Wednesday December 8, 2010

BENNINGTON -- An Italian cheese maker has joined a local cheese company with plans to bring new products to market.

Maplebrook farm has been selling hand-stretched mozzarella for several years. The Bennington-based company has grown since its founding in 2003, shipping mozzarella, ricotta and feta cheese along the east coast, and as far west as Ohio.

Now, partners Johann Englert and Michael Scheps have brought on Domenico Marchitelli to help the company bring burrata and provolone into the mix. Marchitelli, of Puglia, Italy, is well versed in cheese making, Englert said.

"Everybody makes cheese in that town. You're a cheese maker when you're born, practically. You go around and you look and you look and you get a job in a cheese factory. He started when he was like 10, and he just continually made it," Englert said.

The company and Marchitelli, who only speaks Italian, came together as a "fluke," according to Englert. He was about to lose his job in Miami where he made mozzarella for a restaurant, so his wife began cold-calling various cheese companies.

"She called me and I listened to her when she said, ‘excuse me, this is a cold call.' I don't want to give myself credit but a lot of people say, ‘gee, I'm sorry, we're all set.' Bang," Englert said. "You've got to listen to people, see what they have to say before you hang up on them."

Marchitelli's wife mentioned a relatively rare cheese -- burrata. "It tweaked my interest, you see? I said keep talking," Englert said. "It's worked out because I listened to her."

The handmade burrata requires two people to make.

"It's a cream filled mozzarella. In other words, he takes the mozzarella after he stretches it out a little bit ... he measures out a creamy filling that's he's made, which consists of crème fraiche, strings of mozzarella and buttermilk," she said. "They wrap it up like a little bundle."

"Frankly, it's a heart attack waiting to happen," she said. "But, all these skinny people I see in the restaurants order it. Maybe they just taste a little bit."

The cheese is popular with high-end restaurants and stores, according to Englert. The company hopes to introduce it to the general public, she said.

"It's expensive because it's so hands on. The labor costs are quite high because there are two people involved and every one is wrapped individually and tied with a knot," Englert said.

Marchitelli brings infinite possibilities to the company, according to Englert. "He just doesn't come with burrata," she said.

They hope to bring provolone cheese to the market, and may add additional cheeses, too.

The company has steadily expanded over the past few years. Its facility on East Road grew along with production. They continue to make hand-stretched mozzarella, but added a machine to make smaller balls of cheese often found at salad bars.

"We were finding that our competition was not only making the regular balls that we make, but they were making the small ones. There's only one way to do that and that is with a big machine, so we had to buy a very expensive machine," Englert said.

The cheese is now sold in several markets, including Hannaford, Whole Foods Market, Stop and Shop and Roche Bros. In peak times in July and August mozzarella production hit 25,000 pounds per week, Englert said.

The company, which employs 20 people, has $3 million in sales last year, and hopes to reach $6 million in a few years. "So far so good. We're kind of standing on our own," she said.

Maplebrook Farm's cheese has won several awards, too, including first place at the 2010 Big E in Springfield for its whole milk ricotta. "We didn't win all of them but to place one, two or three is fantastic. We're a small company," Englert said.

Marchitelli's arrival, just like past improvements, came at just the right time, Englert said.

"It's just been so lucky that when we're ready to make the next step something happens that helps us do that. It's absolutely amazing," she said. "We have great expectations."

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com