Mark Cassin: The Big Cheese

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A self-proclaimed ambassador of New York–based cheese, Mark Cassin was initially devoted to a life on the sea. After graduating from SUNY Maritime College, he joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and ocean-lived for six-month stretches, transporting cargo to Thailand, France and Portugal. The lengthy periods abroad exposed different cultures and, subsequently, different cuisines, and probing “a museum and a good meal,” says Cassin, was preferred over “some other popular pastimes of seamen.”

This exploration continued during a stint as a tugboat mate in New York Harbor, as an unconventional schedule enabled “more time at home, and more time to mess around with recipes and cookware.” His visits to Cavaniola’s Gourmet, a cheese shop in Sag Harbor, also increased.

“I always loved going there and smelling everything,” says Cassin. “The aromas just blew my mind, and I noticed there was nothing like that between Brooklyn and Sag Harbor. I wasn’t gonna be plagued with the coulda-woulda, so I decided to look into my own cheese shop somewhere in Nassau.”

During a tour of Bridgehampton’s Mecox Bay Dairy in 2009, however, Cassin was captivated by owner Art Ludlow, a third-generation farmer who, in 2003, started cheesemaking. The visit birthed an apprenticeship, which also included selling Mecox Bay’s six cheeses at several Long Island Growers Market locations. The Big Cheese, which also astutely denotes Cassin’s sizable frame, was born.

“I always loved working with my hands, and cheesemaking inspired that familiar feeling,” says Cassin. “You’re in there with these hot steam kettles and humidity, turning milk into cheese. I loved it, and I also loved meeting new people at the markets.”

Cassin’s three-year stint at Mecox Bay was “a wealth of knowledge gifted to me by a lifelong farmer.” It also helped broaden his single-brand business.

“It’s difficult for a farmer, who spends most of his time working, to travel six hours and do a market in Mineola,” says Cassin. “They understood that. They’ve been really receptive to allow me to sell their cheeses to a new host of people. [Ludlow] gave me industry credibility.”

After three years of ambassadorship, Cassin has amassed a focused, albeit comprehensive, New York–only portfolio of 20 farms and 150 cheeses. As he discusses the creaminess of R&G Cheese Makers’s Pollenbert, a Camembert-style goat’s milk infused with fennel pollen, or the funk of Twin Maple Farm’s Hudson Red, a raw cow’s milk “that pairs excellent with beer and wine,” with customers, his words are buoyant, and his agrarian clientele temporarily invoke Man o’ War, Camarero and other historied thoroughbreds with a “knack for it.” Any race for profit, however, is nonexistent. The Big Cheese is a business, undeniably, but exposing cheesemakers is Cassin’s primary objective.

“All farmers constantly bust their asses, because it’s what they love,” says Cassin. “I respect that so much, so I never ask what they charge for cheese beforehand. They deserve it.”

While Cassin continues his assiduous approach to sales, often appearing at five Long Island Growers Markets per week, his next buildup is distribution. If, for example, he can connect customers of Locust Valley’s Curds & Whey to Danascara Cheese, produced approximately 260 miles away at Footehills Farm, the “opportunities are endless.”

“A farmer’s boost of capital can allow them to secure more livestock and, eventually, produce more cheese,” says Cassin. “Danascara recently doubled its sheep to 300, and I like to think I had some part of helping that.”

The Big Cheese