It’s the kind of story that could only be written in 2015. A kosher foodie, self-taught, decided to see if he could fund a day’s production of Vermont, aged, farmstead cheddar cheese. “I wanted to see if there was a demand for it,” Mark Bodzin told the Jewish Link. One year later, it has become his full-time job. After entirely selling out his first run of the cheese and with demands coming left and right for more, Bodzin, a former mashgiach, has, with his company, Muncle Arks Gourmet LLC, and Vermont’s Shelburne Farms, created a viable business model to continue producing the cheddar for the kosher-conscious consumer.
The kosher foodie community’s initial response to Bodzin’s concept was overwhelming. With a Kickstarter campaign, Bodzin raised a little more than $19,000, $3,000 more than necessary to do a one-day Vaad HaRabanim-of-Massachusetts-supervised run for the cheddar. Shelburne Farms then stepped up and financed the rest of the second day’s run. “People bought a couple hundred pounds more than the first day’s production, but then, we actually sold out of any extra cheese before anyone had ever tasted it,” said Bodzin.
The run, which created a total of 1200 pounds of kosher cheddar, was aged for a year, and was shipped to customers last month. “I have requests for cheese right now that I can’t fulfill,” said Bodzin.
The customers gave great reviews and feedback. In addition to thank you notes and compliments (“Buttery and flavorful,” “Goes great with water challah,” “Stellar” and “Delicious and such a treat”), Bodzin shared that many kosher foodies asked him to look into making other types of cheese, as Shelburne makes only cheddar. There was more than one request for the cheese to be produced under Chalav Yisroel supervision.
Excitingly, during the cutting and packaging of the initial run of cheese in March, 2015, the Shelburne team, with Bodzin, did a second run of kosher cheddar, this time under Chalav Yisroel supervision. Also planned to be aged for close to a year, the 1200 pound Chalav Yisroel run is set to be ready for shipping in January or February, 2016.
Bodzin told the Jewish Link that the project involved sourcing a special Chalav Yisroel raw milk culture for rennet from France, which was shipped frozen in dry ice, as well as additional supervision of the farm’s milk production processes. Rennet is the starter that acidifies the milk to begin the process of turning it into cheese, and also affects the flavor. Non-kosher, non-vegetarian cheese is often made with animal rennet.
While the Chalav Yisroel process was more intense for Bodzin, Shelburne took it in stride. “Cheese making is a very sanitary, very clean operation. The kashering process is not that different from regular cheese production. We are cleaning all the time,” Kate Turcotte, Shelburne Farms’ head cheese maker told the Jewish Link. She did say, however, that from the kosher supervision perspective, the Chalav Yisroel time commitment and job size was larger. “The rabbi started off at 4:30, supervising the morning milking, then made cheese for eight hours, and then ended the day with the supervision of the evening milking,” she added.
As a self-described “cheese dork,” Turcotte added that she found it interesting to source the Chalav Yisroel culture, and while she could have made a mother culture from raw milk as a replacement, she wasn’t willing to risk the whole run for an experiment. “With a 6,000-pound vat of milk, you don’t want to mess that up,” she joked.
Responding to Turcotte’s comment about taking cheese making seriously and not wanting to mess anything up, Bodzin said, “One of the things I love about Shelburne is it’s all about quality.” He explained that if he had gone with other cheese-making operations to make his cheese, “it just wouldn’t have been a Shelburne cheddar.”
However complicated the effort, as cheese makers interested in making their product available to a wider audience, Shelburne was pleased with the feedback and happy that it took the initial dive into kosher production. “Overall, it was a really positive experience for us. We make the same cheese seven days a week, with a very routine kind of production. The kosher production involved only slight changes to our system and process, but doing it allowed us to open up our product to a whole new group of people who will now have access to our cheese,” Turcotte said.
Turcotte added that the three-layer waxing process that takes place in the packaging stage, as well as other processes, had to be examined, and in some cases, overhauled, as part of the kashering process, but the team generally took the production in stride and plans to continue the annual kosher runs. “Our eventual goal is to have kosher cheese available in the store,” she said.
Bodzin also added that packaging and shipping comprises a large portion of the product’s cost, and that kosher stores that have cheese programs (i.e., dairy departments that can cut and package cheese from large blocks), would be able to sell the product for approximately half the current price, which is about $30 per pound. The Kickstarter supporters paid a little more due to the initial need to package each pound individually, yet they paid only a small premium of $3 to $4 more for the kosher supervision than regular Shelburne Farms customers. Shelburne sells cheese primarily by the pound as well as other gift-basket items through its catalog and online business.
Shelburne Farms, in Shelburne, Vermont, a suburb of Burlington, welcomes 150,000 tourists a year, and includes a nonprofit education center, with an inn, a store, a children’s farmyard and walking trails located on a historic landmark that includes the 1400-acre working farm and farmstead cheese production, which also has viewing galleries for visitors. The raw milk coming from the farm’s cows is made into cheese the same day. Known for their award-winning cheddar, the farm makes 600 to 650 pounds of cheese a day, by hand. Shelburne Farms makes 170,000 pounds of cheese every year, in full operation seven days a week for 10 months a year. Learn more at www.shelburnefarms.org and order your Chalav Yisroel kosher cheddar at www.munclearks.com.
By Elizabeth Kratz