Dairy One: Westfield Farm
I don’t know what I was thinking when I booked a ticket for a 6 AM flight out of SFO. Rather I do know what I was thinking. I was thinking, “I’m saving us $100 each on these tickets.” At 4:30 AM when my alarm rang, I would have paid anyone $100 to have a few more hours sleep. Still, we were on the road at 4:30 and it actually turned out to be a good thing. It put us closer to East Coast Dairy time and made us better houseguests while we were staying on farms.
My travel partner was Sheana Davis of the Epicurean Connection. I’ve worked with Sheana for over a decade and she is also mostly responsible for a yearly cheese industry conference held in Sonoma. While we may have different styles of travel planning, there is no one better to go on a cheese road trip with. She has the chef/catering background, I have the cheesemonger one, and neither of us can stand pretentious foodies.
I should offer a disclaimer on this series. There won’t be a lot of mocking, gossip, or trash-talking because the places I went to visit were places where there were people I like and respect. There actually aren’t a lot of pretentious cheesemakers in the world, just a lot of pretentious cheese marketers, consultants, writers, and even mongers. Getting up at 4:30 AM every day can kill off a lot of the fancy-fancy.
After coffee and donuts in Greenfield, our first stop was Westfield Farm .
They are best known for their Hubbardston Blue but they are also the makers of chocolate goat cheese . And it was great. I may be the only one to think so, because when I tried, during my travels, to offer it to others, they all rejected it or just took a little nibble and ignored it on the plate. To me it tasted like really tangy and firm chocolate mousse or the inside of a chocolate cheesecake. Because it was (goat) cheese-based, it combined the best of milk and dark chocolate. Sure it’s a novelty, but it’s a damn good novelty.
The owner gave us a tour despite the fact that we only called ahead about a half hour before arrival. We got to see the end of day’s blue production, the packaging area and the aging cheese. It was a small two-barn operation, small enough that they just replaced a line of regular home refrigerators with an actual aging room. Like I said, the Hubbardston Blue is their flagship product,. It’s available in goat or cow milk in a 5 ounce oozy disc. It’s ash-covered and blue veined and it’s ok if you want to think about it as a blue-brie. We bought pretty much one of every product they make and were gifted some Hubbardston that was too soft and runny to sell. The rind cracked and oozed into our cooler but it was awesome soaked into bread when we finally stopped for lunch. Rich and pungent with just enough bitter in the rind to make you pay attention.
Dairy two: Great Hill blue
Back in my ye olde days, I used to be enough of a political activist to travel around the country and stay at the houses of relative strangers for a Good Cause. I’ve done some punk rock travel too which generally involved harder, but not dirtier, floors and less sleep. Imagine my surprise to find out that the cheese world offers a similar travel plan. The big difference, as you would guess, is that the food is a lot better.
From Westfield Farm we decided to drive down to Buzzard’s Bay, Ma to visit Great Hill Blue. Great Hill Blue is one of my favorite domestic blues. It’s made from raw milk. It’s creamy, fruity and not over-salted. It is a seriously underrated cheese and versatile enough for any blue need. It won’t bur y you in pungency but it has more complexity than you think when you look at its relatively generic-looking 6 lb. wheel format.
Sheana and I had befriended the cheesemaker and his wife at the Milwaukee American Cheese Society Conference and they had invited her to stay if she ever came to town. Unfortunately they were moving into a new house and we had some communications problems, so we ended up not knowing whether they expected us to arrive on that night or the next. We couldn’t make it to the dairy before closing, and really cheesemakers are usually gone by early afternoon anyway, so we drove the five hours south figuring we’d probably get a motel room and go visit the dairy in the morning
Thanks to Mapquest and Great Hill Dairy’s billing address we knew how to get to the cheese plant. We decided to see if anyone was around and could give us their new phone number. As we approached, it was hard to believe there was going to be a cheese company around. On the road to Buzzard’s Bay all we could see were tall fences, big houses and obvious summer homes. I hoped that the address wasn’t just a maildrop.
It wasn’t. It was the owner’s private home which was behind a huge fence and next to the cheese plant on I don’t know how many acres of land. A lot. Evidently this property had been owned by the owners family well before the beginning of the last century and well before it became a tourist destination. After some initial embarrassment on our part, and nothing but helpfulness on the part of the owner’s wife, we managed to reach our potential hosts on the phone who ordered us to come over immediately.
