Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Winter at Willow Hill Farm

Pam and I drove up to Milton, Vermont to go say hello to Willow Smart and see her cheesemaking establishment. Well, Pam drove, I got to look out the window. The weather was great, with the sun peeking out from behind a wall of clouds, occasionally flooding the snowy landscape with bright sunlight. We drove north from Burlington, heading into a more hilly region of Vermont. Bare trees, rocky slopes and frozen ponds and streams whirled past the car as we found our way to Milton.

As its turns out, Milton is only about 15 miles north of Burlington, but it took longer than expected to find Willow's place. Her directions were great. We just took our time, and stopped in town to check out an old church. The town was chartered in 1763, and the church dated back to shortly after the town's founding. It was a classic New England protestant church, with a tall steeple and large assembly hall. The pews were clearly hand built, with carvings on the ends.
We ducked out of the building and drove onwards to Willow's place on Hardscrabble Road.

Willow Hill Farm was just up the road. The driveway was snowy but passable. We passed some hardy looking sheep, standing in a snow covered pasture near a barn. They looked at us with puzzled looks on their faces. We followed the signs and pulled up to the cheese room and visitor's gallery as Willow and her husband David.

They were just wrapping up a meeting and came out to say hello. Our boots made nice crunching sounds as we walked cross the compacted snow. Willow led us into her new visitor's room while David went off to work on the exterior of the cheese room.

photo: the exterior of the cheese room at Willow Hill Farm

The cheese room is new. Willow and David began construction in 2005 and finished the project themselves. 2o07 was a rough year, as they were finishing this project and they had a lot of equipment "issues." Her cheese production was down, because she couldn't make cheese as often as not. Her cheese cave, dug out of the rocky slope adjacent to the building where we were standing was bare on our visit.

photo: the make room of Willow Hill Farm

Willow gave us a tour of her facility. Both Pam and I peppered her with question. Pam with a professional cheesemaker's point of view, and me from a start-up, DIY perspective. Willow answered everything and gave me some good ideas for building materials, and how her layout works well for her workflow. With every place I visit, I pick up something new. I liked her visitor's viewing gallery. Since her place is built on a slope, visitors pull up to the top part of the building and can view everything from above. The business goes on below the viewer. Milk trucks pull up on the other side to deliver fresh milk for cheesemaking. The viewing room is lined with the may awards that Willow has received for her cheesemaking efforts. Numerous ribbons, certificates, and plaques cover the walls, a tribute to her hard work and great skill.

photo: the cheese fridge

Willow raises sheep on her diverse, certified organic farm. She buys cow's milk from a neighboring farm as well for her cheesemaking. During the fall and winter, her production focuses on cow's milk cheese because the sheep dry (not being milked.) Her visitor's gallery has a self-serve refrigerator in it. A price list is on the side of the fridge and inside reveals two different cheeses available on this brisk December afternoon. La Fleurie, a rich and buttery, bloomy rind cow's milk cheese in a camembert style, as well as Paniolo, a meaty and custardy washed rind cow's milk cheese with a bright orange rind. Paniolo means cowboy in Hawaiian. (Willow grew up on a cattle farm on the Big Island.) I eagerly took some cheese to try to transport home safely in my luggage. I'm told she also makes some amazing sheep's milk yogurt, but you can't get it in the winter. Darn!

I've tried a couple of her cheeses before. Alderbrook is her aged sheep's milk cheese, similar to a Basque cheese like Abbaye de Belloc or Ossau Iraty. From my tasting notes: Nutty, slightly sweet, and mushroomy. Tasted great with beer! I also tried her Vermont Brebis, a rich and creamy, soft ripened cheese made from sheep's milk. The one I had was a bit over-ripe, so it was extra gooey and a bit gamey. Still delicious.

photo: the cheesemakers of Willow Hill Farm

Willow's farm has been certified organic since 1992. Not only do they make cheese, but you can buy grass-fed lamb, wool blankets, and in the summer time you can pick your own blueberries. My kind of farm! She showed us some of her potatoes that were in a box in the visitor's gallery, ready to put into her cellar. I don't know when Willow and David have time to sleep, they seem to have so many endeavors going on.

photo: Pam and Willow

I really enjoyed meeting Willow and look forward to seeing her again, hopefully at the American Cheese Society's annual conference in Chicago this summer. By the way, Willow keeps a blog as well. You can keep up on her farm's goings-on here:

I just get all warm and fuzzy thinking about the three farms I got to visit during my time in Vermont. The Kehlers of Jasper Hill Farm, Michael and Emily of Twig Farm, as well as Willow and David of Willow Hill Farm. They're all really nice people who opened their doors to me and shared their vision as well as their cheese. They are all different in their approaches to their business, but they all shared a unifying vision of creating a hand crafted product from their own animals, and offering it to the public so that they might be able to taste their art, their land, their passion, as well as their toil. As many folks have told me, cheesemaking is not just a job, it is a lifestyle career. As I said before, I could live in Vermont, especially with neighbors like these. Too bad I can't stand living with months and months of ice and snow. That's while I'm looking at Oregon. We'll continue the search on March 8th.

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