National Cheese Day is the perfect excuse to highlight some of our favorite cheesemakers, and we’re shining the spotlight on Cato Corner! We’ve been carrying Cato Corner in our cheese case for over ten years now, though some of their cheeses are newer additions thanks to the discerning eye of our Head Cheesemonger, Emilia D’Albero.
Cato Corner is the epitome of farmstead cheese, from milking their own small herd of cows, to aging the cheese on their own farm, to hauling the cheese from Colchester, CT to local farmers markets in Connecticut and New York. By selling Cato Corner’s cheeses at Provisions, we’re freeing up more of cheesemaker Mark Gillman’s time to make the cheese we love so much, but we couldn’t help but bug him with some of our most pressing questions about the art of Cato Corner cheese.
What inspired the founding of Cato Corner?
My mother Elizabeth started making cheese in 1997 as a way to have a sustainable small farm. For nearly twenty years starting in 1979, my parents worked full time while also raising goats, sheep, pigs, beef cows and chickens—but the farm was never enough for either of them to give up their other jobs. Elizabeth had made some cheese at home, and she had a knowledge of many different cheeses going back all the way to when she was a girl visiting cheese shops in Providence with her father. Her father loved liederkranz, small batch cheddar from southern New England, and a host of other cheeses. In the late nineties, the CT Department of Agriculture was encouraging farmers to pursue value-added dairying as a way to "Save the farm and keep the cows." My mom enrolled in a technical cheese making class at CalPoly State University, took out a loan to install a milk parlor and buy some cheese making equipment, and dove right in milking 13 Jerseys that first year. I (Mark) joined her in 1999.
What's something you'd like people to know about your cheese or your farm, but don't always get to mention?
I think it is important to remind people that cheese starts with the cows and the grass they eat. We have a dedicated staff that works closely with my mom to take care of our herd, and our Jerseys are healthy and gentle and they produce delicious, rich milk. That delicious richness comes from higher protein and fat than other breeds, and Jerseys in particular don’t need to eat too much to produce larger amounts of milk. (Being so easy to work with is a bonus!)
Since all of our cheese is raw, the milk is especially important —it contributes so much to the quality and flavor of our cheese. These flavors change somewhat as the cows move from local hay in the winter to rotational grazing in the summer, and we embrace this seasonality as an essential part of our cheeses' unique profiles. We could not make our cheese without the careful work of our barn staff—and the exceptional milk our cows give us!
What's the best part of being an independent cheesemaker?
For me, the best part of being an independent cheese maker is the satisfaction I get from sharing our cheese with customers. It is tremendously rewarding to crack open a wheel of cheese that we made months before—and to taste it alongside our customers and get their feedback. We are not sampling right now due to COVID, and I am excited for a time in the near future when we can return to these tastings!
What's your favorite Cato Corner cheese, past and present?
It's always hard to choose my favorite Cato Corner cheese, since each batch is a little different and so much depends upon how I'm eating it. I like Dairyere or Womanchego for sandwiches, Bloomsday with apples, Aged Bloomsday and Dutch Farmstead with a glass of wine. If I had to pick one, though, I would go with Hooligan. I love the way that its surface ripening bacteria and yeasts transform the paste into a soft, pungent bundle of deliciousness. I can eat most of a wheel myself, especially if paired with crusty bread and saison.