Friday, January 15, 2010

Stinkin' Good Fun at Meadow Creek Dairy

The finale of the eastern leg of the Great American Cheese Tour could not have been any more delightful. I am joined again by Mum (long story), for a journey southwest to Galax, Virginia. There, at 2,800 ft nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, we visit the Feete family's Meadow Creek Dairy. This farm has the highest elevation of any that I have visited on the road, and it is certainly a unique beauty.

First, a little background on Meadow Creek Dairy. Helen & Rick Feete started dairy farming in 1980 and have been committed to sustainable practices from the beginning. Their belief is that healthy happy cows, enriched soil, & environmentally sound farming practices produces the best milk. Judging by the taste of their cheese, I would say this is a pretty stellar philosophy. They began selling fluid milk, but as a reaction to fluctuating milk prices (pretty common GATC story), Helen began making cheese in 1998. Rick continued the all important job of managing the herd of 80 cows, all with names and family trees. Their award winning cheeses reflect the unique characteristics of the terrior in the Blue Ridge Mountains and their commitment to responsible & careful farming.

Mum & I arrived to the late morning hustle & bustle of cheesemaking. Rick & Helen's daughter, Kat, was under the weather, so the fine tuned family operation was down one person, and everyone was pitching in. We began our tour with Kat's husband, Dan, who took us into the cheese room where they were still cutting the curd & placing it in the molds for draining. Linda, their sales manager, is the one working the curd in this photo. She is the newest member of the team coming from Italy, where she was working for Slow Food (amazing!).
From the cheese room we headed to the aging cave which was mostly filled with Grayson, their most popular cheese. For those of you that have tried Grayson (or Taleggio, which is the closest comparison, but not nearly as my opinion), it packs a pretty pungent aroma, as did the cave. It was a stinky cheese lovers dream! Sorry Mum. I could have watched the ladies wash loaves of Grayson all day...but it was time for lunch! Yes, the Feete family invited us to stay for lunch. Does it get any better?
Mum & I sat around a large table in the kitchen above the cheese room with the entire Meadow Creek family to a delightful tartiflette (potatoes, cured ham, some onions, and melty Grayson cheese). Stinking delicious! We chatted cheese & slow food before heading out to check out the herd.

The final part of our day we spent out in the pasture with Rick & it was quite the treat. The sound of 80 cows chomping on fresh green pasture is surprisingly loud. Helen & Rick had grown the heard from scratch, so each cow had story & of course a name. Bridgette is the beauty in this picture, she is half Jersey half Montbilard...ehh, quite french. Can you tell?

After a solid four hours touring the farm, Mum & I were set to hit the road. It was a wonderful day thanks to Rick, Helen, & the entire family. We were truly honored to spend the day at Meadow Creek Dairy. These curds are for you Feete Family! Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to chat cheese.

Now, back to San Francisco...where I have actually been for two months, and where I will stay put for some Bay Area cheese fun!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Curd Lovin' in Jersey & Phili

My first stop after Vermont was at Bobolink Dairy in Vernon, New Jersey just across the New York boarder. The Dairy is the business & passion of John & Nina White. John, a former engineer, and Nina, a former professional dancer, have been working as stewards of the land in a variety of ways since 1993 when they opened an egg farm 30 miles north of NYC. After several years of making cheese from milk they purchased from nearby farms, they now make cheese with the milk of their own heard. The majority of this beautiful herd is a cross breed of common Jersey, Guernsey, & Ayrshire with Kerry, a rare ancient breed from Ireland. Their happy herd enjoys rotational grazing in a beautiful wooded valley and they even get to keep their horns, which is pretty rare.
From their purely grass-fed milk John makes beautiful cheeses that are aged in a former boxcar, now cheese cave (see pic at top right). The cheeses are mostly sold on premise and at Manhattan farmer's markets. Equally as delicious as the cheese is their wood-fired bread baked 6 days a week in a beautiful custom oven (see pic at right with Nina). Roasted garlic & duck fat bread fresh from the oven? Yes please.
As if the cheese & bread were not enough goodness, the Whites also raise pigs feeding them the whey by-product of the cheese making & stale bread. They are also hoping to get a license to sell cured pork (eh hem...bacon?) produced by these happy pigs. So, all ya'll NYC dwellers should keep your eyes out for a tasty addition to your Union Square Greenmarket. Lucky ducks.
After my lovely visit with John & Nina at the Bobolink Dairy, I stopped at Cherry Grove Farm outside of Princeton, NJ for a walk through their beautiful property (left), and cruised down to Philadelphia for a day of urban cheese exploration. I had a packed schedule beginning with the the Reading Terminal Market. Recommended by a friend of Oliver's, I had no idea what to expect...and it is gigantic. I walked around for the better part of 30 minutes with my jaw dropped before I finally just asked a local where to begin. After gathering a few recommendations, I found myself at Dinic's Roast Pork & Beef for the most delightful & oversized pulled pork sandwhich with broccoli rabe & grilled hot peppers (sorry Phili, I just could not bring myself to indulge in the cheesewhizsteak...cheese food is where I draw the line). This place has nearly everything you could ask for in a market, including a beer garden (interesting...but why not?). The one thing that I can say was missing, unfortunately, is a respectable cheese destination. I was actually worried for a moment. Had Phili abandoned real cheese for the sake of whiz?
Luckily, my next stop at Di Bruno's would put my worries to rest. Artisan cheese galore! The selection was amazing & the service knowledgeable & ready to chat cheese. I was so elated that I became fast friends with the mongers...hence the photog behind the cheese counter. Of course, I left with a hunk of Lazy Lady Farms Trillium (I wish I could quit you!), happy as a clam.
Tria, a wine cheese & beer cafe, was my final Phili stop. Curious about an establishment that claims itself a cheese bar, I could not resist. The menu is 4 pages, a list of beer, wine, cheese, & small plates. While I love the concept, I was disappointed to see that only 5 of the 16 cheeses on the menu were domestic...all of which I had already tasted at Di Bruno's. So, I settled for some delicious roasted beets & chevre, a glass of wine & was on my merry way.

I like you Phili, and your brotherly love. Now, if you could only get the whiz out of your cheesesteaks...may I suggest a clothbound cheddar?