Introduction: The Feast Is Established
ONE Two Years Before the Meal; the Birth of a Calf
TWO Eighteen Months Before; the Hard Cheese Is Made
THREE The Cheese Cave and the Aging of the Cheese
FOUR Early Planting in the Garden
FIVE Nine Months Before; Alice Is Bred
SIX Springtime on the Farm
SEVEN Summer Arrives
EIGHT Preparation for Dinner Begins
NINE Two Weeks Before; Alice Calves
TEN Four Days Before; Foraging and Harvesting
ELEVEN Milk, Cream and Butter
TWELVE Saturday Morning; Tyler Arrives
THIRTEEN Saturday Afternoon; Dinner Preparation Is Finished
FOURTEEN The Guests Arrive; the Feast Begins
FIFTEEN The Second Half of Dinner
About the Author
Also by Kurt Timmermeister
Praise for Growing a Feast
The Feast Is Established
Although I went to bed later than usual last night, I am up at six, easily an hour earlier than expected. I am hung-over. Not in the sense of a headache and nausea and all that, but rather I am still enjoying the previous evening. I quickly walk the short distance from the Log House to the Cookhouse. I have mistakenly left the lights on over the dining table and as I approach I can see the room illuminated. It is the second week in October, still a bit dark at six, but not as dim as it will be in a couple weeks’ time. The halogen spotlights beaming down on the table shine brightly—it appears as if the sun is shining in the Cookhouse. Both Daisy and Byron lag behind me, staying in their dog beds in the Log House; my enthusiasm for last night’s dinner does not extend to their dog lives. In an hour’s time they will awake and join me, checking out the rugs under the long wooden table for food scraps.
When I open the clumsy French doors held closed with the tedious brass cremone bolts, I see the remnants of last night’s large feast. I should have stayed up later to clear the table and wash the last of the dishes and glassware and silver, but I did not. I was exhausted and wanted to climb into bed and rest. I have spent all of my adult life working in restaurants and I was taught early on to completely clean up the kitchens and dining rooms at the end of a shift. As I work for myself, it is easy to fudge the rules.
The table is sixteen feet long, made of Doug fir and can seat eighteen people easily. Twenty were here last night. It is deep, more than four feet across, giving ample room for plates and wine glasses and large platters of food, but also propelling the diners to be quite loud in an effort to be heard by those across the fir divide.
Scattered among the dirty plates and forks and napkins are the cards that I printed up with the menu from the night before. I quickly printed them on my computer in a furtive effort to make the dinner appear a bit more formal. Odd that twenty minutes of work on a not terribly advanced home computer can produce a menu that still has the cultural weight of a century ago when having cards printed would have taken days. The menu cards read:
Thin, crispy pizza from the wood-fired oven with tomato sauce, chilies, fresh herbs
Winter squash soup of Brodé Galeux d’Eysines squash, pureed, finished with cream, garnished with brown butter, fried sage
Hard rolls, sweet cream Jersey butter
Antipasti: hard, aged eighteen-month cows’ milk cheese, membrillo/quince paste, black pepper crackers, pickled Long Island Cheese pumpkin, chanterelle mushrooms, fresh whey ricotta
Fresh slaw of shaved cabbage, with apple cider vinegar, pickled red currants
Poached farm eggs, sauce béarnaise, sautéed Lacinato kale
Tagliatelle, butter, chicken gizzards, hearts and livers, bread crumbs, cippolini onions, grated hard cheese
Beef bottom round roast, braised in milk, sliced, with gravy and boiled bay leaf potatoes
Tomato upside-down cake, butter cookies
I worked on the menu over the last few days and finalized it just before dinner yesterday. That is not to say that dinner preparation started last week. Rather, it started months ago. Just a bit of the menu came from my supermarket, most came from my farm; I grew this feast.
The menu is neither arbitrary nor capricious, but still it is casual. It reflects what is available for this time of year—the second week of October; the beginning of autumn—and what I had preserved from the past months of growing at the farm. I looked for ways to best use the cabbages in the garden, the pumpkin on the vines and the beef in the freezer. Beautiful cheeses were ready to be eaten that had aged for months in the cheese cave, and the cows have been producing excellent cream that I could churn into the best butter of the year. The melons that I had hoped would be ripe and sweet and juicy were overripe, moldy and disappointing by the time of the dinner. They certainly were not included on the menu. Thankfully the quinces had reached their full potential in the days leading up to last night. And I found the time to pick a few of the fragrant firm fruits and cook them down into a gritty membrillo for the antipasti course. I was worried the quinces would not be ready in time; occasionally I get a bit lucky. Last night was such a time.
There were a few ingredients that were not picked or harvested or grown on this smallish thirteen-acre homestead. Primarily the flour, sugar, salt, pepper and a pound of green coffee beans to roast and brew into coffee for after the meal; and I bought a case or so of wine to make the meal that much more pleasurable, to keep the conversation going, to loosen up friends who were a bit too quiet for the others. But in essence, dinner last night reflected Kurtwood Farms in October after a long, but not terribly hot, summer.
I walk around the table picking up the linen napkins. Some were left casually on the table, a few dropped under the table and one was folded a bit too preciously. I find the remnants of the cookie plates that I passed around last night at the end of the meal. A few cookies remain and I happily munch them for breakfast. The large French-press coffeepots have a bit remaining. I pour the cool coffee from the two press pots into a small copper saucepan, light a burner on the large gas stove and warm the coffee for myself. It seems wasteful to grind a bit of coffee and brew it this morning. I can’t toss a couple cups of coffee down the drain. I hate waste.
