I spent the morning in the Pomfret, Vermont hills among cows and affable, talkative farmers happy to have me help to spread their gospel: eat locally and sustainably, and preserve the traditions of good food and respect for the land. I’ll save Cloudland Farm for another post, because my visit to Thistle Hill Farm was so involved as to have me elbow deep in the copper vat of warm curds and whey. This was the warm soup that would become the delicious, nutty Tarentaise.
John and Janine Putnam, the owners, farmers, and cheesemakers, were nice enough to let me watch and trail along and ask questions while they dealt with their uncharacteristically chaotic morning: it was a cheesemaking morning, which involves precise timing; and one of their cows had escaped the night before in search of a private place to birth her calf. When I arrived with my sister and our two sons, the Putnams were harried. John was measuring the temperature in the vat and watching the clock, while running in and out of the cheese house, changing his shoes each time, to keep dirt out of the cheese room. Janine was walking all around the steep hills of the property searching for the new mother and her calf. “Some are good mothers, some are bad. The bad ones will just leave the calf, and we have to find it.” They both disappeared for awhile, and Jack and Jeremiah found the Putnam children’s old tractor toys in the back of the barn, and played happily. I snooped around the cheese house, where there is a wall covered with awards and accolades for their organic Vermont alpine cheese, named Tarentaise, and made in the style of the alpine cheeses of France and Switzerland. On the wall a map of this region shows, with red circles, where the Putnams traveled with their four children, almost ten years ago, when they decided to make real cheese.
curds & whey in copper
When we all bustled back into the cheese room with too big boots, Andrew, the Putnams’ 21-year-old son, was there to help his father lift out the heavy curds. My glasses fogged up. It was much hotter and more humid in the room, and the air smelled both sweeter and more acidic. The curds had reached one degree shy of the critical 48 degrees Celsius. John said he can tell where it is in the process by the smell. When he was apprenticing, he said, he was told that at a certain point, “just put away the instruments and the thermometer. Your senses will tell you what you need to know.”
The American consumer, too, is learning to trust and hone his senses when it comes to cheese (and wine–the two go together). The kind of business the Putnams run, and the kind of cheese they make, are helping to put Vermont in the vanguard of what some are calling the good food movement. Consumers–literally–are willing to pay good money for good food. John and Janine can speak both poetically and pragmatically about their chosen methods. They love their loyal local customers, but they also love selling their cheese to D.C. restaurants.
Suddenly, John was gone again, and we found him and Janine in the barn with the newborn 45-pound calf and its mother. They’d been at the top of a woodsy hill, together, and Janine had carried the calf on her shoulders back to the barn.
John ran away again, this time to the house to change his clothes and shoes. You can’t go in the barn when you’re making cheese. They even have the cheesehouse uphill and upwind from the barn, so that its “perfumes” won’t be detectable in the cheese. The Tarentaise, instead, will carry the aromas of the terroir—the characteristic soil, grasses and forages of the North Pomfret hillsides.
Then, it was time to lift out the curds, with huge pieces of cheesecloth and one foot against the wall—so as not to fall into the vat when leaning down to scoop from the bottom. John and Andrew worked together wordlessly, in sync, with the familiarity of father and son and habit. They make cheese every other day. “Cheesemakers don’t need to go to the gym or to the spa,” said John, in constant movement in the humid room.
They first lifted the huge sacks of curds into draining-compressing vats, and then, after about 15 more minutes, when the curds had glommed together in big jiggly discs, John sliced them into quarters with a chef’s knife, and lifted the sections into the round containers where they’d be compressed with the weight of 65 pounds.
Then they cleaned up, which was a time consuming and wet process. Part of the clean-up is lifting the “pig cheese”—the curds left at the bottom and no good for cheese but good for the local pigs—out of the vat, which John let me do. (I’m using my teeth as a third hand to hold the corners of the cheesecloth.)
then to the aging room
The Putnams have an eloquent website which describes their practices and tells their story. Here are some of their links:
About the farm
And don’t forget to heed Janine’s advice:
As for me, I’m already looking forward to the Norwich Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning, when I can buy some more of the delicious, honey-colored Tarentaise.
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