I don’t know if it’s a sign of the growing sophistication and success of their operation, Obama era rules and regulations, or a combination of the two; but on a visit last weekend to the brining room at Consider Bardwell, our friend Angela Miller’s prize-winning goat cheese farm in West Pawlet, Vermont, I was required to scrub down and suit up almost as thoroughly as if I were about to perform open heart surgery.
My wife and I visit Angela and her husband Russell Glover at their 300 acre farm — its house, barns and creamery sit in a small, peaceful valley on the New York-Vermont border – every year in early October.
The trip has much to recommend it.
For starters, it’s pretty much a straight shot up Route 22 from Columbia County. The two-hour ride alone offers the benefits of a more ambitious road trip. It might be an exaggeration, and a cliché to boot, to say it feels as if you’re stepping back in time.
But you do feel as if you’ve finally escaped New York City’s powerful gravitational pull. There are farm stands but few stores and, remarkably, not a single strip mall.
What catches the eye are broad fields that stretch to rolling hills that were starting to show the colors of autumn.
There are no traffic jams. However, you frequently find yourself part of a caravan behind some slow moving car or tractor. But that’s therapeutic, too.
It’s the universe’s way of telling you that you’re on vacation – even if it’s only an overnight – and that it makes no difference if you arrive at your destination three minutes sooner or later.
After traveling through towns such as Hoosick Falls and Cambridge one makes a right turn at Salem, New York and crosses the border into Vermont. It seems as if the landscape changes as one does – becoming subtly more dramatic; the hills steeper, the valleys more like hollows – but I’m not sure how much of that is real and how much a figment of your imagination because you’re primed for adventure.
We typically arrive, and not by accident, in time for cocktail hour. Then sit around the kitchen table – it overlooks a pond busy with mallards and herons –while we catch up on developments at the farm. Angela’s a literary agent when she’s not making cheese. Russell is a Cambridge University trained architect (as in Cambridge, England not Cambridge, New York.)
We paired white wine, and in my case single malt scotch, with a selection of cheeses. They included Dorset, a washed rind raw Jersey cow cheese that had a nice seasonal pungency, and a talented blue cheese that remains in the testing phase. The news of the farm often includes sketches of managers, farm hands, cheesemakers and interns – a cast whose personalities seem more vivid set against a backdrop of nature and the farm’s herd of Oberhasli goats. The cows belong to two neighboring farms.
Angela and I wrote a book together called “Hay Fever.” It involved the ups and downs of starting a goat cheese farm from scratch when your original plan was simply to purchase a retreat where you could do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in peace.
But Angela quickly discovered that her personality required more energetic challenges. She also learned that the farm she bought had been the site of Vermont’s first cheese making cooperative in the 1800’s.
At the time we wrote the book in 2010, Consider Bardwell was making about 35,000 pounds of cheese a year, if memory serves me correctly. These days they’re up to 120,000 pounds and can be found on the cheese plate at some of the country’s best restaurants – among them 11 Madison Park, French Laundry, Jean-Georges and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
But the biggest difference is that today the farm is a fine-tuned machine (to the extent that any farm can be said to run smoothly, given the vicissitudes of the weather, cheesemaking and animal husbandry.) And Angela doesn’t routinely have to rise at 5 a.m. to milk the goats and carry bales of hay as she once did. There are other people to do that.
But she was tasked Saturday afternoon, and I offered to help, with moving a couple of dozen wheels of Slyboro, a raw goat milk cheese washed in hard cider. It’s named after Slyboro Cider House in Granville, New York.
We were transporting it from the salt brine bath where it had soaked overnight onto drying racks. It would then age in one of the farm’s five caves for two months.
When we wrote Hay Fever, Consider Bardwell only had one cave.
There’s also a new dumbwaiter that Russell designed – it transports the six varieties of goat and cow milk cheeses from the aging rooms to the caves – and that saves the staff visits to the chiropractor.
We also managed a short walk before it started to drizzle. And then it was time to leave – but not before stocking up on cheese, fresh chickens at a neighboring farm, Sissy’s Jams at the nearby Dorset Union Store, and enough hot fudge sauce to last the winter at Mother Myrick’s, a confectionary in Manchester, Vermont.
We might have been disappointed if our goal had been to witness Vermont’s foliage. We were probably a week too early for that. But the trip had enough other compensations that we hardly noticed.