This past weekend, just before the snow descended and pummeled New York City into sleepy submission, the crew at Saxelby Cheesemongers hit the road for a three day visit to some of our cheesemakers in Vermont. What great timing, right?! It was almost as if mother nature conspired to get us the heck out of dodge while New York took a snow day.
I’ve been selling cheese for about 13 years now, and I can still say unequivocally that visiting our farms is the best part of the job. Being able to meet our cheesemakers, their families and their animals, see their operations, and sit in their living rooms, barns, or cheese caves talking about and eating this incredible food that has somehow bound us all together is a gift so great, it’s hard to sum up. In fact, I was feeling a little leery of just how I was going to do that – my brain was so overflowing with gratitude, great ideas, and inspiration for the incredible work that these people do day in and day out, 365 days a year. After all, I always like to say that in this world, farmers work the hardest, chefs are close behind, and then there’s everyone else lined up after that.
This week I’m going to attempt cover the tip of the iceberg of our travels… Stay tuned for future installments where we’ll dive deep and talk about the myriad other facets of farming and cheesemaking – those well known and those more obscure. Thankfully we’ve got time… It’ll give us lots to ruminate on until winter turns to spring.
Our first stop was Greensboro, Vermont, home of Jasper Hill Farm. Brothers Andy and Mateo Kehler started Jasper Hill Farm in 1999 as a farm and social experiment to attempt to revive the ailing agrarian economy of Greensboro. They had spent their summers there as boys, and as they grew up they watched the number of dairy farms shrink to the brink of extinction as low milk prices and the demands of big ag put traditional, small-scale Vermont family dairies out of business.
Their idea was (and is!) bold, visionary, and probably the most ambitious in the American cheese-scape. The Kehler brothers decided that they would re-create a dairying and cheesemaking hub in this remote and economically fragile part of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom that fosters community, infuses the area with an influx of younger people and their growing families, and makes dairy farming and cheesemaking the economic anchor of Greensboro. Simple, right?! Very funny…
Every time I go up and visit Jasper Hill Farm, I am awed by the pace of change taking place there. With each visit we see old equipment, systems, and methods of production being replaced with newer and more efficient systems as well as a whole host of new projects coming online. While some things stay the same (i.e. their 40-odd Ayrshire cows in the barn milked twice per day with a mobile milking setup) most other things are constantly being tweaked, changed, and improved upon to make better cheese more consistently.
This visit we learned about the fine tuning of the ‘Green Machine’ – Jasper Hill’s custom system that puts the cow manure through an anaerobic digester, allowing for it to be used as a fertilizer more quickly, and harnessing the methane produced to heat the farm’s water and a greenhouse too. We also heard about a new hay drier – the first of it’s kind in America – that will allow them to produce most of their dry hay for feed themselves rather than buying it from other sources. There is a lab on the farm that allows them to analyze and catalog the microbes found in Jasper Hill’s milk supply, on cheese rinds, in their barn, and in the caves.
We spent the day ping-ponging around the farm – from the barn where we chatted with herd manager Nate about the rigors of making great milk, to the steamy cheese house to meet with head cheese maker Nat Bacon and watch the day’s make of Moses Sleeper and Bayley Hazen. We watched the cheesemakers determine the minute that the milk began to flocculate – the first magical indication that it is turning from a liquid into a gel, then eventually watched the curd get cut, stirred, and hooped into forms to drain and be salted.
Our next stop was the Cellars at Jasper Hill, the largest cheese caves in the country, for a tour of the seven vaults where many of our favorite cheeses – Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, Bayley Hazen Blue, Winnimere, Oma, Landaff, (and on and on!!) are aged to perfection by Jasper Hill’s team of affineurs. Cheddars are larded and brushed, Winnimere is barked and washed, Bayley Hazen Blue is pierced and flipped – each cheese has its own regimen of care to reach its final state of deliciousness. Jasper Hill’s cave crew is twenty strong – that’s a lot of hands to shepherd the thousands of wheels of cheese that enter the cellars from young and not-so-interesting to the succulent specimens we find on our cheese counters.
