SKOWHEGAN — Amy and Josh Clark, of Crooked Face Creamery, have been making artisan cheese for only about three years.
In that short amount of time, the young couple — both from traditional farming families — already has won an award in a national competition in cheese-friendly Wisconsin for their handcrafted, whole-milk ricotta.
They placed third among America’s top cheese makers earlier this month at the 2013 American Cheese Society Conference.
“It was quite a surprise and an honor to win this recognition for our very first time in any competition,” Amy Clark said. “We had entered in the hopes of receiving some useful feedback to improve our product and were delighted it was so greatly enjoyed by the panel of judges from all over the country. Now we are waiting for the evaluation to come in the mail.”
The conference is host to the largest cheese competition in North America and this year received the most submissions in conference history, featuring 1,794 cheese entries, according to the society’s website.
Josh Clark, 30, milks the herd of about 40 Jersey cows, with a total of 110 head of cattle, including young stock on about 200 acres. They produce 250 pounds of milk every other day. Farmers sell their milk by the pound in 100-pound batches. Most of Clark’s milk is trucked to Agri-Mark, a New England dairy cooperative, and the rest is used to make cheese.
Amy Clark makes the cheese — a projected 6,000 pounds this year. She said she makes about 500 pounds of cheese per month. The cheese sells for $7.50 a pound for wholesale fresh cheese to $18 a pound for aged cheese sold retail.
The Clarks said they make ends meet on the farm and hope to expand soon, but they would not divulge their annual sales figures.
Maine has more than 70 licensed cheese makers and this year will produce close to 1 million pounds of cheese, according to Eric Rector, president of the Maine Cheese Guild, a support network for the state’s regional cheeses makers.
“When I became licensed in 2006, there were only 17 cheese makers,” Rector said.
To enter this year’s Cheese Society competition in Wisconsin, the Clarks were granted a scholarship to be a member of the Maine Cheese Guild. Members get a discount on competition entries.
“Whenever Maine farmers and products can be showcased at the national level, it highlights the amazing quality of food we have here in the state,” Amy Clark said. “We’ve been really pushing cheese this year, trying to develop our wholesale market.”
According to a University of Vermont study, Maine is the fastest growing artisan cheese-producing state, Rector said.
Maine is second only to New York State in the number of artisan producers, where there are about 100 cheese makers, and larger than Vermont with 65 artisan producers and Wisconsin with around 35 producers, according to the study.
Varieties of regional cheese in Maine range from traditional cheddar and jacks to British styles, such as Cheshire; soft, fuzzy “bloomy rinds” including Camembert; and Italian types, such as provolone, ricotta and mozzarella; blue cheese; and baby Swiss, Rector said.
The Clarks live and work at the dairy farm on Middle Road, Skowhegan, formerly run by Josh Clark’s grandparents Clayton and Joanne Clark.
They bought the farm earlier this year from Josh’s grandmother. Clayton Clark died in November 2011.
The creamery where the cheese is made is set up in rooms that formerly housed Clark Livestock Sales and Auction Services.
One of the keys to the success of Crooked Face cheeses, Amy Clark said, is the milk from the Jersey cows.
“Their milk is very rich in butterfat; it’s richer, creamier, and it’s great for making value-added stuff, like ricotta, which is made from reheating whey that is leftover from the production of other cheeses,” she said.
Whey is the liquid left over after milk has been curdled and strained for cheese making.
“The difference here is I make whole-milk ricotta, and with the Jersey milk that’s so rich in butterfat, I get an incredible yield,” she said. “We monitor and hand-craft every step of the process, which helps differentiate our products.
Crooked Face also sells pressed. herbed ricotta made with seasonal herbs, garlic scrapes, rosemary and garlic. The cheese is used as a spread for crackers, vegetables and bread. They also craft a line of natural rind, Gouda-style cheese and double Gloucester, a cheddar-style cheese.
Doug Harlow — 612-2367