The Cato Institute of Cheese
Cato Corner Farm, Colchester
August 15, 2009
*Cato Corner was featured on an episode of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain on 3/8/10 – Check it out!
[2013 Update: I should tell you all that I stop in at Cato pretty much every single time I travel down Route 2. It gets better and better. Make it part of your life too.]
Every so often, and fortunately less and less so, Hoang has to work on a Saturday. This is almost always when her area is responsible for a product release and she has to sit around all day testing and being vigilant for technical issues. So it’s a rare weekend day that you’ll read about me alone with Damian, but this was one of those days. And what a day we had.
We started off in Manchester at the Lutz Children’s Museum because I had some free passes – and also because it’s a fun little children’s museum. We’d been to it before (CTMQ Visit here), of course, but that hardly mattered to Damian. After a while at the museum, we hit the back roads of Manchester down to Hebron where we made a quick stop at the Hebron – heck, I don’t remember what it was, but it was some huge town tag sale /farmer’s market thing they do there.
Anyway, we stopped in and poked around. Damian gravitated towards the guitar player while I noted the cheese sellers. Yup, there was Cato Corner cheese for sale… But there was no need to buy any here, since we were on our way to the source!
Before heading down to Colchester though, Damian watched the ponies eat grass for a while (no way would he ride them) and then decided to show us all his impression of a horse eating grass:
Ah, that’s my boy. He just doesn’t care. For all of Damian’s issues, he still has the wonderful ability to crack me up. Oh, and he knows when he’s being funny, trust me. And for the record, only Hoang and I can laugh at him. You can only laugh with him. Thems the special needs rules, folks.
Cato Corner Farm is off the same Route 2 exit as Priam Vineyards. So if you’re into it, get some cheese here and then enjoy it with some wine down the road. And if you’re a pretentious yuppie, be sure to babble into your Bluetooth while stepping out of your BMW for all to hear about how awesome you are for getting local cheese and drinking wine in this quaint li’l country burg called Colchester, you jerk. (CTMQ’s non jerky Priam visit here.)
From all appearances, Cato Corner looks to be a small and somewhat roughshod operation. They’re not big on fancy exteriors or flashy signage. They focus their energies and time on making cheese – darn good cheese. In fact, they’ve received many accolades from far more reputable and impressive sources than the one you’re reading right now. Check it:
And those blurbs are all pretty old. Cato Corner has only grown and improved since then. Cato Corner Farm is a mother-son partnership. Elizabeth MacAlister has owned the farm for more than 25 years. She began milking cows and making cheese in 1997 as a way to keep her farm sustainable.
To get started, she took a technical course in cheese making at California Polytechnic University and a workshop with a Belgian cheese master, and then she began experimenting. Her son Mark learned from her and some other cheese courses along the way. Nowadays, Mark makes most of the cheese and oversees its aging, while Elizabeth manages the farm operations including milking and caring for the cows. The rest of the Cato Corner family includes several full time and part time workers and a pair of diligent and attentive border collies named Flute and Harp.
Sadly for Damian, we never met the doggies. Oh how he loves dogs. But, if there’s one thing he loves more than dogs it’s cheese. And Cato Corner has a wealth of varieties – all offered up for free tasting in their tiny little sales/tasting room. I assume the guy and the woman doling out samples were Mark and Elizabeth [August 2011 update: I assumed wrong. My hosts were neither Mark nor Elizabeth, but rather Mark’s apprentice and a family friend.] Both welcomed Damian and upon learning that cheese is his favorite food, they began slicing away at the massive wheels of cheese. Mmmm, cheese. Let’s learn some specifics:
We make all of our cheese by hand with raw milk from our 40 cows, mostly Jerseys, on our small Connecticut farm. We never use growth hormones, sub-therapeutic antibiotics, or animal-based feeds, and our cows graze freely so that they have happy lives with a rich diet of fresh pasture grasses. All the rinds are natural and have natural surface molds that are integral to developing the full flavor of the cheese. We age and care for the cheese in our underground cave, ripening all varieties to their peak of flavor.
Good cheese starts with good milk, and our happy, healthy cows produce the best milk we could ask for! The flavor and fat/protein components change slightly throughout the season as the cows’ diet changes. Accordingly, we produce firmer textured cheeses like our Vivace and cheddars in the summer months, while we focus on the creamier cheeses in the winter. Some cheeses like the Dutch and the Bridgid’s Abbey are good year round, but customers may notice seasonal variations in taste and consistency. Our cows graze outside from approximately May 1 – October 31. The cheese made during these summer months may offer extra health benefits. Research suggests that pasture-fed milk has increased levels of Omega-3 fatty acids and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), both of which have been shown to help prevent cancer. Since our cheese is raw, it includes natural enzymes that make it easier to digest. (These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.) Our farm and cheese plant are licensed in the state of Connecticut. The Connecticut Department of Agriculture and the federal Food and Drug Administration inspect our facilities and sample our milk and cheese regularly to ensure food safety.
Okay, that was really quite specific. I just know what tastes good, not what contains conjugated linoleic acid. Just before we get to actually tasting, here’s another quickie review: “World-class… some are wonderfully spicy and pungent. All it takes is one bite of their most popular offering, the Belgian-inspired Bridgid’s Abbey, and you’ll swear off bland, pasteurized cheese forever.” – Town and Country magazine, October 2001.
I’m telling you, this is top-quality stuff here.