When the coffee is hot but not quite boiling I pour it into a nice china cup, sit down at the long table, find the last remaining cookies and go over the evening. Twenty friends came out to the farm to enjoy this dinner. It wasn’t a commercial venture, just good friends coming together and sharing an evening. All knew it would be one of the last warm evenings before the cool breezes and the endless rains of the Pacific Northwest winters arrived. It wasn’t a dirge of a night, however, but rather a celebration of what summer had been; what the growing season had produced.
I have lived on this farm for more than twenty years, every year growing a bit more food than the past year. Presently the farm is primarily in grass pasture to feed the twelve Jersey cows that live on these acres with me. Twice a day I milk them and throughout the day transform that milk into farmstead cheeses. Although most of the acreage is in pasture, I still keep an orchard and a vegetable garden, a few pigs, a couple dozen chickens and three beehives. Not to sell, but simply to keep myself in food, to make sure there is always enough food to feed those who work with me on the farm and anyone who may stop by for lunch. I also grow an abundance of food so that there is a reason to host dinners such as last night’s feast.
For five years I had served a dinner such as this every Sunday as a commercial venture. Each weekend twenty guests would pay one hundred dollars for a seat at this table, for a chance to experience a farm and to eat a meal composed entirely of local ingredients. I loved serving this meal and took great pride in it. By the end of the half decade, however, my cheese business was taking more and more time, leaving little time for me to work on growing enough food for the Sunday dinners. I would often be making cheese on Sundays while preparing the meal in the kitchen, a combination that made for poorly executed cheese and less than stellar attention to the dinners. I chose to devote my time to making cheese and let the Cookhouse dinners fall.
After the last Cookhouse dinner in December I expected a great bit of relief. That respite lasted a few days, but then I missed the excitement of serving a dinner each week on schedule. The Cookhouse dinners gave me something to look forward to. I knew that new people would be walking through those clumsy French doors at four-thirty on the next Sunday without fail. I needed to be ready for that entrance and the farm needed to be ready as well. Knowing that guests were scheduled kept Jorge and me on task to keep the lawns mowed, the vegetable garden weeded, the kitchen floors mopped. Without those Sunday dinner guests expected, the lawns got a bit scraggly, the gardens a bit disheveled and the floors a bit ignored. The production of milk, however, increased, and likewise did the production of cheese. What Kurtwood Farms has become is a small farm producing a respectable volume of very tasty farmstead cheese. What I lost in the deal was the vitality of people eating and drinking and enjoying themselves every Sunday.
I like to control things. It has always been my goal to make my world tight and tidy. I want the vegetable plants in the garden lined up on a grid, spaced equidistant and parallel. I long for the cows to be the same shade of tan, with the same conformation and temperament. And without question the goal of my cheese making is to produce identical, consistent cheese all of the same weight, size and flavor.
These are all goals of some value, but they ignore the breadth and variety of people. When the dinners ended and the people stopped arriving each weekend at precisely four-thirty the vitality left. What I had formerly looked at as frustrating—the guests who missed the ferryboat and came thirty minutes late, those who drank too much and so were too loud, the sullen eater who could not be charmed—now I missed.
During the months after the final Cookhouse dinners I flirted with the idea of moving my cheese business to the city, dropping the “farmstead” descriptor and changing it to “artisan” cheese. As it turned out, I didn’t leave the farm and the island, but rather kept at it. I stay because I like the food. Actually I love the food. I grow the vegetables, tend to the fruit trees, raise the animals and keep the bees. I don’t do it always particularly well or always with glee, but I get through it. It is the center of my being. I want to be connected to the food I eat. I must admit that I don’t know if it is my distrust of the large national food companies or if it is my belief that homegrown food is better tasting and of a superior quality. It may be that I am just too damn stubborn to give up my farm before I have mastered it. Perhaps it is a combination of all three.
What I did change was to invite folks over to the farm again for big dinners—to capture a bit of the excitement and nervousness and the loss of control that the dinners represented.
I can easily muster together twenty friends willing to leave the city, take a state ferryboat and head over to Vashon Island to have a dinner. I am confident the food here is good. Actually that it is quite good. Although the ingredients are superior, I do have some assistance in transforming those raw ingredients into the final prepared meal. Yesterday morning, not as early as I am awake now, but still early, Tyler came out to the farm to help cook the meal. Tyler has been a chef around Seattle and Portland for years and relishes the chance to work with great ingredients in a relaxed kitchen. We have worked together from time to time for the past four years and work well together. He knows that I can light a fire in the pizza oven far better than he, but I would never think of rolling out the pasta dough; he can make tagliatelle with greater skill than I ever could.
Together the two of us spent the day working in the kitchen preparing the meal. Yesterday was without question an important day in the creation of last night’s meal, but it does not speak to the entire preparation. This multi-coursed meal began many months prior with the birth of a young female calf in my barn. That simple act—seemingly unrelated to the feast enjoyed by twenty friends—contributed immensely to the meal. Most of the items on the menu contained butter: rich sweet cream butter that I churned a couple of days ago. I needed six quarts of rich Jersey cream to make that butter. When that young calf came into milk two years after her birth she would produce the finest cream on my farm. The story of this meal begins with the birth of that calf in my barn two years before the guests sat down at the long fir table. The story of all meals begins days, weeks, months before we sit down. It begins when those first seeds are planted, the animals are born, the cucumbers are picked and pickled. This is the story of that glorious fall feast.
