Of Hastening and Freshening and Rumen Ecology – Things Learned On Our Visit to Vermont’s Cheesemakers

The Saxelby Cheesemongers team just returned from a weekend in Vermont where we were lucky enough to visit six of our cheesemakers – Consider Bardwell Farm, Twig Farm, Shelburne Farms, Jasper Hill Farm, Grafton Village Cheese, and Vermont Shepherd. When we first opened the store in 2006, our mission was to be the bridge between the cheesemaker and the cheese lovers out there who come to us to taste America’s finest cheeses. Trips like us allow us to keep that connection alive – meeting with the cheesemakers, seeing their animals and cheese caves, talking about the weather, the season, small changes made in their cheesemaking process and how their cheeses are aging illuminates this world of curds and whey that we daily inhabit.

One of the most wonderful things about cheese is this – the more you think you know about it, the deeper you dive into learning about it, the more you are humbled by the vast and infinitely complex universe that cheese inhabits. The finished wheel of cheese is a bit like the sun – the brightest thing radiating in the center, tantalizing you with a complex and infinitely colorful palette of flavors. It’s only when you start to learn about the planets, stars, comets, satellites and other galaxies around, and how they all affect and influence one another, that you scratch your head and say well, I guess we’ll just have to take this one step at a time.

This cosmos of curds and whey begins with the animal making the milk – their diet, digestive processes, environment, comfort, and their overall health – all of which impact the most important raw ingredient in the cheesemaking process. Then there is the chemistry and science of the making cheese – controlling the beneficial bacteria that acidify milk and build flavor in the wheel of cheese throughout the course of its life. Finally there is the environment where the cheese is aged – where other microbes enter the picture and (with the help of humans acting as affineurs) add their signature to the finished wheels. All of these processes owe their successes (and occasional failures) to things we cannot even see – microbes. From the soils and the grasses grown there to a ruminant’s digestive tract to milk to the finished wheel of cheese, we have untold billions of friendly microbes helping the cheese along.

Here are a few cheesy vocab words that we picked up on our trip, and what they mean to the cheeses we eat:

Freshening – Now we’re not talking about gum, or deodorant, or some other barn cleaning device here. Freshening is farm-speak for when a cow, goat, or sheep gives birth. When she freshens, her milk production kicks into gear again so that she can feed her babies, and so the farmer can (after a week or two) begin to use her milk for making cheese. The first milk that comes from an animal after giving birth is called colostrum – it is rich, super fatty milk that is loaded with antibodies that act as the babies’ crucial first boost to their immune systems. After the colostrum has all been consumed, the milk returns to a more normal consistency and can be used for cheesemaking. Most calves, kids, or lambs are bottle fed with milk from the herd until they are ready to go out on pasture and begin eating grass.

Hastening – A very romantic sounding word (in our opinion) that refers to a newly made cheese forming its rind. Young or green cheeses are put into certain environments to hasten for a few days before being moved on to their final destinations in the aging cellar. Rind formation is crucial to the finished cheese – not only does it provide flavor, it also protects the exterior of the cheese during aging. In order for a cheese to hasten properly, the environment must be a bit warmer than a normal cheese aging cave (60-71 degrees) and have a high level of humidity. This environment allows yeasts to flourish on the acidic surface of the cheese, consuming lactic acid and paving the way for future bacterial growth that will become the cheese’s rind.

Rumen Ecology (a layman’s attempt to describe a cows’ digestive system) – If cheesemaking is its own universe, then a cows’ digestive tract is another unto itself. Unique among ruminant animals (those that eat grass) cows have four stomachs operating in concert to convert grass, fibrous plant material, into milk and energy to support their 1,000 pound plus bodies. The first chamber, the rumen, is where most of the magic happens.

