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In the Palace of the Cheese Queen

Between the library and the post office in Ashfield, there is a palace on Main Street made of cheese.

 

By Mark Roessler

For some, following one’s bliss isn’t about long journeys or trying on dozens of different hats. For some, bliss is found by hunkering down someplace, planting roots and seeing what grows.

When Ricki Carroll first moved into her home on Main Street in Ashfield in the 1970s, she and her then-husband shared the large Victorian with a group of other adventurous young adults. The place needed a lot of work, and the new owners weren’t entirely certain how they were going to make ends meet. But with an interest in sustainable living and small-scale agriculture, they bought some goats.

“For a while, at first, we were all about goats,” Carroll said in a recent interview. “We wanted to know everything about them, and it was all we talked about.”

With the goats came more milk than they could use all at once, so they began investigating how to make cheese. Learning about raising goats had been relatively easy—there are many goat farmers in the hills of New England—but to find a cheesemaker, Carroll and her husband crossed the sea to old England, where they apprenticed on a farm. Gradually her obsession with goats expanded to include cheese and all things dairy.

While most Americans could only eat fine cheeses by importing them, Carroll began making all kinds of exotic varieties—hard Gouda, creamy Camembert, sharp blue cheese. She began learning which local dairies produced the best milk for a particular recipe, and she began to teach others.

Her classes became popular, and soon legions of cheesemakers were returning to the valleys of New England. In the late 1970s, the author Annie Proulx took her class. Proulx had recently written a book on making cider, and it was partly responsible for a renaissance of home brewing of that beverage. She told her publisher she thought Carroll was capable of doing the same for cheese.

The resulting book written by Carroll, Cheese Making Made Easy, first published in 1981, has sold over 140,000 copies. It’s now in its third edition, more than three times as long, and sold under the title Home Cheese Making. As Proulx predicted, the book became the artisan cheesemaker’s Bible, and in those circles, Carroll’s royal title is taken seriously. It’s not uncommon for someone to approach her in public with stars in their eyes (probably made of Gouda) and ask in awe, “Are you the Cheese Queen?”

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While Carroll was able to show aspiring curd-handlers that much could be done with local milk and a clean kitchen, some of the more ambitious (and tastiest) recipes required special equipment. Since she already knew the foreign distributors from whom she’d been ordering for herself, she began ordering in bulk at discounted rates and sharing the equipment and savings with her alumni.

“At one [artisan cheesemaker’s] conference a few years after the book came out, I began to realize that a lot of small American cheesemakers were really limited in what they could make by the ingredients and equipment we were importing and selling,” she said. “It was really eye-opening for me.” Afterwards, Carroll’s business, New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, focused on expanding its offerings and trying to provide as much as diversity as possible.

As Carroll’s cheesemaking empire grew, the number of people she shared the house with shrank. She got a divorce, and the business took over much of the house. An extension was built for a classroom, and the equipment the company shipped was stockpiled in corners of the house. For more than three decades, her life and cheesemaking were indistinguishably intertwined.

Now Carroll has relocated her business operations down to South Deerfield, put her daughter in charge, and begun to reclaim her home and her life. Her new passion is for group singing, and while she offers cheesemaking classes less frequently, she regularly holds concerts and week-long singing camps on her rolling back lawn.

In the space she’s reclaimed in her house, she’s been able to stretch out and let her aesthetic blossom. Pieces she’d bought over the years at crafts fairs, antique stores and galleries—treasures she’d never quite had a place for—finally found a home. And these wardrobes, overstuffed chairs and stained glass relics all began looking for companions with whom they could share the space.

After a lifetime of teaching students to become artisans in their own right, she hired two artists she admired to work for her.

She already had several pieces of furniture upholstered by Robert A. Harman, a Scottish furniture maker now based in Indiana. His patchworks of vivid primary colors have the intensity and geometry you might find in a piece of African tribal art, but the contrast of the more traditional, European lounge chair forms and Harman’s precise workmanship makes his work not only more approachable, but irresistible. Carroll found a pair of antique chair frames—ornate thrones, really—and asked that they be given the Harman treatment. The result is fit for a queen.

Massachusetts furniture maker Richard Dunbrack’s work had already taken up residence, like a host of colorful, mischievous children, all over Carroll’s Main Street palace. Dunbrack calls his business The Thieving Magpie, and given the mash-up of architectural elements, cast-iron castoffs and other faded fragments found in his work, it’s easy to see why. Instead of forcing his junkyard finds to fit the form of a conventional cabinet or wardrobe, Dunbrack lets the interesting, twisted elements take the lead. One such cupboard, filled with board games, is built entirely around a huge wooden crescent moon with a face.

Early this year, as Carroll was traveling to a singing camp in South Africa, Dunbrack moved into the palace for a couple of weeks and transformed her kitchen. Using rusted and weathered elements Carroll had collected, as well as some of his own magpie treasures, he created a kitchen that, design-wise, is as full of interesting accents, spicy notes and savory flavors as the queen’s cheeses. Dunbrack’s work makes even grabbing a glass of water or hunting for the sugar for your coffee something of a magical mystery tour.

These transformations weren’t carried out for Carroll, alone, though. While she has long filled her house with joy and song during her camps and concerts, love and romance have also taken up residence in recent years. This August, she and her long-time partner Jamie Eckley held a royal wedding on the premises.

 

This story was previously published in September 2011 edition of PreviewMass.
© 2011 Used with permission.

 

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