As she read through our website, cheesemaker Allison Lakin, of Lakin’s Gorges Cheese, couldn’t help but notice a strange trend. Many of the times we raved about a cheese we had just tried for the first time, in favorite neighborhood restaurants like Trattoria Athena in Brunswick, or In Good Company in Rockland, or Fromviandoux in Camden, why… they were all restaurants that she and her company supplied with her signature cheeses. After circling one another virtually for a few weeks, Allison invited me to stop by her leased space within the State of Maine Cheese Co. on Route 1 in Rockport, to get a brief introduction to the science and art of cheese making.
Allison Lakin is an anthropologist. She has lived all over the country, and traveled the world widely in pursuit of the study of man. What she kept coming back to was food, whether that was cooking salmon on a plank with indigenous people near Seattle, or learning a lesson in cheese making and gate mending from a patois-speaking peasant woman in the French countryside. She grew up in New York’s kind-of Utopian Hudson Valley, where she communed with Guernsey cows, becoming a life-long devotee of their distinct, sweet milk. After learning the trade in Wisconsin and receiving thorough practice in upstate New York, Lakin’s Gorges has been the project she has been pursuing single-mindedly, after years of study.
Lakin produces five different kinds of cow’s milk cheese in her facility, including “Medallion” and “Morgan.” All of the cheeses have names, and each name has meaning, multiple meanings from her bright mind, such as the “Opus 42,” a reference to both Allison’s age when she began making cheese, as well as to Douglas Adams: The answer to life, the universe, and everything. On this day, though, our focus is on two of her most popular selections: A basket-molded ricotta, and her “Prix de Diane.”
The “Prix de Diane” is a favorite of ours, a runny, brie-like wheel with a bloomy, malleable, edible rind, which becomes an oozing, butter-yellow, luxurious consistency at room temperature. It’s an ideal party cheese.
Lakin’s Gorges ricotta is not the loosey-goosey stuff you get in a tall tub from the grocery store. It is textured but sliceably firm, and delicately sweet. I have sampled it before as well; I usually add simply olive oil, sea salt and basil, and mash it with a fork – a perfect dip for thin slices of toasted baguette. Today, however, I was very pleased to observe and participate in its creation.
Allison greeted me warmly as I walked into the windowed, wide-open room where she works. She handed me a hairnet and gloves, and instructed me to wash my hands and dip my boots in a sterilizing solution. Cleanliness is first and foremost here. This is where the cheese is made, in a large trough with all kinds of wonderful machinery.
Allison takes up only a small amount of this space, electing to use a stainless steel vat that slowly heats the organic milk, produced by Tide Mill Organic Farm in Edmunds, to temperature.
In our email exchange, she had asked me not to wear perfume, and almost immediately explains that this is because some of her process is done by smell. I bow my head into the 165 degree milk, and indeed it is sweet, like pudding. It’s almost, but not quite time.
To make this kind of ricotta, distilled white vinegar is stirred into the many gallons of milk; it acts as a catalyst of the process. The liquid begins to transform. First, it turns a neon color like lemon-lime Gatorade, then texture develops, as curds distinguish themselves from whey. Eventually, the curds will be scooped with a long-handled strainer into plastic mesh tubs.
It is steamy work and physically exerting. I could feel it in my arms and especially shoulders, as I leaned in and over and into the cauldron, being careful not to scald myself on the sides. Whey drains from the containers, which is collected and used by local farmers. This is a community effort, one step in a life cycle, but it’s also a one-woman show. Allison squints at the chemistry equipment, and stirs curds for thirty minutes to the music of funk and soul.
Allison talks as we work, well, as she works, and I fumble to capture everything with my camera, to observe and find the best angles and not miss a drop, as she uses funnels and beakers and PH paper, as well as words like, “meniscus.” I am smitten with this woman who is scientist, artist, and artisan all in one; all that she has done that has led her here, crafting something she is passionate about, with her own hands. She is in constant motion, seven days a week, doing her own dishes, deliveries, marketing, measuring, and recording.
We go deeper into the chilly rooms, to peek at the cheeses, aging in their caves. They are hushed and holy, wrapped in mold or cloth and mystery, even as the veils fall. I still can’t wrap my mind around it all. I should have been taking notes. Allison was undeterred by my nervous ineptitude. She showed me how to finesse things, all of which she’s learned as she’s gone, a journey of discovery. I got sidetracked eating cheese, Allison smiling with her whole being as she bustled around the gleaming workshop.
And oh, the cheese. Glorious cheese. This stuff is… pure, is maybe the best word I can come up with. Earthy, grassy, salty, sweet, slightly stinky, organic, alive. Yes, these cheeses are alive! Are all cheeses alive? Probably not Velveeta and that other orange kind that comes with a red, plastic stick that kids get in their lunchbox, or Laughing Cow, or American deli slices. Those kinds stay the same forever and ever, while these cheeses change. They have a storyline, a lifeline, an arc, like us. They are made. They must wait and age, developing character. They reach their peak. And then, they become overripe, pungent, runny, otherwise unpleasant, and eventually they sour, spoil, and when there is no more pleasure to be derived, they die.
This is, above all, a story about pleasure.
Seek out the cheeses being made lovingly and locally by Allison Lakin and her Lakin’s Gorges Cheese company. They are available in specialty shops throughout Maine (including Rosemont Market in Portland, and Atlantic Baking Company in Rockland), served in fine restaurants, and available for purchase directly through the company’s website. And if you come across a slightly askew tub of Lakin’s Gorges basket ricotta in the next week or so, you can blame that one on me.