Archive for the ‘Dairy’ Category

Yesterday, I had my first Rome Sustainable Food Project lunch, put together by Mona Talbott and her crew of cooks and interns.  The choices of different delicious tidbits with which to pile one’s plate was almost overwhelming.  I took teeny portions so that I could have some of everything.  There was pasta with lentils, a green bean and fennel salad with chopped roasted almonds, warm zucchini with tomatoes, pâté topped with pickled onions on toasted whole grain bread, big leaves of Boston lettuce (which I’m sure has another name here), and pizza bianca.  Everything was delicious, but the one item I couldn’t resist getting more of was another crostini—this one a slice of whole grain bread topped with the most delicate, moist ricotta, a drizzle of flavorful olive oil, and a few tiny shreds of basil.  The elements are all utterly simple in themselves, but together they made one of those morsels that cause you to close your eyes and focus on the flavor that is sadly, thrillingly, fleeting.

One of the inspiring thing about the kitchen here is that they source as many ingredients as they can locally.  Mona has spent a good part of her three years here getting to know the dairy farmers, vegetable and livestock farmers and purveyors, and cheese makers, in order to find the best ingredients.  The ricotta served yesterday comes from Tuscany, and is sold at what Mona describes as the best cheese shop in Rome, La Tradizione, near the Vatican.  I’ll have to find that one….


The ricotta pictured here is the piece I bought the other day at Antica Caciara in Trastevere.  I thought I’d make some pasta with ricotta, peas, and prosciutto, based on Marcella Hazan’s recipe in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, a favorite of mine.  But after yesterday’s lunch, I think I’ll have to make crostini.  Anyone want to come over for aperitivi?

Ricotta Crostini
(based on my experience and not Mona’s recipe; serves 4 or so)

1 c. ricotta (the best you can find!)
1/4 c. basil chiffonade
2-4 tbs. evoo (again, the best you can find)
salt to taste
1/2 round loaf whole wheat bread, cut into 1/2-inch thick half-slices

Toast the bread slices until crisp.  Spread a large dollop of ricotta on top of each, sprinkle on a smidgen of salt, sprinkle on the basil, drizzle with olive oil.  Serve with wine and olives!

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We made our first gelato-destination-trek yesterday, after asking around about the best shops in the neighborhood.  Miami Gelateria, conveniently located about halfway between our apartment and Jack’s school, makes theirs in-house, and offers an array of flavors, from the tangiest limone to the densest chocolate, with everything nutty and fruity in between.


They serve typical cones or cups with large, melty scoops, and they also make mini, dipped cones.  The minis are about 6 centimeters (trying to think metrically, here) high, are dipped in dark chocolate, then a bowl of chopped nuts, then served, to eager little hands.  You can eat one in two or three bites.

After contemplating the selection, and learning new words in the process, Jack chose melone and Peter and I shared a creme caramel.


The texture is airy and fluffy, compared to the hard ice cream at home, and the flavors were undiluted essences.

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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

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 cheesehouse

the cheesehouse

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.

the newborn

the newborn

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.

curds 1


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

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:

Janine's shirt

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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cheese sample

Vermont is, of course, known for its dairy farms, along with its maple syrup.    The two events I went to today, the Norwich Farmers’ Market and the Co-op’s annual Dairy Day, are really celebrations of the richness, variety, and history of Vermont’s dairies, which stretches back to the seventeenth century. While stories of small dairies going out of business or being bought out by large conglomerates are common these days, some of the most successful operations now are small.  They have simply shifted their market focus and serve the (expanding) niche markets defined by the desire for food that is of a high quality, is local, and is artisanal in some way.  The desire for these traits goes along with a conservationist ethos that looks both forward and back.  Heirloom seeds and techniques are prized for their history as well as for the continuity and contribution to biodiversity they offer to the future.

Today, I settled on a cheese from Thistle Hill Farm, in North Pomfret, Vermont, a dairy which epitomizes this cultural and environmental ethos in their cheesemaking.

pomfret cheese

They specialize in a semi-hard cheese named Tarentaise, after the Tarentaise Valley in the Savoie region of the French Alps.  The organic milk from their Jersey cows is combined with imported French cultures and their own rennet in a custom-made copper vat like those used in the Savoie.  The Putnams write on their website:

From its humble beginnings as organic raw milk to its natural aging and rind development, Thistle Hill Farm Tarentaise is as unadulterated a cheese as you will find. The imported French cultures impart flavor and texture. The traditional rennet provides structure and further complexity to the flavor of the cheese. Thistle Hill Farm Tarentaise has no added preservatives, synthetic flavors or additives. No herbs are used to hide its flavor; no waxes or plastics simplify its aging process.

Tarentaise is unique to North Pomfret Vermont’s terrior – its soil, geography, climate and flora – which gives Tarentaise its characteristic smooth, subtle nut flavor and complex finish. http://www.thistlehillfarm.com/default.htm

We sampled little cubes, and then bought a big slab.

