Carpe Caseus – Twig Farm Profile

Now’s the time, ladies and gentlemen, to head to our shop in the Essex Street Market and procure a wedge of fuzzy, firm, or stinky goat cheese from Twig Farm. The end of this year’s cheese season is nigh, and we’re in for a drought that’ll last till early summer. While bittersweet, like the departure of berries from the farmers market, it’ll only whet my appetite for more when they’re back in action.

TwigFarm

Twig Farm makes some of the best cheese in America, and to be honest, the world. Back in 2009 when my business partner and I attended the bi-annual curd-stravaganza called ‘Cheese’ in Italy, Goat Tommes were what we smuggled in our suitcases to share with our European friends to show them just what was going on in cheese stateside.

Michael Lee got started with Twig Farm just around the same time that I opened Saxelby Cheesemongers – sometime around 2006. I found Michael through Laini Fondiller, proprietor of the estimable Lazy Lady Farm, who told me in her signature curt (but warm) way – ‘Go call that guy Michael at Twig Farm. He’s making some great cheese!’

Before he was making cheese, Michael was a painter cum cheesemonger in Boston at the famed cheese shop Formaggio Kitchen. Like so many of the cheesemakers we work with, Michael found a way to translate his love of art to something edible – in his case through raising goats and coaxing their milk into nuanced and complex little wheels of cheese.

For Michael, the process of cheesemaking is very much like art that he created – process-based paintings of lines, repetitive works that reveal their beauty through the humdrum ‘doing’ that makes them whole. Cheesemaking, romantic as it may sound, is actually quite repetitive and technical – ‘the devil is in the details’, or rather ‘the deliciousness is in the details’ sums up what happens from goat to finished cheese wheel months later.

The goats at Twig Farm are pampered, but not too much. Michael loves them, and like a good parent, makes sure that there are parameters around their day-to-day routines. Specifically, Michael is a stickler about the goats having to ‘browse’ for much of their food. On a recent walk about the farm with the goats and one feisty barn cat, we saw the fruits of their caprine snacking labor – what was once a brambly young forest is now a clearing perfect for the goats to mill about and munch on grass, shrubs, and sapling trees in season.

Michael’s reliance on browsing produces milk of a superior quality for making cheese – essences of the resin-y, piney, grassy, toasted, woody, nutty and earthy flavors present in the browse appear in the finished wheels of cheese. A hint of something or other that dashes in and out of our brains – a smell, a memory, hard to pin down, when we cheese eaters munch and ruminate on what we are tasting. When people speak of ‘taste of place’, this is what they mean.

The name ‘Twig Farm’ refers to the patch of land in Vermont’s Champlain Valley where the farm sits. ‘Bony land’ as Michael calls it – full of plate-like rocks that are buried below a thin bit of soil. Not great for farming in the traditional sense of the word, but great for goats. Ten years after starting, Michael (and his goats!) have made much of this Twig Farm, and we the cheese eaters, are the happier for it.

Right now, as we enjoy the last wheels of Twig Farm cheese made in the late fall and winter of 2015, the goats at Twig Farm are kidding – giving birth – which will begin the cycle of cheesemaking all over again this year. The two-car garage at Twig is converted into a noisy nursery, full of feisty young buck and doelings hopping, nuzzling, and careening about, eager to drink milk and grow as big as they can.

After a few weeks, Michael will begin turning this milk into cheese. The first spring milk always produces wheels that are extra special – a bit softer, higher in fat, bright and grassy. In early summer (think mid-June) these wheels will be ready for us to eat. I for one will be counting the days!

For more information on Michael Lee and Twig Farm check out this 2009 episode of Cutting the Curd on the Heritage Radio Network!

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Hot Dog! Get Your Grilled Cheese & Pickle Dog On At Essex Market’s Pop Up at the Lowline This Sunday 2/21

IMG_6233.jpgShake off those winter blues with good eats and beautiful greenery at Essex Street Market’s Pop Up Food Fest at the Lowline Lab this Sunday 2/21! Munch on delicious fare from your favorite Essex Market vendors – old and new! – and learn about the incredible solar technology that the Lowline Lab is using to create NYC’s first underground park! Saxelby Cheese will be serving up our perennially popular Cheese & Pickle Dog – Reading Raclette cheese melted over a Rick’s Picks pickle spear on a Pain d’Avignon hot dog roll. YUM.

