Thursday, December 06, 2007

Jasper Hill in the morning and Twig Farm in the afternoon


Sunday, 8am

Mrs. Harbison got up bright and early and made me waffles with real, local maple syrup. I love staying at B&B's. Ann Harbison made me feel like I was having breakfast at Grandma's house. Breakfast was served on china and she uses her silver. It made me seem like an honored guest. Well fortified, I scraped the heavy ice off of the windows of the car and drove up the road to Jasper Hill Farm

Mateo invited me to work with Julie making/ladling the Constant Bliss that Prin prepared the night before. I entered the cheese room and found Julie hard at work. There was a stack of 5 gallon buckets three deep on a low table. Molds were set across a draining table and Julie was ladling the curd into the molds. She'd got to work at 5:30. I washed up and joined her. We chatted and ladled, and ladled and ladled. Constant Bliss takes a long time make and get into the molds. Like all of the cheeses of Jasper Hill Farm it is made from raw cow's milk and therefore must age at least 60 days. This being a fairly small cheese, it tends to ripen quickly, so great care must be used in its preparation in order for it to ripen on time. If it ripens, in less than 60 days, it will be too fragile to ship and too ripe to sell. After two hours we were still going strong. I was keeping an eye on the weather as a storm was supposed to blow in at some point on Sunday.

(Photo: Julie and Constant Bliss)

While we were working on the Constant Bliss, Andy Kehler popped his head in to say hello. He was spending the morning in the cellar attending to the daily tasks downstairs. He also had cheese to salt and lower into the aging cellars. We talked for a few minutes and he was off, trying to track down his brother and the rest of the family. Sunday is Mateo's day off.

Around 11:00 I said goodbye to Julie and the Kehlers and hit the road. I had another date with another cheesemaker and I had to go pick up my stuff from Mrs. Harbison's house. I had some shopping to do, as well! I stopped by Willie's Store, the general store in Greensboro and picked up some local maple syrup. How can you come to Vermont and NOT have maple syrup? It was quite busy when I stopped by. People were stocking up on supplies while there was a break in the weather, I guess.

After stocking up on souvenirs from Vermont, I took a quick detour and saw Caspian Lake. As Mateo said, "It's why we're all here." The lake attracts the big crowds in the summer time, drawing families from all over who want a vacation in the mountains of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. It is a pretty lake, dotted with large, mostly empty homes around the shoreline. I see several loons, floating on the surface of the chilly water offshore. There is a layer of ice that extends out for about fifty feet. I could see the draw of this place, even in the winter.

The drive south was much nicer than the drive north. The roads were clear, there was very little traffic and I got to see some pretty amazing mountains, rivers, waterfalls, covered bridges and picturesque villages. I passed Ben and Jerry's ice cream factory. I didn't stop. I've got to save that for another trip. The Vermont landscape can be summed up easily. It is PRETTY.

(photo: Twig Farm)

I drove to Burlington and headed south for about 40 miles, past Middlebury to a farm south of West Cornwall. Like Jasper Hill Farm, Twig Farm is also farther down the road, beyond where the pavement ends. I turn into their driveway and see new-ish barn looming ahead. Beyond that is a house. Both are painted mossy green. I park and get out. I am greeted by Michael Lee, and his two year old son, Carter. They're putting covers over the outside goat feeders. The goats are not around at the moment, they're wondering around some other part of the farm. It is cloudy and cold. Snow is threatening to fall. A few stray flakes hit me. The temperature has barely broken 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Michael is the cheesemaker at Twig Farm. He is also the herdsman. His wife Emily Sunderman is also involved in the business, handling the marketing side of things. We move away from the house as Michael and Carter take me for a walk around the farm, looking for the goats. We walk amongst the bare trees, the ground is littered with dry, brown leaves, rocky outcroppings of slate and shale, as well as twigs (thus the name of the farm.) We walked through the wooded pasture looking for the free wandering goats. This time of year the goats are allowed to browse on a lot of the pasture as most things are dormant. Michael explains, "We let them browse on anything they can find. They really like the maple trees. They've girdled a few of them. The maple makes their milk taste incredible. Maple trees don't stand a chance with these goats"

(photo: goats a'comin')

As we pass amongst the trees, we discuss my background, what I'm doing in Vermont, as well as what I've got planned for the future. I feel like he's interviewing me as much as I am interviewing him. We had plenty of time to talk as the goat were nowhere to be found. Eventually, we spot the herd walking up the hill from a draw at the far end of the property. They see us and trot over to say hello. In a minute we're surrounded by 30 happy does. Some are visibly pregnant, their sides expanding as the kid develops. Several walk over to me so that I might scratch them and pet them. They rub their heads against my hand and nibble on my coat's zipper. These are some very happy and content goats.

