When you taste Ardith Mae’s chèvre—loose and airy, pillow-soft and perfectly spreadable, flecked with a gentle dusting of sea salt—you might assume it was made at a centuries-old dairy in the Loire Valley. Or, if you spied the Pennsylvania town on the label, would probably guess it was formed there by the practiced hands of a fifth-generation goat farmer, someone who grew up wrangling nannies and salting curds.
But you’d be mistaken. This cheese was conceived just a few years ago, right here in Brooklyn, by a city couple with big dreams and zero experience.
Before Todd and Shereen Wilcox traded in their lives for an existence devoted to making and selling crumbly, ash-lined cheese pyramids; creamy, buttery wheels of goat Camembert, and the aforementioned chèvre, they lived in Williamsburg, back in the halcyon, pre-high-rise days of the early 2000s. Todd worked in advertising; Shereen was a baker at Amy’s Bread in Chelsea Market. She was also a committed Greenmarketeer, regularly wrestling a granny cart onto the L train to load up at Union Square, cooking epic locavore feasts and following the eggplant harvest the way some New Yorkers follow the Yankees.
A committed canner, she became especially obsessed with a different kind of preservation: that of milk. So she interned at the Bedford Cheese Shop, where she got inspired by the cheese she tasted—and the stories she heard of upstart artisans.
The Wilcoxes and another couple shared a weekend house in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, a rural area in the northernmost part of the state that hugs the Delaware River, and over time, the idyllic days spent canoeing and fly fishing got them plotting their escape from the city. Shereen’s a Southern California native who had only been in New York for two years and had already gotten her fill; Todd had been here for 14 years and grown tired of the constant hustle and pollution.
A full-time Pennsylvania gig was looking pretty good, if only they could create one. But there’s a reason life in the country remains a fantasy for many Brooklynites. “We were not farmers, at all,” says Shereen. “We had no idea what it actually took.” Knowing that they knew nothing, in 2004 they researched the ag equivalent of trade school: farms where they could apprentice. A former vegetarian, Shereen was naturally drawn to cheese over meat, and they made an arrangement to work at Doe’s Leap Farm, a small organic goat dairy in Vermont, for 10 months.
The couple felt simultaneously freed (their worldly belongings were packed into storage) and overwhelmed by the tasks at hand: building electric fences, harvesting firewood and mastering the magic of turning fields into milk and milk into cheese. As the apprenticeship ended, the Wilcoxes learned one more thing: They didn’t want to go back to Brooklyn. Armed with more than a modicum of know-how and exhilarated with possibility, the couple took a deep breath and bought an unfurnished hunting cabin near their old weekend getaway along the Delaware. They knew it was risky; they knew it needed work. And they also knew they had done the right thing.
After one tearful goodbye to Williamsburg, they unloaded their long-stored belongings into their creaky new home on a farm they’d named after Todd’s grandmother and soon welcomed a dozen other residents: goats. “I’ve always loved goats, ever since I was a little girl,” says Shereen, fondly recalling the herd kept by her quirky California neighbors.
But loving goats does not a farmer make. The land needed clearing before they could even build a proper barn. Plus they needed income, so Todd was working in New York all week, leaving Shereen alone in a freezing cabin with a woodstove she originally didn’t know how to light. But slowly, over the next two years, things came together. They built a small barn. A neighbor helped them clear land while they built a bigger barn, then a milking parlor and cheese room. Todd moved to the farm full-time in 2008. All the while, the herd was growing, until the Wilcoxes were waking up before sunrise to milk close to 50 dairy goats, mostly snow-white Swiss Saanens, plus few French Alpines and Spanish La Manchas.
Contrary to popular belief, goats do not, in fact, eat everything. “They’re picky!” laughs Shereen. The Ardith Mae ladies browse rotationally through the couple’s 35 acres, eating little bushes, hay and alfalfa. And that great diet makes great-tasting milk, which the couple transforms into beautiful cheeses.
Ready for their debut, they applied to sell at the Greenmarket and were delighted to learn they’d landed a stand at a bustling market near Columbia and another at their old sweet shopping spot, Union Square. Customers were delighted too. The cheeses are swoonworthy, and dairy aficionados line up year-round at the markets, as well as at specialty shops like Saxelby Cheesemongers and, in the summertime, BKLYN Larder. Products include the chèvre, sometimes laced with local honey and lavender; plus an oozy, bloomy-rind Camembert-style wheel they call the Mammuth; the soft-ripened, ash-coated pyramids dubbed the Bigelos; a nutty, firm log called the Doolan, as well as feta and two raw-milk cheeses, one with a natural and one with a washed rind.
Todd, Shereen or their single cheesemaking employee make cheese every other day—the molded varieties (such as Mammuth and Bigelos) take two to five weeks to set, but the chèvre goes to market within 48 hours of being made. The cheeses are miles above the dry, crumbly stuff in the supermarket, thanks to how the goats are treated, their foraged diet and the Wilcoxes’ decidedly lo-fi draining technique: lining a bottomless, perforated stainless-steel mold with cheesecloth. Most of Ardith’s cheeses are drained overnight, then gently hand-salted and packed by hand, a painstaking process that ensures the best possible quality for each log, wheel or pyramid.
Years into full-time farm life, Shereen still seems a bit surprised that she and Todd left Brooklyn behind. “I would have never thought either of us would have really gotten into farming this seriously,” she says. She swears they’ll never move back—there’s no space, physical or otherwise, for the things she and Todd have come to value most. But she still gets her New York fix on market days, which often end with an overnight at a friend’s apartment. And the couple has plans to apply for a slot at the McCarren Park Greenmarket, near their old home. “It’d be nice to see how the old neighborhood’s doing these days,” she grins.
Milk duds. Those plaid shirts aren’t ironic. Todd and Shereen Wilcox left Williamsburg for a life with kids and nannies—the four-footed kind.
Full circle. After bidding Brooklyn a tearful goodbye, the couple moved to a Pennsylvania farm and soon welcomed a dozen other residents: goats. Today their spectacular chèvre, Camembert-style wheels, ash-coated pyramids, and aged raw-milk cheeses draw crowds at the Greenmarket where they once shopped.
Photo credit: Emily Dryden.