In the 15 minutes it took to get their, David, the cheesemaker had gone to the store to get the ingredients for a New England clam chowder so Priscilla, his, wife, welcomed us as the first visitors to their brand new home. David turned out to be one of those gracious hosts who apologizes for things like not digging the clams himself as he made the most amazing chowder I’d ever tasted. Then he apologized his way through an improvised dessert of crepe suzette. Turns out he was a chef in Boston before he got the cheesemaking job. Yeah guys, when you visit the city, we’ll be going to a restaurant, ok?
As the cooking got going we sat around eating Westfield Farm cheese and drinking the limited edition wine Sheana made which we lugged out from San Francisco, it was time for Sheana to do a live call in to her weekly Sonoma County radio show From Farm to Table The wine and lack of sleep had gotten to me by the time Sheana shoved the phone in my face and told me I was on live, but I think I did ok. Hopefully I didn’t sound too dumb or drunky-drunky. The show was on 4/18 if you can figure out how to listen to it.
In what was to be a pattern, we kept a cheesemaker up past their bedtime drinking and had to feel a little guilty the next morning when we heard their alarm go off at 4:30 AM. Not guilty enough to not go back to sleep, but still…
At around 8 AM we made it back to Great Hill and got a tour of the make room as David cut the curds. We tasted more Great Hill, mocked the salty and insipid Danish Blue, met the incredibly nice folks who package and ship the cheese, and tasted David’s home-made hard cider before we were off to Maine.
While Great Hill is one of my favorites, I do want to mention some issues I have with their canned press release before we leave Massachusetts. To be fair, I don’t think that this text has been changed since they started making cheese two decades ago. But hey, it might be time for an update.
Located on the shores of Buzzard’s Bay, 50 Miles south of Boston, Great Hill Dairy in Marion has been known for its outstanding herd of Guernsey cows as well as its prize winning Acacia and Orchid collections. Note the tricky tense of the verbs. “Has been” is true because they have bought milk solely from local farmers for about 20 years. They have three remaining Guernseys which are decorative more than anything else. They serve that purpose because they are three of the most big, beautiful cows (hott bbcs!) I’ve ever seen. Still, it is worth mentioning that 2/3 of their actual cows are represented on their cheese label.
Great Hill is now introducing a unique tasting blue cheese made in its turn-of-the-century barn. Great Hill Blue is an internally ripened variety made with raw, unhomogenized milk resulting in a true gourmet quality cheese. The cheese has a slightly more dense and yellow curd as no bleach or food colorings are added. Again technically true, but I don’t know anyone who “bleaches” their milk. It makes the reader think that that might be common practice. Uh, no.
Still, it’s an amazing cheese made by wonderful and hospitable folks. Our Cheese Tour was off to an amazing start.
Dairies three and four: Mid Coast Cheese (aka Franklin Peluso) and the State of Maine cheese company
One of the endearing things about cheesemakers is that few really have any idea that to a small subculture of people, they are rockstars. Franklin Peluso is a 3rd generation California cheesemaker who recently moved all the way from Los Banos to Rockport Maine. This didn’t stop him from being honored last year at the founding meeting of the California Artisan Cheese Guild for lifetime achievement. People wanted to honor him so much that they just didn’t mention that relocation thing. (Note: Franklin and his family are back in California now!)
While he is working on a new cheese, Franklin is known for Teleme. It’s a soft oozy cheese with the best rind in the world, a thin, chewy crust that is rubbed with rice flour. The cheese itself is mild, sour, tangy and milky. It’s one of the few cheeses that has the smell of fresh milk at the dairy. It’s most similar to an Italian Crescenza, taste-wise but you could also think of it as a Taleggio without the ugly and the stink.
I’ve always felt that this cheese has never gotten the recognition it deserves. One of the things about American specialty cheese fans is that they tend to want strong cheese, as if to prove they can take it. There is a cultural lack of confidence with fancy cheese as if the harder a cheese is to eat, the better it must be. Teleme is easy. It goes with almost any fruit, any bread, any cracker. It makes an amazing fondue. When it’s ripe, it’ll be the first thing gone from the cheese plate, guaranteed.
One of the best parts of the trip was just hanging out with Franklin while he made 1000 pounds of cheese. He has someone helping him flip cheese in the aging room, but basically he does it all himself. At 8 AM he draws the milk into the vat, at 1 PM he has 100 wheels ready to age. We talked about how few people live in Maine, how California has changed, how he’s adjusting to life in the middle of nowhere. At one point Sheana or I commented on the stream of whey he was making by pulling the curds up on the sides of the vat saying it looked like the California Aqueduct. “Yes,” he said, “It’s like an aqueduct, the Roman aqueduct. “
Having said how much I love this cheese, I should mention that it’s not always easy to get good Teleme. It is really susceptible to molding on the delicious chewy rind which takes a lot of the joy of the cheese away. We’ve actually developed a couple of customers willing to buy wheels as-is at a deep discount because it happened so often. And if your Teleme is bitter, it’s too old. Take it back where you got it. Part of this problem was that Franklin sold his California factory with the name “Peluso’s Teleme” and, at least coincidentally, quality control went way downhill. Look for “Mid Coast Cheese Company” rice flour Teleme made in Maine.
