This past weekend my husband and I left the concrete of NYC for greener pastures – literally. We took a long-awaited trip to the Hudson River Valley to learn how to make cheese! (oh and taste some wine too).
The drive up to Poughkeepsie, NY is a lot of twists and turns, not a lot of gas stations, and beautiful country. (Though I’m not too sure we fully appreciated it at 7am on a Saturday.) But we were headed to Sprout Creek Farm to finally take a Cheese Making class! (Back story, my husband got me this Cheese making for Two Experience through Excitations for my birthday….two years ago…) When we arrived we met Colin, the Cheesemaker at Sprout Creek. He and a full time staff of 6 people work around the clock to create over 15 varieties of farmstead, artisan cheese.
The creamery uses milk from the herd of cows and goats that live on their 200 acres in Duchess County. Free-roaming, grass-fed, happy cows and goats provide milk daily for all of these wonderful cheeses. And we learned that happy cows really do make better cheese – cows give less milk if they are stressed; thunderstorms, loud noises, or hot air balloons landing in their pasture (yes, that happened) can agitate them so that they don’t give as much milk the next day. Having met some of the younger members of the Sprout Creek herd, I can assure you that these cows are happy and help to produce some phenomenal cheese!
What followed was an incredibly in-depth look at the complexity of cheese. Much like wine, making cheese is really an art form. So many variables exist that can help you to make wonderfully complex cheeses – sometimes on purpose, and sometimes by accident. We started with 187 pounds of milk in a large stainless steel tub in the creamery. Our job that day was to create Bogart a raw, semi-firm cow’s milk cheese. After heating the milk to the appropriate temperature (even 1 degree off can change the cheese to something else!), we added bacteria strains specifically chosen for this recipe to the milk. There is a lot of scientific calculation in cheese making, but also a lot of trial and error. A thickener was also added to help to separate the fat in the milk from the water (in 187 pounds of milk, there is 100 pounds of water).
At this point, we needed to wait an allow some separation of fat and water. So Colin showed us around the creamery and explain a little bit about what our cheese would be doing over the next few months. After sitting for several days to allow more whey to drain out of the cheese, each block will be salted in a brine bath for 24 – 48 hours (depending on weight). Cheeses are then moved to drying racks in the main room of the creamery. They will sit here for two weeks to get a nice crust before moving into one of the two aging rooms.
Stinky cheeses are separated into their own aging room (we had to let it air out a few minutes before we went in). This is where the real work starts. Blocks of different cheeses sit in these temperature-controlled rooms and cheesemakers brush them, spray them, and turn them almost every day. Each day they are testing and adjusting conditions to help make the perfect cheese!
After the appropriate amount of time, we returned to our vat of milk (really now curds and whey) to cut the curd and really start to get to business. My husband and I ran slicing paddles down the tub helping to separate the curd from the watering whey. Afterwards, we drained the whey out of the tub leaving only the little chunks of cheese curd. It amazed me that all cheeses start like this! We could be making any of the raw cow’s milk cheese that Sprout Creek produces. Temperature, bacteria strains, and how you age the cheese after is really what makes cheeses different. The process stays mostly the same.
We didn’t get any pictures of the final part of our lesson – because it went at a fast a furious pace! With the curds we created that morning, we quickly packed them into 7 molds that will start their path on becoming wheels of Bogart cheese. The process consists of cutting the curds up even further and packing two layers together. After a quick 5 minutes you have the beginnings of a cheese wheel that will sit for a few days releasing more whey, being turned several times a day. Each wheel is meticulously labeled, so around April 2012, my husband and I should be able to taste the cheese we made!
During our lesson we were also able to do a tasting with Colin. Some of our favorites: The Do Re Mi a pasteurized fresh goat cheese, Madeleine a raw goat’s milk cheese that is reminiscent of pecorino and Barat (pronounced bear-ah) a raw cow’s milk cheese that has a little caramel flavor. We were then able to enjoy a fantastic farm fresh lunch – including lots of cheese of course.
Sprout Creek Farm is not only a great place to taste some cheese, they are dedicated to educating people about agriculture. There are camps for children and other educational programs throughout the year!
On Sunday, we headed north to Millbrook and the Millbrook Vineyards & Winery. Started by John Dyson (also known as the father of the I heart NY campaign!), they have been crafting wines with the same wine maker since 1984. With the Vineyard Express pass we were able to take a tour of the winery, do a tasting in their beautiful tasting room overlooking the famed Chardonnay Block Two West vines and have lunch by the pond.
We tasted several interesting bottles including 2010 Tocai Friulano, 2010 Pinot Noir, and Hunt Country Red. Millbrook also sells bottles from California grapes. We were lucky enough to Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Villa Pillo (from Italy) and brought a beautiful bottle of that home.
Lunch by the pond was wonderful (I had an ahi tuna sandwich with a glass of Hunt Country Red) but was cut very short by a fast-approaching storm. Tent by the pond with multiple lightening strikes, not my idea of a good time.
We packed into our rental car and headed back down to NYC. Shortly after starting our drive, the radio stations began blasting weather warnings on all channels. My California-native husband was particularly freaked out by the tornado warning that started blasting the airwaves, exactly where we were, targeted to potentially hit right at that time. Pulling over the side of the road, we actually looked for a ditch to dive in to. Luckily, that wasn’t necessary and though we drove home in horrible rain, we made it through without getting sucked into a funnel cloud (we did get shaken by an earthquake yesterday though!). It was a wonderful weekend exploring two of my favorite things: wine & cheese!