Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Goat cheese in Vermont: Consider Bardwell Farm

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I spent summers in Vermont as a teenager, and every year when spring arrives I have this unreasonable yearning to head back to the Green Mountains. I say "unreasonable" because at the moment I live in southern California, and there are few places less convenient to Los Angeles than Vermont. If you live in New York, or Connecticut, or Boston, or even New Jersey, you can buy a place in Vermont, head up one or two weekends a month, spend longer periods during July and August. If you live in Los Angeles and have a full-time job, summering in Vermont is out of reach.

And still, every May and June I spend evenings sorting through Vermont real estate listings, trying to find the perfect house on the perfect stream, walking distance from the perfect picturesque village where the kids and I can walk down to the country store for penny candy and ice cream. It doesn't have to be a big house, and it doesn't have to have a lot of land. Just a front porch for rockers or a swing, a few craggy apple trees, and that wet, green-grass smell you only find in Vermont at dawn and dusk. 

Vermont's appeal for me is largely nostalgic, but the state's recent foodie explosion is a big draw, too. Dairy farmers have made cheese in Vermont for centuries, mostly cheddar, sturdy and predictable. But now there's an artisan cheese movement afoot in Vermont. Cheesemakers are turning out small-batch cheeses made with local cow, goat and sheep milks, using mostly French methods, and they're bringing home award after award.

One goat dairy that's gotten a lot of attention is Consider Bardwell Farm. Tucked away on a back road in southwestern Vermont, Consider Bardwell is the realization of the dreams of a professional urbanite who, like me, yearned to escape the big city and find her little corner of green. Except, unlike me, her crazy dreams included goats. Lots of them.

Angela Miller is the mother of a friend of a friend - a distant connection, but enough to get me in the front door for a look around. She meets me by the road and walks me around the pens. These are Oberhasli goats, eager and friendly as puppies. Angela calls them as we approach the fence and they crowd around, asking for attention, nuzzling our hands, nibbling at my shirt.

I'm not really an animal person - too allergic - but Angela clearly sees these goats as her kids (pun intended). They look like fun, but oh, boy, they are a lot of work. Even if you only read a few chapters of Angela's memoir, Hay Fever: How Chasing a Dream on a Vermont Farm Changed My Life, you will come away with a deep understanding of just how crazy was her dream of raising goats and making cheese in Vermont. Especially while maintaining her high-powered, high-profile literary agency in New York. Equipment broke down. Goats got sick. Cheesemakers and farm workers left, came back, left again. The cheese got great reviews, but selling it in the depths of recession proved challenging, nigh impossible. And every morning, every night, the milking. Clients need attention, meetings get scheduled, deals need to be done, and yet the seasons come and go, years come and go. The goats can't wait. The cheese must be made.

We walk around around the farm, talking about goats, cheese, marriage, Vermont, New York, children. Angela is soft-spoken, hesitant, not someone who seems to like the spotlight. I know she doesn't play tour guide at Consider Bardwell very often, and I'm grateful for her time. But I get the feeling she'd rather be with the goats.

We go inside the dairy to watch master cheesemaker Peter Dixon at work. He and the other cheesemakers are "hooping" - scooping the curds out of the whey and packing them into cheese molds. The liquid drains out as the cheese is pressed, readying it for aging. It's hot and damp inside the dairy, and the floor is wet. It smells a little sour, a little salty. You taste warm milk when you inhale.

Then we walk through the aging rooms. Big, climate-controlled, stainless-steel closets - that's what they look like to me. There is cheese everywhere: big, small, tan, white. Most is goat cheese from the farm's herd, but some is made from the milk of Jersey cows who live nearby. I know it's a ridiculous thought, but all I want to do is sit in the chilly steel closet and watch the cheese age. It feels peaceful, wholesome, nurturing. Also, it smells like cheese.

I buy a few wedges of Consider Bardwell cheese to take to the friends I'm visiting in the Berkshires. We taste them that night and love Dorset, a washed-rind raw cow's milk cheese; Mettowee, a fresh goat's milk cheese named for a nearby river; and Manchester, an aged, raw goat's milk tomme, firm and creamy. Does cheese taste better when you've watched the goats walk to the barn to be milked? When the girls have licked your fingers and chewed on your clothing? I think it does.

Note: I highly recommend Angela's memoir (Hay Fever: How Chasing a Dream on a Vermont Farm Changed My Life). It didn't cure me of my Vermont spring fever, but raising goats has dropped on my lifetime list of priorities. If driving country roads and visiting artisan cheesemakers sounds like your idea of fun, visit the Vermont Cheese Council's website, especially their Vermont Cheese Trail Map - many of the cheesemakers welcome visitors and give tours.


Monet said...

What a beautiful farm! Those goats were so precious. I would want to take one home with me. Vermont is truly a beautiful and special place. I would love to have a farm there...but I don't know if that will happen anytime soon! Thank you for transporting me from hot and humid Texas. I love goat cheese, so needless to say, I loved learning more about the process!

Erika Kerekes said...

@Monet - I realize I didn't really tell you a lot about the process. I was too intent on absorbing the atmosphere to take good notes. There's milk, which gets heated, then they add culture and rennet, it makes curds, they hoop the curds into the molds, turn and press and weight down, wash the rinds in...something, and then time. That's as much as I got.

megan @ whatmegansmaking said...

how interesting! I can't say I ever had a dream to own goats and make cheese, but if I had, I think this would have talked me out of it :) Great recap!

Unknown said...

Ah, the allure of the country! Wow it is gorgeous in Vermont! I think I would love living there. Alas, my country life is in the Arizona mountains. No goats though, but plenty of great food and a whole bunch of chickens!

eatingRD said...

what a gorgeous farm and goats! It makes me all giddy inside to think of farm living while in the hot, never ending summer here in Vegas. I think goat cheese is my absolute favorite :)
Let me know if you come to Vegas!

Jean at The Delightful Repast said...

Erika, this is a post I'm going to be revisiting from time to time. Though I've never been to Vermont, I've long been fascinated with it and was thrilled when the "foodie explosion" happened there! "Just a front porch for rockers or a swing, a few craggy apple trees, and that wet, green-grass smell you only find in Vermont at dawn and dusk." Sounds perfectly heavenly to me!

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