Monday, March 12, 2012

Lessons in Cheesemaking, Part 2

From the warmth of the cheese vat to the coolness of the cave, the process of making cheese involves multiple steps. After helping out with the transformation from liquid milk into solid cheese, I next would be introduced to the mysteries of the cave at Crawford Family Farm.
Donning rubber clogs and hairnet, I followed Julie over to the entrance. Before I stepped into the cave, which is simply a small room adjacent to the cheesemaking facility, she handed me a thick sweatshirt.
            “Here, you’ll need this,” she said. “It gets pretty dirty in there.”
            Dirty? I thought we were just going to be turning cheeses like we had the previous time, when the pale yellow wheels were new and smooth and clean. What I didn’t realize was that most of the cheeses, having been in the cave for longer than a few days now, were covered with a thick mold that needed to be wiped off.

Julie handed me a cheesecloth (they really are used in making cheese, despite their myriad other mundane uses) and picked up one of the wheels to demonstrate. It was gray and furry, growing what resembled mouse hair. She wiped the top off, revealing a mosaic of brown, beige, and gray, and then the sides and bottom. She wiped the spot where the cheese had been resting on the shelf too, before placing it back, this time top down. I picked up a wheel and did the same, coughing as the mold dispersed into the air. “You might feel it in your chest tomorrow,” she warned. “The intern who used to work here would wear a face mask.”

Photo by Linda Hampton Smith

Moisture clung to the walls and coated the floor. Although the temperature was kept around fifty degrees, it felt colder from the dampness. I shivered, thankful for the rubber clogs and sweatshirt. As we made our way through the shelves, labeled with the date on which the cheese was made, I marveled at the difference in the molds in just a week’s time. Or how, in the same batch, the mold would be thicker depending on a cheese’s placement on the shelf. Or how, if the cheeses had been aging in a different room on a different farm, the molds would be different too, resulting in a different cheese. “That’s terroir,” Julie explained, referring to the French term denoting special qualities that geography bestows on a product. It can loosely be translated as a product’s “sense of place.”

As I wiped the mold off wheel after wheel, I thought about terroir and whether it could apply to a person as well. Even though I had lived in Vermont for most of my adult life, I had always thought of myself as more of a city person. I had moved up from the Boston area, and the transition hadn’t been easy. I missed the energy and the access, the pace and the opportunities. Vermont’s mountains had seemed daunting, its winters relentless and isolating. Beneath the pastoral exterior, life here was hard, as hard as the grey rocks jutting out of the ridge within view of our front porch.

It didn’t help that I had moved to Vermont because of job offer that Chris received. Vermont hadn’t been my choice of a location, but the offer was too good to refuse. In our first few years here, when the winter stretched on and on, and I missed my friends, and my own job wasn’t as satisfying as my previous one had been, I questioned my decision to leave my comfortable situation in Boston to get married and move to what seemed to me like the end of the earth.

Gradually, however, I acclimated and have grown to love Vermont. Though part of me may be urban at heart, another part of me is completely at home in our village of Bristol, which boasts one stoplight and a population of less than 2,000 people. Chris and I are raising our family in an almost 200-year-old farmhouse with crooked floors and a partially dirt basement. We know the people we buy our maple syrup from, and our garlic braids, and our organic strawberries. We’re grateful for the mystery person who plows our driveway, the shopkeepers who know our names, the annual town meetings where regulars and newcomers speak their minds, the small school that’s within walking distance of our home, and the natural beauty that surrounds us every day.

When I miss urban life and need a getaway, I spend a weekend in a nearby city, like Montreal, Boston, or New York. But I’m always happy to come home. I’m a Vermonter now. I’ve been shaped by my life here in significant and lasting ways. Perhaps that’s what I was doing, volunteering at the Crawfords’. Affirming that connection. Getting my hands dirty, literally, with the essence of the place. Recognizing its importance in my life: how I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I did not live in Vermont. I suppose a large part of my fondness for Vermont is rooted in my early captivation of the French culture, but only recently have I recognized the connection and similarities between these two seemingly different places.

Julie and I finished wiping off the cheeses, stepping around the plastic containers on the floor that held the brine bath. It wouldn’t be long before those wheels would be removed and placed on a shelf, making room for new ones.

Photo by Linda Hampton Smith

 Thus the process would continue, an age-old tradition made new by this family farm. And by the growing number of other artisan cheesemakers who are scattered throughout the state. Although I probably won’t ever opt to become a cheesemaker myself, from here on out, whenever I taste a Vermont artisan cheese, I’ll not only savor its goodness, but also all that went into it: the hard work; the time to create a thing of quality; the commitment to preserve something worthwhile; and the dedication, the love song to a place.

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