After the tour we retired to the classroom space in the Cellars to nosh on grilled cheese sandwiches toasted on locally made polenta bread and tomato soup. Zoe Brickley, a longtime Jasper Hill employee, gave us a class on flavor development in cheese followed by a tasting of all the Cellars cheeses. At the end of the day I felt like a school kid on the first day of class – so totally happy, and also totally exhausted by all the information and sensory overload. In short, a fantastic day.
Our next morning started at Bonnieview Farm, just a few minutes down the road from Jasper Hill in Craftsbury, Vermont. Cheesemaker Neil Urie’s family has farmed the land that Bonnieview Farm sits on for four generations, though he and his wife Kristin are the first to make cheese there. They have a flock of sheep – mixed between the Fresian, Tunis, and Lacaune breeds. When the sheep are not producing milk, they have a small herd of eight cows that they milk for cheesemaking.
Neil and Kristin have a beautiful old farmhouse, and a beautiful family – four children (including a set of triplets!) so the next time you think you’re busy and/or stressed, think again! They treated us to a beautiful breakfast of plate-sized pancakes topped with local maple syrup and preserved currants from their farm garden, mutton sausage, potato and cheese gratin, salad, and of course, cheese!
One of the highlights of our visit was being invited to help name a new cheese that Neil has been working on – an Alpine-style blend of sheep and cows’ milk. After tossing a few names around, we settled on Patmos Peak – a nearby hill, and also the name of a mountain in Antarctica that is named after another mountain in Bulgaria. So there you have it. The cheese is delicious – supple, tangy, and buttery with swissy, lanolin and cultured butter undertones. We’ll have it at the shop while the season’s supply lasts, so come on in for a bite!
We also took a peek inside Bonnieview Farm’s newly constructed cheese cave. After a frigid walk down the road (Neil was of course dressed in a sweatshirt with no hat or gloves while the rest of us New Yorkers shivered like ninnies) we entered the temperate, humid cheese cellar – a cavernous space with high vaulted ceilings buried under a pile of earth just off the roadside. Though it still lacks plumbing and electricity, it should be online and ready for aging some cheese this summer. This fall Kristin and a few other vocally gifted friends held a concert in the cave – singing low and dark dirges that echoed out over the surrounding countryside.
Our next stop was Lazy Lady Farm, located in the tiny town of Westfield, Vermont. You know that saying, ‘if you blink, you’ll miss it?’ – I think that phrase was invented for Westfield. Located just about 20 miles south of the Canadian border, it’s just about as remote as you can get. And Laini Fondiller, who has been making cheese there since 1987, likes it that way.
We literally drove past her road, Sniderbrook Road, four times before we figured out where it was. There was no sign, and it looked like a driveway to a neighboring farm. After slip-driving up a steep-ish hill, and bailing on one of our 2 cars (a Ford Fiesta, subjected to the withering ridicule of Vermonters several times on the trip) we were met by a Subaru going the other direction. ‘Can I help you?’, the woman driving asked. We told her we were looking for Lazy Lady Farm and she responded ‘Oh, the rest of the road is closed in the wintertime because of all the snow. You’ll have to turn around and take Buck Hill Road.’
Laini is a character unlike any other, which is one of the reasons I love her so much. Fiercely independent and fiercely loyal to her goats and her methodologies, she’s a true American artisan cheese pioneer. She started making cheese at the same time as a but mighty wave of female dairy iconoclasts – Mary Keehne, Judy Schad, Laura Chenel, and Alison Hooper, back in the day when there was ZERO information on mold-ripened goat cheese making available in the US. There was also no equipment – not for the milking parlor, no refrigeration systems geared for cheese, no cheese vats, no small-scale pasteurizers, no cheese molds, no cultures – you get the picture. It was the perfect challenge for Laini.