Two Years Before the Meal; the Birth of a Calf
It is late in the evening on a cold, dark October night, and a bit of rain is coming down when I decide to return to the barn. I have already left the warmth and light of the house an hour earlier. I am worried about Dinah and put my mud boots on for a second time this evening to make the walk back through the mud to Dinah’s stall. This beautiful cow, Dinah, was born here on Kurtwood Farms six years before. The only time Dinah is in this stall is when she calves, generally once per year. Now she is very soon to have her next calf.
There is little reason for me to be nervous. Many cows have given birth over the past ten years since I started this dairy. They have never had a problem, at least never a problem that I couldn’t solve with the vet’s help. Boo was the cow that gave me the most worry. An older cow, she calved early, before I could get enough calcium into her. She was hit with milk fever soon after the birth of her calf, falling to the ground with little chance of ever getting back up. The veterinarian was called and over the course of a week of IV injections of calcium she was saved, but since that time I have been on edge whenever a cow—one of my much-loved cows—is about to give birth. Tonight is no different.
I spend just a few minutes in the stall of the barn to look in on Dinah. She is lying down, looking a bit uncomfortable, with her large, oversized udders awkwardly trying to find a place to rest. The stall is the one room in the barn where I can confine a cow. Just large enough to hold an adult and her eventual calf, it measures twelve feet by eighteen. On one side are the large cedar sliding barn doors that lead out to the paddock in front of the milking parlor. Above the doors the gable is open to the outside. Thankfully the cedar-shake roof has a large overhang and little rain ever falls into the stall. The floor is covered in fresh rye straw. It is golden in color, bright, brittle and folksy. No large dairies would ever still use straw as a bedding material. Their preferred material would be sawdust. I use straw for a couple of reasons. Primarily because it composts well with the manure, but also simply because I like the aesthetic qualities of it. When I walk over it, it crunches under my boots with a bit of a give and with a bit of noise. It looks like my romantic vision of a farm. The cows seem to enjoy it as much as I do; it rustles under them as they awkwardly drop their large, hulking bodies onto it.
On the other flank of the room is a large, low manger. From the concrete alley where I am standing the manger is the only thing between myself and Dinah. If I want to get closer to Dinah I would either need to climb over the feeding trough or walk out of the barn and open the sliding doors to enter. Outside the barn, the paddock is full of manure and mud and the rain is still coming down, so I choose to awkwardly climb over the manger and into the stall to check on Dinah one last time tonight. There is little medical reason for me to be here, and I have no active part in the process of her having a calf, but I simply want to make contact with her. Certainly more for me than for her, but I can still convince myself I have a role in the calving process here at the farm.
Having checked in with Dinah, I flip off the overhead lights in the barn, walk down the long aisle toward the north side, open the half door and head back down the path to my warm, light-filled house on the other side of the dairy buildings. I can sleep with just a bit of worry about Dinah. My hope is that she is still hours away from birthing, but I am fully aware that in fact she may calve in the minutes after I leave the barn.
When the sun comes up the next morning, it is much colder than I had expected. Autumn has certainly ended and the cool winter weather has arrived early. I can see that there is ice on the windshield of my truck as I walk past it and head over to the barn. I am fully dressed, but with such a haphazard manner that I surprise even my usually messy self. My blue jeans are bunched up in my muddy boots, socks still left on the dresser in the house, shirttails hanging out and multiple layers of down vest, hoodie and coat in disarray. The thought comes to me that I should have spent the entire night in the barn, just in case Dinah had had a problem.
The barn is on the small knoll near the entrance to the farm and there the sun hits it well before other parts of the rambling farm. There is no need to turn on the overhead lights as I quickly walk down the alley of the barn and head toward the stall. As the full stall comes into view I quickly scan the space and see Dinah has just started to give birth.
Dinah is lying down, all of her weight on one vast side, her legs extended out awkwardly in a pose I only see when a cow is about to calve. Her head, usually calm and downward-facing, is arched back and fully extended. Although Dinah has had three calves previously, she still appears to be surprised and confused by the labor.
As I stand across the manger from her I see two small, ivory-colored hooves appear slowly—the pristine little nuggets of the calf contrast with the tan, fawn-colored adult cow. Even though I have no role other than to worry and to attempt to be empathetic, I am nervous. I want the birth to be quick and painless for my cherished cow. My ability to control the farm does not extend to the bovine birthing and I am forced to wait patiently, completely out of my character.
The two small hooves soon become two small ankles, their light brown hide darkened by moisture, both legs tight together, almost as one. Once a bit of the torso appears, Dinah brings her extended legs under her and with great power and absence of style stands up. She paces and twirls in the small stall, obviously hoping to move the birth along. Her exhaustion and frustration is palpable and unchangeable. But she returns to the ground quickly, a pose that appears to me to be more productive than her imitation of a whirling dervish. Once Dinah regains her grounded position, the calf continues to slide out in its slow birth. Its head appears, and then the final two hooves gently slide to the hay beneath Dinah. The minutes-old calf is still encased in a gossamer sack that envelopes its entire young body. It is moist and, I know from past experience, slippery. In the past I have become too impatient and attempted to help the birth along by pulling on the first sign of the hooves to no avail. I learned my lesson then and now let the cow perform the birth unaided.
