By Lisa Green
Shane Solar-Doherty cuts and weighs the feta.
Last year, when Cricket Creek Farm
in Williamstown, Mass. put out a pre-holiday call for volunteers to help wrap cheese, I couldn’t sign up fast enough. I’ve long been a fan of this dairy farm — its artisanal cheeses made from raw milk, its outreach to the community, even its Instagram feed (who doesn’t love piglet pics?). The promise of payment in the form of cheese to take home didn’t hurt, either.
It was the first time the farm had group volunteer days. “I was blown away by how fast, focused and organized everyone was,” said Suzy Konecky, the long-time creamery manager who has recently left the farm. “In past years, we were wrapping cheese until the middle of the night for days leading up to the holidays, and this year we were able to finish up in the creamery at a reasonably hour and save our energies for actually selling cheese.”
Tony Pisano and Shira Lynn get the containers ready for the feta.
During the summer, Cricket Creek Farm sells its small-batch cheeses at farmers’ markets in Troy, New York, Northampton, Pittsfield, Lenox and Great Barrington, as well as retail markets in western Massachusetts, the Boston area and many local restaurants. In the winter, the emphasis is on the holiday markets, and although there is less milk production between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, the farm’s signature cheeses, Maggie’s Round and Tobasi, have been aging for a few months and are ready for holiday sales. Apart from holiday time, Cricket Creek has regular volunteers who show up on Thursday mornings to prepare cheeses for sale, but at this time of year, reinforcements are necessary.
A few weeks ago, the farm issued a Winter Volunteer Work Parties invitation on its Facebook page. And once again, I RSVP’d for another three-hour stint, accepting, in my mind, that the paper booties over my shoes and the required hairnet would not be my best look as I entered the sanitary, slightly humid creamery.
The regular Thursday morning volunteer sessions include volunteers of all ages. Photo courtesy of Cricket Creek Farm.
Since I came later on the second day, the bulk of the cheeses had been wrapped, but there was still the feta to package, so volunteers Tony Pisano, Shira Lynn and I took instructions from Shane Solar-Doherty, who was cutting and weighing the chunks of cheese. Shira poured brine in the containers; I affixed the tops and Tony tagged them with a date code. The bits of feta Shane sliced off to adjust the weights were fair game for us to snitch.
Other tasks at these work parties include counting and stacking repack labels for retailers; wrapping wedges of cheese (neatly, please); sticking on labels; writing thank you notes for mail orders; and, in the bakery, assembling the ice cream sandwiches. Nobody goes hungry while volunteering; the staff sets out cheese and crackers for snacking. In the two pre-Thanksgiving wrapping sessions last week, approximately 25 volunteers wrapped or packaged 300 pounds of cheese.
Photo: Cricket Creek Farm.
And did you know some cheese gets brushed? Last year, I was handed a stiff bristle brush and a disc of Maggie’s Round and told to scrub off the flakey white mold. It’s an important part of “affinage,” the ripening process — the after care, so to speak, that helps improve the flavor of the cheese.
“The actual cheesemaking takes just a few hours,” explained Teri Rutherford, Cricket Creek’s operations manager and volunteer wrangler. “Affinage is a huge part of what we do.”
The farm-to-table culture has become ingrained in our region, but I often regret that I am only partaking in the “table” end of the chain. My hours in the creamery at Cricket Creek bring me a little closer to the source and allow me to show my respect for farms and farmers.
And, of course, I am grateful for my reward — the cheese that will grace my Thanksgiving hors d’oeuvres tray.