Saturday, March 17, 2012

My Weekend At Cheese Fantasy Camp

This weekend I had the chance to go visit my friend Mariella, who is a farmer/cheese-maker intern at the Rock Hill Creamery in Richmond, UT. My husband calls my little getaway "Cheese Fantasy Camp." He told all his clients, "My wife is away at Cheese Fantasy Camp." "Maybe she'll bring us back some great cheese from Cheese Fantasy Camp." Hmmm, maybe she won't if you say it like THAT. But he is right. I do have a secret fantasy about having a little farm where I make cheese, raise chickens, and keep bees for honey. It might even be more than a little fantasy. There is the slight possibility that when I can't sleep at night I lie there planning where the chicken coop will go and what kinds of fruit trees my bees will get the taste of their honey from. I may or may not think about what shade of yellow or green my little farmhouse's shutters will be, and how many sides of the house the porch will wrap around. And it's possible, but not substantiated, that if I lie awake long enough I might even dream about what my handsome, rugged, Nordic hired hand Sven will look like. But back to the cheese. The cheese at the Rock Hill Creamery, at least, is real.

Mariella has been our long-time babysitter, turned grown-up, turned friend. So I jumped at the chance to see just how hard (i.e. fun) working on a dairy farm might be. I drove up in the evening. We had a nice dinner at the one fancy-ish restaurant in Logan, and stayed up late chatting about boys and watching movies about boys (The Ides of March, yum. Incidentally watched ON the Ides of March. Weird.) We slept in her little studio apartment above the cheese cave.

But morning came all too soon, as it does on most farms. (On MY farm, morning won't start until 9am, but other farmers, it appears, are sadistic and like to milk in the dark). So at 6:25 we woke up, I ate breakfast in my sleep, got dressed in my fancy farm clothes in my sleep, and made it all the way to the milking parlor before I began to wake up. (Stripey overalls and rubber waders, how picturesque!)

We shoveled hay into the manger (they actually have real mangers on farms!) and called for the cows. Here you can see the girls eating their hay. All except Ingrid. She was being sassy and made us tromp all the way down into the pasture to make her come eat.
(It's still barely dawn out, and I wasn't about to haul around my tripod, so the pictures are a little blurry.)

Next was the milking. I have to say I was a little intimidated by the size of the cows. You kind of picture them as being about chest high. But in reality they were about as tall as I am or more. And they look at you really suspiciously with their big eyes and you wonder if they might not want to sit on you if given the chance. But since they're such creatures of habit, they marched into the milking room right past me, stuck their heads in the oat trough, and started munching. No killer cows on this farm, thank goodness!

I have to get a little real with you here. It kind of weirded me out to touch their, um, teats. I felt like I should have gotten to know them first, taken them out to dinner and a movie or something. Reaching down there and just grabbing hold made me feel like I was violating them just a little. It was made worse by the fact that their teats are warm and fleshy and pretty much exactly what you'd expect touching someone's teats would be like...only their somecow's teats, not someone's teats, and are 10x the size. STIll, it was a little bit creepy. But that creepiness got me to completely forget my fear of being stomped on while milking. So before I knew it, I had squirted milk all over my foot without even being scared!

(Incidentally, the cows are not milked by hand. They're hooked up to a little four-prong milking apparatus that sucks the milk through some big tubes into the milk cans. Watching it gave me sudden flashbacks of pumping bottles for my babies. The small scrap of self-dignity I'd managed to retain while being hooked up to a breast pump completely dissolved while watching these cows get milked. Yep, I had been a human cow, nothing more.)

After all the rich, creamy milk was extracted from the six cows, Mariella weighed it (I was way too weak to pick up those huge urns full of milk) and poured it into the giant refrigerated vat where it is stirred and kept cold until cheese making day.

