Gastrotourism takes our Eat Out editor out of New York City and into the wilds of American farmstead cheese-making. By Gabriella Gershenson
This weekend in Vermont, we are gastrotourists. It’s a wonderful term, because it means that we will be eating a lot, and if we’re not eating, we will be thinking about food. This dairycentric journey is led by New York’s doyenne of American farmstead cheeses, Anne Saxelby, who, with Benoit Breal, runs Saxelby Cheesemongers (Essex Street Market, 120 Essex St at Delancey St, 212-228-8204). Though Saxelby has long offered day trips to area farms, this is the first extended visit she’s organized: a weekend near the Vermont/New York border complete with farmers’ market jaunts, picnics, a stay in a New England B&B, a four-course cheese dinner, and the pièce de résistance, a cheese-making demonstration.
Dorset, the site of our inn, is a quaint New England village where there are yarn shops and general stores, and a marble quarry that doubles as the local swimming hole. The scenery is so idyllic that you feel as though you are in a postcard—colonial homes, red-painted barns, grazing animals and a lush, green terrain.
Though we arrive on Friday night, the itinerary officially begins on Saturday. My companion and I stumble into the dining room at the 212-year-old Dorset Inn (8 Church St at Rte 30, 802-867-5500) for a 7:30am breakfast and make first contact with our partners in fromage. Based on some overheard snippets of conversation (“I have all of my radios set to NPR”), I start to feel sorry for any of those among us who are not Democrats.
After a killer meal of raised waffles, bacon-and-cheddar hash and strong coffee, we pile into our cars. According to the schedule, we’re visiting 3-Corner Field Farm (County Rte 64, 518-854-9695), a sheep dairy in nearby Shushan, New York. We leave the inn at 9am. By 9:08, the plan has changed. Saxelby pulls over and shouts out her window: “There’s
supposed to a be a really cool Obama mural in Pawlet, wanna check it out?”
Ten minutes later, we’re looking at the presidential candidate’s head painted on the side of a building. It was cool, but I already know what he looks like. What’s cooler is the guy fly-fishing into a bubbling river below. After 20 minutes of picture taking and one gift to Saxelby of a freshly caught trout, we get back into our cars.
Back on track, we hit the Salem Farmers’ Market (Village Park, Rte 22, Salem, NY), located in one of those American towns that must have once enjoyed prosperity but many of whose buildings are now decaying. As for the market, there isn’t much produce—pearly eggs from Duck Soup Farm are the highlight—though I do score a bag of excellent handmade granola for just a few bucks.
After another unplanned jaunt, I realize that this is more like a road trip than an organized tour—which is okay with me. We wind up at Battenkill Valley Creamery (691 County Rte 30, Salem, NY; 518-859-2923) to taste the milk from grass-fed cows. It’s delicious, fragrant and stored in glass bottles; the lightweights drink 2 percent, the stalwarts down whole milk, and the nonthirsty talk to the cattle.
Suddenly, and not surprisingly, Saxelby says we’re late for our tour at 3-Corner Field Farm. She just shrugs and rallies the troops, and I marvel at how laid-back she is. Maybe it’s something in the milk.
We arrive at the sheep farm in Shushan, and it is perfect—the terrain is rolling, the big sky is plump with clouds, and the grazing sheep are equally fluffy. A tour of the 200-acre operation, which specializes in sheep cheeses and lamb meat, shows off 140 ewes and some very rambunctious rams—all of whom have an enviable lifestyle. The herd eats clover, grass and alfalfa and hangs out with the Maremma guard dogs, which are named after cheeses (Manchego and Roquefort).
We’re hungry, so we break for a picnic overlooking the Battenkill River, then hurry off to the next farm: Consider Bardwell Farm (1333 Vermont Rte 153, West Pawlet, VT; 802-645-9928). It’s a 300-acre dairy owned by New Yorkers Russell Glover (an architect), Angela Miller (a book agent), and Chris Gray (a former music industry exec), who spend half their week in the city and the other half caring for a herd of 100 Swiss Alpine goats and the on-site cheese-making facility. Tomorrow we will return for a cheese-making workshop—master cheese-maker Peter Dixon produces them from the farm’s milk and cows’ milk from nearby Jersey Girls Farm—but today is for milking, making friends with the goats and checking out the cheeses aging in the caves.