And if three-year-olds are any judge, Cato Corner may just make the greatest cheese in the world. As we began our tasting, (I’m assuming) Elizabeth warned me that some of their cheese are very strong and pungent – basically telling me that no way will my kid want a lot of their offerings. “Eh,” I said,” bring it on. He has a very well developed palate.”
(He really does. Some research suggests that those with Smith-Magenis Syndrome have diminished taste receptors which is somehow related to their diminished pain receptors. This would explain why Damian eats pretty much anything – from broccoli to extra spicy Doritos to ginger/soy salmon to asparagus to chicken tikka masala to … You get the point. Also, he’s been fed various Vietnamese foods throughout his life and has always been good with vegetables and fish. My guess it’s a combination of all this stuff…)
And so, away we go! Not only does their supply change slightly throughout the year, they post a list of the cheeses on the wall noting any variation from what people may expect. For example, the first cheese is their most popular, Bridgid’s Abbey which is a Trappist-style monastery cheese with a smooth, creamy consistency. Bridgid’s Abbey has been our best seller for years – its irresistible rich, mild taste is ideal for all-day eating for breakfast, sandwiches, or snacking. It melts well, performing excellently in quiche, toasted cheese, or over vegetables. Bridgid’s Abbey varies in consistency somewhat from summer to winter – the winter batches are very creamy, while the summer milk yields a slightly firmer and chewier texture. The sign on the day we visited noted, “This is a slightly drier batch but yummy.”
Indeed it was. We moved on through the acclaimed Dutch Farmstead (Moderately creamy and medium mild with a slight nutty undertone and a rich, round, well-balanced flavor, the Dutch Farmstead is our variation on Gouda), the Bloomsday (Named for Joyce’s Ulysses, the Bloomsday is drier textured than many of our cheeses with a fabulous nutty flavor and addictive lingering aftertaste. Bloomsday is a perfect addition to any cheese plate and it makes a delicious sandwich or grilled cheese.), and the aged Bloomsday (at one year old, with a sharper and more intense finish).
Damian gobbled them all up (as did I). Elizabeth (I think) was rather amazed that this little boy was enjoying some of their rather sharp cheese with strong flavors. But she was also quite happy about it and Damian was enjoying everyone’s attention.
However, it was time for another warning. The next cheese, the Hooligan, falls squarely into the “stinky cheese” category and is very pungent. No way would I even dare to give this to Damian. I sampled it and quite frankly it was too much for me. I didn’t like it at all. As Cato Corner says, “Hooligan is our signature “stinky” cheese that many food lovers consider to be our best variety. Made in 1.3 lb wheels, Hooligan is a ripe washed-rind cheese with a soft creamy interior and a gorgeous orange rind. Hooligans are bathed twice a week in brine to encourage the growth of pungent, surface-ripening bacteria. The Hooligan melts beautifully for a fabulously stinky toasted cheese (a bit like raclette).”
Okay tough guy, you want some stinky cheese named after stinky drunken toothless British guys who fight at soccer games? A nod in the affirmative.
Grab. Insert. Chew chew chew. Swallow. Bug eyes… Sign language for “More! More! More!” The tiny tasting room erupted in laughter and applause. Meanwhile, Damian stared at Elizabeth wondering what was taking her so long getting him his next slice.
The boy is too much. We continued tasting as long as Elizabeth continued giving. What a great business model; once you’re in the little room and being given free cheese, it become almost impossible to leave empty-handed. I suppose they could start charging like wineries do, but that’s not really necessary. (Hint, hint.)
We tried something called Dirty Cow and then moved onto their blue cheese – called Black Ledge Blue. It was delicious; creamy and medium strong with an acidic aftertaste. I’m a huge fan of blue cheese and when you hit upon one that is artisanal and high-end, it’s just fantastic. I ended up buying a hunk and enjoying it over the next several days with Hoang at home.
There were still more cheeses to sample: Vivace Bambino (sweet, chewy and moist, a medium mild cheese with a flavor like Swiss Emmental) and Womanchego (medium strong and a touch sweet with hints of fruit and nut. Firmer and more acidic than its Spanish cousin, manchego.) I almost bought this as well…
In fact, I would buy anything from Cato Corner – except that Hooligan. But if stinky cheese is your thing, Cato Corner makes some others that just weren’t available during my visit – Despearado (Hooligan washed with fermented pear mash and Pear William eau de vie from Connecticut’s Westford Hill Distillery, it is stronger and riper than the traditional Hooligan with a hint of pear on the aftertaste), Drunken Hooligan (a seasonal cheese that’s available from approximately November through January, Drunken Hooligan is washed with grape must and young red wine from Priam Vineyard), and Drunk Monk (Hooligan rubbed in brown ale from Willimantic Brewing Company, the Drunk Monk is pungent and ripe with a slight hint of peanut butter on the aftertaste). Major points for their use of three different local adult beverage makers.
Oh there are still more (my favorite name is the Dairyere), and I’m sure subsequent visits will yield some new and exciting cheese finds.
Satisfied, Damian and I walked around the property and checked out the dairy barns. There, we stared at some cows and even got to see a calf chug down a huge bottle of milk in mere seconds. Damian got a huge kick out of watching this and laughed and laughed at the calf, with eyes bugging out, drinking milk out of a giant baby bottle. Simple pleasures.
Later in the week, I threw together a classic ice berg wedge with (turkey) bacon and some of the Cato Corner blue cheese. Man oh man was it good! I suggest you make it a point to do the same one of these days.
The Cheese Room Store is open every Saturday and Sunday from 10am – 3pm