Sunday, April 27, 2008

Cheese: Sprout Creek Farm

In late winter, I got to visit Sprout Creek Farm, a cheesemaking and educational dairy farm just over an hour's drive north of New York City. Sprout Creek raises cows, goats, and sheep, and makes cheese from all three types of milk. They practice sustainable farming and offer educational camps and other opportunities to learn about farming and food. We talked mainly with two people on the farm: one spoke with us about how they farm and raise their animals, and then we went into the cheesemaking facility and listened to their cheesemaker and tasted a variety of their cheeses.

Goats born the morning we visited Sprout Creek Farm.

Baby goats, one day old.

As it happened, we were visiting just before the start of goat cheese season. To make goat cheese, you need goat's milk, and a by-product, as it were, of goat's milk is an awful lot of baby goats. The day before we visited, they'd had about forty baby goats born during the day, and when we arrived around 1pm on a Sunday they'd had twenty-six more so far that day. Goats, I learned, are very playful -- watching small groups of baby goats jump around and occasionally poke at each other is a lot like watching little puppies, except that the goats are surprisingly well-coordinated and able to control their movements and walk normally even at an age of just a day or two old.

The cheeseboard we sampled at the end of our visit.

Sprout Creek names all of their animals, and the people working on the farm have an emotional attachment to the animals that shows. Nevertheless, they also slaughter the animals for food at the end of their lives. One of the farmers talked about this as we were standing in a barn full of both adult and baby goats. She said that it is always difficult to slaughter an animal whose personality you have come to know over several years, but that on their farm they felt like they handle the ends of the animals lives better than many of the more common ways that they might otherwise end, either in the wild or in a commercial feedlot and slaughterhouse. They care for and love the animals, they appreciate what the animals contribute to the farm and to our lives, and they take on the responsibility of making sure that the animals lives end peacefully on the farm among people that are grateful for everything they give us.

Colin, the cheesemaker, holding forth next to
some new cheeses being salted by brining.

The cheesemaker, Colin McGrath, produces something like thirty thousand pounds of cheese a year from the milk of this one farm in just two small rooms, each about the size of an average residential bedroom. He came to cheesemaking after making beer in his earlier years and then going to culinary school. Colin says that he has always been destined to end up fermenting something, whether it's beer or cheese or soybeans or something else. When he took over the cheesemaking operation a few years ago, Sprout Creek was making only 3 or 4 cheeses; today he makes more than a dozen, and is always working on something new. We got to try one of his newer efforts, a blue cheese that he was not yet satisfied with, though it was very good -- his main criticism of it was that its texture was a bit dry and it crumbled apart into very small bits easily.

The same cheese at a couple of stages: fresh curds resting to form
rounds on the left, and then drying to the right.

Forming larger wheels of cheese.

Listening to the people at Sprout Creek talk about the farm and the food it produces, you get a great sense of the direct connection between what we eat and the land around us. One of the farmers talked a bit about the "eat local" trend, and that you can take that too far and affect your health negatively. As an example, she said that the soils for miles around the farm did not have any selenium in the soil, and consequently the grasses and plants grown there did not have any, and the animals that ate those plants also do not have any in their meats. Selenium is an essential nutrient for us ("essential nutrient" means that we require it for good health, but our bodies do not manufacture it, so we must get it directly in our diet). If you were to eat only the meats and plants produced on a farm from that area, your health would eventually suffer. (While we didn't go on to talk about this, I assume that this problem was avoided before the days of large-scale transportation by hunting and fishing for food that ranged over a wider area.)

Cheeses on drying racks.

They also talked about the effects of the farming operation on their most widely-consumed end product, cheese. The farmers keep detailed notes on what was going on with each of their groups of animals throughout the seasons. When Colin tastes something interesting in his cheese, he'll go ask the farmers what they were doing with the animals around the time that the milk for the cheese was produced. Recently, he'd had a bunch of cheeses "blow up" because they produced so much gas as they began to age that they blew their rinds off. When he checked with the farmers, he learned that they had just brought the herds in for winter and begun to feed them from the large bales of hay you often see in fields in the late summer and fall. Those hay bales begin to ferment in the middle, and the fermented hay in the cows' diet was what caused the cheeses to explode.

Fresh rounds of Barat cheese, one of which
was cut for us to taste the mild and milky cheese before aging begins.

The cheesemaking environment also introduces some variation in the flavor of the cheese. Colin remarked that the cheesemaker's job is mostly that of a janitor, constantly hosing down and washing everything in the room. While he keeps the room clean, he doesn't completely sanitize the workspace or equipment. Cheese is the result of naturally-occurring bacteria acting on milk, and if everything is sanitized then bacteria will need to be re-introduced to make cheese. Allowing whatever bacteria happen to be present to act on the cheese can give it distinctive local character, and sometimes yields surprising results. Since Sprout Creek is an educational farm that conducts tours, the constant parade of foreign living organisms (which is to say, people, and all of the living micro-organisms that accompany them) through the facility can alter the resulting cheeses. Colin mentioned that recently some maintenance people had been in the room to work on some of the equipment, and about a week afterward he saw a lot of different and unusual surface molds showing up on his cheeses.

The ripening rooms. Each wheel of cheese in these rooms is turned every day.



1 comment:

Lucy Cullen said...

I Went to camp there over the summer and it was awesome!!!!!!!!!!!