(photo: Michael Lee and Carter)

We walked back to the house, surrounded by our caprine entourage. Michael and Carter take me inside to meet Emily. The house is light and airy. Very modern and clean. We move into the kitchen where Emily is preparing tea. Carter is seated at the island. He's given some pens and starts to draw. Emily wants to hear all about my French Laundry meal. I tried to recount the entire meal by memory and didn't to too badly. I forgot to tell her about the cheese course! Ah well. It is hard to keep all nine courses straight in my head. It is apparent that she and Michael have an affinity for fine food. It's nice that they're producing some really fine food, too. I see some homemade pasta drying on a rack on the counter. They eat well around here.

Time to feed the goats! I followed Michael into the barn and talked to him while he took care of chores. Fresh alfalfa for the goats. Cat food for the barn cats. The goats are herded into a side pen in the barn for the evening meal. Michael lets them into the milking parlor, six at a time. He's only milking in the mornings right now, as most of the goats will be dry soon. This evening feeding is a nice way to keep an eye on every goat, as Michael inspects each one while she's eating. When they're all fed, our tour continued into the cheese room.

(photo: Michael in Twig Farm's cheese room)

Twig farm's cheese room is fairly efficient. There's a vat, a sink, a draining table and a large storage rack. No pasteurizer, as he only makes raw milk cheese. This is nice to see, as he makes some incredibly complex, yet approachable goat cheese. (You can find some of his cheese at Cowgirl these days.) I like seeing this size operation, because I think it is pretty close to where I'll be in a year or two or three. He also blends some cow's milk into some of his cheese. Michael gets cow's milk from his neighbor, Diane St. Clair of Animal Farm in Orwell, Vermont. This is the same woman that makes butter for French Laundry. As she only uses the cream, her skim is available for Michael's cheese. Michael explained how he got started, apprenticing at another farm, working with sheep's milk. Most of his technique he's learned by doing in his own cheese room with his own milk. Twig farm has only been licensed since early 2005. Since then, he's been selling as much as he can produce.

(photo: Michael Lee in his cellar)

We went back into the house and went downstairs to see their aging cellars. One end of the basement is devoted to the storage and aging of his cheese. The cellar is filled with ash shelves, covered with natural rind, grey mold covered tomme, a semi-firm mixed milk (cow/goat) wheel, a washed rind, semi-soft wheel, an alpine style cheese, and a goat milk blue. Brine tubs are on the floor and wire racks stand in the center of the floor, filled with more cheese.

We went back upstairs and tasted some of his cheese. The square wheel is opened and he gives me a taste. Yum! I'm pretty tired at this point so complex descriptions don't come easily. It is slightly firm, earthy, herbaceous, as well as toothsome. I enjoyed it very much. He hands me a taste of his blue cheese, too. Smooth and milky, creamy with a mild blue flavor. This is a nice, goat milk blue with a good, sweet finish. He's producing a great array of cheeses. I'm really glad I took the time to drive to Twig Farm and take a peek at what they're doing in West Cornwall.

I got tired and bid them farewell as they prepared supper. I headed back to Burlington and checked into my hotel. Comfort Inn on Dorset Street. It is nice and cllose to campus. I went down the street for supper. Al's French Frys called my name. With a name like that how can I not try it? Yes, the fries are good. Try them. I went to bed, the snow began to fall in earnest.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Jasper Hill Farm

Greensboro, Vermont.

I landed in Burlington at 4:30pm on Friday. The sun had just set at 4:15. As I got off of the plane, the air on the jetway smacked me in the face, it was coooold. The clouds had partially cleared, revealing the last of the fading light in the western sky. I picked up my rental car and headed east towards Montpelier on I89. My goal was to be in Greensboro ASAP and try to avoid driving in the snow. There isn't much snow on the ground. The weather report had snow in the forecast for Friday night.

While driving east on I89, I saw an uncommon road sign. A big yellow sign glowed in the night with three words on it: MOOSE next mile. Moose? I'm in moose country? I kept my eyes peeled, but didn't see a moose emerging from the darkness.

I stopped in the smallest capital city in the United States for dinner. Montpelier is a cute town with a buzzing downtown. I walked up State Street and found a busy restaurant called Positive Pie 2, a.k.a. + Π 2. It is a pizza and pasta restaurant. It was quite busy, filled with diners young and old. The place had a "good vibes" atmosphere and a nice, diverse group of patrons. Some tables were set up on a stage, as this place is also a live music venue.

