Photography by Kate Ray
It’s a classic Maine story: Girl can’t wait to escape rural life for excitement and opportunity beyond the state’s borders, but eventually, something pulls her back. Thinking she was done with the quiet routine of her family’s dairy farm, Amy Rowbottom left the small town of Norridgewock for college in Boston. After graduation she traveled and launched a career in PR and marketing. “The more I was out in the world, the more I realized how special it was back home,” she says. Amy and her then-boyfriend—who also grew up on a Maine dairy farm—moved back, got married, and bought their first herd of cows. A year later, at the suggestion of a friend, she began making cheese. “I thought, ‘How can I carve out my own place and bring value to the farm?’ When I started making cheese, everything fell into place.”
Then everything fell apart. The marriage ended and Amy, who by then had an infant daughter, Muriel, spent a year regrouping. She missed cheesemaking. “It had formed my identity,” she says. With renewed energy and a clear vision, she retrieved her cheesemaking equipment and launched Crooked Face Creamery—named for a favorite Jersey cow—on her parents’ farm in 2009. A large part of the vision was that instead of keeping her own herd, she would buy Jersey milk from local farmers. “I knew I couldn’t milk cows and make cheese as a single mom.”
Amy’s vision also included scaling her cheese production for wholesale. A part-time job at Maine Wood Heat introduced her to cold smoking, and her cold-smoked Gouda was selling out at the local farmers’ market. But aged cheeses were impractical for her small operation to produce in quantity. For a cheese she could cold smoke and sell right away, Amy turned to her whole milk ricotta. The fresh cheese was already distinctive because it gets pressed overnight so it can be put on a cheeseboard, a move she made to get people to buy it. “They would look at it in my booth and tell me, ‘Ricotta? I’m not making lasagna,'” she says. Cold smoking the cheese—over applewood on a custom smoker built for her by Maine Wood Heat—was a revelation. “I did 20 minutes and tasted it—the clouds parted.” One of the first to try her Up North Applewood Smoked Ricotta was Erin French of the nationally lauded Lost Kitchen restaurant in Freedom, Maine, now a regular wholesale customer.
Amy soon outgrew the creamery space on her parents’ farm. She met with Amber Lambke of Maine Grains, whose jailhouse-turned-gristmill has bolstered the economy in and around Skowhegan, a former factory town. Amber offered Amy an unfinished space in the mill building—which also houses the farmers’ market—where Amy now makes her cheeses and operates a retail store. In addition to her own cheeses—her newest, Bonfire, is a washed rind raclette style—she sells cheeses, meats, yogurt, and butter from other Maine farms including Springdale Farm, Spring Day Creamery, Fredrikson Farm, and Winter Hill Farm. And, after jumping through a number of regulation hoops, she got her applewood smoked ricotta into the cheese case at Whole Foods in Portland—a major coup.
Amy realized that for her business, there’s no place like home, and she’s not alone. Blueprint, A Motley Fool Company, recently released a report that ranks Maine as the best state in the Northeast for entrepreneurs (a resulting story in Mainebiz featured her photo). She is among a cohort of Maine women business owners who find ways to collaborate and support each other. Crooked Face Creamery cheeses are now distributed by Maine Milk Mavens, launched by cheesemaker Jesse Dowling of Fuzzy Udder Creamery. The photos for this post are by photographer Kate Ray, who, along with her husband, Brian, also co-owns Dogsled Maine and The Maine Beer Shed. In exchange for photos, Amy gives the Rays whey to feed their pigs. “Her ricotta is the best I’ve ever had,” says Kate. “She is a force of nature up here in the Western Mountains creating some amazing cheese.” Right back where she belongs.
For more about cheesemaking in Maine, see this story, from the Autumn, 2019 issue of culture.