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(David Lyon for the Boston Globe)

Curds and whey become an American original in a process that eschews machines

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / December 24, 2006

HEALDVILLE, Vt. -- Crowley Cheese claims to be the oldest cheese factory in Vermont, and the weathered brown clapboard structure certainly looks the part. Winfield Crowley built the factory in 1882 to expand on his family's farmhouse kitchen cheesemaking operation that used milk from their dairy herd.

"We're still making the same cheese in the same way," says general manager Cynthia Dawley.

In the world of cheeseheads, Crowley is an American original, a cheese with a North American pedigree that owes nothing to " the old country." Never big on the fine points of taste, the Food and Drug Administration classified Crowley as a Colby in the early 20th century, even though the Crowleys had been making their cheese for generations before Colby was "invented" in Wisconsin.

Cheesemakers always seem like magicians, using a straightforward process and a few ingredients to transform perishable milk into tasty blocks that improve with age. Crowley provides a perfect window on the process, since the company has eschewed mechanization, yet still managed to make 85,000 pounds of cheese in 2006.

Making cheese is a hurry-up-and-wait business that takes about 6 1/2 hours, according to cheesemaker Ken Hart. He does it Tuesday through Friday, and it's best to arrive a little after noon to catch the most dramatic burst of action.

Hart starts the day by pumping 5,000 pounds of whole raw milk into a stainless steel tub where it's heated. He adds lactobacillus culture, which converts milk sugar to lactic acid and sharpens the cheese. He heats it again and adds natural rennet to curdle the milk. Meanwhile, his two assistants are lining stainless steel molds with cheesecloth, and dipping the previous day's blocks and wheels in hot wax to seal them for aging.

As the mixture sets, Hart runs wire knives through the curd to produce pieces about the size of bay scallops. When the curd "looks like popcorn and has the texture of a pencil eraser," as Hart puts it, all hands are on deck. Dawley and saleswoman Donna Lee change into casual clothes and wrap themselves with long white aprons. "This is where we get messy," Hart says with barely concealed glee.

After Hart has drained two thirds of the whey, the five-person crew bails about 500 pounds of curd as quickly as possible into the curd sink. With everyone raking and scooping in well-choreographed moves, it takes about five minutes.

"Let's just say we don't have to go to the gym after work," says Dawley.

"The curds are still cooking," Hart explains. "This is the most critical stage." He and his helpers run gloved hands through the curds, kneading them until the mass reaches precisely the right acidity.

Then Hart turns a stream of water on the cheese. "If we didn't rinse it," he explains, "we'd be making a traditional cheddar." (Cheddar's characteristic back-of-the-throat harshness comes from residual cultures in the cheese.)

Finally, Hart blends in a pound of salt to every 20 pounds of curd before the curds are packed into molds and the molds into a hydraulic press. "By morning, we have solid cheese," he says.

The bustle is bound to pique your curiosity about the product. Fortunately, there are samples on the cutting board under a bell jar, including the tangy extra sharp (aged nine months to a year). The company also makes some flavored cheeses, including the sage-infused blocks the Crowley family used to make for Christmas. The most popular is the medium sharp, which won a blue ribbon in 2005 from the American Cheese Society.

"It makes great macaroni and cheese," says Dawley.

Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers in Cambridge, at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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