Just before lunch, we migrated to the Lebanon Food Co-op’s Dairy Day, where everything from root beer floats to Greek yogurt could make a mid-morning snack.  While Jack and his cousin went for the root beer and balloons, I sampled the Vermont Butter & Cheese Company’s creamy goat cheese dressed with honey and black pepper, and an assortment of other cheeses, including more Tarentaise.

VT B&C goat
But I was also on the hunt for a sweeter evocation of fields, forages, and herbs.  Some of you might recall my daydreams about the ice creams of Strafford Organic Creamery, the small Guernsey dairy in my first hometown (and the town where Peter and I got married in the meeting house).


At last, I found their table, where melting ice cream in plastic buckets was being scooped into a constant stream of drippy cones.  I ordered fresh mint, and could taste the herb garden.  Bridget ordered coconut, and my mom got coffee, with its milk-brewed grounds.  Our favorites? It was a toss-up between fresh mint and coffee.  (Strafford Organic Creamery)

the kind of shot you get from a 4-year-old portraitist

the kind of shot you get from a 4-year-old portraitist

Since it was an event aimed mainly at children and their families, there were the requisite horse-drawn wagon rides around the parking lot.
horsesAnd, of course, Ben and Jerry’s:

B & J's

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Whew—I can finally relax.  I’m sitting on the deck in Vermont. The sun is shining, the Bloody Brook is rushing, Jack is loading a dump truck in the sand box, and a hummingbird is buzzing by.  This is nice.  Yesterday, Tuesday, was spent in buses, planes, cars, and waiting areas.  Monday, the moving van came, the house was emptied and then scrubbed from baseboards to ceiling vents.  I’ve never cleaned so hard!

But the real event I’ve been itching to address was Sunday night: the great picnic party at Matt and Christina’s which included a power outage, ice cream churned by hand, newborn rabbits, homebrew, a tree climb, and two antique MGs, to name just a few of the highlights.

J & P

This was a real homegrown meal.   To begin with, there were simmered shell-on peanuts, along with a plateful of carrots and radishes from Red Root Farm for dipping in hummus.  We were standing around the table talking, eating these small bits, and sampling Matt’s dark, hoppy ale, when he brought in a bowl full of sliced, spice-rubbed local pork that he’d just grilled over a heap of smoking hickory coals.

And that wasn’t the only hunk of pork or the only grill.  There were two other steel buckets serving for grills, on which Matt was cooking long skewers of zucchini and summer squash slathered with olive oil and herbs, and rabbit—the most local of the items in this dinner, since it came from the back yard, where its kin still lolled in their cages, and where one of them had just given birth to her first litter.  He mentioned something about venison sausage too, but I don’t think I saw that….

rabbitThis was a great dinner not just for the company and its easy, rolling-along tempo, but also for the simplicity and bounty of the food that Matt and Christina spread on the table.  While he manned the grills, she was in the kitchen (where there was no electricity, Auburn having just been whipped up in an hysterical thunderstorm) stuffing poblano peppers with chipotle-spiced ground beef and its alternative for the poco picante palates, cheesy black beans.  She also mixed a quick peanut sauce so that one rabbit option was satay.  Others brought cornbread, salad, and the always idiosyncratic no-knead bread.  I brought wine from Spain.  It can’t all be local!

The kids started churning the lemon-almond ice cream as the sun went down.

round and round

round and round

getting sweaty

getting sweaty

Daddy's taking over

Daddy's taking over

Eventually, after some serious help from the grown-ups, we could spoon big, soft dollops on top of Emma’s blueberry tart.  It went too fast for me to take a representative picture…
i c

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I came to a junction in the back roads of my mind the other day when I read an article in the New York Times about organic dairy cows in Highgate, Vermont munching alfalfa and flaxseed rather than corn, to make their burps less methane-laden.  The farm supplies milk to Stonyfield Farms, maker of Oikos—organic Greek-style yogurt—of which I’ve just become a big fan. The one with honey on the bottom is the best; when Jack doesn’t finish his dessert honey yogurt, Peter and I jump in to scoop up the last bites.

The last time I was in Highgate, I was the one standing in a field, but I was munching a messy falafel pocket at one of the Grateful Dead’s last shows.  I don’t remember a whole lot about it beyond Dylan’s shiny silver jacket (he was the opening act), crowd anxiety, the falafel, and the way we punned on the name of the town as if we were the only ironic dorks who had thought of it.

One of the dairy products I’m most looking forward to slurping up, when I get to Vermont next week, is the ice cream from Strafford Organic Creamery.  The dairy-farm is owned by the Ransoms, one of whom—William—I went to kindergarten and first grade with, in Strafford.  Here’s an incitement to a craving:

We make our ice cream in small batches, one day each week.  We wouldn’t dream of blending our cows’ cream with anything but the highest-quality organic ingredients. We separate fresh eggs by hand, handpick the mint and black raspberries, and grind the coffee just before we brew it into the milk.


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