I wasn't there for cheese-making day, unfortunately, but I was there for cheese cleaning and turning day. So we showered, donned our special cheese making clothes--aprons, hair nets, cheese clogs (not wooden, sadly) and rubber gloves--and headed to the Cheeserie (not its real name). I got to help Jen the Farmer's Wife turn the feta first. It's stored in these big rings wrapped in cheesecloth. They sit on a big sieve where the whey drips down and goes into a big bucket. (I asked her what they do with the whey, and she said a farmer with a much bigger dairy buys it to feed to his calves. I love how everything on the farm is used for something. Even the manure is bought by other farmers for fertilizer. Nothing goes to waste!) Anyway, the feta cakes have to be turned periodically to allow the cheese to become uniformly firm, and to allow the whey to get out. So we pulled off the rings, flattened out the cheesecloth, flipped the big square cakes of feta over, and re-wrapped them. I was amazed at how solid and heavy they are! And being a big fan of feta, I loved the strong, salty smell.

Next we went down into the cheese cave (its real name!). Pete the Farmer had made some new spruce planks for the cheese to sit on. They had to be tempered and sealed with olive oil, so I got to do that first. Next I helped Jen and Mariella with the affinage. It's a fancy French cheese word for giving the cheese some TLC. Mostly it means turning and cleaning the cheese wheels. They are massive! Each wheel weighs 13-18 lbs and there are 4 on a plank. The planks rest on two metal bars, one at each end of the plank. There is another rack of bars in the center of the room. So you pull a plank out and rest it on the center bar, then it becomes a sort of work shelf.
It is VERY scary to pull the planks out. They weigh about 60 lbs, and once you slide them past the back support bar, they're like a cheese see-saw! You have to balance them exactly to keep them from tipping and sending cheese wheels rolling in all directions. Once you have the plank balanced on the center bar, however, they are stable and you can begin the cheese cleaning. The Rock Hill Creamery makes natural rind, aged cheeses. This means they use raw, unpasteurized milk and allow it to cure for a minimum of 60 days (but up to 2 years!). They rub it with a special briney wash that causes a certain bacteria to grow and form a rind on the cheese. This seals the cheese in, so to speak. But like all cheeses, in which mold plays an integral part, there are bad molds. So we wiped the cheese with a soft cloth to remove any bad molds, flipped it over and put it back to continue aging. There were a few cheese wheels on which the rind was not yet forming, in the pictures you can see them as a beautiful golden color, like a giant cheesecake. So these we washed with the bacteria wash to get the rind to form.

Jen and Mariella cut, weighed, and wrapped some of the cheeses for sale at local markets and stores next. I was lucky enough that while Jen was cutting the cheese wheels into small chunks she let me sample all the cheeses. Oh my deliciousness! Every one was more yummy than the last. I got to try an Edam, a Gouda, a 1 year aged Gouda, a Tomme, the Red Desert Feta, a Gruyere, and a 1 year aged Gruyere. I thought I liked the Edam best until I got to the 1 year aged Gruyere. When it hit my mouth, it was like my taste buds exploded! (In a good way.) The cheese had such a wonderful flavor--surprisingly sweet, firm, nutty, a little sharp, and there was almost an effervescent effect on your tongue while eating it. I can't quite describe it to you, but if you ever get a chance to try a 1 year old aged Gruyere, do it!!

After all that, we were pooped! So we went with Pete to L.D's for lunch. Picture a greasy, small-town diner where everyone knows everyone and nothing has changed for 50 years and you have L.D's. Within minutes, I was in love with L.D's and everyone in it, especially L.D. himself, who came over to chat with us. He brought over a handful of photos of Pete eating in the diner about 15 years ago. He was younger, with fewer gray hairs then, but he's still just as handsome! The diner looked exactly the same as it had back then and probably since Pete started working there in 1957. Same wood-paneled walls, same kitchy decor. Including this gem:

That was my wonderful day on the farm. It was so fun, and I learned so much. I asked Jen everything I could think of about cheese and cheese making as we cleaned the cheese wheels, and she knew the answer to everything I wondered. Mostly I found out that taking care of cows and making cheese is a lot harder, more back breaking work than I had anticipated. But don't think that has discouraged me from my cheese and bees farm fantasy. Oh no. Afterall, that is what Sven is for!


Jen said...

How fun, I think that would be really cool, however I do NOT want a farm. And oh that lovely cheese. I could live off of bread and cheese. Mmmm!

Hildie said...

That's so cool! Even for someone who is not a big cheese lover!