Dinah quickly stands up once again, turns around and begins to break the sack, removing it by licking with her coarse, powerful tongue. Once the head is freed of the thin veil, she continues to lick the calf’s hide and mouth and nose, causing her offspring to begin to breathe in the new, crisp air for the first time. Dinah continues methodically working around the calf, licking it, drying it, cleaning it. At times her tongue is forceful, nearly flipping the lightweight body over with its dedicated power.
Gently I climb over the manger, slowly, so as not to scare Dinah. I walk over to the young calf, and can see that it is dry, breathing and apparently healthy. As I reach down toward it, the long-term implications of my next task flash through my head. If this calf is a male—a bull calf—he will be a loss for the farm, castrated in two weeks and sold off in eight. I will realize little in profit from him—at best $200. If this calf is a female—a heifer—she will live out her years here at the farm as a productive and profitable member of my growing herd of Jersey cows.
I lift up a back leg and lean over to peer down upon the minutes-old, smooth, suede-like body. In fact, I see four small teats lined up on a grid, the sure sign of milk-producing udders in the not too distant future. A new calf is born, and a female at that. My mind immediately leaps to the future. This calf will be part of my milkers in two years. I quickly name her in order to confirm that this newest member of the farm is in fact a female and here to stay: Alice.
I will only leave Alice in with her mother for a single day. The next morning I pull open the large sliding doors and let Dinah out to the surrounding paddock. Tomorrow Dinah will retake her place as one of the milking cows. Today, however, Alice will have a chance to drink as much colostrum as she can. Dinah’s udders are filled with thick, sweet, dark yellow milk rich in antibodies that the young Alice needs for her growth and to build her immune system. It is essential that she consumes amply and throughout this first day. I will assist her, holding her eager mouth to one of Dinah’s teats and keeping Dinah from pushing her away. This is not Dinah’s first calf, but she still has some hesitation when Alice attempts to suckle. Most likely it is simply that her teats are sensitive and sore and the actions of her overeager calf are too much.
Once Dinah is moved out of the barn stall, Boo will be moved in. Boo is the oldest cow in the herd, most likely over twelve years old. Although her milk is of a quality too low to be used for cheese making, it is still of high enough quality for feeding the young calves. Boo has become the de facto wet nurse of the farm. With her many years of life has come a tremendous calm. She cares little that calves other than her own nurse off of her. She is ideally suited to her task. She will spend a couple of days in the stall with Alice until I see that they have bonded adequately and then I will move them to their own paddock. Alice will have weeks to drink a mother’s milk, even if Boo isn’t her own mother.
Learning to be a dairyman was a slow process, with errors made on my part. Early on, I fell for the most common mistake. The first calf that was born here was nine years ago. Dinah—the original Dinah, that is—had a calf very soon after I bought her and brought her to the farm. She had a beautiful bull calf, and in an effort to be thoughtful and kind I left the two of them together. I left them together for days. It all looked very natural and appropriate and full of common sense. I felt that I knew more than experienced dairymen. And then at the end of three or four weeks I decided I should separate them so that I could have some milk to sell, as the weeks-old calf was rapidly consuming all that Dinah could produce. At the time the farm had far less in the way of infrastructure and the only way I could separate mother and calf was to keep them in adjacent pens. The calf that first night began to cry out for his mother. My guess was that the mother found it to be a great relief to not have the now-strong bull calf suckling throughout her day. Dinah would wander the pastures eating grass at will, but the impudent young charge cried incessantly for his mother. I fed him by bottle an adequate volume of his mother’s milk, but he found it inadequate and let me, and my neighbors, know it.
It was a mistake for me to keep them together for an extended period of time, but then I made it worse. I gave in and returned him to her pasture so that he could nurse and so that my neighbors and I could get some sleep. This only compounded the problem. Eventually I sacrificed my sleep and my neighbors’ good graces and kept them apart until the bull calf ceased to wail all through the night. I vowed to do better with future calves.
The calves of this farm now spend a short day with their mothers.
Up until the new year Alice will spend her days in a large fenced paddock with Boo. Every morning and evening I will bring a few flakes of alfalfa to feed Boo. For the first couple of weeks Alice will be nourished entirely by nursing on Boo, and then little by little she will begin to nibble at the hay that is brought to them. By the end of two months, she will have begun to get half of her nutrition from the dried alfalfa, and by the time that I let her out of the paddock to join the other cows, all of her nutrition will come from the hay. Although she would prefer to continue nursing off of Boo for as long as possible, once she has the ability to consume grasses, I will take her off of the teats. Boo will need relief from the constant suckling to regain her strength and fatten up a bit in anticipation of the next calf born on the farm and needing her milk.
Dinah spends the first day with her young calf Alice and in those hours Alice has a chance to drink as much as she can of the colostrum that Dinah produces. After Dinah has rejoined the herd and begun her daily milking her first few milkings will contain that same thick yellow milk. I will not pour that milk into the bulk tank with its eventual use for cheese, but rather will pour it into the large heavy concrete trough for the pigs to consume.
