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.


Great Big Veg Challenge said...

Caerphilly Cheese is one of our favourites in our family. Actually having grown up in Wales they have many good cheeses - very distinctive and traditional.
I have enjoyed your blog and the photography is so beautiful.
My son and I keep a blog - do visit if you have time. We live in London.

Figs, Olives, Wine said...

The Great Big Veg Challenge looks like so much fun! What a great idea, and I'm so glad you enjoy Figs Olives Wine. Thanks for your kind words.
Stay in touch,

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

Now that is cheese! Love all the pictures of the process. I used to live in Vermont, but sadly left before sampling this cheese.

Figs, Olives, Wine said...

Hi Jenn - Yes, it was absolutley fascinating to see up close, and I was thrilled to discover the cheeses. Especially since I can get them in NYC! I would check their website and see if they sell near you. Otherwise, you could order from Murray's Cheese or Artisanal.

bennyb2973 said...

I used to live @ Cobb Hill, so I am severely biased. However, I can honestly say that I have never enjoyed a cheese more than the Ascutney Mountain! Far and away the best cheese I have ever had. I live in NC now, so I don't get to enjoy it like I used to. I was fortunate enough to participate in making cheese for a day, and have a true appreciation for the love and hard work that go into it. Blue Ribbons don't come easily, but the "cheesers" at Cobb Hill certainly earned and deserved it!!

Figs Olives Wine said...

Bennyb2973, wow! How amazing to have lived at Cobb Hill and worked on that cheese! It's such a beautiful place, and the products reflect that I think. Both are truly extraordinary, though I agree about the Ascutney Mountain, and the blue ribbon is well-deserved!

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