With the help of her partner Barry, they built a small cheesemaking vat out of an old steam kettle, found some cultures, and began making the cheeses that Laini discovered and loved so well when she was spending time as a goatherd in France. She produces a small army of diminutive mold-ripened goat cheeses, as well as a few bloomy rinded and slightly larger format washed rind cheeses. Their names are hilarious – Barick Obama (there’s a photo of him with the cheese floating around somewhere) Bernie (no explanation necessary) and Palincomparison (it’s time to bring that one back Laini!) and she’s always coming up with new ones.
Laini’s goats are another thing altogether – they are the most beautiful, pampered, plump, well fed, shiny coated animals that you’ll ever see. They exude health, spunk, and vitality. After talking with Laini for a few hours I concluded that her passion for her animals outranks her passion for cheese, which is saying a lot, because she’s pretty darn passionate about everything that she touches.
After all, the name Lazy Lady Farm refers to the goats – Laini works her ass off every single day of the year. When her vet came to visit recently she joked that she wished Laini’s goats could vote – their cozy barn is full of the sounds of VPR all day long. Laini’s response – ‘They’d have to caucus – it’s not one goat, one vote around here!’
We headed south from Westfield to a delicious dinner in Stowe, then chugged back to Greensboro where the crew from Jasper Hill Farm had built a bonfire up on Barr Hill. It was a full moon, and everyone brought their cross-country skis and snow gear so that we could all go for a night ski. It was ridiculously beautiful.
The next morning we packed up our things and bid the Highland Lodge farewell as we made for the Mad River Valley and Ploughgate Creamery. Marisa Mauro, the owner of Ploughgate Creamery is very young, but she’s been farming and making cheese since her early teenage years. She’s like an old-time Vermont soul in the 21st century – a rugged, tough farmwoman who can slaughter a pig, churn her own butter, and operate a chain saw without breaking a sweat.
Marisa’s creamery is located on the historic Bragg Farm, a beautiful parcel of hilltop farmland that looks out at a ski mountain just across the valley. It has been a farm since 1909, and the original barn is intact – complete with wooden milking stanchions and a glorious loose hayloft where horses used to pull wagonloads of hay up a ramp. It’s a Vermonter’s wildest agrarian dream. Bennie, our cheesemonger who hails from southern Vermont, was in awe of the property – “This is my dream farm”, she said.
Marisa won the right to purchase the farm from the Vermont Land Trust about three years ago. The Land Trust is an organization that buys farmland in order to keep it from being sub-developed into homes or retail. Once in a generation, a farm like the Bragg Farm will come up for sale, and when it does, the competition is incredibly fierce. Marisa went toe to toe with about 13 other young farmers who all submitted business plans and proposals for the farm. Ultimately, Marisa was chosen to purchase the farm and become its steward.
Ploughgate Creamery makes cultured butter – meaning that the cream is cultured for about 48 hours before being churned. This culturing process renders a butter that is tangier and more complex in flavor – it’s a method that’s been used in Europe for centuries, but has been more recently adopted here in the states. After churning, the butter is washed with water to get all of the buttermilk out (excess moisture in the finished product can lead to the development of off-flavors) and is then kneaded by hand in 30 pound batches before being shaped and wrapped by hand into eight ounce and one pound blocks.
Marisa sources her cream from the St Albans Coop, one of the best Coops in the state, but aims to have her own animals as soon as possible. Her creamery is a brand-spanking new building, but the rehabilitation of the rest of the farm buildings is something that will take time. When the barn is ready, she’ll fill it with cows and have her own herd. Walking through that old barn, you can imagine it full of cows again – restored to its original purpose, and it gives you goose bumps and makes you smile all at the same time.
