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.

1 comment:

Dave P. said...

Sairbair, Nicely done! I've been trying to get to Jasper Hill myself for a couple of years and that was the best sneak preview I've come across.