Growing up on the southern coast of Turkey, Aktan Askin’s favorite summer dish was halloumi, a firm, protein-rich cheese made from sheep and goat’s milk, grilled until it slightly melted and served with cold watermelon. It’s salty, it squeaks a bit when you chew it and it’s addictive.
“It was pretty much my favorite thing in the world,” Askin said. “That’s all you eat in the summertime. I knew I wanted to make that. I knew the flavor we were after.”
When Askin and his wife, Erin McWalters, moved to Thorndike in Waldo County permanently in 2010, when they started Lor Farm on a few acres of land down the road from McWalters’ parents. They bought a few sheep and a few goats and went to work. By 2013, their recipe for halloumi — as well as for feta, ricotta, farmer’s cheese and other traditional Turkish cheeses — was ready to be served to the general public.
Lor Farm now sells a selection of those cheeses weekly at the farmers markets in Orono, 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday, and in Bangor, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday, to a customer base evenly divided between longtime lovers of the salty, simple cheeses of Askin’s homeland and novice eaters. They also offer lamb sausage and lamb cuts, when available.
“We get people that say, ‘Oh, I had this in Crete.’ ‘I had it in Australia.’ ‘My friend is Turkish.’” Askin said. “And then we get people who have no idea what it is. They try, and then they come back next week. It helps that there’s nobody else in Maine that we know of that’s making it.”
Askin and McWalters met while they were studying at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. After they graduated, they came back to Waldo County, where McWalter’s parents moved in the 1970s as part of the back-to-the-land movement. They knew farming was something they wanted to pursue, so they started working on farms, including Freedom Farm and Chase’s Farm, both in Freedom.
“All of a sudden, everyone we knew was a farmer,” McWalters, a 2002 graduate of Mt. View High School, said. “The scene here is pretty incredible. We were really impressed.”
In 2009, they moved to Turkey for a year, living in a rural, agricultural region on the western coast, surrounded by olive groves. It was there they learned how to milk goats and several other practices of raising dairy sheep.
“It was a magical thing,” McWalters said. “Sheep yogurt and sheep cheese is just so different from anything you’ve ever had.”
Neither Askin or McWalters had any training in cheese making; they learned by taste and from consulting a handful of books.
“It’s kind of a longing thing for us,” Askin said. “We know that taste, and we kept experimenting until we got it right.”
It took them a little while to get Lor Farm up and running, after they moved back to the U.S. in 2010 and got their first sheep and goats. For one, the field on which their livestock graze is several miles down the road from their house, and it has no power. Askin wanted to build a solar-powered mobile milker, but he found that blueprints for building such a thing were difficult to come by.
“Then I randomly happened to come across this one guy in India, who built a solar-powered milking cart for his cows. I managed to track him down and ask him how he did it. … He helped me build it. It’s definitely a one-of-a-kind thing. … When it’s really sunny out, it works like a champ. I can’t believe it still works,” Askin said.
When it’s not sunny, the milker runs on reserve battery power.
For now, Askin and McWalters are milking eight sheep and four goats, which means their cheese-making operation is very small — they only make about 20 pounds of cheese per week. They hope to expand to a flock of 50 milkers in the coming years, but they are happy to be small for now. Aside from making cheese, they have a nine-month-old son, Sami, to raise, and Askin’s parents just moved to Maine from Turkey to join the young family and their two sweet dogs — Marko, an Old English Sheepdog, and Foster, a mutt rescued from the streets of a Turkish city.
“We want to stay local. We like going north for our markets. So many people go to Portland or Boston to sell their veggies, but we like staying here,” McWalters said. “We feel like we’re part of the community.”