Of course, last week, after four perfect wheels, I got a pink-rinded one. Despite the Maine connection, I didn’t think it was lobster-flavored so I sent it back.
Franklin is sharing space with the State of Maine Cheese Company which, for the record, is not owned by the state of Maine. They make some really nice UK-style cheeses including an awesome Caerphilly. I spent a lot of time in their gift shop trying to figure out exactly which kinds of maple candies I should bring home
Dairy Five: Jasper Hill Farm
We made a quick stop at a Maple-everything store on the Maine/New Hampshire border. There was an autographed picture of George Bush on the wall but the plastic maple syrup containers were still warm from being filled so I pretended it didn’t exist. I did accuse the woman of heating the containers up in a backroom microwave when she heard our car. She laughed politely so I guess I wasn’t the first to suggest that. Or that she actually did.
We were headed to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom which was green and hilly and stunningly beautiful. Ever since I started carrying their cheese I’ve wanted to visit Jasper Hill Farm For me, it was probably the biggest attraction of the trip because they are becoming some of the best cheesemakers in the country. They make three main cheeses:
Production doesn’t get much more small-scale and craft oriented than this. I was bitching to my distributor about the small quantity of Winnimere I was receiving. Then I talked to one of the brothers and found out there were only about 500 being made a month for the whole country. I suddenly became happy with my case a week allotment.
Andy and Victoria Kehler greeted us when we finally made it to their farm around 5 PM. They were doing the day’s second milking so we were directed to the milking parlor’s refrigerated keg while they moved from udder to udder. It’s always odd staying with people you barely know, but right then I new it would be ok.
We groomed cows and drank beer while trying to avoid getting covered in cow saliva . If anyone out there still has fantasies about the joys of rural living seeing how hard farmers actually work will probably cure you. They had been at the farm since 5 AM and by the time they finished milking and we finished feeding the cows and flipping the cheese made earlier, it was about 8 PM. True, Andy’s brother Mateo and his wife Angela were out of town so there was more work to be done than normal, but that is an everyday schedule.
One of the things I love about visiting farms is that reminder. Any cheesemonger or vendor can come visit a cheesemaker and cut some curds or flip a few cheeses. It is a great feeling to be part, even for a few hours, of that maturation process, of creating something edible, let alone something amazing like the Jasper Hill cheese.
It’s something else entirely working from 5 AM – 7 PM almost everyday of the year. The Jasper Hill folks definitely hold onto their sense of creation, love of their craft, and the beauty of their land. It’s obvious just spending a few minutes with them. But man, after we ate dinner and drank some wine I was happy to “sleep-in” until 6:30 AM. By the time I actually got out of bed they had been at work for a couple hours.
Dairy Six: Vermont Butter and Cheese Company
Next stop on the Cheese Tour was the Vermont Butter and Cheese Company. In some ways this my seem like it would be an odd stop for us. The only cheese Allison Hooper has available right now are fresh ones. Her chevre is fabulous, but I don’t generally carry it because of the myriad local options. I do carry her quark, fromage blanc, and mascarpone* but I’ll be the first to admit that those aren’t stunning to watch being made.
I still mourn the loss of the Vermont Butter and Cheese Goat Milk Fontina that Allison hasn’t made for years. Even if it used and identical recipe, I always felt calling it a Fontina was a mistake. For one, because “Fontina” is a hopelessly mixed-up title in this country. Real Fontina is the name-controlled Fontina Val D’aosta from Italy. But sell that to someone who has fontina listed as an ingredient in their internet recipe or Moosewood Cookbook and they are likely to be unhappy. In much the same way that US-made deli provolone bears little relation to real Italian provolone, US-made Fontina (or even Italian and French versions like “Fontal” “Fontinella” etc.) is buttery, mild, a tad sour and melty while Fontina Val D’aosta is pungent, grassy, and strong. Fontina Val D’aosta is also too much cheese for a lot of customers.
Anyways, my point is that her “fontina” was an amazing goat cheese, aged 3-6 months. Sweet, rich, grassy and a touch sharp. It was the victim not of bad naming, but of a short supply of goat milk and the lack of creative retailers and chefs. Honestly, I think it was just ahead of its time. If she could get the milk, and had the desire to do that type of cheese today, it would be counted among this country’s best goat cheeses.
