Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Two Curds...Jasper Hill.

Thanks to my trusty GPS, the Mazda & I were able to navigate the dark & rainy roads to arrive at Jasper Hill as planned to meet up with Zoe. As luck should have it they were still making cheese & milking the herd, which made for an action packed after hours tour. Our first stop was a visit to the barn, where the beautiful herd of 40 Aryshire cows were rocking out while producing delicious milk. Milk that would be used in the cheese room across the way, our second stop, to produce Bayley Hazen Blue, a raw cows milk blue cheese. Remaining milk will help produce Constant Bliss, a soft ripened bloomy-rind cheese that is nearly as buttery as a triple cream, without triple the cream. They recently began acquiring pasteurized milk from a nearby dairy to supplement their own milk & increase production of this delightful cheese, which they were still making during my visit...very much by hand. Scooping ladles of plump curd into the small molds.

Just when I thought my visit to a farmstead creamery after dark could get any better...it did. Before heading over to check out The Cellar, I was able to catch Mateo Kehler for a brief cheese chat on his way out for the evening. Mateo, the original cheesemaker for Jasper Hill, started the farmstead with his brother Andy and later convinced their wives Victoria & Angela to join the fun.

The adventure began in 1998 when the brothers bought a chunk of land in Greensboro, VT, where they used to spend summers with their grandparents. Cheese was not their first instinct of what to make on the farmstead. They tried both beer & tofu before turning to the curd...and the rest is cheese history. Mateo went to England to study with Neal's Yard & Andy rounded up the finances to begin the business. Their first batch came in 2003 & shortly after they began winning awards including "Best in Show" at the 2006 American Cheese Society competition for Constant Bliss.

As the business continued to grow...so did their vision for the future of Vermont artisan cheese. The vision was sparked by a partnership with Vermont cheese behemoth, Cabot. They had produced a batch of traditional clothbound cheddar, but needed both a place to store the high maintenance cheese and a connection to the artisan cheese market. Jasper Hill provided both managing the cheese mites that come along with all clothbound cheeses and selling it almost effortlessly. As demand increased for the Cabot clothbound cheddar, Mateo & Andy realized they would certainly need more space than was available in their small cellar (located under their cheese room), and plans were set in motion for a project that has potential to drastically change the American cheese scene.

The Cellars at Jasper Hill, is 22 thousand square feet of cheese aging (finishing, affinage, whatever you would like to call it) heaven and is the first facility of it's kind in the States (the pic at right is from a few years ago, like I said it was dark & rainy when I was there...so my pics did not exactly capture the site). This $3.2 million investment is based on European models where milk & cheese is produced on the farm & than transported to a finishing facility where it is carefully aged, sold, & distributed. The idea is to allow cheesemakers to focus on producing amazing quality cheese without worrying about the cost & labor that comes after. The bunker-like structure carefully built into the side of a hill directly across from the barn is an amazing and completely unexpected site. It is composed of 7 arched vaults with independently controlled temperature & humidity set to ideal conditions for the variety of cheese within each vault. Left, you can sneak a peak at the inside of one of the larger vaults entirely filled with clothbound cheddar from both Cabot and nearby Grafton Village. Smaller vaults like the one at right have become home to more delicate soft ripened cheeses from a variety of cheesemakers including Von Trapp Farmstead (yes, they are direct descendants of the Austrian family made famous in the Sound of Music...now making cheese...I love it!), Ploughgate Creamery, Crawford Family Farm & Dancing Cow from my last post, and many more. All tasty Vermont cheeses, living in perfect harmony. Now do you see why I call it heaven?

Mateo & Andy, and the entire Jasper Hill family, are taking American artisan cheese to levels it has never seen. Mateo commented, "We (Americans) have hundreds of years of history to make up for (when it comes to cheesemaking)," and Jasper Hill is trying to speed up the process by investing serious time, money, & effort for the sake of the curd. In doing so they are also supporting the movement to smaller sustainable producers & are helping to make it as economically viable as it is fulfilling. Ideas that do not always have to be mutually exclusive...especially when the product is delicious Vermont cheese! Hair nets off to these guys! Nearly makes my curd-loving eyes misty.

It was truly an enlightening evening, and I am so thankful for Zoe taking time after a long work day to show me around. Tons of Curds for you, Zoe! Hope to see you again soon.

Monday, November 16, 2009

There you are, Vermont!

After 12 days of having a cheese partner in crime, it was time for Oliver to head back to San Francisco. I would miss my co-cheeser dearly in the next few weeks, but there was still some serious curds to gather. After a night in the mountains chatting cheese with Molly, a friend of a friend who so graciously offered me a place to stay for the night, I was still determined to have a killer Vermont cheese experience. Slowly but surely, things fell into place. I scored 2 visits & was sure that more would follow.

