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Posts Tagged ‘Vermont cheese’

Everything was burning yesterday evening.  For the most part, in the best way.

First, I roasted the two bunches of beets–chioggia and golden–and some of the juice oozed out of the foil onto the cookie sheet.  The whole house smelled of burned beet slime.  The result of roasting, however, was delicious: warm beet salad dressed lightly with vinaigrette, sprinkled with chives, salt, and pepper, and covered with crumbled local goat cheese.

My parents’ best friends, the Ashleys, came down the steep driveway from their house for dinner.  Dad mixed martinis and mojitos (for different people–we didn’t mix).  We sat in the sun on the deck.  The tiki torches were flaming.  We snacked on corn chips and hummus, and the tender, nutty Cobb Hill cheese named Ascutney Mountain (for the Green mountain just south of here).

Ascutney chs

Along with a colorful salad made from our farmers’ market haul, we had sweet corn on the cob from Killdeer Farm, and those sausages from Hogwash Farm–Beer Bratwurst and Chorizo–which promptly caught on fire when Dad put them on the grill.  We moved them around, and the flames gave chase (it always cracks me up when baseball announcers use that phrase!).  In the end, there were some spots of char, but not too many, and the sausages were succulent.

This pyromeal was followed by a campfire, up on the hillside behind the Ashleys’ house, at their well-used fire pit.  The grown-ups nursed our drinks and constructed perfectly melted s’mores, while the boys torched marshmallows, pinecones, leftover Christmas candles, anything that would burn.

IMG_0177

IMG_0185

A good time was had by all.

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The morning started out cool and foggy.  I went for a run on the hilly dirt road here, and the air was so chilly and moist in the shade of the tree canopy, that my glasses fogged up.  Turnpike Road follows the course of the Blood Brook, which winds this way and that through culverts under the road (and is named for an old area family, not for early-American battles with Indians).  Normally, in the summer, the brook is just a trickle between dry stones, but lately, because of the uncharacteristically (well, insanely) wet summer, it’s been raging.  The rain has made it hard for all of the farmers around here.  Haying has to happen in the spots of sun between storms.  Vegetables are coming in later than usual.  Sweet corn only just arrived.

By the time we got to the Norwich Farmers’ Market, the fog had burned off, and the sun was getting hot.  We bought an array of goodies from the warm end of the spectrum, from dark new Peruvian Purple potatoes, to pork sausage and rainbow carrots, two kinds of beets, and pale yellow Fingerlings.

bratwurst

The potatoes all came from Hurricane Flats Farm, on the Connecticut River in South Royalton, Vermont, as did the beets.  I bought two bunches: the concentric-striped Chioggias and mango-colored Goldens.  I’m roasting them now, and will quarter them and toss them in some kind of salad later—probably with local goat cheese, again.

As we strolled from their stand, we stopped at Hogwash Farm’s to sample their beer bratwurst. (They raise beef cattle, pigs, and laying hens, and are located here in Norwich.)  It was so tasty, that Jack and his cousin continued to sample while I looked through the freezer and picked out grass fed ground beef and chorizo.  We decided to get a package of the bratwurst too, before the boys cleaned them out.

Hogwash T

From there, we made our way to Your Farm’s stand, and spotted the dazzling rainbow carrots!  We each tried a color.  I’m partial to the purple-skinned-orange-centered kind.

rainbow carrots

After the Farmers’ Market, we stopped at Norwich Square, where all the shops were having a little outdoor fair.    There were musicians, made-to-order crepes, book-signing, and Silkie chickens pecking the grass.

chickens

Jack went into one of his favorite places in Norwich: the little house.  Sometimes, while I drink a coffee and eat an almond croissant from Allechante, Jack brings his snack in there, sits in the rocker, munches, and hums a little hum to himself.

J in little house
I left the boys with my mom in the bookstore, and ducked into Zuzu, where I found the snazziest dress!  Here’s a shot of the fabric:

dress

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Mmm…

Making a margherita pizza tonight with many scrumptious local ingredients.  It’s also sort of a Norwich Route 5 pizza, because Killdeer is just down the road from King Arthur Flour, and most of the ingredients were purchased at these favorite spots.  The fresh mozz is sold at Killdeer and made at Maplebrook Farm, in Bennington, VT–another of my old hometowns.  We lived on a straight-uphill narrow dead-end road preposterously, or optimistically, named Crescent Boulevard.

