Terroir in Framingham: Nobscot Artisan Cheese

Nobscot Artisan Cheese is made on a beautiful 110-acre dairy farm in Framingham (yes, you read that right) called Eastleigh Farm. Eastleigh is one of three remaining farms that shares this northwest corner of Framingham—Stearns Farm and Hanson’s Farm are the others. Within just a few miles of Shoppers World, with the Mass Pike and residential developments pressing in on all sides, Eastleigh continues its dairy farm operations as it has since 1934. Only now it’s getting a little help from resident cheese maker, Sue Rübel.

I visited Eastleigh one sparkling June morning. Once I found my way along a network of roads I had never traveled before in Framingham, and drove through the graceful farm gate, I discovered a landscape more evocative of the European countryside than suburban Boston. There are charming gray stucco buildings topped by aging cupolas, and abandoned pieces of farm equipment moldering about—bring your paints and an easel, or at least a camera. Rübel said that “even people who live in Framingham don’t know about this place. I always feel like I’m stepping into old France.”

Rübel found East leigh three years ago when she was searching for a source of  for raw milk to make the kinds of cheeses she loved growing up. The farm had just been certified to sell its own raw milk. Fifteen states, includingMassachusetts, now allow raw milk to be sold on farms that produce it. Making and selling cheese from raw milk is allowed in this country as long as the cheese has been aged for a minimum of sixty days. [Raw milk is unpasteurized—milk that has not been heated beyond 145° F and maintained at that temperature for 30 minutes. The pasteurization process is designed to kill bacteria and most enzyme activity in milk. Proponents of raw milk argue that these substances are beneficial to the full functioning of our digestive systems and to our overall health.] Rübel tells me that there is a growing awareness of and an increasing market for raw milk. “I can feel the energy building,” she says.

Rübel andEastleighowner, Doug Stephan, formed a business partnership with a vision: to make and sell artisan cheese; and to promote the idea that the process of cheese making is a perfect way for us to learn about our connections to the natural world. And having a cheese-making operation on the farm would contribute to keeping the farm a sustainable enterprise. Rübel set-up her cheese-making equipment in one ofEastleigh’s lovely old barns and, using milk from the farm’s 200, grass-fed, mostly-Jersey cows, began making cheese.  Rübel is half Swiss and grew-up in a cheese-eating family, many of whom live in Switzerland. She even has a cousin who, like Heidi in the eponymous children’s story, “tended an alp for two summers” (alp as in The Alps). The cousin lived in a hut and was responsible for taking cows up to the lush, green summer pastures higher on the mountain. There she milked the cows and made cheese. One summer, Rübel hiked up there to learn the process herself. Another cousin was a goat-cheese maker. “I have it in me,” she says. “I really feel tied to that part of my heritage.”

Nobscot Artisan Cheese is Rübel’s “encore career.” For 30 years she was an educator and has a PhD in Curriculum Development. But cheesemaking was in her DNA, so she invested in formal training and received an advanced certification from the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese inBurlington.

All that education shows through in the patient way she speaks when explaining cheese making, and in her gentle eager way of describing the many joys and benefits of her craft. We spoke in her gleaming white and steel “cheese-make” room, where white rubber boots were de rigueur and the many hoses and gauges gave the room the look of mission control, but just a little. The center of the operation, and the most expensive piece of equipment, is the vat, the 211-gallon capacity, Dutch-made, dual-purpose, stainless steel tub a little smaller than a Mini Cooper. After the cows are milked at the far end of the milking barn, the raw milk is hand-carried in buckets to the cheese-make room. The milk is poured into the waiting vat and pasteurized.

It’s a three-day process. On Day 1, the milk is pasteurized, then the proprietary culture and rennet are added and curds begin to form. Everything sits for 24 hours. On Day 2, the curds are ladled into bags and hung for 6 hours until all the whey drains out. The draining whey is caught and pumped into a large container which is collected by a pig farmer inCarlislewho uses the whey to feed piglets. The curds are pressed into molds or hoops and left, weighted, overnight. On Day 3, Rübel starts early and un-molds and divides the cheese into 20-lb tubs. This is when she adds salt and herbs and spices. All the mixing is done by hand, including kneading the curds until they are smooth. The cheeses are packed into 8 oz. containers for sale at the farm’s store and at ten farmers markets throughout the area.

She calls her cheeses Eastleigh Fresh. They are simple fresh cheeses, to spread on bread or bagels or crackers, or to serve with vegetables. They are Rübel’s take on a French recipe called “bondon.” But she cautions, “In cheese making, you can’t follow a recipe—you have to follow the cheese.”   Rübel is most excited about making raw milk cheeses. At the time this article went to print, the cave-aged, raw milk cheeses were not yet ready but Rübel says to check for progress updates on her website or on the Nobscot Artisan Cheese Facebook page. They will be available for sale on the farm and at farmers markets. When I was there, Rübel was putting the final touches on the construction of a traditional aging room, a room about 16 feet x 32 feet, filled with aisles of wooden racks to hold cheeses. She plans to fill the racks with Swiss–style, raw milk cheeses, and a semi-soft, washed rind cheese, possibly a Taleggio. The hemlock racks impart nuances of flavor to the cheese. Like grapes which pick up flavor from qualities in the soil, climate and geography—the terroir if you will—the flavors of raw milk cheeses are developed through contact with the wood, from the grass the cows were eating at the time of milking, and from Framingham’s particular terroir.

Nobscot Cheese can be purchased at the Eastleigh Farm store, farmers markets and other area stores. To find a location near you, go to nobscotcheese.com.

Rosie DeQuattro is a regular contributor to Edible Boston. You can reach her at rosie@edibleboston.net or tweet her @rosiedequattro.

FallEdible Boston