What: A trip to Cato Corner Farm for award-winning cheese and to the drive-in known as Harry’s Place in Colchester, Conn.
How to get there: Take I-84 east out of Hartford, then head southeast on SR 2 to exit 16. Take a right on SR 149 and a left on Cato Corner Road. The farm is three-quarters of a mile down the road on the left. To get to Harry’s Place from the farm, go left onto Cato Corner Road, take another left on SR 16 and head east into Colchester. Take another left to head north on SR 85 and Harry’s Place is on the right.
Also worth visiting: Priam Vineyards
Avoid: Riding through Hartford when the traffic is heavy.
More info: Cato Corner Farm, Harry's Place
Mark Gillman knows what goes on behind the green door. Behind it is the cramped cheese shop at Cato Corner Farm in rural Colchester, Conn., where Gillman is the cheesemaker. The unpretentious operation, a quick 30-minute ride down SR 2 from the state capitol of Hartford, makes between 10 and 12 varieties of cheese at any given time, including the farm’s signature and always available “Hooligan” cheese. Considering that most riders have a bit of hooligan in them, a visit to Cato Corner Farm and a subsequent meal at Harry’s Place 5 miles away is a great way for any motorcyclist to spend a day.
Gillman’s mother, Elizabeth MacAlister, has owned Cato Corner Farm for more than 30 years. It wasn’t until 1997, though, that she began making cheese. “We were not a traditional dairy farm at that point. We weren’t milking cows,” Gillman says. The farm had goats, sheep and chickens, and it “wasn’t a sustainable, self-supporting business.” MacAlister bought 10 cows and started making cheese. Within two years, Gillman quit his job as an English teacher and partnered with his mother in the business. “We’ve grown slowly, adding a couple of cows every year,” he says. In 2012, Cato Corner Farm produced about 50,000 pounds of cheese, including the award-winning “stinky” Hooligan, based on a Belgian recipe that was made by Trappist monks.
MacAlister learned how to make the Hooligan from a visiting Belgian cheesemaker. “We kind of played with it for a little while, and after a couple of years had our Hooligan recipe,” says Gillman, who now does most of the cheesemaking and oversees the aging process while his mom manages the milking and caring of the cows.
The Hooligan is a washed-rind cheese. “You wash the cheese in brine a couple of times a week,” Gillman says, explaining that the salty solution gives the cheese its color and smell. “The first thing you notice is the pungency. It has a nice barnyard aroma, a smooth texture, a little chalkier at the center.”
Cato Corner Farm’s cheeses are aged anywhere from two months to a year in an underground concrete bunker buried under 18 inches of dirt. “We call it our cave,” Gillman says, reporting that the temperature is kept at a constant 55 degrees F, with high humidity.
Not only are Cato Corner Farm’s employees friendly, so are the cows. If they’re in the pasture behind the barn, they’ll walk up to be petted. And a visit to the farm will whet the appetite for a visit to Harry’s Place. The fare is just what you’d expect — juicy burgers and charred hot dogs. The patties are made by flattening a ball of meat with a spatula, and they’re grilled before your eyes, making the wait torturous because of the aroma and the visual stimuli of numerous toppings. With picnic tables lined up out front and a large parking lot in back, the popularity of Harry’s Place is self-evident. It’s a good sign, too, when a burger needs a toothpick to remain upright. Some bacon-cheese fries and a vanilla milk shake complete the meal.
A less direct route back to Hartford will improve the day trip. Instead of getting back on SR 2, head northwest on Broadway. Go straight and it becomes Old Hebron Road, which runs by Chanticlair Golf Course. While lined with houses, it’s still picturesque and there’s probably nowhere else you can see two houses painted electric blue. Old Hebron Road becomes Old Colchester Road and eventually reconnects with SR 85. To get back to Hartford, stay on SR 85 north, and when it makes a right turn northwest of Hebron, continue straight on Route 94 back toward Glastonbury and SR 2. What may be most surprising about the ride is just how much open space there actually is in heavily populated southern New England. MC