On the third day after the birth of Alice, Dinah’s milk will be ideal and will be mixed with the milk of the other cows. The milk is poured from the tall, shiny milk cans into the bulk tank located in the milk room. Neither myself nor Jorge milk the cows by hand per se. We use a small system run by an electric vacuum pump, where the milk is collected in sealed stainless-steel cans. When they are full, or too heavy to lift easily, we unhook the milk tubes and haul the cans from the milking parlor into the milk room a few feet away. The bulk tank is a large refrigerated kettle that holds forty gallons of the freshest milk, until I can use it for cheese production.
A week after that chilly winter evening, Dinah will settle down into her new routine. She’ll line up with the other cows every morning and evening. As one of the oldest members of the milking herd, she usually will be near the front of the line to be milked. The cows are tremendously hierarchical. The oldest cows, the largest cows, the strongest cows are always at the head of the line. The youngest settle in at the rear. I am surprised that the ranking is fluid, however. For weeks Baby may be the first in line and push away any usurpers, and then the next morning, oddly, Andi will be the lead cow, with little if any challenging by the former head cow Baby.
Alice too after that first week will settle into her role on the farm. She will be content to suckle from Boo and will rapidly gain weight. In the first few weeks I’ll spot her running around in ever larger circles faster and faster, apparently aware of her body’s abilities. Within minutes of birth she can stand, and within hours she can most certainly walk, but during that first month all Alice will be fully conscious of is her great strength and agility.
On this winter day it is hard to believe that the eventual milk of this young calf Alice will be used in the dinner. She is but a small calf—barely larger than my yellow lab Byron. She might weigh thirty pounds this week. Her teats are barely visible. She has limited ability to eat grass and hay and would prefer to suckle from her mother, or from Boo, for the rest of her life. The idea that this calf, this young Alice, will produce rich, fatty cream that I can churn into a golden, grassy butter seems unfathomable today. I trust in the process. I have had calves born before on this farm and have watched them grow into fine cows. I have been present from their birth until they reach maturity and come into milk. Yet even saying that, it is still hard to picture young Alice walking into the milking parlor, transfixed by a bucket of grain in front of the steel stanchion and hooked up to the milking equipment. I know that it will happen, but on this cool, crisp winter morning I am skeptical.
Dinah, Alice’s mother, soon will be back as a member of the milking cadre at the farm. I will take the milk from her and the other mature cows and will transform it into large wheels of hard grating cheese. As the sun sets early this afternoon and the temperature begins to drop to freezing, I am not thinking of a meal on a sunny warm evening of a future October. I am only concerned with finishing up my chores, getting the cows milked, fed and watered; making sure the pigs, the chickens and the cows are ready for another dark, chilly evening in October. I am looking forward to kicking off my muddy muck boots, pouring a glass of wine and holing up in the Log House with my dogs. The thought of a boisterous dinner with many people around the long Doug fir table in the kitchen seems like years away. In fact it is nearly two years away.
Eighteen Months Before; the Hard Cheese Is Made
Winter held on for far too long this year, in my opinion. In years past this has been a glorious time of year as the temperature rises and the rains cease; this year there has been no glory. The rains continued through March and April; low nighttime temperatures kept the soil from heating up and the plants from growing. It is only now, in early May, that any sign of the approaching summer has appeared. The pastures are finally beginning to awaken, the grass growing ever so slightly. I did stop feeding the cows much of any hay a couple of weeks ago however. Mostly because I had run out of hay stored in the barn. I simply could not call up the hay hauler and order another six tons of alfalfa so late in the year. It made no sense to have the large gooseneck truck and trailer pull down the long road to the farm and back up the knoll and into the barn when the lilacs are blooming and the sunset lingers until eight. I also couldn’t find the cash to pay for any more hay. One of the great joys of the warm summer months is not having to write large checks to the hauler. The entire summer is easier in a financial sense because the hay expense doesn’t arrive until the deep heat of the end of summer burns up the pastures and makes grazing impossible. It is then that a truckload of expensive alfalfa is needed.
The pastures here are now ten acres by my somewhat educated guess. Every year I clear a bit more land, push the amount of land in pastures a bit more and reduce the amount of land in scrub and brambles. I have trouble doing the math, but if the grass grows just an inch over these ten acres from the higher temperature, it amounts to a tremendous volume of nourishment for my dozen cows. It is enough to increase the milk production of the six cows presently in milk and raise the quality of the milk immediately. That is not to say that milk from cows eating hay for most of their diet is substandard. It is quite tasty and healthy. I would just say that milk from cows eating 100 percent of their diet on fresh, green grass is superior.
The volume of milk from the cows has increased in the last two weeks. It is time to begin making hard cheese. I do make a wheel of it here and there through the winter when I have too much of Dinah’s Cheese. Today, after the morning milking, I will begin a batch of Francesca’s Cheese, the hard cheese. Dinah’s Cheese, the fresh, Camembert-style cheese, is the primary cheese that is made at Kurtwood Farms and is responsible for the farm’s fiscal success. Without Dinah’s Cheese, I long since would have had to give up this farm, return to a job, or find another way to make this business profitable.
Francesca’s is a cheese similar in style to Parmesan or Grana. Or at least that is what I like to believe. Each wheel weighs around eight pounds, is made of whole milk and is aged for a minimum of sixteen months. I have spent the past three years making this cheese and it is slowly getting better, but by its very nature it is a challenge to improve the quality. Any change in the recipe will not show up for more than a year. Perhaps if I were far more experienced I could anticipate the outcome of a change in method, but at this point in my cheese making career I have to wait for the full sixteen months to see how the cheese will perform. I’m thankful the milk is of very high quality.
