Sheep, Cheese and Envy

Passion entices me. Watching Vermont cheesemakers at work—and seeing how much they love what they do—thrilled me and made me wish for the same level of enthusiasm in my own life.

I wonder if that’s even possible.

Ron and I left for our Vermont cheese tour on a Monday morning. After three hours of driving through gray and drizzle, we arrived at our first creamery: Vermont Shepherd. As we pulled up the dirt drive, the clouds parted and the grass and trees took on a surreal glow.

It was a cheese miracle.

And then I spotted them: the sheep. Lots of sheep. An entire hill dotted with them.

I waded through brush and high grass to the edge of the electric fence with my camera. I stared wide-eyed like a toddler on her first farm visit. “Look here,” I commanded the flock. One awkward ewe—who looked to be all elbows and nearing the end of her milking years—glanced my way for a second. She then returned to grazing in what I can only describe as a definitely unladylike manner. Ewes, it turns out, are not very cooperative.

Our next stop was the lamb pen to visit the just-weaned youth. In comparison to their gangly and worn moms, these guys were fluffy and friendly and huggable.

The ewes watched us as we walked up to the fence.“Bahh,” said Ron. All of the lambs stopped eating and looked up. At once. Together. I giggled and made Ron bahh again. This time I was ready when the lambs looked; I shot a picture.

We joined cheesemaker David Major in his cheesehouse. From the outside, the building looked like a shingled shed. On the inside, it was a science lab—white walls, stainless steel surfaces and tools, and pairs of green rubber gloves. Even in an operation this small, food safety and purity are taken very seriously.

David and his wife, Yesenia, milk their 300 ewes every morning and every evening. They store the milk in old fashioned canisters, then deliver it to their cheese house. Talk about fresh—just like the other small farms that use their own animals’ milk—the raw milk sits less than 14 hours before becoming cheese.

David showed us the roughly 4’x4’x4’ stainless steel tub where he heats the milk and adds microbiological cultures that start fermentation and rennet, an enzyme that causes the milk to separate into solid curds and liquid—which is incidentally called whey. (Aha! moment relating to Little Miss Muffet.) When the curds start to form, David, or whichever farmhand is making the cheese that day, runs what looks like a giant wire cheese slicer—with multiple parallel vertical—wires through the cheese to break up the curds and to release more whey. After more heating, the whey is drained and a layer of cheese, which looks like a giant slab of tofu, is left at the bottom of the tub.

I watched David cut the curds into 28 eight-pound rectangles. I couldn’t believe that it had taken 2,240 pounds of sheep’s milk to get to this 224 pounds of cheese. (Leftover whey is usually either fed to the pigs or returned to the fields as fertilizer.)

Each rectangle went into a plastic bowl with holes, sort of a homemade colander, to drain. David pushed and pressed the rectangles, pressing out more moisture, until the curds conformed to the wheel shape of the bowl. Then he flipped the cheeses over, pushed and pressed some more.

David told us that he grew up nearby. He chose this valley, sheep, and a farmer’s life as his own. “Growing up, we always had sheep,” he said with a smile. Cheese was not part of the original plan. It came later when the U.S. wool market tanked and David had to figure out another way to make a living from his flock.

I wondered if I could be that resourceful if I had to—to hold on to a lifestyle or to stay in a place I loved.

(And so much for my assumption that becoming a cheesemaker was all about the cheese.)

David continued flipping the wheels of cheese and pressing out more whey, his practiced movements streamlined into almost a dance. He wrapped each cheese in cheesecloth and placed a homemade weight—pvc pipe filled with salt—on top. The cheeses were then left to set for a few hours. Next they would bathe in brine for two days. After that, they would age in the cave—an onsite underground temperature-controlled room David has built—for another three to eight months until the desired flavor characteristics had developed.

I asked about David’s schedule (he gets up at 4:40 am) and how he decides which lambs to keep (the daughters of the best milkers). David answered each question with animation and pride. Amazing, really, considering he’s probably told the same story to visitors hundreds of times before.

The one question I didn’t have to ask was whether or not David was happy with his life. The skip in his step and the smile lines etched around his eyes made it very clear that he is.

Before we left, Ron and I bought samples of Invierno, the winter cheese David makes from late summer and fall milk. (The summer cheese is sold out and won’t be available until this fall.) We tried two samples—one a year old and the other two years old. Both were amazing, but had very different moisture levels (the longer a cheese ages wrapped in cloth, the drier it gets). The one-year Inverno begged to be snacked on in chunks while the two-year Inverno was more parmesan-like—a perfect texture and slight bite that would have been excellent grated over pasta.

