Late Winter Doldrums

This week’s entry comes from a contribution I made to the New Amsterdam Public Market blog. Visit newamsterdampublic.org to learn more about this year’s upcoming markets, as well as a special Winter Banquet, to be held on Friday, March 12th.

Looking at the invitation, which features a Pieter Brueghel painting of late winter, black bird sitting in a snow-dusted tree, I got to thinking about what this time of year is like on the dairy farm. A time I’ve referred to in the past as the doldrums.

Now, most of the farms that I work with are in the northeast, so the long hard winter is acutely felt. From upstate New York to Vermont to Maine, late February and early March is a time of nesting, a time of fomenting, when the bottled up pressure of winter cabin fever prepares to give way to the hooting, bleating, birthing insanity of spring. In my mind, that stark black bird is casting a knowing eye over the barn, looking down over the sleepy calm, knowing that springtime, and life are about to erupt within its walls.

Most people aren’t aware of it, but cheese making is a seasonal thing. It is part of the economics of nature. At the crux of that economic system is the sun. Making milk is hard work for an animal. Just like us humans, calcium and other nutrients are leached from the mother’s body to fortify the milk. Why would mother nature, in all her infinite wisdom, ask that a cow, goat, or sheep, try to make milk when there’s nothing for them to eat in the pasture outside? She does no such thing. Instead, she bides her time, waits, incubates. All those swollen bellies side by side in the barn, chewing their cud, eating dry hay and grain, resting up for the big event.

Spring is a time of rebirth. Of kid goats, of calves, of lambs. The quiet winter barn quickly transforms into a non-stop, 24 hour a day nursery, full of fragile, then sturdy, beautiful, and extremely vocal newborns. The first flush of milk comes just as winter ebbs away, as the green shoots of grass poke their way up out of the earth again. The tide of new life stumbles collectively out into the sunshine, ambling namby pamby over fields and rocks, kicking and playing and eating and drinking. Milk.

We have to be patient. When the young are weaned, then the milk can be collected to make cheese. There is nothing sweeter or more refreshing than the first taste of a light, fresh goats’ milk cheese after a winter’s worth of dense, heavy cheeses that are fit for the fondue pot. We are what we eat. For the cheese lover right now, that means mostly dense, aged cheese of varying degrees of pungency. But there is that light at the end of the tunnel. I saw it today in Brooklyn out over the harbor. A more lingering sunset, full of warm purple and stark yellow. A promise of longer days, more sunshine, and green grass in the pasture. Perhaps a little bit like what the black bird saw on that winter day way back when.

Till next week, eat cheese and be merry!

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