- If you ask Art Ludlow why he started the Mecox Bay Dairy
gourmet cheese line, he'll grin and tell you, "I lost all of my senses" before relating the story of how he went from being a third generation potato farmer to a first generation artisanal cheese maker.
OFF TO MARKET: First in a series of of profiles on East End producers and their gourmet products being sent to market.
"I first recognized how interesting cheese making was when we had a family cow," Ludlow recalled over a vat of solidifying whole milk curds one Monday morning. "Back in 1992 or 1993, one of my wife Stacy's friends had a Jersey cow and asked if we wanted it, to which my wife said sure. One cow produces a ton of milk in terms of what a family of four can consume, roughly four gallons a day so I decided for the heck of it to try making some cheese with all the extra milk. I made several cheeses and was really happy with the way they turned out, but even then I never expected to get into this full-time."
Once the curds have finished separating from the whey, they are
scooped out and packed into hoops lined with cheese cloth before they are
The Mecox Bay Dairy sits adjacent to Fairview Farms, which is operated by Art's brother Harry on land that has been in the Ludlow family for four generations tucked on the northeast border of Mecox Bay in Bridgehampton, "The house I live in was built by my great grandfather in the 1870s or so. He was first mate on a whaling ship when he was younger," Ludlow explained. "When he was finished with whaling and decided to settle down. He bought 10 acres, built the house and did some farming and fishing in the bay. It was my grandfather who was really interested in farming full-time so he bought more land to the east, built a dairy barn and started farming potatoes. He died prematurely at the age of 48 from a farming accident so my father, who was a senior in high school, wasn't able to go to college and had to come back to the farm and sort of hold everything together."
After three generations of growing potatoes, Art and his brother decided the year 2000 would be the last year that crop would be grown on the family farm. "When my brother and I decided to stop growing potatoes it wasn't related to cheese making or anything else" Ludlow said. "We just thought it wasn't the best thing to grow out here. We have excellent soil, we can grow practically anything and we have a market at our back door, so why should we be growing potatoes commercially and shipping them off the island?" What really told Ludlow that it was time for a change was "when people would ask 'why are you growing potatoes?' and the answer was 'because we always have,' you all of a sudden realize 'wait a minute, that's not a good reason'" he recounted. "We wanted to work in not only something that we can sell locally, but be closer to the consumer as well."
In figuring out what they were going to do next, Art and his brother decided that they would each stick to the areas that interested them the most - Art being more interested in animals - his brother more involved with agriculture and running the farm stand. Remembering his early foray into the world of artisanal cheese making and the family cow, Art decided to investigate the process further. "It seemed like something I could get into where I could sell my cheese locally and pretty much be assured of being the only one doing it [on the South Fork], because no one else is that crazy," Ludlow laughed. "I basically spent the year after we stopped growing potatoes planning things out; we took some trips and went to go visit some cheese makers, I took a cheese making workshop and then 2002 was the year I spent doing all the work to get everything set up."
On the northeast border fo Mecox Bay in Bridgehampton, the Mecox Bay Dairy sits
adjacent to Fairview Farms, which is operated by Ludlow's brother Harry on land that
has been in the family for generations.
The Dairy itself is located in what used to be the potato storage barn in a series of rooms built within the shell of the barn and a milking area consisting of six tie stalls for his 12 Jersey cows in the back of the building. "I wanted to have everything kind of self-contained. Since it's really just me, I try to do things in a way that I get the most done with a minimal amount of movement." Each morning after the cows are brought in and milked, the milk gets transferred to a refrigerated bulk tank for storage until Ludlow pumps it into a neighboring room where the actual cheese making takes place.
The Organic Art Of Cheese Making
In general, the process for making each of the six different types of cheese Ludlow currently produces starts the same way: the milk is pumped from the bulk tank at 37 degrees into steel jacketed cauldrons that are heated by steam from a boiler Ludlow assembled himself. The milk is then heated to 90 degrees at which point the ripening culture is added and left to sit for 30 minutes, allowing the bacteria to turn the lactose in the milk into lactic acid, which lowers the pH thus beginning the process of turning the milk into cheese.
Different types of cheese require different cultures, which are divided into two basic categories: mesophilic cultures, which require a medium temperature environment of up to 100 degrees and thermophilic cultures, which are able to withstand high temperatures of up to 130 degrees.
After adding the rennet, Ludlow skims off some of the milk fat that floats to the top
of the whey and uses it at home instead of butter.
"Most soft and semi soft cheeses like Brie or Camembert use mesophilic cultures whereas harder cheeses like Parmesan, Romano, Gruyere, or Asiago use thermophilic cultures." If that seems straight forward enough, complicating matters is that some of Ludlow's cheeses, like his Shawondasee and his Cheddar use a combination of both meso and thermophilic cultures.