All of this cheese porn has me craving some of the creamy stuff. Happily, dinner that night at the Inn features several specimens, most from the farms we visited—including 3-Corner Field’s Battenkill Brebis, a nutty aged raw-milk sheep’s cheese, and the East Dorset, a stinky washed-rind raw cow’s milk cheese from Consider Bardwell. (You can buy both at Saxelby Cheesemongers, plus 3-Corner Field Farm is at the Union Square Greenmarket Saturdays, and Wednesdays after Labor Day; and Consider Bardwell sells at McCarren Park on Saturdays, and in Tompkins Square Park and Carroll Gardens on Sundays.) With it, I polish off four glasses of wine. Which, on second thought, probably wasn’t such a good idea.
The only difference between yesterday and today: I know the names of my fellow travelers, and I know that a delicious meal awaits me at breakfast. Digging into a plate of blueberry pancakes with sausage and eggs, I justify my gluttony by pretending it’s a farmhand’s meal—we are about to make cheese, after all.
We check out of the hotel and make a (spontaneous) stop at the Dorset Farmer’s Market (2732 Rte 30). It offers more variety than Salem’s, and I walk away with strawberries, snap peas, cherries and some pretty great craft jewelry.
En route to Consider Bardwell Farm, I think about the incredible sights we’ve seen: cows grazing in a blossom-dotted valley; long-necked alpacas bopping around in a fenced-off pasture; tiny wild strawberries growing tangled in the grass. This place is worth visiting for the beauty alone.
Happily, the area offers more than that: We arrive at the farm, and today it’s all business—the business of making cheese. We’re grateful to be confined indoors on such a rainy Sunday. First, we remove our dirty shoes, change into sterile Crocs and wash our hands. Only then are we allowed into a white chamber that smells of warm milk—this is where the action takes place. Later I realize action may be the wrong word: We are about to learn that producing cheese involves a lot of waiting around.
Our group gathers by a stainless-steel vat that’s filled with 150 gallons of freshly procured Jersey milk. We’re making Dorset, a Brie-like cheese, says Peter Dixon, the Cheese King. First, he adds the starter cultures to the milk, which partially determines, along with other factors, what the cheese is going to taste like. We watch a mechanical paddle gently agitate the milk, and we wait for it to reach 86 degrees (this takes about 40 minutes). The motion is hypnotic, and I have to jerk myself alert.
Dixon points out that fat has gathered on top of the milk (this occurs at around 84 degrees). And the paddle turns. He takes these lulls as opportunities to share interesting facts about cheese: A recent abundance of dandelions in the area has resulted in some startling yellow milk; there’s less fat in summer cheese; cheese-making goes back 8,000 years to Mesopotamia.
To pass the time, Dixon also brings in a pitcher of raw milk, which is illegal to sell in many states. We pass around a cup and each savor a sip. It’s sweet, rich and delicious, and way better than weed.
Now that the milk has reached 86 degrees (we’ve been here for nearly an hour), Dixon can add the vegetable rennet, an enzyme that forms the curd. He tests the acidity of the mixture. “Don’t overstir or it will start to coagulate the milk,” he warns. On its way to solidifying, the liquid becomes a gel—Dixon tests the consistency by spinning a Tupperware container on the surface, a method he learned in France. When it doesn’t rotate, this means that the proteins are rearranging, and the milk has become solid. After another half hour, the curds are just about ready to be cut. “This is the most exciting part,” says Saxelby, who actually is excited. Dixon runs a tool called a harp, a metal instrument strung with thin wires, through the firm milk to create cubes, or curds.
After more stirring, this time by hand, which brings the curds from a tofulike texture to a more rubbery one, Dixon is satisfied with the curds’ consistency (he says that some cheese-makers throw them against the ground for a “bounce test”). He invites us to dunk our hands into the whey and feel them between our fingers—they’re pliable and irregularly shaped, like pieces of chewed gum. Now it’s time for what I think is the most exciting part: hooping, or separating the curds from the whey and molding them into cheese.
In preparation, Saxelby sets two rows of plastic baskets out onto a stainless steel table, while Dixon opens a valve on the tub so the whey starts to drain. Dixon and his assistant dunk pitchers into the tub and pour the curds into the baskets. It’s a swift activity, and in no time there is a deluge of whey, and a yellow waterfall pours off the table into a bucket below. Once the baskets are filled, Dixon inverts one, and there’s a bit of magic: All of the curds stick together in a porous cake—not one falls from the mass. Whatever he did, he did it perfectly. (The technical reason: He got the pH and consistency of the curd right.) This segment of the cheese-making, and our lesson, is done. But as labor intensive as all of this was, it takes another three months of caring for the cheese for it to become the Dorset.
Though I did absolutely nothing, at this point my legs and back are tired from standing. It’s time to go home, and I’m hungry. I think I’m in the mood for some cheese.