Like many dairy farmers, Deb and Doug Erb of Landaff, New Hampshire love what they do, but they have also had times when they’ve wondered if they’d be better off doing something else. The last time they went through this debate, they not only concluded that dairy was their forever profession but they dug in even deeper and became farmstead cheesemakers, crafting cheese using only the milk of their own herd of 80 registered Holsteins. “We decided there wasn’t anything else we wanted to do,” Doug says simply. “We like cows so we decided to stay farming,” his wife of close to forty years adds. “The creamery exists to serve the farm.”
And as with everything they do, when the Erbs do something, they commit themselves fully. They studied the business and the science of making cheese for close to two years, taking courses and doing thorough research to identify a promising niche. A key turning point came when they visited the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vermont (where Cabot Clothbound Cheddar is aged) to check out some equipment they were thinking of buying. Conversations there led the Erbs to hone in on a Welsh style of cheese named Caerphilly and launched a long-term relationship with Jasper Hill, who now age and market their cheeses around the country. The team at Jasper Hill connected Doug to a third-generation Caerphilly-maker in Somerset, England. He was able to visit in-person to learn about the traditional cheese, a favorite of Welsh miners who reportedly wrapped wedges in cabbage leaves to keep it moist. The fact that Springvale Farm’s hometown of Landaff has a historic connection to Llandaff in Wales made the fit even more apt. They have since added a second cheese called Kinsman’s Ridge, named for the mountain range visible from the valley farm.
Their award-winning Landaff is slightly crumbly, sweet and herbaceous similar to its ancestral model, but the Erbs also put their own mark on the recipe, Deb explains: “We wanted it to be more buttery and melty.” The cheese starts with pristine, fresh milk from Springvale’s pastured herd and visitors can watch through a viewing window on production days as the curds are cut and packed into the molds by hand.
Doug was originally the only cheesemaker, but as the cheese has developed a national reputation the team has expanded to include Deb’s sister, Doreen Morris, whose family runs another co-op member dairy, Gamblin Farm in Haverhill, NH, and, more recently, their son-in-law. To balance out seasonal ebbs and flows of the cheese business, the Erbs still ship milk to the co-op and are deeply supportive of the organization. Doug served on the co-op board for nine years and Deb is currently serving, the only husband-wife team to do so.
The Erbs are equally rooted in their community. Doug grew up on Springvale Farm, which his father, a veterinarian, bought in 1952. He left to study business management and worked for several years before deciding that hands-on agriculture was his calling. Deb, who was raised in western Massachusetts on a dairy farm, came to Springvale to work as a veterinary technician for Doug’s father. The couple had looked into buying their own farm but “gotten laughed out of three different banks,” Deb recalls with a rueful chuckle. In 1980, Dr. Erb called his son and asked if he and his wife were interested in taking over the family farm.
The couple jokes that the viewing corridor is like a mini Ben & Jerry’s Homemade ice cream factory tour but then explains that it was really a way to say thank you to their neighbors. When they embarked upon construction in 2008 to convert the old veterinary kennel room into a cheese production space, Deb had broken her ankle so Doug asked a friend for help. Fifteen neighbors and friends showed up with their own tools. “The neatest thing is that people from Landaff send photos to us from all over where they’ve seen our cheese,” she says. “The ownership they feel of this little creamery named for our town is amazing.”
Another amazing development, the couple acknowledges, is the return of one of their three grown children to the farm with her family about a year ago: their eldest and only daughter, Jenn Locke, and her husband Dale, who had recently wrapped up a stint in the navy. “The cheese is why,” says Deb with a big smile. The couple has 10-year-old twin sons and the Erbs couldn’t be more pleased to be part of their daily lives. “To see the twins ride down the road, it makes your heart melt,” says Deb.
New Hampshire’s Own Macaroni and Cheese Bake-Off People’s Choice Champion 2015
“Cravin’ Bacon” Mac and Landaff Cheese Adapted from Doreen Morris
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, plus more to garnish if desired
Note: If Landaff cheese isn’t available in your area, Cabot sharp cheddar makes a good substitute.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9- by 13-inch or other shallow, large baking dish.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and stir in pasta. Return pot to a boil and cook, according to package directions, just until pasta is cooked but still slightly firm. Immediately drain pasta in a colander and rinse under cold water; set aside.
In a large frying pan or sauté pan, cook bacon until crisp. Remove bacon and drain on paper towels. Pour all bacon fat into a small heatproof bowl and reserve. When cool, crumble bacon into another small bowl.
Measure two tablespoons of bacon fat into the frying pan set over medium heat. Add onion and sauté, stirring a couple times, about 4 minutes until softened. Add garlic, sauté, stirring, another 2 minutes. Scrape cooked onion and garlic into bowl with crumbled bacon.
Measure another 3 tablespoons of bacon fat into a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan set over medium-low heat. When fat is melted, whisk in flour until smooth and cook, whisking constantly, until mixture is pale golden, about 3 minutes. Gradually whisk in half and half. Increase heat to medium and cook, whisking frequently, until mixture is thickened and bubbly, about 8 minutes. Remove sauce from heat and immediately stir in salt, pepper, thyme and grated cheese. Then stir in cooked onion, garlic and bacon. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.
Combine pasta and cheese sauce in prepared baking dish. In a small bowl, combine melted butter, cracker crumbs and parsley. Spread evenly on top of pasta. Bake about 30 minutes until bubbly and golden brown. Serve garnished with more fresh parsley as desired. Makes 8 to 10 servings.