Tasting the Barnyard at Sprout Creek Farm
A recent trip to Sprout Creek Farm in Poughkeepsie, NY leaves me pondering the binary relationship between inside and outside – in this case, between the cheese-room and the barnyard. Colin McGrath, cheese-maker at the farm, appropriately starts the tour of the dairy in the open-air, within sight of the cows (Jerseys, Normandes, and Swiss). As we move closer to the cheese-room, it becomes increasingly apparent that the functional connection between the bucolic domain of the cows and the world of the cheese-maker in his sterilized lab reveals cheesemaking as a symbolic act – the framing and crafting of nature.
“Perfection was created by man,” says McGrath. “It does not exist in nature.” This is how he prefaces his answer to my question on what he anticipates happening at the farm over the next month. Gazing out at the 200 acres of fields, still covered in bright white snow, on a chilly, yet sunny day, McGrath explains the many ways in which he must abide by nature – from the weather and the types of grasses the cows and goats are eating to the animals’ lactation cycle and the flora (microscopic localized bacteria) in the aging room.
The longer the sheet of snow and ice remains on the pasture, the longer it will take for the 40 cows and the 65 goats to graze on fresh grass. The farm’s goat’s milk cheeses, including Madeleine and Lizzy, are particularly grassy, sharp, and complex when the goats are consuming this fresh grass. If spring arrives late, then their feed of fresh meadow will be replaced with mostly hay and/or dried grass. This diet produces rich mild milk. In short, there are numerous factors relating to the climate that will come into play as we move into spring.
As a result, McGrath works closely with Michael Tompkins who manages the cows and goats at the farm. They speak daily to go over a variety of topics dealing with life on the barnyard. Tompkins shares his meticulous notes on feed change, pasture rotation, fresh animals coming on line or late lactation animals going off, weather change, and illness.
At Sprout Creek Farm, this mutually dependent relationship between the care of the animals and the craftsmanship involved in the cheese-making is played out spatially: between the barnyard, characterized by the pungent smell of manure and the sight of cows ingesting, digesting, and excreting, and the pristine clean cheese-room, in which McGrath produces his cheeses. The latter uses one of the primary byproducts of the former, milk, and it transforms and crafts this fundamental ingredient into several different types of cheeses, of course in a closed and highly controlled environment. These dichotomous worlds – one evokes soil, rusticity, and animal life, while the other one brings to mind lab-like sterility and cleanliness – operate side-by-side. This spatial binary connection makes perfect sense; it’s in the cheese-room that McGrath experiments with the milk, reconstructing the symbol, par excellence, of the barnyard.
McGrath and I move from this natural organic space, reminiscent of an agrarian utopia, to the highly sanitized room where the raw milk will soon be treated, doctored and rendered edible. We are going to civilize the barnyard. And so, McGrath instructs me to put on a hat, gloves, and what appears to be a doctor’s gown. I watch as he cuts the curds into almond-bite pieces. I taste the mild gelatinous curds and the watery whey. We then proceed to fill molds with the curds that have just been cut. After just a couple of hours, the curds solidify in their molds – they take on the form and appearance of cheese. McGrath removes them from their molds and places them in a brine tank. This brine consists of salt water, and it’s regulated by reading a hydrometer. While the entire process seems straightforward, the slightest changes will drastically alter the flavor and consistency of the cheese. For instance, if McGrath were to cut the curds into smaller pieces, the cheese would have a firmer consistency, like that of parmesan.
This scientific process of civilizing the curds is so complicated that McGrath must always be aware of what is taking place not just within the confines of the cheese-room, but he must also take into account everything in the barnyard that affects the production and the contents of the milk. For instance, there are even certain types of feed that produce milk with a particularly delicious taste, but can also encourage the growth of bad bacteria. McGrath mentions the bacteria clostridia which typically grow in wrapped bales of hay that are partially fermented. Working with the same recipe can therefore produce different cheeses.
When McGrath shows me the aging room, he proudly points out the wheels that are his experiments and that represent his deviations from the usual procedure. “All of the experiments that I do are either variations of cheeses at Sprout Creek Farm altering time, temperature, and salting, or they are completely different recipes,” says McGrath.
Speaking to him about the affinage of the cheeses, I begin to think about a third symbolic space – the aging room. Is it merely an extension of the cheese-room? Or, does it represent a micro-barnyard in which the cows are replaced with wild bacteria? Apart from the turning of the cheeses, and, depending on the cheese, the occasional brush of saltwater brine, most of affinage depends on the interaction between the collective live bacteria, naturally occurring on the walls of the aging room (or cave), and the microbes of the cheese. Is the aging room a hybrid of the two spaces? Making sense of the spatial relationships on Sprout Creek Farm, I am left questioning the symbolism behind milk and cheese.
For me, France represents a crucial reference when it comes to aging cheese. From Pascal Trotté’s aging room beneath his treasure chest of a cheese store, where he methodically ages chèvres, to Philippe Goux’s impressive 19th-century underground fort transformed into a cave for the aging of Comté, I learned the depths of this word – affinage – while living in France. And, while there are clearly elements of nature present in the aging room (the bacteria), this space seems to be the furthest removed from the barnyard. Every aspect of the environment, namely the temperature and humidity, are hyper-controlled by the affineur. The cheese ages in a space created by man, isolated and removed from anything we might associate with the barnyard. It’s worth noting that on a trip to Fort Saint-Antoine, this past summer, Goux showed me the ins and outs of affinage telling me that he thought it would be more interesting than going to see the fruitiers, the dairy farms responsible for producing the milk that makes Comté. It seems to me that this decision was, perhaps, more than a subconscious dismissal. My experiences in France depict the aging room as the place at the very top of the spatial hierarchy, in the world of cheesemaking.
And, so, I cannot help but wonder if the spatial divide of the barnyard, the cheeseroom, and also the aging room can help me understand the psychological limitations to the consumption of milk in France. One of the cheesemongers at Fromagerie Trotté in Paris talks to me with disgust towards the consumption of milk. Indeed, the French do not drink milk on its own like Americans. It is viewed as raw, crude, and fleshly. They prefer, however, artisanal aged and curated raw-milk cheeses. It seems to me that France’s love of cheese and reverence for affineurs can be understood in conjunction with its aversion to milk. That said, it’s obvious that one’s appetite for cheese does not depend on a distaste of milk, or vice-versa. I enjoy a glass of unhomogenized raw milk as much as a slice of 36-month-old Comté. It is, nonetheless, curious that, until recently, it has been the opposite in the U.S.; we consumed milk with gusto, but seemed to despise stinky pungent cheese.
Cheese-making is about taming the animals, working with the terroir, romanticizing nature, and sophisticating the milk. And so, it’s appropriate that when recollecting my recent trip to Sprout Creek Farm, the first images that come to mind are of the anthropomorphized cows with names, like Elsie and Sasha, sunbathing while they peacefully and meditatively chew their cud.