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.
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!