One windy drive over a mountain later, we found ourselves in Vermont’s Champlain Valley for a visit with Michael and Emily from Twig Farm. Michael has been making cheese there since 2006, and in my opinion, makes some of the finest cheese I’ve ever tasted. It was actually Laini from Lazy Lady Farm who first put me in touch with Michael when I was opening my shop. I was making my wish list of farms to work with, and I called her up and asked if I could buy some cheese. To my delight she said yes, and then quickly followed up with ‘Do you know Michael Lee at Twig Farm? He’s making some great cheese and you’d better call him.’ So I did, and the rest is cheese history.
Michael Lee will be milking 44 goats this year – which is to say, we’re very lucky to have his cheese. There’s not too much of it to go around, and Michael isn’t interested in scaling up. He runs a tight ship – he’s the head cheesemaker and herdsman, but he now also has two apprentices who help with milking, cheesemaking, and affinage. He makes about eight different varieties of cheese from the milk of his own goats and also from cows’ milk from the neighboring Crawford Farm. They’re all incredible.
It’s wintertime, so the goats are not giving milk right now, and there is not as much cheesemaking happening. They’re all pregnant and on their pre-maternity leave. In a few short weeks, kidding season will begin, the garage will be converted to a nursery for baby goats, and the milk will begin to flow. Cheeses made this spring will be ready for sale come late May or early June… Stay tuned for the first flush of Twig Farm cheeses of 2016!
We took a walk with the goats (and one intrepid barn cat) out to their pasture – an area that used to be a young forest that has now been all but completely cleared. The goats happily nibbled on branches, brambles, and anything else vaguely green that they could find. They’re playful and goofy animals – and their personalities are distinct. Just like a schoolyard, you have your bullies, your pushovers, and your loners. They band themselves into groups in the barnyard and in the milking lineup. And according to Michael, once those groups are established, they don’t change.
To see some cheesy action, we were directed to the small cheese cellar located under Michael’s house – a 12 square foot room full of wooden shelves laden with cheeses that look like they could talk. Each wheel was like its own individual creature – aging, growing mold, changing shape and texture – those cheeses were definitely up to something.
The majority of Twig Farm’s cheeses are characterized by their amazing tomme-style, earthy rinds. When Michael first began making cheese, the cellar was obviously brand new, and devoid of any microbial bias. As the cave filled up, a beautiful mix of flora began to bloom on the exterior of the cheese – a fuzzy grayish mold with some rosier colors underneath, speckled with spots of white bloom. That cocktail of microbes has become the calling card of Twig Farm cheese, and a call to action to please eat the rind.
When Michael moved to the Champlain Valley to start Twig Farm, he also had an idea to have an orchard. Though that idea lay dormant for a few years (starting a goat cheese making operation is not easy) it is beginning to take shape in the form of a company called Shacksbury Cider. The Champlain Valley has been home to many orchards over the centuries, and now, there are miscellaneous apple trees, varieties that have fallen out of favor by commercial growers over the years, hidden in the backyards and fields surrounding Twig Farm. Michael has taken to harvesting them, analyzing their flavors, and fermenting them into hard cider, once a very popular drink in New England. The production, like his cheeses, is small for now, but if you are lucky enough to find a bottle of Shacksbury Cider somewhere, you should definitely buy it.
We learned all of this over lunch – a simple affair in Michael and Emily’s kitchen, their son Carter voraciously reading a book on the armchair near the window. We toasted bread, cut open a new round of Fuzzy Wheel freshly plucked from the cellar, and sipped some five year old cider that Michael had made. It was the best cider I’ve ever tasted. This is not to say that I’m a cider expert, because I’m not, but the combination of the yeasty, fruity, and slightly nutty bubbles with the fluffy, creamy, and musky cheese on fresh bread was one of those ‘A-Ha!’ moments. Where everything you’re eating melds together into a harmony that is tough to describe, and that you’d like to linger forever.
The rest of the trip was pretty mundane stuff – a night drive down the Taconic, which always terrifies me, Billy Joel tunes cranking on the stereo (also sort of terrifying, but equally awesome) ending with our arrival back to New York blanketed in thick snow. And then as a welcome home present from New York City, I got to dig myself a parking spot.