The bulk tank in the milk room is a third full this morning; the milk from last night’s milking was poured into the tank and it quickly chilled in the early evening. Jorge has already started working when I walk into the creamery to begin the day’s cheese.
By seven, when I crawl out of bed and walk over to the creamery, Jorge has been up for at least an hour and a half. With the staggered way the farm buildings line up, I can look out my bedroom window in the Log House, past the Cookhouse gable, past the gutters of the milking parlor and the creamery, and see just a bit of the space next to the barn where Jorge parks his truck. It is a bright cherry-red pickup truck with a Lady of Guadalupe pendant hanging from the rearview mirror. I can see that vibrant red clearly against the dark greens of the vegetation and the dull concrete of the creamery and brown siding of the barns.
Jorge is just so damn cheery as I blearily open the door of the milk room to say hello to him. There he is, getting ready to milk the first cow, singing along to the Mexican banda songs piped into his ear buds, his short muscular body bouncing up and down to the beat. I have to tap him on the shoulder to alert him to my presence. And still he is good-natured and excited to see me. I worry that one of these days he will ask me how it is that I can’t get out of bed before seven. I doubt that day will ever arrive, but I worry about losing his respect. Amazing, that he has respect for me. Luckily for me, the culture of the patrón gives me some leeway to sleep in and be a bit sloppy in this and that.
I spend the next few minutes transferring the milk from last evening’s milking into the cheese vat in the next room. It is a simple task of opening up a stainless-steel gate valve and filling a large four-gallon heavy plastic container, walking it over to the vat and pouring it in and then returning to the milk room for another bucketful until the bulk tank is empty. By the time I’ve finished, difficult for me at this early morning hour, Jorge has milked two cows and filled one of the squat stainless-steel milking buckets with the morning’s milk. Instead of pouring this very fresh milk into the bulk tank to cool, it will be poured directly into the cheese vat.
After eight trips from the milk room to the make room with four gallons of milk in each trip, the vat is full. I switch on the heating element that gently warms the milk from the water bath that surrounds the vat. Slowly the temperature will be brought up to the requisite ninety degrees. I switch on the temperature probe and place it in the milk. The probe is accurate, responds quickly to the change in temperature and is regularly calibrated by the state Department of Agriculture. Although the hard cheese is not pasteurized, it is handy to use the equipment used in the pasteurization process. I will stir the milk by hand using a long stainless-steel wand that can reach to the bottom of the vat so I can guarantee the even heating of the milk.
I stand by the side of the vat gently stirring the milk, keeping my eye on the digital electronic temperature display on top of the probe. I will wait for it to hit just below ninety degrees, as the inertia of heating thirty-two gallons of milk continues once I shut off the heating element.
Ninety is the ideal temperature to introduce the cultures into the milk. It is often referred to as “blood” temperature, as it is close to the temperature of one’s blood. Sure, our internal temperature is ninety-eight-plus, but the idea is there. Ninety is the temperature of life; it is the place where life happens and things grow. It is the temperature at which the cultures will grow and reproduce and thrive. Two cultures will be added to flavor the eventual cheese and also to bring down the acid level of the milk. Both are thermophilic cultures, meaning they are able to withstand a high temperature when the curds are cooked in the process of making the hard cheese. Only a gram each of the fine, single-strain dehydrated cultures is added to the milk. The cultures are weighed on a small digital scale accurate to one hundredth of a gram. This is the point in the process where I realize that cheese making more closely resembles lab work than my early vision of cheese making as cooking.
The cultures are distributed over the surface of the rich, warm milk, allowed to hydrate for a moment and then I gently stir them into the milk with the stainless steel wand. Once I am confident that the cultures are evenly distributed among the thirty-plus gallons, I walk away and allow them to regenerate throughout the sugar-rich milk. The bacteria will eat those sugars—the lactose—and transform them into lactic acid, raising the acid level dramatically.
I have a bit of time before I need to tend to the milk. I leave the warmth of the make room for a few minutes to catch up on other activities on the farm. Three days ago Jorge moved Andi into the small stall at the end of the barn in anticipation of her having her next calf. A few times a day I shuffle off to the barn, walk down the alley and peer into the stall in anticipation of a new calf. Each time I am disappointed, but eagerly return a couple hours later. This morning, getting the milk into the vat, I have had less time to check in on Andi, one of my favorite cows. So with this break in the cheese making I head over to the barn, expecting little more than a lovely cow soon to calve.
In fact, Andi has dropped her calf earlier this morning. My thought is that she tired of my unwanted attention and waited for a chunk of time without my constant intrusions.
When I come down the alley and the stall comes into view, what I see is a very contented cow, happily sitting on the bed of straw and with a small, yet fully dry and clean calf to her side.
I climb over the low manger and proceed to check the gender of this beautiful young beast. A quick examination, and where Alice showed a small grid of four pubescent teats, this calf has no such indicators of its future milk production. This is a bull calf.
The disappointment is tremendous but with little recourse or appeal. Nothing is possible except to accept the lack of value to the farm of this small, sweet bovine. I have no names ready for a bull calf and the only thing I can think of on the fly is Boy.
I lose no time in sending a text to Jorge and return to the make room. This afternoon we will find a use for this unwelcome addition to the farm.
