Gear Up for American Cheese Month With Our Regional Favorites!

170925_RegionalFavesIt’s nearing the most special time of year for us cheeseheads… American Cheese Month!!!

For the entire month of October, retailers, restaurants and cheesemakers around the celebrate the hard work, creativity and ingenuity of America’s artisan cheesemakers. To gear up and show your love, check out some of our curated sets of regional favorites!!

The New Yorker >>

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The Vermonter >>

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The Cheesehead >>

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Producer Spotlight: Vermont Shepherd

VermontShepherdVermont Shepherd is a 250-acre sheep dairy located in Westminster West, Vermont. Vermont Shepherd is one of the oldest sheep farms in Vermont and is the second oldest sheep dairy in the United States. The Major family has had sheep on the farm since 1965 and have been a sheep dairy since 1987. The farm is now run by the Major and Ielpi families, and is home to over 300 ewes.

To celebrate their unique character and seasonal spirit, we’ve put together a package that not only reflects their cheesemaking talent, but the farm itself and the surrounding community. In addition to making their small batch cheeses, Vermont Shepherd sends small amounts of their sheep’s milk to an artisan in the neighboring town of Bellow’s Falls to be turned into a gentle, fragrant soap.

Scenes from the farm.

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!

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.

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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!

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.

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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