When visiting a place of historical significance or prominence you sense the importance while you are there, but often with time the appreciation of it becomes more weighty as the preeminence of the location develops in your mind. As a youngster, visits to Gettysburg and Antietam were significant events for me. Since that time those visits have become more important because of my further understanding of they roles each place played during the US Civil War. Similarly, my recent trek to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, culminating with a visit to Jasper Hill Farm and a tour of The Cellars at Jasper Hillfeels more significant now, a mere one week later. My enhanced understanding of the place I saw and people I met sheds a new light on the significance of what is happening there, and how it will play an important part in the local and national foodisphere (yeah, I made that up) we inhabit.
Although we are talking about cheese and not the preservation of the Union or the eventual abolition of slavery, I sense the importance of Jasper Hill and more specifically The Cellars, and think they will be recognized in the future for their significant contributions to local, sustainable farming and the preservation of the small artisan cheesemakers of our region.
After a late night for everyone including Snowball, one of Jasper Hill’s cows who gave birth after midnight, the morning light came quickly. Despite being bright and sunny the day before, on this cold and gray morning snow arrived on the farm about an hour after we did. Light and fluffy, the blowing snow gave us cause for concern as the group from Farmstead anticipated the four hour ride home to Providence. Split into two, the group I was with included Chef Matt Jennings, and ended up going into the cheese room first, as the others toured The Cellars. We entered the milk house happy to get out of the cold, and excited to see Mateo Kehler waiting for us in faded green shorts, hairnet and rubber boots. Despite the temperature outside, the Bayley Hazen Blue “make” was underway and the cheese room was a toasty upper 70’s, and Mateo promised it would get warmer still.
The cheese house at Jasper Hill is an extension of the barn and milking parlor, and is located in the same building where Mateo and his family live on the second floor. Mateo and his brother Andy Kehler purchased Jasper Hill Farms in 1998, the same year that five other dairy farms in the Greensboro, Vermont community disappeared. In the ensuing years the brothers proceeded to equip themselves and the farm with the ability to make farmstead cheese, coveting the intention to create a place where passion and a love for the land would overcome prevailing circumstances; the decline of small family owned farms in Vermont. This plan, or dream, commenced with the purchase of their first 15 cows in 2002, and so far things seem to be going in the right direction.
Rubber boots and Crocs that never leave the cheese room line the floor, and Grateful Dead tunes echo throughout the building. Mateo’s computer hosts an unbelievable number of live Dead shows, and the building seems to be wired better than anything else north of Montpelier. The recipe for one of Jasper Hill’s most popular cheeses, Bayley Hazen Blue, is on the white board, and the morning milk is already in the vat. Just outside the cheese room, we changed out of our street shoes and grabbed hairnets and paper thin jackets to maintain a sterile environment.
Bayley is a natural rinded blue cheese made with whole raw milk, which only an hour or so earlier was standing inside he barn just 30 yards away, protected within the utter of an Ayrshire cow. There has been much talk about raw milk lately and the potential changes in legislation surrounding it, and although I’m no dairy farmer, it seems to me that raw milk has to be one of the most natural things on this planet, and legislators might spend their time on more pressing issues.
Raw milk from a cow that has naturally grazed on the beautiful green grass of a pasture, or has spent the winter sheltered from the cold and fed hay from a local farm is without a doubt the most luxurious of drinks. I’ve lived on a dairy farm in Normandie, France and experienced first hand the lush flavor of warm milk straight from a cow. There is no substitute. If you have access to it, you will never drink anything else (see origins of F2% for more on this!). It is no coincidence that the Got Milk? advertising campaign has been such a success, or that it has been copied in every way possible.
The raw milk debate is for another post, but suffice it to say that what should be acknowledged and so often is not, is that raw milk from a local, sustainable and responsible family farm like Jasper Hill, is very different than what comes from the industry standard mega dairy farms all across this country. Pasteurization is is the half cousin of sterilization, and when milk is coming from a factory farm that feeds the cows grains, soybeans and who knows what else, that milk had better be pasteurized! But in a place like Greensboro, Vermont, under the guidance of knowledgeable stewards like Andy and Mateo Kehler, raw unpasteurized milk becomes the essential ingredient to exemplary cheeses that put to shame foreign imports from places that have been making cheese for centuries.
As things started to heat up in the cheese room – it was in the mid 80’s now and I could feel sweat dripping down the center of my back – and the curd was being transferred from the vat into molds, it was time for our group to move on to The Cellars. The other group from Farmstead arrived to catch the last part of the make, and we made our way toward The Cellars. As the Dead played on, and Mateo and his team monitored the pH of the curd, we bundled up for the brief walk over a slippery snow covered path that just last night was a muddy mess.
Walking toward The Cellars, it felt as if we were going into a bomb shelter or a blast bunker that had been created for some impending invasion, or that we were entering a secure location that only the National Security Agency knew about.
Inside The Cellars, everyone was outfitted in clog or croc type shoes, and there was a clear demarcation line (a bench across a narrow entryway) where you left your “outside world” behind. We again traded our street shoes for “cheese crocs,” and pulled on a hairnets and a chef’s coat. There were a lot more people here, sitting at computers, talking on phones, working on spread sheets and generally being busy in the business way we’ve come to expect.
Once inside the “command center,” where windows look out in a fan formation at various parts of The Cellars, the buzz of work intensifies to a furious pace. There are 22,000 square feet within this cave, which is ideal space for aging cheese, divided into seven underground vaults. If you are as old as I am, think War Games. If you are older, think Guns of Navarone. Sheltered under the earthen mounds and shale, the temperature remains a relative constant, which to a cheesemaker is a dream come true, and is the essence of what Andy and Mateo see as the future for small artesian cheese makers.
With these cellars, Andy and Mateo are able to reach out to other small artisan cheese makers in the region and offer them a place to store and age cheese, and not only the little guys. The Cellars also serve as a stopping point for Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. As embroiled as they are in the daily labor of making such stellar cheeses as Constant Bliss, my wife’s favorite, the brothers ultimate visualization is the propagation and support of a culture of cheese where more than anything they help provide a method by which others prosper, a community is supported and they are able to continue to pursue a love and passion for the land and the profession they call their own.
Remember, Food is Love!