When the milk is sufficiently cultured I can then add the rennet. The rennet will coagulate the milk—in essence creating cheese from the liquid milk. Rennet is made from the stomach of a days-old, unweaned calf. The rennet is a group of enzymes present in the abomasums of the young calf. As the calf is still exclusively feeding off of its mother, it needs enzymes in its stomach to break down the milk into a form that it can digest. This same characteristic of the rennet can also break down milk in cheese production into the two components—the curds and the whey.
These very young stomachs are harvested when young bull calves are slaughtered as veal. Although the raising of veal has a long and unpopular history in this country, it is a necessary part of commercial dairies. The female cows are bred annually to keep them in milk production. Each of those annual pregnancies results in a calf, predictably producing half bull calves and half heifers. Generally the bull calves are immediately removed from the farm and sold, to be quickly raised for a few days or weeks and then slaughtered for veal and for their stomachs for rennet production.
In a cow dairy, this is a relatively small issue, as cows generally only produce one offspring per pregnancy. Goat dairies, however, have a tremendous challenge, as goats can regularly produce three or four young kids per year, and statistically half of those would be males. The ugly secret of the goat dairies, and by extension of the production of goat cheese, is that routinely a vast number of male goats are destroyed every spring when the goats kid. Because goats produce a much smaller volume of milk per animal than a cow, a goat dairy could have hundreds of goats in the herd and each could produce one to three males that need to be destroyed. There is a market for veal, but less so for baby goat meat.
Thankfully I have a cow dairy of just twelve cows and have at the very most five or six bull calves born per year. There is also a market on the island for calves my neighbors can raise on their small hobby farms for meat.
The rennet that is produced from the stomachs of these calves is in a concentrated form. Just one tablespoon is added to the vat to coagulate the more than thirty gallons of milk. Its power astounds me every time I use it. Today I add the rennet, diluted in a small volume of water, and gently but completely stir it into the warm, cultured milk. When it is equally distributed throughout the vat, I remove the stirring wand and the thermometer and allow the milk to come to rest. The enzymes in the rennet are creating long chains of casein proteins, in effect curdling the milk. The time it takes the milk to be transformed from liquid milk to jellylike curds is tightly monitored. In my case, I use the stopwatch function on my iPhone. Not the way the Old World shepherds made cheese, but it works in my life and in these times.
The degree of coagulation is determined by a clever trick. A small plastic bowl, like a to-go container for a bit of egg salad or such, is used to indicate adequate coagulation. The bowl is left to float on the milk after the rennet is introduced. It will freely spin as long as the milk is not yet coagulated. Once the rennet has adequately firmed up the milk, the thickness of the curds will cause enough resistance to keep the lightweight plastic bowl from spinning.
The amount of time it takes to reach this level of thickness is termed the flocculation time. This monitors the progress of the coagulation of the milk, which varies depending on the temperature of the milk, the acid level achieved by the cultures and the quality and age of the milk. That little throwaway plastic deli bowl is the best way to gauge that progress. With that information I can calculate the entire time needed to create a firm curd.
Once the curd is fully developed the more active part of cheese making begins. The vat is filled with rich, golden milk that now resembles a large, slightly rigid bowl of Jell-O. In just a few minutes, with just a tablespoon of rennet, the milk has changed form, from liquid to a gel. And now it needs to be cut.
The tools used to cut the curds evenly and consistently are beautifully crafted lyres made of stainless steel. One is constructed of eight long, thin, sharp blades, arranged in parallel three-quarters of an inch apart. The blades are long enough to reach the very bottom of the three-foot-deep vat. The second lyre is also made of similar thin, sharp stainless steel blades three-quarters of an inch apart, but these run horizontally, just six inches across, thirty-six blades in all. The first slices the curds vertically, the second horizontally. For hard cheese both blades will be used to cut the curds as small as possible. Francesca’s Cheese is a hard cheese.
The hardness of cheese comes from the extraction of the whey from the curds. The relative amount of whey removed produces the relative hardness. A soft, fresh cheese retains a higher percentage of its whey than does a hard, aged cheese like Francesca’s Cheese.
The first step in removing the whey is to cut the curds as finely as possible so that there is the highest amount of surface area for the whey to exit. In this case I will cut the curds with the thin blades until they are one-quarter of an inch square, if possible. Once the cutting is done, the blades are washed and put away and the curds are allowed to rest for a few minutes. When I return to the vat, the curds have begun to expel the whey and have fallen to the bottom of the tank. Now as I look at the vat all I can see is the yellow, slightly opaque whey. It is thin, still with some body and color, but certainly not the slightly golden milk of just a few minutes earlier.
Cooking the curds also contributes to reducing the whey. I flip on the heating element in the vat’s surrounding water jacket and slowly begin to heat up the curds and whey. The heat will cook the curds, drying them out and making them firmer.
With the long stainless steel wand I slowly stir the curds, watching the temperature slowly increase. The goal is to reduce all of the curds to the size of a grain of rice, equally cooked and equal in size. The constant motion of the stirring helps to guarantee this. I must admit that it is tedious, standing at this kettle stirring incessantly for the hour that it takes to raise the temperature from the high eighties to the eventual goal of 124 degrees. It is not my nature to be patient. At all.