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More information about this event >>

A Cheesy Love Story

(that you’ll actually want to read)

hannah and greg.JPGThis Valentine’s Day, Saxelby Cheesemongers wants to tell you a wonderfully cheesy love story about Hannah Sessions, Greg Bernhardt, goats, and Blue Ledge Farm. In this season of hackneyed Hallmark gifts, this story of true love and cheese is bound to put a smile on your face!

Cheesemakers Hannah Sessions and Greg Bernhardt met while studying art in Florence, Italy. In addition to art, both Hannah and Greg were passionate about farming, sustainability, and good food. At the tender age of 23, Greg and Hannah embarked on their collective dream and started Blue Ledge Farm in Vermont’s Champlain Valley. Their idea was simple – to have a farm, make delicious goat cheese, and weave their art making practice into their daily lives.

Simple is an interesting choice of words – because after a day on a goat dairy, it’s instantly apparent that there’s nothing simple about it! Goats need to be milked twice a day, cheese needs to be made and meticulously aged, cheese houses need to be cleaned, fields need to be hayed, fences mended, kid goats birthed once a year, and then the cheese needs to be wrapped, packaged, marketed, and sold.

But to hear Greg talk about it, the idea was simple… He once told me that the idea of being in love with someone and then spending your entire working lives away from one another doing separate jobs, only sharing those few precious hours in the morning or evening as a family just wasn’t enough for him. By starting Blue Ledge Farm, he and Hannah could work side by side, sharing the love and labor that goes into making a farm, great cheese, and a family too.

Greg and Hannah were drawn to cheesemaking because like painting, it is a creative pursuit, but a good painter, like a good cheesemaker, puts in countless hours of work – repetitive work, to make something that’s good. As Hannah put it, ‘We love the seemingly endless potential for flavors, character, nuance, complexity, terroir of cheese. We like making a product that people get excited about.’

They chose Addison County Vermont because of the relatively mild weather (it’s known as the banana belt of Vermont due to the warming effect of Lake Champlain) The climate is ideal for them to pursue their love of outdoor activities, the landscape makes for some beautiful painting inspiration, and they like having Hannah’s family close by. They chose goats because they are a smaller investment in animals and equipment versus cows. They’re a bit safer too! Being kicked by a goat is one thing – being kicked by a cow is another – and because of the goats’ great personalities.

Now Greg and Hannah have two lovely kids – Livia, who was born the same year that the farm began making cheese (in 2002), Hayden who is 10, a farm, AND have somehow managed to still make art on top of it all.

In 2010, Saxelby Cheesemongers organized a show of Blue Ledge Farm paintings at the Cuchifritos art space in the Essex Street Market, so we can personally attest to their impressive output! Greg’s paintings were mostly still lives of cheeses and cheese molds – on the surface pretty straightforward stuff. However when Greg explained his thinking behind one of the paintings – which featured the two little button-shaped cheeses, they suddenly came very much to life. He said that when he was painting them, he was thinking of how one was like Hannah, and the other like Livia, his daughter or Hayden, his son. Upon closer inspection, these drums of cheese appeared to be leaning into one another ever so slightly – having an intimate chat or sharing a joke.

Hannah’s paintings were portraits of the goats and depictions of the farm’s buildings and surrounding landscapes – bold red barn sides, goats parading in for the evening milking, endearing close-ups of favorite caprine friends – a celebration of the beauty of the farm’s daily rhythms and the Addison County countryside, where Hannah was raised. When exhibited together, Greg and Hannah’s paintings encompassed a holistic view of the farm. If the works were viewed apart they would still be lovely, but when seen together all was enhanced.

When I asked Greg and Hannah what they loved best about their jobs when they began, they responded, ‘Being able to work and be together, and to be able to creative in every aspect of our business.’ And now? I asked. Their response was ‘The very same things.’ Now that’s a love story that will stand the test of time – and produce LOTS of great cheese to boot.