It hasn’t been available for oh, about 6-7 years now but I can still almost taste it. And luckily, I can remember it at its best. I was incredibly excited about five years ago when a distributor asked me if I wanted to buy some. Of course I said yes, overjoyed at its return. I went on-and-on as I tend to do with distributors when I’m cheese-excited, even though my sales rep had no idea what I was talking about. Ignoring the obvious warning signs, I proclaimed in detail about what a great cheese it was and the rep promised to get back to me with info about how big a production run Allison was doing, whether it would be available all year round, whether I could buy in volume etc.
I should have realized when she kept saying, “Well, we only have one wheel right now” what was really going on. Sure enough, when it got to me, it turned out to be ancient. Many of you folks probably haven’t seem really bad cheese. I’m not talking about little ammonia, or browning or some bad mold. I mean cheese that is too old by a year or two. Brown and yellow pustules erupted then passed their oozing stage, re-solidifying in a tacky glaze. The cheese was hard as a rock and when I cut it there was only a pencil thin line of potentially edible cheese in the four inch tall wheel.
I tasted it, cuz, you know, it’s a crapshoot whether it would be the best cheese I ever tasted or make me violently ill. The tiny bit of sharpness was now intense and biting but not in a good way. Biting like the rats in the original “Willard” and like the quality of the Crispin Glover re-make. The sweetness was now bitterness that overwhelmed everything else. Nasty, nasty, nasty. Spit, spit, spit. Mine is a dangerous job. Allison stopped dealing with that company soon afterwards.
But damn I still miss that cheese.
Allison is working on new things however. They’re not out to the public yet, but soon there will be three new Vermont Butter and Cheese Company ripened goat cheeses. Bonne Buche (means “good taste” in French) which is a copy of the French Selles sur Cher, covered in mold and ash and super creamy will return from a two year hiatus now that VBC has built new aging rooms. Coupole which has a thinner rind than the Bonne Buche, is also mold and ash-covered. They look like snowballs you’d make out of end of the winter urban snow but they taste a lot better.. And Bijou which is a tiny, thin-rinded goat disc perfect for broiling. The recipes aren’t quite perfected yet, but as we tasted a bunch of different ages and batches, I would say they are already better than a lot of ripened goat cheese out on the market. I do love cheese perfectionism though so I’m fine with waiting a little longer., All are on the mild side of soft-ripened cheese, but I can’t wait to sell ‘em. Allison gave us a case of each for the road.
From left to right in the wooden boxes: Bonne Buche, Coupole, and Bijou. A wheel of Peluso’s Teleme is in the cardboard box on the far left and some Hubbardston Blue is loose in front. We had become a rolling cheese distribution unit to the delight of our friends and acquaintances.
I have always liked Allison, but we’ve never had a going-out-for-beer after the cheese conference kinda relationship. I certainly respect her work, she is the current president of my trade organization, and I never would have gone to Vermont without visiting her, but one of the nicest parts of the entire trip was just sitting around in her office after the tour of her new facility chatting about cheese and conferences past. Allison is a remarkable cheesemaker and all-around good people.
You know what really broke the ice I think? While walking through the plant, things were pretty normal as far as cheese facilities go. Dampness, high humidity, cheese vats, sweet and sour fresh milk smell in the air, people in hairnets draining fresh cheese etc. Sheana and I were interested but we’d seen it all before. Then she brought us into the butter room. Vermont Butter and Cheese is Butter and cheese for a reason. Her butter is possibly the best produced in this country, especially the one sold in little baskets with coarsely ground salt on top. (Her Quark and Mascarpone are also probably the best domestically produced ones available which is why I buy them from 3000 miles away. Bellwether and Cowgirl Creamery give Allison a run for her money Fromage Blanc-wise. And the Beecher’s Fromage Blanc, (which he has renamed “Blank Slate”) with honey is like a cheesecake without a crust. Sweet cheesy awesomeness! So Good!) Anyways, we walked into the room and saw her old industrial butter churn.
OMG, It was like dairy fetish porn to me. I felt like Stalin inspecting a new tractor factory. Stainless steel but weathered like a statue of something you actually care about. World-weary but dependable. Big enough to hurt you but you could tell it was really sweet and gentle beneath its imposing exterior. Sheana and I both guiltily asked if we could get our pictures taken in front of it. I might be projecting here, but I think Allison was happy to see someone who truly appreciated a fine piece of machinery. She told us how she found it years ago outside an old farmhouse and how she tried to replace it once but that the butter just wasn’t as good.
