From Curd to Co-Op: Behind the Scenes at Cato Corner

by Benjamin Soloway, Assistant Features Editor

Clad in white wading boots, chlorine-sterilized gloves, and a disposable hairnet, Mark Gillman, 41, stands among his many wheels of cheese, which fill the closely packed shelves that surround him and extend into the distance. Water sloshes on the floor and condenses on the walls. The cold, subterranean air is heavy with humidity and with the sharp fragrance of the mold bouquets that flourish on aging rinds. This is the cheese cave at Cato Corner Farm.

In the subterranean storage room, 18,000 pounds of raw-milk farmstead cheese slowly ages under Gillman’s watchful eye. From the depths of the cave, the cheese will make its way to the farm’s small shop, to a number of farmers’ markets, to the finest cheese shops and the most respected restaurants in New York City, to the pages of books and magazines about exceptional food, and to the mini-fridges of 399 students here on campus.

Gillman and his mother, Elizabeth MacAlister, are the proprietors of the acclaimed dairy farm that provides the new and popular campus cheese co-op with almost 200 pounds of handmade product each week.

Outside, a rooster crows and forty Jersey cows (the Isle, not the state) mill about in their paddock and munch on straw. It’s still too early in the year to rotate them across the farm’s 35 acres of carefully subdivided pastureland. “When you talk about cheese,” Gillman said, “it’s important to talk about cows and what they eat. Good cheese comes from good cows who eat good grass.”

This is the Cato Corner philosophy: no hormones, no antibiotics, natural grazing, raw milk, and handmade cheese of the highest quality.

Before grazing season, the paddock and barn are crowded but clean. One heifer, utter swinging, mounts another cow from behind.

“You can tell she’s in heat,” explained Gillman.

Soon, this cow, along with others, will be a candidate for artificial insemination. When cows first give birth, their milk cycles begin. Inside the barn, the youngest cows wait to join the older ones outside. A newborn calf, several weeks old, stands quietly under a blanket.

Farm employees spend six hours each day milking cows. The milk is pumped into the main cheese room, where its is carefully heated in a 450 gallon vat, infused with bacteria cultures, separated into curds and whey, placed into baskets or hoops, and pressed into shape by Gillman and his employees. Differences in preparation, rennet, and curd size, along with countless other preparatory variations, determine the nature of the final products.

Gillman is proud of his cheese process.

“The way we do this is more labor intensive than other forms of making and selling cheese,” he said.

A Haverford grad and Teach for America alum, Gillman began making cheese in 1999, when he decided to “put his books in the attic” and help his mother make their farm sustainable. She and her family had been farming on the Cato Corner property since the late seventies, but always in addition to other careers. MacAlister was originally a social worker before she decided to devote herself to making her farm economically feasible.

Gillman is now in his twelfth year on the farm. His children both spend time at Cato Corner, and his wife, Erin Boggs ’93, works at the CT Fair Housing Center in Hartford.

Gillman is pleased by the popularity of his cheese at his wife’s Alma Mater.

“We were surprised by the response,” he said.

But perhaps he should not have been, since the cheeses are marketed perfectly for Wesleyan students. The co-op prices are quite a bargain, and the cheeses have names like Womanchego (instead of Manchego) and Bloomsday (in reference to James Joyce).

“We think part of why it’s done so well is because it’s less labor intensive than the fruit and veggie co-op,” said Zachary Malter ’13, who founded the cheese co-op.

If you have been eating Gillman’s cheese, you may have noticed a bit of a smell in your kitchen or dorm room.

“Cheese is about the controlled growth of bacteria,” explained Gillman. “Bacteria produce smell in addition to taste.”

For Gillman, cheese making is ultimately about “the feeling of the curd, the satisfaction of sampling someone at the market and seeing their face light up, [or] surprising a European customer who does not expect American cheese to be so good.”

Like the Trappist Monks who inspired Cato Corner’s popular Bridgid’s Abbey cheese, Gillman is a craftsman who painstakingly creates his product by hand, from milk to market. Members of the cheese co-op, along with thousands of customers across the Northeast, have taken notice.