The rumen is like a giant fermentation chamber – the cows eat grass almost without chewing, the grass passes to the rumen where billions (yes, billions) of microbes ferment it, producing components that the cows can use for energy. Within each millimeter of the rumen, there are between 10 to 50 billion bacteria, 1 million protozoa, and variable numbers of yeasts and fungi. Whoa. The most interesting thing that we learned on our trip was that grass is not actually the cows’ food… The microbes ferment the grass to produce energy and proteins the cows can metabolize and then die, so what the cows are actually digesting is the spent bacteria from their rumen!

Here at Saxelby Cheesemongers, we are so thankful to our cheesemakers for the work that they do, and thanks to the crash course in microbiology we received over the weekend, we’re even more thankful for all of our microbial friends too!

Cheesemaker Spotlight! Bonnieview Farm

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Bonnieview Farm is a fourth generation dairy farm in Craftsbury, Vermont. Bonnieview is owned by Neil and Kristin Urie. Neil is the 4th generation of the Urie family to farm there – his great grandfather started the farm back in 1890 as a cow dairy, though they also raised pigs, sheep, and horses. Neil’s grandfather and father were also born on the farm. Neil bought the farm in 1995 from his uncle who was a traditional cow dairy farmer (traditional being the parlance for a farm that sells milk on the commodity market and is not specialized in any way – organic, value added products, etc) According to Urie lore, Neil took off for the Peace Corps when the family farm was first put up for sale. He decided that if the farm was still for sale when he returned from the Corps, he would buy it because he wanted to see the farm stay in the family.

Kristin was born and raised in Manhattan (a far cry from Craftsbury, Vermont!) but found her way to the Northeast Kingdom (she attributes her northerly migration to latent Nordic bloodlines 🙂 where she met Neil in 2001. They were married in 2005, and they now have four children – Tressa, Maeda, Linden, and Nell.

When Neil started farming at Bonnieview, he milked cows for 5 years. During that time, he met David Major of Vermont Shepherd, who was milking sheep. Neil thought about it for a few years before making the switch. In 1998, Neil sold his cows and started milking a flock of 90 sheep in 1998. They now milk about 180 ewes from May through October – a mix of Fresian, Lacaune, and Tunis breeds, as well as 8 cows that are milked from August to April. Sheep have a very short lactation cycle – after they have their lambs in April they are milked for a few months before being dried off again in the fall. The cows at Bonnieview come online in late summer when the quantities of sheep milk are dropping, and are milked through April, when lambing season rolls around again. This staggered cycle of breeding, lambing, and calving, and milking gives Bonnieview Farm a unique seasonal cycle of cheesemaking.

farm-wheelThey now make three different cheeses that vary in composition (all sheep milk, blended sheep/cow milk, and all cow milk) throughout the year, as well as a blue cheese that also changes in milk composition over the year.

In the summer of 2016, Neil and Kristin completed work on a cheese cave, their dream of over six years! The cave was built into a hillside about a quarter of a mile down the road from the farm and houses all of Bonnieview’s cheeses. The cave allows them to produce and age the maximum amount of cheese that they can from their ewes and cows, and age them in ideal conditions until they are ready for market.

Bonnieview Farm is dedicated to producing delicious and healthy food for their local community, and for the rest of us far-flung cheese lovers! In addition to making cheese, Bonnieview raises lambs for meat and wool. They want to offer people a connection to the source of their food, and they work to cultivate the vitality of the land, the animals, and their family. A bold and wonderful mission indeed!

Right now we are in peak sheep season as it were! Stop by the shop for a taste of their glorious Coomersdale, Ben Nevis, and Mossend Blue – three of the finest sheeps’ milk cheeses these mongers have ever tasted!

Lambing Day at Meadowood Farms

This weekend we headed up to Meadowood Farms for their annual Lambing Day celebration! Check out some gratuitously cute pictures of lambs and click here to read more about Meadowood Farms, sheep cheese, and Lambing Day.