Traditionally, the only toppings on Margherita are sliced tomato and mozzarella, fresh basil, and olive oil.  I may jazz it up a bit, though.  It’s been a long rainy day.

I also want to avoid a scuffle with the carabinieri.  I think it’s illegal to call my pizza “Margherita,” which is a designation protected by the E.U.–like “Champagne” or “Manchego.”

Jazzed-Up Margherita Pizza

for the crust:
1 c. warm water
1 tsp. yeast
1 tsp. salt
1 tbs. olive oil
3 c. unbleached flour

fresh, local tomatoes
fresh, local basil (or homemade pesto)
fresh, local mozzarella
(And… stepping out of the locavore range by a long shot… kalamata olives or anchovies for kick)

Mix the dough, let rise for an hour.  Flatten and stretch on a semolina-dusted pan.  Pre-heat oven to 425.  Let the crust rise up a bit more, and then strew with the toppings.   Bake until the cheese is golden and sizzling.

za

Oops… I overloaded it.

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The other day, I went back to visit friends from high school, whom I hadn’t seen in about fourteen years, in the town I haven’t visited much since then.  Why not, I can’t really explain.

It was one of the strongest experiences of sense-memory: watching the curve of the off-ramp come into view; feeling the curve in the tilt of my car; knowing when to slow down.  Driving from the Putney Road strip into the little downtown: they’ve redirected traffic, one way past the Common now, so where I expected the stop sign I’d failed to stop at during driver’s ed.—with the bulldog-owning bulldog of a teacher jamming on the breaks—there was none.  Past the library on the right, where I’d spent so many after-school afternoons.  Down the slope.

I can’t believe how much has stayed the same over the decades. The same businesses with the same awnings, not updated in twenty years. (The sign remains for the Common Ground, though the restaurant is no more.  It was a true hippy spot: a cooperatively run restaurant, on the second floor, with creaky floorboards, a bottomless bowl of salad with great tahini dressing, and dense, buttery cornbread.)
common ground

Over other storefronts, new signs : shiny, with spiffy, computer-designed lettering, but keeping in the spirit of the town–a store selling natural body products, another new-age bookstore.  I parked on Main Street, across from The Shoe Tree—there for as long as I can remember.  Above those buildings to the left (east) I see the top of Wantastiquet, that huge hump of a mountain I’d walked up and down with these friends so many times, (and remember parking in its secluded parking lot at night), rising up abruptly from its foot in the Connecticut River.
wantastiquet

I looked up Elliot St. and saw that familiar block between Main Street and the Harmony Lot, where we’d always circled slowly a few times before finding a spot.  There was McNeill’s Brewery on the left, Maple Leaf Music on the right, where I had my first real job (lots of dusting and re-alphabetizing of sheet music).  Just across Elliot Street, down the beginning of the steep hill to Flat Street, was the slanted storefront of Mocha Joe’s coffee shop, where I had my second, and probably favorite, job.  Everything inside was exactly the same.  Four steps down to the counter, display of Bodum pots, tea things, and tee shirts on shelves on the left, a little round table to the right, and the milk-sugar station, the high counter straight ahead.  They were playing The Smiths.  That sounds familiar.

I saw Shannon first at a table at the center of the same ancient-stylized floor painting of a bird’s head in a circular design.  She looked like Shannon.  She said, “you walked right past Ham.”  He was at the counter.  We gave each other a big hug.  I was shaking!  Shannon said she’d reached Amy, who had said she’d be here.  We waited just a few minutes and saw her coming down the stairs, looking exactly like herself.  She said, “I saw you on the street, and thought, yup, that looks like her.” It’s hard to express the feelings in all of our looks and hugs.  We’d known each other so well, and then had been so far apart.  We all felt as if we couldn’t explain why we’d lost touch. We stayed there for a few minutes and then walked down the hill toward the bridge to New Hampshire to the Riverview Café.  We sat on the deck above the river, looking over at Wantastiquet—that mountain that figures so prominently in my memories of high school.
wantastiquet bridge
Our personalities were the same, though we were all more comfortable in our own skin, and talked more like adults, less like self-conscious teenagers.  I remember all of their voices so well. And their laughs, mannerisms, bodies.  It was like seeing distant cousins you used to know well, but more complicated.  We didn’t do much reminiscing in part, I think, because our group memories weren’t always happy.  There was also the feeling that we didn’t need to repeat old stories: the stories were in the air around us.  We had so many shared memories, they were there in our looks more than our words.  We had a decade and a half to catch up on.  The fourteen years when we became “grown-ups” and made our lives what they are now.

