For local cheesemaker Gail Hobbs-Page, the hills will be alive with the sound of cowbells and milking pails as she embarks on a dream excursion to the Italian Alps this month. She’ll be communing with Italian cheese makers who are making their product the old-fashioned way: by hand.
Hobbs-Page, who owns Caromont Farm south of Charlottesville, has been making goat cheese with modern equipment since 2007. Now, she’s cooking up a plan to make hand-crafted, small-batch cheeses four times a year (a new cheese for each season). She hopes to start selling her Cheese by Hand on Caromont Farm’s website next month, available to ship anywhere in the U.S.
After over a decade of making cheese, it’s a new venture she can take on while still staying small. “I can’t do grocery store cheese because I don’t want to get big,” she says. “I got into it in the first place to be a craftsman, rather than a mega producer.”
Which is what is taking her to Marmora, a tiny Italian village in the Piedmont region with an elevation of 6,000 feet, not far from the Swiss border. Here she will work with Roberta Colombero, who interned five years ago at Caromont Farm, learning to make chèvre. Since then, Colombero has earned a degree in cheesemaking and become a popular figure in her own right, even appearing in Italian Vanity Fair.
“She’s got quite the following,” Hobbs-Page says. “I couldn’t be more happy for her.”
Hobbs-Page says Colombero’s cheeses are “raw and simple and beautiful,” and show the value of making good food where you are. “We have to work to preserve the local food scene,” she says. “We’ve seen so many farms come and go.”
Each spring, Colombero leads the cows from her family farm to pasture in the high alpine meadows. She makes her well-known cheese, Avalanche, by hand right there, in a remote creamery in the mountains. When the snows come, she leads the cows back down the mountain.
Hobbs-Page will rise early each day with her friend and will milk the cows, as well as make cheeses. She’s looking forward to spending time with the young woman she once mentored. “We were instant soul sisters,” Hobbs-Page says.
She’s also excited to experience cheesemaking in a different climate and ecosystem.
“I’m super interested in her aging and her culture and seeing how this alpine grass affects the milk and the butter she makes,” Hobbs-Page says. “It will inspire me to come back and do these subscription cheeses.”
Colombero will also pair her up with fellow cheese artisans during the month. “She belongs to a consortium of six farmers, some with goats, some sheep, some cows, and she’ll introduce me to people in her cheese ‘neighborhood’ so to speak,” Hobbs-Page says.
With her husband Daniel Page, manager and partner at Hamiltons’ at First & Main, Hobbs-Page will also travel to other Italian regions to research cheesemaking, including the southern part of Tuscany and the alpine city of Bergamo. Barboursville winemaker Luca Paschina, a friend, helped set up some wine tours in Chianti and Barolo, and they’ll also visit a college friend in Genoa who designs websites for cheesemakers in the region.
The trip, she says, is a way of finding her cheesemaking roots, from the Piedmont of Virginia to the Piedmont of Italy.
“I think the best food is made by hand, and it comes from real people, and that’s the spirit I want to honor. To me it’s just this pursuit to affirm these universal values.”
And she’ll bring that back with her to her Esmont farm.
”When you get into a special cheese, I can’t get locked into a big release because they’re labor-intensive, the milk is seasonal and some milks don’t fit to those cheeses,” she says. “So I want the flexibility to interpret the cheeses to the seasons.”
“You’ll see and taste the difference if you subscribe,” she adds. “This is the nature of village cheeses.”
Hobbs-Page plans to launch Cheese by Hand on November 4, at a paella “FARMily” reunion dinner she is hosting along with Ika Ben Zaken of La Tienda, a tapas restaurant in Williamsburg. Potter’s Craft Cider will be there, along with local artisans and, of course, goats to snuggle.
Want to follow Hobbs-Page on her cheesemaking journey? She’ll be chronicling her trip on Caromont Farm’s Facebook and Instagram.