Meadowood Farms is located in Cazenovia, New York, a historic upstate hamlet just outside of Syracuse. Established in 1911, it was said of the original farm owners, the Walter Chard family, that “They therefore chose a site in the midst of a fine country and commanding a superb view of the full length of Cazenovia lake, a site in the center of a farm which they hope in time to make a model of cultivation and thrift.” The original farm was home to a wide variety of agricultural enterprises including an apple orchard, a flock of 4,000 chickens, white Cheshire pigs, and a herd of 50 milking Holsteins. The farm was a thriving business up through the 1950’s, when burgeoning big ag industry and science began to erode the sustainability of small and mid-sized farms. Over the decades the farm atrophied, and by the 1980’s it was all but derelict – the town even considered tearing down the historic Chard mansion.

The current owners, Marc Schappell and Tom Anderson, stumbled across Meadowood Farms in 1995 while visiting Cazenovia for a wedding. They fell head over heels for the farm and have spent the last 20 years restoring the farm lands and farm buildings to their original glory. Meadowood Farms now encompasses over 200 acres and is home to a flock of pure bred East Fresian sheep used to make their award-winning lineup of cheese, and Belted Galloway cattle – used both for showing at agricultural fairs as well as for beef.

Every spring Meadowood Farms hosts a Lambing Day celebration – kicking off the spring and the start of the sheep cheese making season. Sheep are seasonal in their milk production – they give milk for a 5-6 month period after their lambs are born in the late winter/early spring. Veronica Pedraza, the head cheesemaker at Meadowood Farms, has been making cheese for two weeks this season, and in another 2-3 weeks, we’ll have the distinct pleasure of bringing you those young, fresh sheeps’ milk cheeses! The first cheeses of the season are Strawbridge – a creamy bloomy rinded cheese that tastes of hazelnuts, cultured cream, and tangy yogurt, and Ledyard – a leaf-wrapped sheeps’ milk cheese that is yeasty, barnyardy, and honeyed in flavor. Look out for these two behind the counter at Saxelby Cheesemongers in the coming weeks – we can’t wait to dig in to them ourselves!

Veronica Pedraza, head cheesemaker at Meadowood Farms, dreamed of making sheep cheese for years before finding the right farm for her. She honed her skills making cows’ milk cheese at Sweetgrass Dairy in Georgia and at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, two of the country’s top cheese producers. She has quickly created a lineup of delicious sheeps’ milk, mixed milk, and cows’ milk cheeses named after local people and places in Cazenovia. Driving around over the weekend we saw cheese names everywhere we looked – Rippleton Road, Ledyard Street, Lorenzo, Cazenovia’s historic mansion, and Juvindale Farm – the local dairy that Veronica buys her cows’ milk from. But sheeps’ milk cheese is her true passion – the milk is higher in fat than cow or goats’ milk, and has a unique, nutty, sweet and slightly wooly flavor that imparts wonderful flavor notes to the finished cheese.

 

Now back to the sheep – farmer and flock manager Bee Tolman is one of the pre-eminent experts on sheep and sheep dairying in the US. Unlike the cow dairying industry, in which Bee says there is ‘little to nothing new to discover’, the sheep dairying business is a veritable black hole of information in comparison. Sheep dairying is very common in Europe, but the secrets to success (including the genetics for the animals themselves) are locked in regions like the Pyrenees in France, the arid planes of Thanks to farmers like Bee, La Mancha in Spain, and in various regions of Italy. However, Bee has made it her life’s work to educate herself, chipping away at the secrets and paving her own way to a phenomenal operation at Meadowood Farms.

This year the farm is producing more milk than ever thanks to an innovative system of leaving the ewes and lambs together for 12 hours at a time and then separating them for 12 hours. This allows the lambs to be with their mothers and nurse, and also allows the ewes to produce the maximum amount of milk. Sheep reach their peak of milk production just 30 days after giving birth, so this period of early spring is crucial to the success of the cheese making side of the business. The spring milk is also the richest at this time of year, making for some super tasty cheese.