I scanned the menu and finally got the waitress to take my order. Make it a mini pizza with pepperoni and basil, also a Caesar salad, just to make the meal a bit more balanced. The waitress wandered away and left me for 30 minutes staring at a crowded room and my empty table.

It can be hard, being a woman dining alone, especially at dinner. Waitstaff just don't know what to do or how to treat you. I find that they often ignore me, avoiding eye contact. Tonight was one of those nights. I finally flagged down the hostess and begged for my salad. She was stunned that I wanted to eat it first. I didn't know I had broken some unwritten code, and had failed to inform my waitress that I wanted my salad as a salad course. She went off to go check on things and returned with both my salad and pizza at the same time. The Caesar was surprisingly good. A good amount of garlic, lemon and anchovies were in the dressing. The pizza was good, too. I just wanted to hit the road so I ate quickly, paid my check and walked back to my car. As I headed out of town it began to snow.

I drove up highway 14 towards Hardwick and Greensboro. It is about a 30 mile trip from Montpelier to Greensboro. About five miles down the road, the snow began to accumulate on the road. About 10 miles down the road, the pavement began to vanish and it was snowing harder. 15 miles down the road, I was getting dizzy trying to watch the double yellow line beneath the downy blanket that was trying to obscure it. Visibility was difficult. The car tracks in front of me became my guide and solace, knowing that there was another fool driving on this lonely road in the dark.

I reached Hardwick and was thankful that I only had five more miles of winding, curvy snow covered road. Mrs. Harbison was waiting for me with a soft bed and a warm house. I finally arrived in Greensboro around 8:45pm. There was about six inches of fresh, powdery snow on the ground.

Ann Harbison is the owner of 1847 House in "downtown" Greensboro, population 700. She's 87 years old and still going strong. She's also hard of hearing and it took me a while to let her know I was here. I received a warm welcome and we spent the evening talking about the weather, California, politics, and the Kehlers (she's known the Kehler family for many years.) I had a big day planned for Saturday, so I went to bed early.

Up at 5am. Ann was up with a bowl oatmeal and hot tea waiting for me. She gave me directions and saw me off. I drove over to Garvin Hill Road, on the other side of town. The roads were plowed, Vermonters knows how to handle snow. The sky was beginning to have a blue cast to it, signaling the end of a long night. When I hit the end of the pavement I know I was getting close to their farm. Cheesemakers have a knack of living beyond the end of the pavement. I spotted it on the right. It was about 6:15am. I pulled up to the barn and saw contented Ayrshire cows through a windowless window. I enter the building and find Mateo is alone in the cheese room. The morning milk is filling the 1100 liter vat, still warm, swirling in from pipes overhead that come in from the barn on the far end of the building. This morning is devoted to making Winnemere, a wash rind cheese encircled in a strip of spruce bark.

I get to work, assisting Mateo in turning day old Constant Bliss. They'll be salted later in the day, and set into the aging cellars for affinage. Constant Bliss is an oozy, raw milk cheese with a bloomy rind. It is so buttery and rich. I love it.

We are joined by Princess and Bert, two of Jasper Hill's employees. They're both young, Bert having just turned 21. Princess works at Jasper Hill in the wintertime. The rest of the year she works at a sheep dairy, Bonnieview Farms. Princess is planning on starting her own creamery working with sheep milk.

(photo) Bert inspects Bayley Hazen Blue.

There are wheels of Bayley Hazen Blue sitting on a table, drying. They're also salted and moved down into the aging cellars. There is a trap door in one end of the cheese room that leads down to the cellars. A hook and mechanized pulley system on barn track lift a double-decker cart with a big handle on it. The cheese is carefully loaded onto the cart, the cart is hooked to the hook and it is lowered into the cellar. No one has to carry tons of cheese up and down the stairs. Ingenious.

Mateo prepares the winnemere, he cultures it, lets it ripen and then adds the rennet. The curd is cut and stirred gently for a long time. Mateo is well versed in the ways of starter cultures. Like all good cheesemakers, he has to adapt his recipes to the season and the milk. He's currently experimenting with the cultures in winnemere. Making your own "cocktail" of cultures practically requires a doctorate; you've got to know what plays well with others. I know I have a lot more to learn. Working with him reminds me and humbles me.

While he's stirring the curd, I followed Princess (Prin for short) into the cellars for a quick tour. We go into the basement of the building and enter a large work area. Floor to ceiling racks fill the rooms. They're all covered with cheese. Cheddars, blues, fill the many wooden shelves, and in another area, metal racks are covered with wash rinded winnemeres, snowy white constant bliss, other wash rind cheeses sent to Jasper Hill for nurturing. There are lots of cheeses from all over Vermont. Jasper Hill Farm is aging cheese as well as shipping cheese for other cheesemakers, too. Mateo Kehler worked at Neal's Yard Dairy for over a year, has developed relationships with affineurs in France and has visited countless European cheesemakers and aging facilities. He's putting his knowledge of the cheese aging process to good use. Coaxing the best qualities out of a cheese isn't easy and it takes patience as well as years of experience.

