I wasn’t a particularly huge fan of the Phantom Tollbooth when I was a kid, but in my mind there lives a lingering image of a wan yellow and blue character who has to pass through the doldrums to get to where he wants to go. My brain is a bit of a museum for 1980’s television snippets – I wonder why these memories stand out so shiny and bright while other, arguably more useful (and recent!!) bits are pushed to the fuzzy margins… I might not remember how many wheels of cheese I ordered from Vermont Shepherd last week, but if you need to recall an eighties jingle for just about any product out there (Mentos – ‘The Freshmaker!’, etc), just ask.
I’ve looked the word up many times over the years. In fact, it’s become a kind of mid-winter ritual, a holiday that only I celebrate. A cheesemonger’s Festivus. Basically the Doldrums refers to a period of inactivity, of nothing doing, of a maddening wait for something to happen. In the Golden Age of Sailing, the Doldrums referred to an area of the ocean where there was no wind. I shudder to think of ships stranded for days, or even weeks on end waiting for the wind to kick up again. It’s a claustrophobic feeling. I love way it rolls off the tongue, kinda heavy, ominous and yet slightly ridiculous too.
When it comes to cheese, the Doldrums refers to the middle of winter – short days, long nights, cold as hell – when the goats, sheep, and even some cows like the ones are Meadow Creek Dairy in Virginia are pregnant and not making milk. Our supply of young sheep cheese trickled to a close in mid-autumn; now the goats’ milk cheeses begin to drop like flies as the herds have been dried off for winter and the last of the season’s cheeses are sold.
This is just my definition of the Doldrums – I’m sure it won’t show up on Wikipedia, and most certainly not in more respectable dictionaries, but to me there’s no better way of describing this moment in the world of seasonal cheese.
Since time immemorial, the breeding cycles of animals have coincided with the shortening of days. Breeding takes place in the late fall; the animals are pregnant all winter long, and then give birth in spring. It was basically Mother Nature’s way of ensuring that babies were born at the cusp of spring (which in New England can still be freezing by the way) when the promise of longer, warmer days and good green pasture is just around the corner.
I’m not sure how the cheesemakers feel about it – they probably enjoy a bit of time off in the dead of winter. When the mercury regularly dips below freezing and pipes freeze in the barn and going out to corral cold cows, sheep, and goats from the barn to the milking parlor only to get wet and colder during milking is the least appealing thing out there. When wood stoves are cranking and emanating cozy vibes that beckon a body to sit with a cup of hot cocoa and warm up for a while.
Not to say that farmers are ones to kick off their boots and relax… There are always a myriad of projects that need to get done – improvements to make, equipment that needs fixing, farmhouses that need a little TLC etc. In fact, they’d probably have a good laugh if they read this thinking of all the work that gets done over the winter when they’re not spending two hours two times per day in the barn milking.
As a cheesemonger though, the Doldrums are tough. It’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of delicious cheeses out there (there are!) but the overall cheese-scape lacks the punch, twang and musk that comes from young, tangy, and creamy goat and sheeps’ milk cheeses. At the market, our display case turns quite orangey in color and cow-y in composition. The ranks of aged and washed rind cows’ milk cheeses parade out one by one – robust, hearty, and pungent wheels ready for consumption.
To say it another way – we’re quite spoiled. The scarcity that comes into the spotlight at this time of the year makes us realize what an embarrassment of riches we have from summer through fall.
Soon though, all of that will change. Come late February through March, life will come crackling back through the farms with a cacophonous noise as lambing, kidding, and calving season begins. In my mind it’s kind of like watching fireworks or making popcorn on the stovetop – at first there a few exciting pops with longer spaces for contemplation and anticipation between. Then a steadier percussion of bangs, booms, and huzzahs leading up to a wild and crazy grand finale as lambs, kids and calves are born – each one mooing, baahing and meehh-ing for their mothers.
With the arrival of babes come torrents of milk – first for the little ones, and then as they are weaned to the bottle or to the pasture, for making cheese. As the days get a bit longer and hard chill of winter begins to dissipate, we’ll celebrate with a toast of fresh goats’ milk cheese. But for now, we’ll content ourselves to wait.
Learn more about Cheese Seasonality with
our handy-dandy diagram!