We didn’t have a knife, so we bit directly into both of them, the way you would eat a sandwich or an apple. They made a great lunch—even if it wasn’t exactly what you call a balanced meal.

As we drove away eating Invierno, I realized that I was just a little bit jealous. It must be amazing to do a job you love that much. I can certainly write and take pictures every day. But making a living off of it so that I could make writing and photography my primary focus—that is something I will probably never experience. And even if I could, would I ever be as happy as David?

I suspect that I’ve been programmed since birth to always want more, and to never believe I’m doing enough—or doing it well enough. I’m not sure if it comes from nature or nurture, but it’s the way I am.

I don’t think people like me are capable of reaching David’s level of contentment. We just aren’t wired that way. We want it. And then we don’t recognize when we get it. Because we’ve already raised the bar higher.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Why do I do this to myself?

 

 

A Long Journey to Go A Short Distance

It was May and My Beloved Ron and I were driving through the rolling mountains of Vermont. I laughed at myself because I almost hadn’t made it here. I’d almost turned down the assignment I’d wanted for over a decade: to write about the Vermont Cheese Trail.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, I chastised myself.

Red barns dotted the landscape. Signs teased “homemade maple syrup.” Despite light drizzle, the grass and trees radiated spring-time newness. The leaves blushed in tones of lime and apple green; it would be a couple more weeks before they matured fully into the deep asparagus and forest greens of summer. It was a postcard come to life—and I was smack in the middle of it.

How could I have almost turned this down?

Of course when Northeast Flavor asked me to write a story about the Vermont Cheese Trail, I’d said yes. Yes, Yes, Yes! I’d wanted to make this trip ever since Ron, Lindsey and I made a brief visit to Vermont twelve years ago. We were on our way to the Ben and Jerry’s visitors center when I saw a sign: “Vermont Cheese Trail.”

“Let’s come back some day and spend a week driving and tasting,” I said to Ron.

“Sure,” said Ron. That’s one of the things I like best about My Beloved. Why we still get along so well after twenty years of marriage. He’s totally onboard for anything having to do with travel or food.

Then twelve years skipped by and we never made it back to Vermont. Except for a one-day sprint to Burlington so Lindsey could visit the University of Vermont in the rain. No time for cheese that day.

Then Northeast Flavor called. Yea!

Of course, as soon as I said yes, I started to panic. First there were scheduling issues. The week that fit best into my schedule was too early in the season. The inns Flavor wanted me to visit wouldn’t be open yet. (I know, I can sense your sympathy waning already.) Plus, Lindsey would be home the only week that worked for the inns and still met Flavor’s copy deadline. How could I go away during one of only six weeks that my daughter would be home all summer?

Then there was work. Not that writing for Flavor isn’t work, it’s just that magazine writing only pays a fraction of what corporate work pays. It’s the income from the corporate assignments that enable me to pay my mortgage, travel, eat foodie-style—and take on the magazine assignments.

My corporate clients were really busy and that was trickling down to—no pouring onto—me. I felt lucky to have so much work. I certainly couldn’t turn anything down. Not when other people were clamoring to get any work at all.

I almost called Northeast Flavor to back out of the cheese story at least twice. But something stopped me.

Just go. I told myself. You will never forgive yourself if you don’t. Afterall, I do love cheese.

I could always check email and return calls while Ron drove. Then complete a few quick PR assignments at night…

I created a four-day, ten creamery itinerary that zigged and zagged across Vermont. (There is really no physical cheese trail, just an entire state with about 40 creameries spread out across it). I scheduled a couple of phone conferences during times I knew I’d be in the car.

My stomach churned when I thought about everything I’d committed to, but I didn’t feel that I had any other option. Saying no to Flavor would just be another case of me ruining things for myself. Saying no to my other clients would jeopardize my income. (What I am describing took place one week before this happened.)

When we left for the trip, people on the ferry saw us with our suitcases. The conversations went like this:

“Where are you going?”

“To research a magazine story about the Vermont Cheese Trail.”

“That must be rough,” they said, giving me a sly nod.

I smiled back on the outside while inside I laughed at myself. I was off to live one of my dreams and yet inside I was as stressed out as a dirty mop being crushed in one of those old-fashioned crank wringer things.I was ridiculous and I knew it.

If anyone knew how I really felt, they would think I was crazy.

Heck, I think I’m crazy.

