By Matthew Spiegler
Dairy farming and haute-couture may not intersect very often, but at Arethusa Farm, in Litchfield, CT, two executives from Manolo Blahnik — makers of shoes coveted by the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker — have transformed what was once a falling-down property and farm into a gleaming model of modern American dairying. Tony Yurgaitis and George Malkemus, partners in life as well as in business, had lived in the Litchfield, CT area for many years, when the farm across the street from their property — which was threatened with development into a golf course — piqued their curiosity. Yurgaitis and Malkemus purchased the century-old horse farm in 1999, reviving it as a dairy (Arethusa, a type of orchid native to the region, was once the name of the farm; they chose to bring back the name when they took it over). After a few years of trying to break even on the commodity milk market and being frustrated by the low prices, they decided to take the plunge into bottling their own milk and selling it directly, confident in the quality of the product. Finding success and an enthusiastic reception from consumers and chefs alike, they have branched out into value-added products like yogurt, fresh cheeses, sour cream, and ice cream; in 2011 they added aged cheeses to the mix as well.
I recently had the opportunity to tour Arethusa, with Elena Santogade as my guide. Elena was formerly head cheesemonger at Campbell’s Cheese & Grocery and Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, and she was a sales and marketing representative for Arethusa, focusing on the NYC area, when I met with her. She was also working with Arethusa on the development of their new cheeses. She’s also a former “urban cheesemaker” — you can read about her in this piece I wrote for Modern Farmer. (Editor’s note: as of the publication date, Elena is now working at Le District in Manhattan.)
Our first stop was at the Arethusa store and creamery, in a renovated former firehouse in the middle of Bantam, next door to Al Tavolo, their wine bar/restaurant. Fresh milk, of the highest quality, is the linchpin of Arethusa; producing “Milk Like It Used To Taste” (their official motto) was their first mission, and everything else has sprung from that. The fresh milk is, in fact, delicious, with the lowfat milk having the richness of an average whole milk, and the whole milk thick, sweet, and sumptuous. This carries through into all of their products, from the yogurts to the sour cream to the ice creams and, of course, the cheeses, both fresh and aged. (This weekend I had their sour cream with wild blackberries, and it was something else, not at all like supermarket sour cream, much richer in flavor and velvety in consistency).
Arethusa’s ice cream parlor and dairy shop has quickly become a fixture in Bantam; it probably doesn’t hurt that their ice creams, served in a freshly rolled waffle cone, are delicious (I went for the Maple-Walnut scoop). Through the back window of the shop, one can see the gleaming tanks and pipes of the creamery where the fresh products like ice cream, yogurt, sour cream, farmer’s cheese and mozzarella are made. We watched as the the team stretched hot curds and formed them into balls of warm mozzarella before dunking them into an ice bath; better still, we got to taste the results. The slices of mozzarella, still warm and soft, were wonderfully milky and salty, with a bit of tang and even a hint of a grassy flavor, the natural character of the milk coming through. The texture is slightly more on the squeaky side than some mozzarellas, like fresh curds.
Upstairs from the main creamery are the cheesemaking facilities, where the 5000 lb vat and the aging rooms are located. Chris Casiello, the head cheesemaker, was hard at work on a batch of the Arethusa Camembert when we arrived. Chris spent 11 years at New Pond Farm, in Redding, CT, and had completed the cheesemaker certification at VIAC, before being hired by Arethusa four years ago. We watched as they piped the milk, already pasteurized and cultured, from the vat into large tubs for the Camembert make. Cheesemaker Matt Benham (a recent hire after a few years as a cheesemaker at Beecher’s NYC) added the rennet and mixed it in carefully; eventually it would be cut and stirred, and then scooped into the waiting round moulds.
We next visited the aging space, where the hard cheeses, like Tapping Reeve, Bella Bantam and Crybaby were aging. Chris pulled out a cheese iron and cored a two-year Tapping Reeve for us to try: It was nutty, grassy and complex, similar to a clothbound cheddar but with a more alpine bent to it. (Tapping Reeve was a Connecticut Supreme Court judge in the 18th century, and founded a nearby law school which still bears his name).
New wheels of Arethusa blue filled one corner as well; Arethusa recently released a first batch of the Blue, and has been developing the cheese recipe and affinage further, building on the success of the first batch, and hope to have it at cheese counters soon. Because we had just been in the blue cheese room, we were unable to enter the bloomy rind room, to avoid cross-contamination, but we able to look through the foggy window and see the wheels of Arethusa Camembert on the racks.