The sheep are grazed all summer long – another tremendous effort for Bee and her farm team. Talking about the farm, she said that milking sheep was already tough enough without adding the ‘dark art’ of rotational grazing. It’s basically a big grass gambling operation – Bee goes out and surveys the farm’s ample pasture and decides which patches she thinks will be ready to produce the best grass three weeks out. She then mows the fields and prays, crosses her fingers and toes, and invokes any other superstition available to her to ensure that there’s not a drought, not too much rain, and that in three weeks time the grass is young, tender, and appetizing for the sheep. Contrary to popular belief, sheep (and all other grazers) won’t eat just any grass, they like the softer, younger shoots. Once it grows above a certain height, it becomes too fibrous and woody, no longer appealing to them. Many of our dairy farmers half joke that they are actually grass farmers – which is not a stretch when you consider how important the animals’ diet is to the finished product!

So when the season’s first sheeps’ milk cheeses from Meadowood Farms arrive a few weeks from now – one bite will tell you all you need to know about the goodness of the farm. Till then, stay tuned and ready to savor!

Left Coast Cheese – A Monger’s Visit to LA’s Grand Central Market

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After 17 years of living in NYC, I am an unabashed New Yorker. The schlepping, the running around, the wonderfully frenetic hum of this insane city contents my soul. I’ve had the chance to visit LA several times, and though this midwestern transplant turned New Yorker could never live there, the city (especially in February!) has its charms.

This past weekend I had the chance to visit LA and poke around some of its cheesy corners – mainly in the form of DTLA Cheese in downtown’s Grand Central Market. Owners Lydia and Marnie Clarke opened their stall at Grand Central in 2013, building on the success of their first shop The Cheese Cave in historic Claremont village, which they launched in 2010. The Grand Central Market is a destination near and dear to my heart – I seek out all markets first and foremost among tourist destinations when traveling. In the middle of the up-and-coming yet still dingy and sparse downtown area of Los Angeles, it is an anomalous hive buzzing with caloric activity.

DTLA has an international coterie of cheeses, but their Cali selection is particularly strong. Marnie sits on the board of the California Cheese Guild, and both she and her sister are ardent supporters of California’s artisan cheesemaking community. Standing behind the counter tasting cheese with Lydia was like a cheesemonger’s right of passage – when fellow cheese folks come to visit our shop in the Essex Market, I often keep them there noshing and talking for far longer than they had anticipated staying. There is just so much cheesy goodness coming out of the northeast that doesn’t make its way out of the region – I have to share it all with my cheesy compadres so that they can get to know some of our weird and wonderful wheels, tommes, and loaves of curd.

Lydia’s selections were sublime – she took our tastebuds on a tour of the Golden State starting with a stop at Central Coast Creamery. Their Bishops Peak, a raw cows’ milk cheese aged for 8 months, was a sharp and butterscotchy mouthful – toothsome, aged, and wonderfully full flavored. When Marnie and Lydia tasted this cheese, they were bowled over – and promptly bought the only 19 wheels that the cheesemaker had. He’s currently making more, which when mature will grace the shelves of DTLA and the Cheese Cave. We then took a stop at Bellwether Farms for a taste of Blackstone – a young mixed milk cheese whose black exterior was rubbed with a cocktail of rosemary, peppercorns, vegetable ash, and olive oil, and whose interior was studded with Peppercorns. Then because I couldn’t resist – we picked up a butter-filled bomb of ripe Mt Tam from Cowgirl Creamery. When cut open, it unleashed a veritable tidal wave of pale yellow, puddling-like buttercream paste. And schmearing it on a crusty chunk of baguette under the warm floral-scented Angelino sunset, I was in cheesemonger’s heaven.

In the almost 10 years of Saxelby Cheesemongers’ existence, the number of artisan cheesemakers in the United States has ballooned exponentially. Many of the makers that we select and purchase cheese from were not in business when we began, and that refrain rings true throughout the rest of the country. Traveling to far flung cheese locales in America yields regional delights equivalent with what one would expect from Europe. You just have to know a monger to ask…

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Vermont Travelogue

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.

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