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Cato Corner Farm: Cheese Talk with Mark Gillman

March 18, 2011

I met Mark for the first time about a week ago at Union Square Farmer’s Market.  I have searched him out several times when visiting, but I have never been able to speak with him one-on-one.  The Cato Corner stand at Union Square is usually pretty crowded with local customers and restaurant buyers, so it is difficult to have any time to chat beyond yelling, “Give me a half pound of Bridgid’s Abbey!”

As luck would have it, I arrived early enough this past Saturday to finally meet Mark, talk about the cheesemaking process, and sample a couple of pretty amazing cheeses.

Mark clearly has great enthusiasm for what he is doing.  Why wouldn’t he?  Making cheese that everyone is clamoring for is not a bad way to spend the day.  As soon as I introduced myself, we started talking about his cheese, the process, and what he was particularly excited about.

If people are familiar with Cato Corner, then chances are they have tasted “Hooligan”.   It is available at their farm stands, in restaurants, and various cheese shops.  Hooligan is their signature washed-rind cheese that has won several awards from the likes of Slow Food USA and Saveur magazine.

A “washed-rind” cheese, means that the cheesemaker takes a solution (usually brine, wine, beer, or some combination thereof) and wipes or “washes” the outside of the wheel of cheese during the aging process.  This is done once or twine a week in order to encourage the “good” bacteria and surface ripening that the cheesemaker is looking for.  This creates that orange, sticky rind, and pungent aroma that is generally associated with this type of cheese.

With that in mind, I asked Mark about his brine and aging process and, in return, he asked if I have had a chance to try “Despearado”.  This cheese, Mark explained,  is one of Hooligan’s big brothers.  Sold in 1.5 pound wheels, the cheese is flattened out to create more surface area. This allows the wash to further penetrate the cheese and have a greater impact on the overall texture and flavor.  The brine consists of pear mash and Pear William eau de vie from Westford Hill Distillery, which imparts a hint of pear on the aftertaste.  I have tried a lot of what some would consider strong cheeses.  This is, by far, one of the stinkiest cheeses I have ever had…and I loved it.  The creamy texture, earthy flavor, and pear on the aftertaste was unlike anything I have tasted.  I love it when I’m surprised by cheese!

In looking at some of the other cheeses on display, the “Dairyere” caught my eye.  Being an absolute sucker for Gruyère or anything made in that style I of course had to try it.  Even though this is a relatively new cheese for Cato Corner, it has already won a third place award at the 2010 ACS.  There is a nice and thin rind on the exterior of the cheese, so their cave is definitely well-regulated.  The interior is a pale gold with a few mechanical opening here and there.  I am surprised at how sharp this cheese is, and yet the finish was a just a touch sweet!  There is just the right amount of salt to round out the finish providing that perfect balance that so many cheesemakers strive for.  It almost reminded me of a cross between an Alpine with a Gouda, if that makes any sense.  Another surprise…

We talked briefly about a farm visit, and I hope to take him up on that if at all possible.  There is a lot going on at Cato Corner Farm.  Based on the cheeses they are producing, and the passion that Mark shows for his craft, a trip to see everything in action is definitely in order.

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