One has traveled all over the world and lives in New York City, where he writes headlines for The New York Times; another lives in her childhood house, farms the land of Circle Mountain farm, and sells her organic eggs and produce to the locals; a third is a scientist studying the impact of climate change on different species, and on humans.  I’m working on a Ph.D. in literature and writing a blog about local food, living in Alabama, and moving to Rome.  All of these endpoints, and the paths that took us there, make perfect sense for who we were and at the same time seem paradoxically outlandish.  When I told Amy my dissertation was about eighteenth-century British literature, we both started laughing.  Shannon laughed at herself for knowing so much about the different beetles that are killing off the trees of New England.  Hamilton laughed about having a job that feels like professional ADD, and Amy said, “I’m a farmer,” and we all laughed.

Walking with them, back up to Mocha Joe’s, where Ham went in for another coffee, and then up Elliot St. and around the corner into the Harmony lot, felt so familiar.  My feet, legs, body, eyes remembered all of the little details: even the concrete sidewalks haven’t been updated. There was the little triangle of grass at the corner of the lot and the street that always gets trodden down to mud. The lot, and the back doors of old buildings leading to the same shops (The Book Cellar, Galanes’) were exactly the same.

As I drove up the hill, I remembered—in a deep mind/body memory—the little y intersections and nineteenth-century houses along the streets that led up to Western Ave.  I took a right onto the interstate, but if I’d gone straight, the third right would have been Orchard Street, the hill I walked up and rode my bike up so many times, to Meetinghouse Lane, and home.

Incidentally, the food we had was mostly local: goat cheese salads, grass fed cheddar-bacon burger, pulled pork.  We ate and talked.   The hours went by, and we barely noticed.

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hi

hi

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.

pasture

pasture

curds & whey in copper

curds & whey in copper

Jackboots

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
curds2

curds3

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.

curds4
curds5

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.)

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
Story
Home

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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radishes
After a stop at the Norwich Bookstore and Nana’s apartment, we went to the Hanover farmers’ market, on the Dartmouth green.  I’d had some pent-up desire for this kind of variety and plenty, and I went a little wild.  Jack and I ate half of the bunch of salmon colored carrots right away.
carrot

Then, after craning my neck to assess the competition, I settled on Fable Farm for my armfuls of kale, lettuce, and motley radishes.

fable farm

Then there was raw-milk cheese from Piermont, New Hampshire to sample.  I bought some of the manchego style “Manch-vegas.”  (Did it have that name because it was so over-the-top-flashy-flavorful?  It had to be followed by a full-bodied red.)

cheese

Strawberries!  Next weekend Cedar Circle Farm will have their annual strawberry festival, but we had to stock up before then.

cedar strawberries
There were sausages, pasture-raised chickens, eggs, breads and baked things of all sorts, fresh-squeezed lemonade, popcorn popped in an aluminum vat the size of a bathtub:

lemondae

beef pork

And asparagus.

asparagus I got a big bunch.  The vendor suggested grilling them, which we did later.  I usually roast them, and I have to say, I’m going to stick with roasting.  They were fine grilled, but they got a bit black.  It’s easier to control the cooking when they’re on a pan in the oven, rolling around in olive oil rather than errant flames.

Around here, it almost goes without saying that the produce, poultry, meat, fruit, and fungi are raised without the help of synthetic chemicals.  Here is a fiercely proud bastion of organics where the suggestion of doubt would be taken as an affront to the dignity of the farmer and her land.  The collective identity of this community, which is scattered across mountains and back roads, is strong in spite of, or because of, the old New England ethos of pioneering individualism and eccentricity that is summed up on New Hampshire’s license plates: “Live Free or Die.”

Jack, exercising his right to sit down wherever he wants to.

Jack, exercising his right to sit down wherever he wants to.

Later on, for dinner, we grilled sausages and the asparagus, sautéed the kale with some crushed garlic, sliced the walnut ficelle, and ate outside while the sun went down.

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