Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Cobb Hill Cheese Making
I spent the weekend at my parents’ home in New Hampshire. As I said last week, I was much in need of retreat and rejuvenation, and, when, after the 5-hour drive, I finally settled in at the kitchen counter to watch my mother make my favorite chicken for dinner, I knew I’d come to the right place.
Mum slid me a wedge of cheese to nibble, and I unwrapped the pale blue paper to reveal a butter-yellow, crumbly piece of local Four Corners Caerphilly, or Welsh-style cheddar, as it’s known in the States. It was tangy but fresh and lightly sweet – none of the bitterness I tend to dislike in so many cheddars. A phone call was made and an invitation procured to Cobb Hill, where a friend of my mother’s makes the cheese.
Now, I understand that Caerphilly is hardly Mediterranean, but artisanal cheese making is a fascinating craft practiced in that part of the world too, and I'd never seen it first hand before. Cobb Hill is an intentional community on 270 acres of land in Hartland Vermont. The focus of the community is on sustainable land management through organic farming, ecological forestry, and minimization of waste. Various members have formed cooperatives to make maple syrup, farm poultry, and grow herbs and vegetables (using Fjord draft horses rather than tractors to plow and cultivate crops, no less!)
My mother’s friend Marie, a founding member of Cobb Hill, met me at the barn. Chickens clucked in the otherwise silent background as she helped me change into sanitized rubber clogs and brought me in to watch Zach add vegetarian rennet to raw organic milk from the farm’s 10 Jersey cows. He was making a batch of Ascutney Mountain – Cobb Hill’s other cheese. It’s a nutty, slightly crystallized, alpine-style cheese, similar in character to a Gruyere.
Zach cut the curd into tiny pieces and drained off the whey as he packed the solids into cheesecloth-lined “hoops.”
The grey whey streamed into an outdoor tub to be picked up by a local pig farmer as a nutritious snack for his animals.
Meanwhile, the hoops were stacked and pressed by a homemade system of wooden levers weighted by refilled water bottles.
Marie walked me up the hill to the aging room where fresh rounds of both varieties sat in brine and ripened on the cool shelves.
As Marie and her fellow affineuse (or cheese-ripening expert) Judith explained to me, artisanally crafted cheeses vary slightly from “make to make.” Milk from a single small herd reflects the season and the diet of the cows – just as Steven Jenkins wrote about the Spanish Cabrales.
I met Marie in the rain at the grassy Norwich, VT. Farmers’ Market the next morning and was gifted with a wedge of the Four Corners Welsh Cheddar (pictured below at left), which, along with Ascutney Mountain variety (below right) was heaven for lunch with the pickled green tomatoes and fiddlehead ferns I bought from the Gizmo’s Pickled Plus stand.
I was happy to learn you can buy Cobb Hill cheeses outside of Vermont, though distribution is limited due to environmental concerns. For a taste of the tranquility and slow living that is Cobb Hill, check the list of vendors in your state here, and for more information on sustainable living and the Cobb Hill community, click here.