My first proper Vermont farm & creamery visit was with Dancing Cow Farmstead Cheese run by husband & wife duo, Steve & Karen. In 2003 they moved to Vermont from eastern Pennsylvania to raise their family & invest in their passion for delicious food by starting a diary farm. The first batch of cheese was born in 2005 & began selling in 2006, and production has been ramping up ever since. They are working to find a sustainable dairy farm model that is healthy for the earth & their family life as well as economically viable. A model that is still a work in progress, but they have made some serious strides. Their herd of roughly 30 is one of the most beautiful I have seen & are treated with a tremendous amount of love & care. Each has a name (Mango, I believe, is the one in the picture), a personality, & a story. It is no wonder that they make delicious milk! They are milked once a day (most milk twice) in the morning & then they spend the rest of the day out on the pasture. The milk goes directly from the parlor to the cheese vat for Karen to work her magic. Karen makes cheese everyday, until she needs a break...and it is delightful. Each cheese is named after a dance, the Sarabande being my absolute favorite. It is a cow's milk washed rind in a non-traditional pyramid shape, and it is buttery, nutty, & beyond delicious. Their Bourree, shown above, is a slightly more approachable yet still very tasty cheese & they are working on adding a blue to the dancing family (exciting!), likely to be named Lindy Hop.

After my lovely visit with Steve & Karen, I was headed to Crawford Family Farm to meet with Sherry, their cheesemaker. I arrived at the farm to another serendipitous GATC moment which may require some back story/explanation.

Similar to Lazy Lady Farms, Jasper Hill has been at the top of my Vermont list. I been told on several accounts, including Tom Calvers of Westcombe Dairy in England, that it is a place that I just must see. Not only do they make delicious farmstead cheese, they have recently invested in a 22,000 square feet of cheese aging heaven. I had been in contact with Jasper Hill, but had been unable to land a time for a visit. Leading up to the holidays they were insanely busy & most of their operation would be traveling for the time I was in the Northeast Kingdom, so I was slowly losing hope. Until...I arrive at the Crawford Family Farm to find Shelly packing up boxes of cheese with Zoe, who works for Jasper Hill, to take back to the Cellars (a.k.a. cheese aging heaven). After a short conversation with Zoe, she graciously offered to show me around Jasper Hill that evening, after working hours. She & Mateo, one of the founding brothers & cheesemaker, were traveling the following day, so time was of the essence. With a warm, fuzzy, Vermont-lovin' feeling, I told her I would be there that evening & continued my visit with Sherry.

Sherry, one of 3 siblings running the 4th generation dairy farm, leads the cheese charge making Vermont Ayr. It is an alpine style cheese made from the raw milk of the family farm Aryshire cows. As you can see in the picture (left), their vat is pretty small, which can mean that Sherry makes cheese twice in one day to keep up with demand. Insane. However, they are looking to get a larger vat, which is a wonderful thing for the lovers of curd, because the Vermont Ayr is quite enjoyable. It's creamy earthy flavor highlights the beautiful terrior of the Champlain Valley, making it yet another Vermont cheese treasure.

After my visit, which included a trip with Sherry in her Prius to a nearby town to drop off some cheese for a local CSA (love it!), I was headed back to the Northeast Kingdom for my after hours tour of Jasper Hill.

Vermont, thanks for finally coming to the party!

Thanks to Molly for putting me up & reinvigorating my excitement about Vermont cheese & to Stephen, Karen, & Sherry for taking time out of your busy schedules to chat cheese. These curds are for you!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Vermonster & the Cheese Stalker

It is no secret that Vermont produces some of the most delicious cheese in America. Tasty curd, however, does not come easy. In Vermont, roughly 70% of cheesemakers are considered farmstead. They are managing their own herds, producing their own milk, making & aging the cheese right on the farm. It is an amazing amount of backbreaking work to create masterpieces for us to enjoy. Needless to say, this was a much anticipated leg of the GATC.

Fully equipped with the Vermont Cheese Trail & my trusty Atlas of American Artisan Cheese, I was ready to chat some cheese with the talent of the Northeast Kingdom (a term coined by former Governor & Senator, George Aiken, to describe the northeast corner of Vermont due to the insane beauty of the land...little curd of history). I contacted several farms & creameries in the area & anxiously awaited their response. Maybe it was all the nervous eating, but I started to get worried about our depleting cheese reserves as we waited...and waited...crickets. One doesn't accept visitors, a few were no longer making cheese, and others just did not respond. Included in the non-respondents was Lazy Lady Farms. If you remember back in the early days of this blog, I wrote about her cheeses after first trying it at Saxelby's in NYC. I have been obsessed with her cheese ever since & I was determined to see it's birth place. So, I tried again...leaving what I thought was a very flattering, charming, & slightly desperate voicemail. Still no answer. It was time to take matters into our own hands. Knowing that the farm was only a short drive from where we were staying, I could not resist. We did the drive by...once...twice (not suspicious at all by the way in a black 4-door sedan cruising by on gravel roads)...and by the third time Oliver had talked me into stopping to see if anyone would be available for a quick chat. The dialogue went a little something like this...