Ron and I made it to the car. Over the next four days I interviewed people who love cheese as much as I do, pet calves and goats, tasted amazing cheeses with names like Invierno (sheep’s milk), Gondolier (cow’s milk), and  Bijou (goat’s milk),–and slept in picturesque inns.

I also struggled to type emails on my tiny phone keyboard as Ron drove around sharp bends; skipped exploring the gardens of those beautiful inns to return even more emails at night—and stressed about whether or not I was doing everything I’d committed to well enough.

It wasn’t the ideal approach. But at least I took the trip.

Baby steps.

Note to self: In the future, try to be more understanding of other people. After all, you never know what’s really going on inside anyone else’s head. They could very well be torturing themself the same way I torture myself. Hardest thing to remember EVER!

Food Euphoria at Reading Terminal Market

Ron and I visited Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. Our agenda was simple:  Eat the best food possible, in the short slot of time we had available—without over-filling our stomach space.

This isn’t an easy task considering how much great food is available in the market.

Committed to finding the BEST picks, I scoured recent posts on Chowhound.com.  Then, I created my own must-eat list of the stall that are mentioned most often—and most enthusiastically.

Just inside the entrance, the smell of grilling beef and melting cheese halted Ron. “Can’t we just get a cheese steak here?” he said.

“No. It’s not on my list,” I said. I take my eating list very seriously and will only deviate in extreme circumstances such as extremely crabby behavior on the part of my companions—or an hour-long wait (which is likely to incite extremely crabby behavior on the part of my companions).

Ron mumbled just a little bit. I interpreted this to mean he was annoyed but not extremely crabby (yet). So I plowed on to the far back corner of the market. When he saw Dieners’ chicken wings, he forgot cheesesteak entirely.

In the end, Ron was extremely pleased with my choices. Our one failure was that we stretched our stomach capacity a bit beyond what we should have. But it was worth it. We both walked away fat and happy.

Here are the highlights:

Thursday dinner—

Dienner’s Bar-B-Q. We ate roast chicken wings. Lots of roast chicken wings. Dieners’ are meaty inside, crispy outside—and perfectly seasoned. Dienner’s proves that a truly great chicken wing can stand alone without sauce.

Bassett’s Ice Cream. Amazing ice cream. We split a small with one scoop Gadzooks and one scoop cinnamon. Rich, smooth and creamy. I’m an ice cream snob and this ice cream lives up to my standards 100%.

 

Termini Brothers Bakery. We split a chocolate covered raspberry banana from Termini Brothers Bakery. (It doesn’t seem to have any name more specific than that.) This treat is an amaretti cookie spread with a thin layer of buttercream and a thin layer of raspberry preserve—then topped with a banana and enrobed in chocolate. I know, it looks like a big turd on the plate, but believe me, this is my new favorite dessert. I’m thinking of trying to make a bar-cookie version.

We also split a filled-to-order ricotta cannoli. Wonderful.

We were too full to order more dessert, but I want to call attention to Termini’s mini-layer cakes. Carrot, tiramisu, red velvet and pretty much every variety in between, two layers of cake stacked with two layers of frosting. The 50%/50% ration of cake to frosting beats the crap out of normal cupcakes which are more like 75% cake. I prefer less cake and more frosting! Cupcake chefs across the country take note. Let this be the new cupcake!

Saturday lunch—

 

Hershel’s East Side Deli. I love fatty meat and no amount of health/food education can change that. Based on the traffic at Hershel’s, I’m not alone. They have one guy who carves pastrami all day long—and another who carves corned beef. Ron and I shared a pastrami reuben stacked high with warm meat and just the right amount of grease. Mmmmmmm.

Dutch Eating Place. Multiple postings on Chowhound mentioned Dutch Eating Place’s apple dumpling with the extreme reverence one would normally save for a religious experience. I was curious if it was really that good, so I scheduled it as the climax of our outing.

The line to get a seat at the restaurant was really long, so we got into the to-go line and took our apple dumpling to one of the public tables in the middle of the market. Ron drizzled cream over the hot, doughy confection. The apple inside was tender, but crisp, slightly sweet and very cinnamony. And the cream made it even better. One fork-full and I saw the light. Two fork-fulls and I converted to pastry worship.

The pancakes looked wonderful and huge, too. Next time…

Chowdah! Story Makes FLAVOR Cover

Yeah! The story I wrote for Northeast Flavor magazine about Chowder is out. Look for it on news stands in New England or go to the Northeast Flavor website to subscribe or request a copy.

Thank you to editor Jean Kerr for letting me post the story here.