Chris mentioned that the aging facilities are a little crowded for the volume of cheese they’re beginning to produce; Arethusa is actually in the process of building a state of the art aging facility just down the road, to open some time in 2015, with construction in full swing on the day we visited. They’re looking to expand and change up the line of cheeses as well, and the expanded space will be a great help in enabling that. For the aged cheeses they’re currently waxing about half of them, but moving towards more natural-rinded cheeses.
After our tour of the Creamery, we jumped in Elena’s car and drove to nearby Litchfield, CT, where the actual farm is located. The property is dotted with whitewashed, modern structures with crisp black lettering above the doors, nestled among vast lawns, rolling hills and bordering wetlands. As Elena noted, it’s not often that you visit a farm where such a high percentage of the buildings are recent construction, with fresh lumber and shining paint on all sides.
Upon entering the barn, two things struck me: the relative quiet, and the lack of smell. I don’t mind the smell of fresh manure, and one comes to expect it during any farm visit, but on the Arethusa property it is surprisingly subdued, even directly inside the cow barns, a testament to the cleanliness of space. Farm staff circulated, tending to animals and keeping the floors free of the product of the back end of the cows.
The cows were standing and lying in their stalls, munching on hay and a carefully blended feed mix, that includes specialty ingredients like flax and cotton seed (which looks kind of like a sunflower seed with cotton stuck to it; it’s not often found on farms this far north, but they feel it’s worth shipping it up for the benefits it has provided). We were given the tour by Heather Lord, the Milking Barn Manager, who oversees some 350 head of Registered Holsteins, Jerseys and Brown Swiss, with around 80 milking on average. Heather showed us how the feed is doled out by a mechanized dispenser, which cruises on an overhead track from stall to stall, and can be programmed to give certain cows different feed blends based on nutritional needs. One of the challenges for Arethusa is that, because they are located in a fairly well-developed corner of Connecticut, opportunities for open-pastures are more limited; nonetheless, the cows go out on the pastures daily in Spring through Fall, with grass grazing combined with the feed mix providing a diet optimized for the cow’s health and the quality of the milk.
They have a rigorous cleaning schedule for the cows as well, with cleaning and brushing daily and full weekly body washes. This might seem indulgent, but it also ensures a low bacteria plate count, aka clean milk. Arethusa has won multiple awards for the quality of their milk, so the practices seem to be paying off.
Breeding and competition is a big part of the Arethusa mission, and on our way into the milking barns, we passed through rooms and hallways that seemed to be overflowing with ribbons, medals and banners, marking top honors for their cows at various competitions over the years. The farm has several repeat winning cows, including Veronica, Vista, Karlie and others — housed in a separate barn with giant individual stalls for each of the animals. Their winningest cow, Karlie, is the namesake for Karlie’s Gratitude, a Camembert-style cheese that they are now developing, which — unlike their main Camembert — is not a stabilized-paste bloomy; they’re aiming for it to develop more of the ooziness and complexity of flavor and aroma of a traditional Camembert-style cheese.
Once we were done touring the farm, it was time to go back to the Arethusa store, for a tasting of more of the cheeses. On the board were:
- Arethusa Mozzarella
- Farmer’s Cheese, fresh, bright and creamy; these come in Plain, Lemon Zest, Basil Pine Nut and Maple Raisin.
- Arethusa Camembert, which won second place in the open category for soft farmstead cheeses at ACS. Thin-rinded, buttery and mushroomy.
- Europa, their washed-curd cheese, similar to a young gouda, with a burnt-orange color and caramel notes, but a bit cheddary as well in flavor and texture.
- Crybaby, a buttery and sweet Alpine-style with a smooth, elastic paste, similar to an Emmentaler with a scattering of large eyes.
- Arethusa Blue, a creamy Stilton-style blue (Previously reviewed, you can read my tasting notes for it here).
- Bella Bantam, a toma-style, open textured cheese. Mild, sweet and tangy, an easy-eating cheese, great for melting.
Arethusa’s milk, yogurts, sour creams and other fresh products are increasingly available at multiple locations in New York City, including Whole Foods Market, Brooklyn Larder and more. The cheeses are available at their farm store and locally, and they are now expanding their presence at cheese counters. I found the Arethusa Blue at Eataly, and it was available at Brooklyn Larder, Saxelby Cheesemongers, and other locations. So keep on the lookout for Arethusa products!
Published 3/26/2015 courtesy of Matt Spiegler