ROCKPORT, Maine — The icy clutch of winter has receded. Verdant fields bloom across the state. Animals, finally freed from a cold-weather, hay diet, are grazing freely on new grass. For the lactose tolerant this is great news.
The sweetest dairy products of the year are now within reach. As more fromagers discover that Maine milk produces fantastic cheese, new artisans enter the foodstream every year. According to the Maine Cheese Guild, there are 72 licensed makers, with 60 more waiting in the wings.
“Handmade cheeses by people who love what they are doing is a gift to get hold of,” said Kris Horton, owner of K. Horton Specialty Foods in Portland, where a panoply of local cheeses entice customers at the Public Market House.
Found at farmer’s markets, roadside stands and specialty food markets, tasty, aged, ashed and just-made cheeses abound. Just in time for picnic season, behold seven Maine-made cheeses you must try now. You’ll be glad you did.
Lakin’s Gorges Cheese, Rockport
What: Basket-molded ricotta
Why: This whole milk, young rural-house cheese proves that ricotta is no longer just for lasagna or cannolis. Cheesemaker Allison Lakin uses organic cow’s milk from Tide Mill Organic Farm in Edmunds. Like wine, the terroir rings through. “This is just fresh cheese,” said the foodie who studied anthropology at Cornell University and left a career in museums to try her hand in the art of cheesemaking. Her unsalted and extremely versatile ricotta is a refreshing experience. No spoon required.
Tasting notes: Creamy, sweet, sliceable, delicious.
Pairs with: Fig balsamic, tomatoes and basil. Incorporate into savory asparagus pudding or work into zucchini fritters. Crumble on salads, toast or chili.
Buy: State of Maine Cheese Co., Route 1 Rockport, Bangor Wine and Cheese, Rosemont Markets, Portland, Yarmouth. Or order online http://shop.lakinsgorgescheese.com
Sunset Acres Farm and Dairy, Brooksville, http://sunsetacresfarm.com/our-cheese.html
What: Sea smoke, farmstead goat cheese with vegetable ash
Why: Usually made in monasteries of yore, these labor-intensive ash-covered cheese rounds were dubbed the “Holy Grail of Cheese” by the Chicago Tribune. “There are three layers, and hours that go into the scooping,” said owner Bob Bowen.
Tasting notes: Firmer than a humboldt fog, the ash, inside and out, allows cheese to age in various stages. Imparts a mushroomy and earthy flavor. Subtle. Medium firm. “Not pushover soft.”
Pairs with: Best on its own atop a cracker with no competing flavors. If you must, serve with sliced fig and quince paste.
Buy: Blue Hill Farmer’s Market, K. Horton Fine foods in Portland.
Silvery Moon Creamery, Westbrook
What: Stroudwater Tomme, small wheels inspired by French Alp fromage.
Why: Made from holstein cows on Smiling Hill Farm. Aged three to four months. There is also mead and beer-washed versions.
Tasting notes: Slight acidity with hints of pineapple.
Pairs with: Wine, beer or mead served with fresh fruit, such as strawberries. Try with unsalted almonds or cashews and fruit preserves.
Buy: Smiling Hill Farm’s Dairy Store, Westbrook; Mainely Drizzle, Kennebunkport.
Winter Hill Farm, Freeport
What: Tide Line, camembert-style, ashed bloomy rind ripened.
Why: A delicate cheese layered and covered with vegetable ash. It imparts a distinct flavor and texture. “A woman on Martha’s Vineyard asked if I could ship her some…. she picked it up in Portland when she was visiting and ‘fell in love,’” said farm manager Sarah Wiederkehr. You will too.
Tasting notes: Soft, creamy, with a subtle tanginess that intensifies as it ages along with peppery undertones. Slightly floral, but with definitive earthy tones and a nice clean finish.
Pairs with: Crisp farmhouse ale or sour beer. Great on bread with strawberry basil jam or rhubarb earl grey jam. Works well for a cheese plate or just fresh eating.
Buy: Portland Food Co-op, The Farm Stand in South Portland, Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust Farmers Market, and Royal River Natural Foods, Freeport.
Siberia Farms, Hermon
What: Hand-stretched mozzarella from “Jersey girls.”
Why: “One of our best sellers. The curds have to be warmed to get it soft. We submerge and stretch it so it has a smooth glossy finish to it. It’s like string cheese,” said cheesemaker Tiffany Ireland. “It’s whole milk. We don’t pull any cream out of it.” And if you live nearby it can be delivered to your door step.
Tasting notes: “Oh my lord it is delicious,” said Ireland.
Pairs with: Perfect on top of pizza.
Buy: Belfast Co-op, Natural Living Center, Bangor, online at www.siberiafarms.com
Balfour Farm, Pittsfield
What: Brined Feta
Why: This nicely packaged cheese is made in central Maine by a husband and wife team on a 100-acre certified organic dairy farm. Sold in glass jars, each batch is marked with the date it was made and lot number. This is as attentive as local cheese making gets. If you run into Doug or Heather Donahue at a farmer’s market they’ll share the love.
Tasting notes: Piquant and firm
Pairs with: Salads with olives and tomatoes. Can hold its own against a variety of textures and tastes.
Buy: Bangor, Orono, Portland and Crystal Springs farmers markets.
Fuzzy Udder Creamery, Whitefield
What: Washed Rind cheese.
Why: Washed in Baxter Brewing Co.’s Tarnation lager. Rind is orange. Same family as epoisse and taleggio cheese. Made with organic cow’s milk.
Tasting notes: Stinky. Strong, gooey, pungent. Full-bodied and delicious.
Very soft and creamy inside. Carries the texture of brie, but is more robust. “It’s a hot seller right now,” said cheesemaker Jessie Dowling. “The stinky cheese lovers know who they are and this is what they are looking for.”
Pairs with: Crusty bread, excellent as grilled cheese. Try with a Belgian-style beer.
Buy: At the creamery and at farmer’s markets in Damariscotta, Orono, Camden and Bar Harbor.