From Mother to Daughter: A Local Cheesemaking Business Matures
The cheesemaking supply company that Ricki Carroll started in 1978 continues to thrive in Western Massachusetts, thanks to her devoted, tech-savvy daughter Sarah.
On a recent Saturday in the Berkshires, 22 people assembled at Sarah Carroll’s Williamsburg home, ready to turn 15 gallons of local milk into an awe-inspiring variety of soft cheeses. In just six hours, they’d go through the bulk of the process: heating the milk, adding cultures and molds, cutting and cooking curds, and then draining, salting, and pressing. Over lunch, they’d sample their fresh cream spread, whole milk and whey ricotta, yogurt and mascarpone, as well as the fromage blanc, creme fraiche, paneer, and Colby Sarah had prepared for them in advance.
"It's a very full day," Sarah said.
At the end, the class clapped; and from outside the workshop room, Ricki the Cheese Queen smiled.
"I was the proud momma," said Ricki Carroll, who, in 1978, cofounded the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company (NECSC) in Ashfield, Massachusetts, with her then husband. In those days, they grew almost everything they ate, including the soybeans they used to make tofu. At a neighbor’s suggestion, they bought milking goats, and soon with an abundance of milk, experimented with cheesemaking, eventually teaching it to others.
"We were kind of running this by the seat of our pants," Ricki said.
Through the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Carrolls sold cultures and presses through ads in agricultural magazines. The people attending their cheesemaking workshops had milk-making animals in their backyard — or knew neighbors who did. Once Ricki created a company website, though, DIY-minded city dwellers started showing up to learn how to turn their store-bought milk into cheese. Word spread, and in 2007, bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver raved about the one-day workshop in Food & Wine magazine and then in her book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." Within weeks of the book’s publication, Ricki said, business doubled. "That was kind of a scary time," she said.
Sarah can’t remember when her mother wasn’t the Cheese Queen, or when her childhood home wasn’t filled with cardboard shipping boxes she and her older sister, Jennifer, used to build forts when they weren’t helping their parents assemble cheese kits.
“The business was part of our life,” she said, “and it was more part of the house than a separate entity.”
Years before becoming its head of operations, Sarah pursued her lifelong dream of owning a horse farm, equipped with the bookkeeping and decision-making skills her mother had taught her.
Six years later, having decided to close the farm and working part-time at NECSC, Sarah listened to her mother tell her that after 30 years of owning New England Cheesemaking Supply Co., she was considering selling it.
"And [Sarah] said, 'No, no, no, no, no,'" Ricki explained. "And I said, 'Unless you’re willing to help.'"
Sarah dove right in, working long hours to learn the ins and outs of operations and finding a creative outlet through the computer. "I was able to see so much of what my mother had contributed to the business and things that I wouldn’t have known because they were just normal, day-to-day stuff she had done," she said.
These days, the Cheese Queen has largely stepped back from the business to travel, tasting cheese all over the world and singing with a chorus. Meanwhile, Sarah, along with her husband, Mark, is perfecting the finishing notes of her triple-crème, attending cheese conferences and strategizing about how to grow the business in today’s cheese-hungry, ecommerce market.
"When I first started working with the business, I felt like I needed to fill my mother’s shoes," she said. "It was recently I realized I can learn what she did and how she did it and make my own path."
She’s also thinking about the day she might pass on the torch to her two-year-old daughter, an adventurous eater who’s already developed a taste for pungent cheeses.
“I don’t want to mold her into a form,” Sarah said, “but I would love to see the business continue with her.”
Want to learn how to make cheese? Sarah Carroll's next beginners class is Aug. 27. Sign up ASAP because classes fill up fast!
Watch Ricki make a 30-minute mozzarella in this 5-minute video. (Courtesy of New England Cheesemaking Supply Company)