Todd Heberlein is chief in charge of cheese at Volante Farms in Needham. The farm, which is about to celebrate a century in business, has nearly 100 cheeses on hand at its suburban farm stand at 292 Forest St.
The fourth generation of the Volante family runs Volante Farms today. Since its founding in 1917, the farm has moved and expanded a handful of times, from Newton to Needham, and in 2012 the family constructed a new farm stand at its current location.
Heberlein started working at Volante Farms a few months before the opening of the new farm stand, and he helped develop plans for the deli and prepared foods. The farm considered selling cheese, and when Heberlein was asked if he wanted to be in charge of the program, that sealed the deal for his cheese-filled future.
When he first started, Heberlein brought a in handful of cheeses and started offering cuts of the cheeses in the store. "I got scolded by a couple cheesemakers," he said, who commented on the way he was doing cuts of different local cheeses. As time went on, he started researching cheese to expand the variety of what Volante could stock.
"I'd like to expand the food, but I'd love to expand the cheese," Heberlein said. Initially, Heberlein had dry food shelves next to a cold case of prepared foods near the entrance of the kitchen, but when he started expanding the cheese selection, he turned the dry shelves into a cold case for cheese.
"It really worked out for us bringing different things in," he said. Eventually, the stock grew large enough that the farm stand added a second cheese case across the store.
"I love eating cheese. I would research and try to find every place in New England we could get," he said. "If we're going to do cheese, why not try to do as much local as we can?"
77 New England cheeses
Volante Farms stocks 99 cheeses — just shy of the 100 mark, as Heberlein bemoaned — and 77 of those cheeses are from New England. His goal: to have the biggest selection of regional and Massachusetts cheeses around. And if you're looking for a particular style of European cheese, chances are Heberlein stocks a local equivalent.
When walking around the store, Heberlein stops frequently to talk to the shoppers. This place is clearly a part of the fabric of the neighborhood, with families and friendly faces tasting products at sample tables and chatting with other shoppers. The expansive space is prime for events, and Heberlein said Volante has done beer tastings, wine and cheese pairings, and more. Heberlein said he hoped to put on a New England cheese festival some day, too.
All the necessary cheese accoutrements and more
Aside from its large stockpile of cheeses, Volante Farms also offers a range of accoutrements, which are stacked on a table adjacent to the cheese case. Everything from jams to charcuterie lines the table, and depending on what the farm harvests, Heberlein can use the produce to make various other accompaniments. After last year's winter, the farm had to harvest its whole crop of peppers, and Heberlein was able to make hot pepper jelly.
"It's kind of fun how things like that just kind of happen," he said, where the products the farm stand sells depend entirely on what the farm grows and when it harvests. Products made with Volante Farms produce bear a "VF" sticker.
"We're a farm, so we're able to put a different stamp on it," Heberlein said.
This is true not just for cheese accompaniments, but also for prepared foods. Heberlein has his own testing corner in the walk-in refrigerator, filled with items like purple basil soaked in white balsamic vinegar, horseradish, and brining corned beef.
Volante Farms doesn't have a cheese counter — just the well-stocked case of cheese — so Heberlein can't offer cuts of cheese, but every now and then he'll do tastings, where his team sets out a few hand-selected cheeses for the day.
Heberlein used to work in restaurants in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Connecticut but lost his feeling for it and now prefers feeding families versus fine dining. He's able to maintain relationships with small-scale local producers and with customers at the farm stand, and, he said, he gets to eat a lot of cheese and push the boundaries of what customers can find at Volante.
Heberlein wants to find space for a cheese cave
"I have a list a mile long of things I want to do with their money," he said, including finding a place to put a cheese cave.
Heberlein said the Volante family gives him a decent amount of leeway in stocking cheeses and creating the menu for the Volante kitchen. The farm stand has some flexibility with its space, allowing for changes to be made fairly easily. For example, shortly after Needham abandoned its decades-old status as a dry town, Volante Farms added a wine and beer room. Heberlein said a cheese cave could be just as simple.
With such a cave, he could have more room to store cheese, exercise some control over aging, and maybe even make cheese. Meanwhile, he will continue to hunt down new and exciting cheeses to stock and incorporate whatever he can into dishes that fly out of the kitchen.
"We can make anything we want," he said. "There are enough things to stimulate everybody" and to keep the customers coming back for more.
"Everything really has come together. We're very fortunate in that respect," Heberlein said.
[Photos by Dana Hatic; illustration by Emily Phares]