Dairy Seven: Vermont Shepherd
Vermont Shepherd was the last real stop on my cheese tour. Cindy and David Major were some of the first people I met in the cheese business outside the Bay Area and people I’ve always enjoyed hanging out with whenever we’ve been in strange cities together for cheese events.
No sooner had we parked our car than I was helping David carry cheese from the aging room into the cheese cave. Their cave is impressive, dug into a natural hillside and decorated with big stones. Unfortunately you won’t see a picture of this because I opened the back of my camera while rewinding my film. Oops.
Vermont Shepherd is basically a Basque-style sheep cheese made from raw milk. That is one of my all-time favorite styles of cheese so I was pre-disposed to like it before I even tried it a decade ago. While retaining the basic aspects of an Ossau-Iraty, Vermont Shepherd is sharper, sweeter, and more gamey than all but the most dramatic raw milk varieties. I think most Ossau-Iratys are more balanced, and creamy textured than the Vermont Shepherd, but like I said, I love them all.
Vermont Shepherd is also a beautiful cheese that is obviously hand-made. It looks like some of those mysterious flying saucer pictures from an old episode of “In Search of…”: round but convex at the sides. The rind is brown, flaky and befriended by cheese mites. Unfortunately, David has just started production for the year, and they sell-out their cheese every year, so there was nothing to take pictures of in the cave’s aging room. In some ways that was good. A room full of their rough-looking cheese on their homemade wooden shelves would be almost too much to bear. I wouldn’t have ever wanted to leave. I don’t think I’m important enough to make the cheese trade papers if the cops had to come remove me from the aging room, but the gossip would have spread.
We stayed with Cindy, and had a feast. Because Sheana had heard stories of my baked mac and cheese she insisted I make it for the party, partly because our goal was to cook more food than could be eaten in a week. Made with our last lb. of Teleme, two lbs. of Vermont Shepherd, and a pint of half and half, we realized that as a restaurant portion it would probably be about $15 a portion. This is when I love working in the food business.
Here are some of the Vermont Shepherd pics that turned out ok
Dairy Eight: a half-assed visit to Grafton Village
Vermont Shepherd was pretty much the last stop on the cheese tour. We had done so much driving and seen so many dairies in a short period of time that all I wanted to do was hang out with a couple of Western Massachusetts friends, sit around, and catch up. Thankfully I got to spend an hour or two with Susan Stinson an incredibly under-read novelist, poet, and all around wonderful person. She doesn’t write about cheese, but she writes good stuff.
Cindy Major, Sheana and I did make it to one more cheese place but it was half-assed. I’ve carried Grafton Cheese since practically my first day in cheese. It’s got that crumbly-sharp Vermont style cheddar thing going on. It bites the tip of your tongue and mellows just when you think it will get bitter. This is the cheddar that’s made for apple pies. It surpasses English cheddars in sharpness (though not earthiness or richness) and is truly an U.S. cheese achievement.
But we only had a weekend left on our trip and my contact with the company was on vacation. I didn’t really want to impose on anyone to give us a tour on a Saturday, but I did want to see the town of Grafton described to me alternatively as “amazingly bucolic and beautiful” and as a “Stepford village”.
Evidently the town of Grafton had been bought years ago by one of Rockefeller’s foundations and turned into a model Vermont Village, going so far as to bury all the power and phone lines so it would look all Olde Tyme. I heard, but was unable to confirm, that while they don’t dress up in pilgrim suits, they make the workers use back entrances and organize their trucking so it can’t be seen by tourists. A few trips back East as a child obliterated any potential colonial nostalgia in me so I was ready to be scathing.
True, there was no one in the streets of Grafton, but the weather was miserable (for the only time on the trip). It seemed cute but not cloying. A little Hollywood movie set, but with enough actual working businesses and farms to not be creepy. I do hate a missed occasion for snarkiness but alas, Dear Readers, it wasn’t bad. Maybe if I went back at high season and the place was filled with tourists… I mean, one can still fall in love with the Town of Mendocino if one visits on a cold winter day.
And don’t forget that, tourist town aside, Grafton makes some of the best sharp cheddar in the country.
Dairy Tour: Epilogue
If anyone out there is into making cheese, the person to get supplies from is Ricki Carroll at New England Cheesemaking Supply I can’t get into details, but Ricki is one of the most giving and wonderful folks I’ve encountered in the cheese business. I witnessed an act of generosity that almost had me in tears. Plus, her knowledge and helpfulness can’t be beat. In fact, anyone coming into our store asking for rennet, we send to Ricki even though she is 3000 miles away.