in rotation throughout the year. Through the Maine Cheese Guild, Sarah has had the opportunity to work with cheese-world luminaries like Gianaclis Caldwell and Dr. Ben Wolfe, which has contributed to the refinement and improvement of her make processes.
Sustainability is another mission of the farm, and with that in mind, all of the hot water for the cheese house is supplied by solar photovoltaic hot water arrays on the roof, with additional solar arrays providing electricity. Sarah told us they reduced their propane usage dramatically thanks to the solar technology. Whey is fed to the pigs, who spend their summers in the nearby woods, foraging for nuts and roots when they’re not being treated to the delicious byproduct of cheesemaking.
The cheese was what I had come for, and I had the opportunity to sample four of Winter Hill’s cheeses, all made with the milk of the Randall and Jersey herd:
Frost Gully: a soft-ripened, pasteurized milk bloomy rind cheese, aged 2-4 weeks. A bright, milky, cheese with buttery and tangy notes. The paste was soft with a lightly oozing creamline.
Tide Line: made with the same recipe as the Frost Gully, but with an ashed rind, and a line of ash through the center. With a velvety, fudgy paste and mineral, earthy and briney notes. Tide line won a 3rd place ribbon at the 2015 American Cheese Society competition in Providence, RI.
Collinsbrook: a raw milk, semi-hard, natural rinded cheese. Aged for 2-5 months, the rind is rubbed with olive oil for the first 2-3 months. Mild, but with earthy and tangy notes, a bit sharp, with a lightly eyed paste. This also makes an excellent melter for grilled cheese.
Bradbury Mountain Blue: Named for a nearby peak, this raw milk, natural rind blue is creamy and mild, the gold and ivory paste moderately blued, with sweet, vegetal and meaty notes.
The one cheese I was not able to try was their Everett’s Tome, which is named for the ‘father’ of Randall cows, Everett Randall.
Winter Hill’s cheeses are currently available at local farmer’s markets and cheese counters in Southern Maine, but with the expanded aging facilities they may start to increase production and ship to points further south. But in the meanwhile, look for them in Portland and the surrounding area.
Winter Hill also has an AirBnB on the farm, a charming, cozy apartment, with views over the back fields and woods, just a few steps from the cow barn, and which comes with complimentary cheeses in the fridge. So if you’re headed to the area and don’t mind waking to the mooing of cows, check it out!