 

 

 

Fresh Coconut and Coconut Water

For just a few pesos, you can buy a fresh coconut–meat, water and all–and have it opened fresh for you. Try the coconut meat with a squeeze of fresh lime and a sprinkle of chili powder.

They say that opening the coconut and draining the water is easy. Perhaps it is easy for those who are adept at welding a machete and juggling bowling balls–but there’s no way I could do it.

 

Eating Cactus

Prickly pear cactus is a vegetable in Mexico. They grow it on cactus farms such as the one where I photographed this speciman.

The cactus pads are called nopal. Our guide says to eat the young, light green ones as these are the most tender. It seems that the older pads can be very tough and woody.

Our hotel served nopal one night. It was breaded and fried, then served smothered in green sauce. It was quite tart and similar in texture to a slice of breaded eggplant. Very good, really.

I think I’m going to experiment with adding thin slices of nopal to spice up vegetable stews.

Paleteria (Popsicle-eria)

I love popsicles made with real fruit and that’s exactly what a paleta is. Luckily, Mexico seems to be filled with Paleterias–stores or stands that specialize in these amazing frozen treats. (See NY popsicle photo)

Paleteria Zamora is in the central district of Hualtulco–Hualtulco Town, if you will. Lindsey and I opted for minis–Just 5 pesos each–which is about 4 cents.

 

Tortillas on the Comal

Fresh handmade tortillas cooked on an earthenware comal over an open fire. Sooo much better than those pre-packaged ones we get in Maine.

 

Seven Moles in Oaxaca?

Turns out that in the United States, we’ve got the definition of mole wrong. The puree of spices and cocoa powder that we refer to as mole at home is really mole negro. The word mole itself means sauce—or even paste. (Think guacamole.)

An article I read in Hemispheres, the inflight magazine on the plane, said that there are actually seven Oaxacan moles. (Read descriptions of them here). The stall I photographed in the Juarez Market in the center of Oaxaca sold spice mixtures for four of them. No idea what happen to mole number seven, or why Estofado and Pipian Rojo—the other spice mixtures in the photo—are not classified as moles by United Airlines.

(By the way, Wikipedia, the universal source of mostly accurate information, does classify Pipian as a mole.)

One of the Oaxacan restaurants we ate in served us fresh tortillas with a spread of purred green chili peppers that it called chilimole. This made me consider the article’s exclusion of Estofado and Pipian Rojo again. Why isn’t there a Oaxacan Mole Nine? And what about chilimole and guacamole. Don’t they count?

Please tell me: who creates the rules that apply to mole? If mole were a more common food in the United States, I’m sure there would be an official body claiming jurisdiction over mole—a mole police of sorts. The Mole Board or perhaps the National Association of Mole (NAM)—which would alternate its annual meeting and trade show between Las Vegas and Orlando.

But this is Mexico, the land of fewer rules. Do we really have to narrow things down by inflicting a number?

I say: the more moles the merrier.

Eating Grasshoppers

They eat grasshoppers here in Oaxaca. Fried-up crisp with a little lime, salt and chili powder. Chapulines they call them.

Ron, Lindsey and I bought a handful to taste from an old woman in the market. The woman invited us to choose between three sizes: small grasshoppers, medium grasshoppers and large grasshoppers. We had no idea how to make this decision, so we split the difference and went with medium.

I popped a couple in my mouth and hoped for the best. Then I grabbed for the water bottle.

Turns out that Chapulines taste very green, sort of like a mouth full of fresh summer lawn clippings. Actually, I didn’t mind the crunchy exoskeleton. It was the gushy center that got to me.

(Ron says he doesn’t remember a squishy center, so perhaps I got a Chapuline that was slightly under cooked. He did say he didn’t like the way the little legs got stuck between his teeth.)

In retrospect, I would have liked the small grasshoppers better. More crunch, less squish. The larger ones may have made me puke.

Never again, unless it’s a matter of survival, I thought.

I should know not to say never…

Three days later Lindsey and I were sampling food products in a souvenir store.  I asked for a sample of mole negro on a tortilla chip and before I could stop the host, he had whipped out a few Chauplines and sprinkled them onto my chip.

I stared at legged garnish for a second, then realized I didn’t have the nerve to refuse the sample and popped it into my mouth. Luckily the mole flavor completely covered the grasshopper taste.

As I chewed my sample graciously, I noticed that one of the young girls behind the counter was laughing.

I turned to Lindsey. “I bet they don’t really eat these anymore—they just feed them to the tourists so they can laugh at us,” I said.

The girl behind the counter nodded yes—then laughed some more.

I swallowed—and tried not to gag.