TROY, Maine — Eight feet underground, in a bunkerlike cave, a solitary light bulb illuminates wooden shelves filled with wheels of cheese. Some have a light mold scattered across their tops — small puddles of white or green; others are enveloped in a featherlike mold of silver threads.
Water drips from the concrete ceiling onto the gravel floor. It’s just about 40 degrees and 96 percent humidity.
“It’s almost like a tomb, isn’t it?” artisanal cheese maker and farmer Robert Perol says.
It took Perol two years to construct his cheese cave, which is accessible only by a crude homemade elevator from his cheese room above. “This cave needs no refrigeration and provides an incredible rind,” he says.
As he checks the tubs of fermenting feta and the solid cakes of cheese, Perol is unable to contain his excitement.
“Look at this!” he exclaims, excited by the mold developing on a wheel of pepper jack cheddar.
“Oh, this is a good one,” he says as he roughly brushes the mold from the rind of a large cake of tomme cheese.
Perol has been creating cheese for two years and his biggest problem is keeping up with the demand. “I sell out at every farmers market,” he said. Since last August, he has ramped up production to stockpile as much aged cheese as possible before the summer marketing season begins.
He uses the milk from his own grass-fed Jersey cows — the breed that produces the highest level of butterfat — and recipes shared by artisanal cheese makers in Vermont, New York and Canada, where he studied the craft. Every wheel of Maine Mountain Cave Aged Cheese is made by hand.
“It takes time to produce a hearty, ripe flavor,” he said. “It’s not just a commodity cheese you stamp out. My cheese has a robust flavor. It is aged, dried, brined and it takes a lot of care and a lot of labor.”
Perol produces seven types of cheese: cheddar, tomme, feta, asiago, camembert, smoked gouda and fromage blanc. All are aged in his 30-by-30-foot cave. “The longer you age, the more robust the flavor. Two months is the minimum,” he said.
He varies some of the recipes by adding other ingredients, such as the garlic he was adding Wednesday to a batch of curds. He also can change the flavor of the rind by simply brushing off the mold or washing it with apple cider vinegar.
“Cheese is my pride and my passion,” he said. “I love cheese. I love cheese.”
Apparently so do a lot of other people. The number of cheese makers is increasing annually, according to the Maine Cheese Guild, and now numbers nearly two dozen. Maine Guild cheese makers consistently take top honors for excellence at national competitions, and last year, Maine cheese makers brought home seven indi-vidual awards at the national American Cheese Society competition in Chicago.
Perol said his biggest challenge is keeping up with the demand for his cheese.
“Maine is gaining an international reputation for its artisanal cheeses,” Perol said. And because he raises his animals and processes his cheeses organically, his is a premium product with high demand.
“Maine farms are small and will never be able to compete with the commodity farms,” he said. “That’s why the only way Maine farmers will see a profit is by creating and producing a value-added product.”
It’s all connected, Perol said. He pointed to the 230 acres of pastures where the cows will graze this summer, which is adjacent to the barn, which is built onto the milk room, which connects to the cheese room, which is over the cavelike bunker.
“From the grass to the milk to the cheese,” he said. “This is what Maine consumers want; a local product, handcrafted with pure ingredients.”
Perol’s day of making cheese begins at 5 a.m. with milking the cows, feeding rabbits, slopping the hogs and tending the chickens at Diversity Farm. Then the cheese making begins.
On this day, Perol puts the milk in a 125-gallon, double-walled cheese vat and brings it to 88 degrees Fahrenheit for cheddar. “Each cheese has a different temperature,” he explained.
Perol adds enzymes and rennet, which solidifies the milk, and continues to heat the cheese slowly until it is semisolid. He raises the temperature to 102 degrees, then cuts and pulls the curds, allowing the liquid whey to flow out of the vat. The whey later will be fed to the hogs.
The curds are then cut again, pressed by hand, and packed into molds. The molds, with holes similar to a colander, are weighted to continue to push out the remaining whey. The molds are turned and more weight is added.
The next day, the cheese is turned out of the mold and allowed to air dry. When Perol determines it is ready, the cheese is moved to the cave. “Even if it is 90 degrees outside, the cave remains a constant 45 to 50 degrees,” he said.
His interest in cheese making in caves began when he was a child and watched his grandfather make cheese and store it in the root cellar. That kind of practical approach has served him well.
“I try to keep this as simple as possible,” he said. His office is a card table and a child’s blue school chair.
He connected his barn, milk room and cheese facility and built the cave under the cheese room so that he never has to go outside.
When an elevator company quoted him $11,000 for a dumb waiter to drop into the cave, Perol built a welded cage and attached a pulley and motor for about $450.
When he saw that the price for a cheese curd cutter was several hundred dollars, he bought a small French fry cutter for $19.95.
“You have to be creative,” he said.
Currently, Perol’s ability to expand his operation is limited only by his inability to find additional farm workers.
“My goal is to fill this whole cave,” Perol said. “Right now, I cannot begin to meet the demand for my cheese.”
He is actively seeking farming and cheese apprentices.
Perol’s marketing strategy for his products is simple too. He sells his cheeses from the farm, at six farmers markets and several buying clubs. In addition, several restaurants and wineries are using his cheeses.
He also sells grass-fed beef, veal, and pork raised on his farm, which has become a destination of sorts for area schoolchildren.
“They come and we teach them where their food comes from,” he said. “It’s a connection.”
Perol said teaching the children is part of his overall farming philosophy. “We can’t just be sustainable,” he said. “We need to be regenerative.”
Perol’s Maine Mountain Cave Aged Cheese is sold at the Cellar Door in Lincolnville, directly from his Troy farm, and at farmers markets in Waterville, Brunswick, Belgrade, Lincolnville and Kennebunkport. He can be reached at email@example.com or 948-3740.