I spy something I don't recognize. There's a new cheese emerging from the cellar: Moses Sleeper. A bloomy rinded cheese that looks like a camembert, but isn’t. Soft, oozy, fragrant like a Constant Bliss. It is milky, slightly grassy, you can feel the straw in the palate. The paste is like a rich butter that you want to spread on a nice crusty baguette, you don't want to stop eating it. Ohhh. I love buttery cheese.

Back upstairs, Mateo and Bert have hooped/scooped/ladled the winnemere curds into multimolds, molds that are in a plastic frame covered with a stainless steel plate with holes. The curd is scooped out of the fat and spread across the molds, filling them with little waste. The stainless steel plate guides all of the curd into the molds. These systems are common in Europe cheeserooms. Especially in the production of small format cheeses like camembert and crottins. We all flip the young winnemere and Mateo and Bert assembled it into a towering stack of multimolds on a table near the vat. It's draining time.

Mateo asked me, "Wanna go for a walk?" "Sure," I blindly replied. I wasn't sure what was in store. Is he going to show me the pigs?

It is bitter cold and I forgot to grab my gloves. We walk down. around a red storage shed and there it is. Glistening in the sun, is a concrete structure with large plastic windows, where glass should be. There are piles of wood, stones, cinder blocks and power tools littering the ground all around us. We push aside a black plastic sheet and enter the building. I'm in the new cellars. This is a huge building being built on the farm. It is rare that I am so excited by a construction project but I am in awe. It looks like a post modern railroad roundhouse. The building is a semi circle with Quonset hut cavern shaped spokes radiating outwards. Upon completion these caverns will all be buried. The place is built like a bunker. The walls are 14 – 18 inches thick. Solid concrete. It faces northwest, I think. (For some reason I can't tell east from west when I'm on the east coast. Strange.) There's still a lot of work to be done, but two of the aging caves will be operational in a month or two. It is very exciting to see. They are behind schedule by months, but one of these days this place will be a distribution hub for some of the finest cheeses of the Northeast. Cheese will fill these hollow halls, rivaling anything you'd find in Europe. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the northern mountains of Vermont.

As I spent the day with Mateo, I was constantly reminded by how driven he is. I sense that he's a pretty savvy businessman. He sits at a desk surrounded by architectural drawings, paperwork, awards, comic strips, and a poster of Jerry Garcia. He spent a while figuring out shipments to eager customers across the country. Reggae music is in the background, emerging from the speakers by his Macintosh. He's trying to keep his customers happy with the knowledge that he just doesn't have enough cheese for everybody. He and his brother Andy have a lot to juggle. They're running a business, they're expanding, they're farming, they're taking care of families. They've got a lot at stake with the new cellars. There's a great amount of risk involved, both financial as well as personal. But I KNOW they'll succeed. There's something about these guys that just attracts success.

By the end of the day, I was happily tired. I felt like I had learned a lot and really enjoyed the company of some new friends. Mateo's wife Angie and their two kids are great. Their kids are funny and I had a good time with them as they showed me their legos.

I sleep well that night. Sunday's very busy, too. Lots of driving in store for me. I've got to be back at Jasper Hill Farm at 8:00 and then I'm due in West Cornwall around 2:00. That's a lot of driving.

Coming up next: Day 2 at Jasper Hill Farm and a visit to Twig Farm, West Cornwall, Vermont.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Let it Snow!

Dateline Vermont:
Big winter storm is forecast to slam into Vermont, adding many inches of snow and ice to the already blanketed land.

It has been a jam-packed weekend. I've been socializing with the townsfolk of Greensboro and West Cornwall, Vermont. In spite of the fact that I am sleep deprived, I have enjoyed visiting with the inspiring cheesemaking families of Jasper Hill Farm and Twig Farm. I've been peppering them with many questions and have a lot to digest. I'll give a full update when I have had some sleep.

Today I spent a lot of time in the car, experiencing the tremendous beauty of northern Vermont. Thankfully the roads were clear and the drive was easy. Here area few pictures to whet your appetite. I'll give a more complete update when I can think straight.

Constant Bliss in the morning.

70+ degrees inside. 15 degrees outside.

The view and the cheese room at Jasper Hill Farm.

Bayley Hazen on a pine shelf.

Mateo Kehler adding rennet to winnemere.