Spending the day at Robie Farm in Piermont, New Hampshire is like entering into a story book. Tucked into the valley along the meandering Connecticut River that separates Vermont and New Hampshire, Robie Farm is nearly picture perfect. My friend Jessica and I arrived bright and early, just after the morning milking, to make cheese with head cheesemaker Mark Robie. The Robie’s have lived on the same grounds for six generations, inhabiting the very same farmhouse in fact (with a renovated kitchen of course, reiterates Betty Sue the consummate matriarch) that was built amidst the turmoil of the Civil War. But cheesemaking is a rather new venture for the Robie’s. With declining bulk milk prices, as low as twelve dollars per hundred pounds of milk, and farm bankruptcy occurring all around, the Robie’s quickly realized the need to diversify if they wanted to stay on their patrimonial land. Seven years ago, Mark suggested they start making cheese.
On this fine New Hampshire morning, we were making Piermont. Piermont, named after the region in which it was born, is a true expression of terroir. A semi-hard cheese intended to be aged about four months, it’s a product of the mixed milk of the Robie’s small herd of thirty Holstein and Jersey cows. Cheesemaking is a variable but deliberate art . It takes strict attention, a keen sense of time and cleanliness, and a developed intuition. Nevertheless, and despite the signs of exhaustion wearing on his face from the birth of his first daughter only two weeks prior, Mark was gracious enough to let us take part in the process and to chat with him about the craft of cheesemaking and being a rural artisan.
But before we got too far into the process, after Mark had coagulated the milk and cut the curds, we made it up to the farm house, and greeted by Sammie the friendliest cocker spaniel around, we had the most wonderful breakfast of blueberry coffee cake with homemade butter which we of course washed down with fresh, creamy, raw milk. Well nourished, we returned to the tiny cheesemaking room, and began to ladle the curds into molds for pressing. It quickly became clear from our conversation with Mark, that while he’s a tremendously skilled cheesemaker, his true passion is for wildcraft. I was unfamiliar with the term, though well versed in the practice, which Mark articulated as non-evasive foraging in the wild for foods and medicine. He noted that in developing his knowledge and eye for wildcraft, he now sees food all around him. Not only in the rural forest but in urban streets of Cambridge. “When I walked up to your cheese shop a few months ago, I saw almost twenty edible things right there on the street. Delicious things too. And good for you. They didn’t cost a cent.” I admitted I had never seen these things, and realized then why wildcraft is such a perfect term for the trained and perfected art. Mark invited me up later this fall for a tutorial and I look forward to taking part. Infact, as we departed, he gave us some American truffles he had foraged a few weeks prior. (They made the most delicious over-easy eggs.)
This exceptional hospitality was unexpected but commonplace we quickly found on Robie Farm. After rotating the cheeses to begin the second pressing, and only a short while after breakfast, we returned to the farm house for taco salads with fresh picked corn and garden pico. The true stunner however was the opportunity to nosh on some Swaledale, Mark’s rather elusive farmhouse cheddar. Swaledale is a recipe derived from the English countryside but, lost in time, Mark very well be its only modern maker. It’s dry, rich, and spicy, and paired exceptionally well with the sweet and tangy Apple Jack marc that Mark distills with his friend in his free time. Though we didn’t get the chance, Mark strongly urged us to try the Swaledale with an English Brown Ale, an especially nice combination he stumbled upon one morning over breakfast (I assure you, any judgment of this unconventional breakfast choice was entirely fond).
Asking Mark why he didn’t make more Swaledale, he echoed a common refrain amongst American artisan cheesemakers…“there’s simply not enough space to age it.” Indeed, economically it doesn’t make sense if cheeses that age for only 4 or 5 months sell for nearly as much as cheeses that age for 12. He is currently in the process of drafting plans to expand his aging cellar, and if he is able to fund it, hopefully we’ll be able to find Swaledale on more New England cheese-counters over the next few years. Until then, I suppose we’ll have to “make due” with the delicious Piermont, Toma, and Smoked Toma that round out the line-up of Mark’s cheeses.
Mark is an idiosyncratic cheesemaker who doesn’t stick strictly to the book. For instance, his cheeses meet rigorous hygiene standards but he doesn’t wear gloves in the cheese making process like most cheesemakers. Though unusual, his rationale was pretty simple. “Gloves make you sloppy, give you a false sense of security. I would argue that I’m actually more hygienic not wearing gloves because I know I have to be careful and that I don’t have a fail-safe to fall back on.” It is that sort of mentality towards quality, and the courage to break with convention, that are the sign of a true craftsman—doing things not because it is “how they’re done” but because that is how they’re done best. Moreover, gloves interfere with Mark’s intimacy with the cheese, the oh-so important “feel” of the craftsman. Rather than exact timing or technology, it’s an acquired sensibility in the hands that tell Mark his cheese is proceeding properly.
I suspect Mark inherited these traits from his father. Lee Robie manages the farm and milks the cows bright and early every morning. Though the quality of the milk produced at Robie Farm is second to none, the farm isn’t completely organic. Lee, again, offered a relatively simple rationale. “At times, a short course of antibiotics to aide an ailing cow is the most humane thing to do. If they’re sick, which is unusual around here, we bring them back to health quickly rather than let them suffer for many months like those afraid of antibiotics do. And when they’re sick or in recovery, we don’t use their milk.” As with humans, antibiotics have been a critical component of increased wellbeing in the modern world. What is critical is not to eliminate antibiotics entirely, but not to overdo them. Indeed, either extreme proves dangerous. Like the gloves Mark chooses not to wear, without the safety net of intensive treatments of antibiotics the farmer is forced to ensure a higher quality of life for his cows and in turn receives a higher quality of milk from them.
In Mark’s humble words, “the reason we make such great cheese here is not because I’m an exceptional cheesemaker, it’s because my father gives me exceptional milk.” And though Mark is quick to deflect his success, making cheese with him proved to me that his skill is truly honed. Whatever the case, Mark is right… Robie Farm cheese is truly exceptional. I look forward to breaking-fast with some Swaledale and a Nut Brown Ale sooner rather than later.