- David Ginisi
Walk through any wooded area in North Central Massachusetts, and you’re likely to see a stretch of stone wall — weathered, mossy, perhaps tumbling into an untidy piles, but still recognizable as a boundary.
And you might wonder what it’s doing there, amid tall trees, heavy undergrowth, in the middle of nowhere. But pause for a moment, and think about the region’s history.
For all its quaint town commons and busy downtown areas, this area has a long agricultural history, a past that
pre-dates the prominence of many communities as industrial centers.
Those stone walls marked the boundaries of myriad farms — including large and small dairy farms — and it may surprise you to find that there are still working farms here! What’s more, those farms provide the milk for one of today’s most popular gourmet products: hand-crafted cheese.
We’re not talking plain old sliced American cheese that you can pick up at any grocery deli counter. No, this is cream of the crop, award-winning, mouth-watering cheese that’s made right here in North Central Massachusetts.
Take a Tasty Tour
Let’s start at the beginning…at a Winchendon farm that has been delighting area residents and visitors for decades. Smith’s Country Cheese is a local landmark: 43 acres, rolling pastures, and a herd of 200 Holsteins that produce the milk that goes directly up to the cheese making facility, where it is pumped into the cheese vat. It doesn’t come any fresher than that!
Smith’s Country Cheese was operated for decades by Dave and Carol Smith before members of the Catlin family — Jake and Allie Catlin, and Mike and Leah Catlin — purchased the farm and, with guidance from the Smiths, became cheesemakers. Their cheeses are made with the farm’s raw milk, free of antibiotics and hormones. “We use non-animal rennet, and source our herbs and spices from local companies,” they note.
The products — including sage, chili pepper cheddars; blueberry, chocolate and herb garlic fresh farmer’s cheeses; Chipotle-rubbed and Everything Bagel-rubbed farmstead gouda; Gouda spreads; and dill, garden vegetable, or smoked Harvati — are sold in the farm store, at local markets, and online. Stop in the country store — and if you’re timing is right, you can watch the cheese-making process through windows in their cheese room. Visitors are welcome, too, to visit the cows (and give the baby cows a little lovin’)!
The Smiths also provided guidance to another cheesemaker, Ryan Randell —who, with his wife Bonnie (and an assist from daughter Madeline, who provided inspiration for the name) opened the Fromagerie Madeline cheese shop in downtown Leominster, at the height of the pandemic.
Although the shop is located in the heart of the city, the milk used in its creamery comes direct from local farms. When it opened, Fromagerie Madeline featured several varieties of its own farmer’s cheese spread — like Italian Herb, Everything Bagel, and Sriracha Hot Pepper — but has since expanded into creating handmade hard cheeses that can take several months to age.
“Our goal has always to been to make award-winning artisan cheese in a small format that supports local dairy farmers and provides our community with high quality cheese,” Ryan Randell said when the shop celebrated its first anniversary last fall.
In addition to its own products, the shop features a variety of world-class cheeses, savory cured meats, fresh fruit, sweet jams, olives, and other accompaniments, along with carry-out gifts such as handmade cheese boards, gourmet cheese knife sets, gift boxes and baskets. While warmly welcoming visitors to the new shop, the Randalls have also looked forward to a future that includes holding wine and cheese pairings, and even cheese-making classes.
Another local cheese producer, Westfield Farm in Hubbardston, doesn’t have a shop for you to visit — but its handcrafted award-winning farmstead cheese can be found in many of the country’s finer restaurants and specialty stores. Bob and Debby Stetson bought the goat farm in 1996, and have gone on to produce a number of award-winning cheeses since that time. Their online shop at chevre.com allows cheese lovers to enjoy their made-in-Massachusetts products from any distance.
“Chevre” is the French term for goat cheese. “Capri” is the term for the goat cheese made in America by Westfield Farm — and the farm’s product (whether called Chevre, Capri, goat cheese or just plain cheese), “is all made farm fresh, by hand and with pride.”
Say “Cheese!” — and enjoy a taste of the region. §
20 Otter River Road
43 Main Street