Me: "Hello. Is this Lazy Lady Farms?"

Man: "Yes."

Me: " Oh good. Well, I had emailed & called to inquire about a possible visit...and then we were in the area...and"

Man: "We are really busy right now. Feel free to look around a bit if you'd like."

Me: "Is Laini around?" (Laini is the cheesemaker & owner whose name I completely mis-pronounced, but the gentleman was nice enough to correct me immediately)

Man: "Laini is not here. We are really busy."

Me: "Is that a cheese cave you are building?"

Man: "Yes."

Me: "Where is the current cheese cave? Is it nearby?"

Man: "It's over there." (pointing obscurely to a large area of the property)

Me: "Sorry to bother you. Have a great day."

Just like that, I became a cheese stalker. I received an email a few days after our drive by that read, "Sorry you showed up. We have NO time for visitors. Drowning in work. I am at the farmers market Saturday."

Discouraged by the hunt for cheese, Oliver & I made the most of our time finding unbelievable hikes, microbrews, farmer's markets, and delicious restaurants. We even attended a Locavore dinner at the Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park, VT. For those that are not familiar, locavore is a term for those interested in eating seasonal & locally produced foods (I feel a bit like wikipedia this post). The locavore movement is strong in Vermont & as luck should have it, there was an event while we were in town. The meal was tasty (left we have a pic of the meal; cheese soup, roast beef, roasted root vegetables, fresh baked bread, spinach & goat cheese salad, & some fresh apple cider) but the company was the highlight of the evening. We listened to stories upon stories from the locals about being nipped at by coyotes, chased down by moose, and of a local brewery being attacked by Monster Energy Drinks for the name of one of their beers, the Vermonster (check out this youtube video for the full story...I think Monster decided to back down after convenient stores in the area started taking Monster off the shelves). It was a great evening thanks to the friendly Vermont locavores at Applecheek Farms.

Of course we could not visit northern Vermont without a trip to the home of Ben & Jerry's in Waterbury. We braved the tourist scene (it is the single most visited attraction in the state) for a tour & taste. The tour was chock full of bad cow jokes & ice cream factoids & the taste seemed ridiculously more delightful than scooping out of a pint, but mostly I just wanted to post this picture.
Who knew you could have so much fun while cheese stalking? My luck of the curd was destined to turn around...I could feel it in my calcium rich bones.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Beauty & The Cheese

One of the many wonderful things about cruising around visiting farms & cheesemakers, is the surrounding nature. I have been delighted by some amazing sites along this journey, and our time in Acadia National Park was overflowing with buena vistas. Hopefully these pics help tell the story of this beautiful chunk of our country. How could we not stop for a few nights to hike off some of that cheese?
The restaurants near the park, however, were not quite as delicious as the park was beautiful. So, on the way out we were determined to find a tasty meal. For this, we head Table, A Farmhouse Bistro, in the town of Blue Hill, ME. Dedicated to local ingredients, chef Rich Hanson (twice nominated for James Beard awards...impressive) selects ingredients from local producers as well as Artisana, a farm operated specifically to provide delicious produce for the restaurant. While sitting at the bar enjoying a delicious meal of grilled flatbread served with olive tapenade & roasted garlic, creamy kale soup, haddock fish & chips (what can I say...we were addicted!), and some warm spiced wine, the kitchen received a delivery...a cheese delivery, that is. Bob Bowen of Sunset Acres was delivering cheese made by his wife, Anne, and just so happened to be the most chatty & friendly fellow around. After bonding over curd at the bar, he invited us to his farm...an invitation we happily accepted. He even drew us a map.
Nearly half an hour later, we arrive at Sunset Acres to be greeted by Bob & his herd of 100 goats (Saanen, Nubian, & Alpine). We toured the farm, hung out with the goats as Bob pointed out the best producers of the bunch, & witnessed a milking in the small parlor that Bob & Anne designed over dinner sketching on a napkin. The clever parlor (in the pic at right...and yes, Oliver did help to milk one of the goats) seems to be working out for the duo providing quality milk for cheesemaking. Anne's soft-ripened beauties are in high demand & all delivered by Bob, who claims never to leave Hwy 1 nor make a left turn (love it). Only the best run haunts along his route, like Table, are lucky enough to receive this delicious cheese.
Both the Table & our visit to Sunset Acres made for a wonderful Maine finale before we head west to Vermont.

Special thanks to Bob & Anne for taking the time out of their busy days to shoot the curd! What a blast. We will be in touch (just in case you are reading this...I plan to hold you to your promise)!