The 2024 Hot List: Lily Orr | culture: the word on cheese
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The 2024 Hot List: Lily Orr

This story is part of culture’s 2024 Hot List. Click here to learn more about the selection process and to see the entire list of recipients.

Photo Credit: Lisa Nichols

Lily Orr

Cheesemaker, Blakesville Creamery
Port Washington, Wisconsin

Love for dairy and agriculture has been part of Lily Orr’s life since she was a little girl growing up on her family’s third-generation dairy farm in Connecticut. She earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental science and natural resources from the University of Connecticut and pursued jobs in the conservation field. During the pandemic, Orr melded her science degree with her dairy knowledge and took up cheesemaking at home. She found her passion and jumped head-first into the industry by mongering at Spread Cheese Co., then making full-time at Cato Corner Farm. Recently, she relocated to Wisconsin to work as a cheesemaker for Blakesville Creamery.

Who is your biggest inspiration in the cheese world?

I look up to so many folks in this industry and have gotten to where I am because of the people who lift me up. I will say that Liz MacAlister has had an impact on me that no one else has. I knew who Liz was before I worked at Cato Corner, just from hearing of her through the CT dairy scene. I first met Liz at Connecticut Farmland Trust (CFT) when I was a steward on her farm, since CFT holds the conservation easement. She walked me around the property and answered my curious questions about how she got into dairy farming and cheesemaking. Then, in a twist of fate three years later, I began working at Cato Corner and spent time at Liz’s kitchen table learning even more. She started this farm because her love lies with the animals—cheese gave her the opportunity to have a herd of cows. You can only make good cheese if it comes from good milk. She taught me the value of that sentiment, because with every gallon of milk produced at Cato Corner, you can taste the love she has for her Jersey cows. I hope when I have my own farmstead creamery someday, people will taste my cheese and think the same.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve experienced or overcome in the industry?

Creating a work-life balance. It’s especially hard in the cheese industry because it’s so physically demanding. Growing up on a dairy farm, work was also home, so I’ve struggled to create separation and avoid burnout. I want to be a cheesemaker for a long time, and to do that I have to take care of my body and mind. I’ve dealt with injuries that I probably wouldn’t have if I took the time to rest instead of overdoing it. I’m getting better at being conscious of my work-life balance, but I still have improvements to make.

Pair a celebrity with a cheese.

Miley Cyrus and Tea Rose by Capriole. This cheese reminds me of spring and the renewal that comes with sunshine, blooming flowers, and the flush of goat’s milk—similar to how Miley has reinvented herself multiple times. The vibrant colors of Tea Rose speaks to Miley’s fashion choices and her energetic personality. Also, goat cheese is not for everyone, but the people who like goat cheese love it. Like me!

You’re on a desert island and can only eat one cheese for the rest of your life. What is it?

Ossau Iraty. I could never, ever, ever get tired of that cheese.

What is an underrated cheese that everyone should know about?

Bitto DOP. I was introduced to this cheese in 2021 by Ken Skovron at Darien Cheese and Fine Foods, and it’s still the only shop I’ve seen selling it. It’s a hard, raw cow’s (and a tiny bit of goat’s) milk cheese from Valtellina, a valley in Lombardy, Italy. It’s intense and rich with hints of grass and olive. It’s only made during the summer months when the animals graze on alpine pastures. I feel like I can taste the valley with each bite. It’s a fulfilling snack on its own, but putting a piece on a sea salt cracker with a slice of finocchiona and a drizzle of chestnut honey—I wish I had a piece with me right now!

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