Once the cultures have sat in the milk at 90 degrees, Ludlow adds rennet, a coagulating enzyme that separates the curds (the milk solids that eventually make the cheese) from the whey - a process that takes roughly an hour before the curd is taken out and pressed into "hoops" to form the cheese into wheels. While there are many synthetic rennets available on the market, Ludlow explains that he uses natural calf rennet preferring to leave the process in the hands of Mother Nature. "I use calf rennet because it just seems to me to be the natural thing for curdling milk since that's exactly what nature designed it to do."
Ludlow's commitment to keeping the process as natural as possible in order to ultimately end up with a superior product is one reason why the Mecox Dairy only produces raw milk cheeses, meaning they are made from unpasteurized milk. Although the making of raw milk cheeses comes with a stricter set of regulatory guidelines - raw milk cheeses must be aged a minimum of 60 days before being saleable to the public - Ludlow contends that the pasteurization process detracts from the quality of the finished product.
"When you pasteurize, even at low temperature or low temperature pasteurization, sometimes called a heat treatment, is done at 145 degrees for 30 minutes - it will destroy enzymes, it will destroy some proteins and who knows what else that's naturally in the milk, consequently diminishing flavor. One goal or objective that I have is not to compromise the flavor or the quality of anything I produce. I want it to be the best that I feel is possible or I don't want to do it."
From that first family cow Ludlow has grown his herd to 12 Jersey cows. Jersey cows are sometimes preferred for cheese making due to the high butterfat and high protein content of their milk.
Finally, after the curd is hooped, pressed and allowed to drain for 24 hours, Ludlow then salts the cheese to stop the ripening cultures, add some flavor and help foster natural rind formation and mold growth before putting it in the aging room. The aging room is kept at a constant 50 degrees and is where each type of cheese develops its own unique character as different types of naturally occurring molds begin to colonize the surface of the cheeses. "For me the excitement in making cheese comes from the aging process," Ludlow explained. "There are just so many variables that can affect the final outcome, which is another reason I don't pasteurize. I still don't completely understand why two cheeses can turn out completely different just by allowing mold to grow on them."
Adam Batcheller, owner of The Village Cheese Shop in Southampton slices some
of the Mecox Bay Dairy cheeses he carries.
Coming up on his sixth year of production, Ludlow admits that his work isn't always a perfect science. Although he keeps fastidious records of each batch of cheese he produces in order to keep track of what may have led to the success or failure of a particular effort, watching Ludlow work is a bit like watching a mad scientist endlessly experimenting and tweaking his formulas in search of that eureka moment. "I've been to several cheese making workshops and know that there are formulas for making cheese, but that just seems too involved for me. I prefer to do things in my own way, kind of like my own artistic license I guess. It wouldn't be my own cheese if I didn't have my own method."
Ludlow's constant experimenting doesn't always yield successful products; there are shelves in his aging room that hold some of his more "irregular" creations, yet sometimes in his missteps he stumbles across something that turns out to be a hit with his customers.
"I was trying to make a Romano and I made the mistake of putting in a yogurt culture instead of the Romano culture. The Romano culture is a thermophilic culture because it's a hard cheese, but the yogurt culture is a very heat sensitive mesophilic culture, so when I put it through the high heat Romano making process, the cheese never got firm and because it was kind of a tall cheese, it settled down like a pancake. I didn't throw it out, I actually sold it at the farmer's market in Sag Harbor and called it "Faux Pas" and it tasted great, it really was a nice tasting, very mild cheese and people loved it. I still had some left over after the farmer's market so I shelved it for the winter and last year, when people started asking for it again, I brought it out and found that it had changed completely. It was a lot drier, had those little crystallized crunchy parts like a Romano and had developed this really nutty flavor but still was pretty mild, and people really liked that as well. I'm into the third year on that cheese now and its characteristics are still changing."
In many ways the cheese isn't the only thing that's changing, Ludlow is perpetually experimenting with different molds and cultures and working on adding new cheeses to his product line. By continuing to evolve his cheese making, not only does Ludlow keep himself interested in his work, it keeps his clients interested in what he might do next. "As small as I am, making so many different cheeses suits me well because I'm not doing the same thing constantly and I can come up with new ideas. I'm actually working on a Gouda now. The other thing is, making all these different cheeses enables me to sell more of it in the local market, which was my goal from the outset. I sell probably 80 or 85 percent of my cheese within a 15-mile radius from the farm, so coming up with new cheeses allows me to keep things fresh for my customers and interesting for me personally."