I dutifully stand there, methodically stirring, one eye on the temperature indicator and one eye on my iPhone and Facebook or the like. Over the course of the hour, the curds shrink and the texture becomes more rubbery and chewy. Steam will begin to rise as the whey approaches the temperature goal.
I reach down into the vat of steaming whey with the rice-sized kernels swirling. I grab a handful of the hot curds, pull my hand from the vat and squeeze my fist around the ivory-colored cheese. A moment later I open my now-bright-red hand, not burned at all, but certainly warmed from the heat. The small, individual curds have come together with the pressure of my fist and hold together. This tells me that the curds have been cooked adequately. I flip the switch on the control panel of the vat, cutting the heat to the water jacket, and allow the curds to slowly settle to the bottom.
Even with the tedium of watching the slowly heating curds, I still revel in the excitement of the quick transformation of the liquid milk to the solid cheese. I witness this change, and feel it in my hands as I squeeze the warm curds.
While the freshly cooked curds settle to the base of the kettle, I turn to the cheese molds. I pull five of the cylindrical molds down from the high shelf in the make room. They are made of high-impact plastic, six inches tall and eight inches across and perforated. On the shelf next to the molds are five followers. These round disks slide into the cylindrical molds and are also made of high-impact plastic. The followers have rigid concentric circles that strengthen the disks and make it easier to press.
Also from the stainless steel shelf I muster a stack of cheesecloths that will be used to line the molds. Each is twenty-four inches square, made of a tight muslin fabric and sanitized after the last use. The all-cotton fabric wrinkles and shrinks after the high-temperature washing, and consequently the squares appear to be just a dozen inches across.
The long draining table in the make room is stainless steel, six feet long and three feet wide. Surrounding the table is a two-inch curb, giving the table the look of a very short and very expansive sink. At one end is a single drain. The draining table is mobile; at the base of each of its four legs is a large caster, to give me the ability to roll the table to where it is needed in the make room.
The draining table is used just as its name implies. On it I line up the five plastic molds, with the five corresponding followers behind each mold. One by one I grab a square of cheesecloth and dunk it into the vat behind me filled with the steaming whey and curds. Once the cloth is completely soaked in the hot whey, I remove it and wring it out, making sure it is fully saturated. I can now stretch it into its true shape and size and lay each into one of the awaiting molds. The edges of the square cloth drape over the round mold and I move on to the next one until all five molds have a damp cloth liner.
Then I gather every large plastic container I have in the make room. Nine tall Cambros, named after their manufacturer, litter the floor of the room around the vat. Each will hold three gallons. At the base of the vat is the gate valve that will drain the contents into the empty Cambros.
At this point the small individual curds are settled to the bottom of the vat, with gallons of whey above. The drain is located on the very lowest point on the front of the vat. It is through this hole that all of the whey will drain. Hanging on the wall of the make room is a four-foot-long sheet of flexible stainless steel perforated with small holes. It is eight inches wide and will slide in perfectly down the inside of the vat onto the drain to hold back the curds.
I take the stirring wand and bring the small bits of curds back into suspension, then bend the flexible steel band into a half circle and slide it down the side of the vat as close to the edge as possible. I push it all the way down to the bottom of the vat, all the while hugging the vat’s side. The whey is very warm and my hands are burning, but I like the feel of the hot whey. It feels like I am accomplishing something; that I am paying a physical price for the creation of a great cheese.
As I pull the first Cambro into place and open the gate valve, immediately hot whey pours out and fills the tall plastic container. Quickly all nine Cambros are filled to the brim with the opaque, steaming liquid.
As the level of the whey in the vat descends, the volume of curds on the bottom of the vat is revealed. It is both more than expected and less than expected. At first glance it is a large pile of golden yellow curds and it seems miraculous that all of these beautiful nuggets came from milk that was a simple liquid just a couple hours earlier. And then on closer inspection it is remarkable that surrounding the vat are nine large containers filled with the by-product of this process. Even with a beautiful pile of curds in the vat, soon to be formed into cheese, the vast majority of the volume of the milk is to be discarded.
I load up a small bowl full of the curds and transfer them to each mold in succession. I pack the curds down with my fist, pressing the curds into the sides of the cloth-lined mold. The goal is to make the cheese solid and without air pockets within the curds.
The entire time that the cheese curds have been pushed into the molds, the whey has been slowly draining out the small holes in the rigid plastic molds. It slowly runs down the slight incline of the draining table and into a plastic bucket. When the molds are full I continue to push down on the still-warm curds, trying to push out more of the whey. Hanging from the sides of each mold are the edges of the cheesecloth. The four corners of the large square extend beyond the confines of the cylindrical mold. Once the curds have been pressed enough that the curd is level with the top of the mold, I fold those four edges onto the top of the cheese curds. The cheesecloth will help give the cheese a final smooth face and also assist in wicking the whey from the curds. The followers are then pressed into the molds, fitting tightly. These tasks are physical; the bowls full of curds are weighty and the punching down and compressing of the curds takes some strength. All around the floor are the large buckets filled with the still-steaming whey. The room is filled with steam and my hands have been deep in the whey for the past hour. I lean onto the table to get my full weight onto the molds. My shirt is soaked with whey and my hands are red from the heat.
While the five cheeses are settling, I turn to remove the buckets of whey that remain on the floor of the make room. They will be sent to the barn to be fed to the pigs once they have cooled. It might take a few days for the pigs to drink the entirety of the twenty-plus gallons but they will drink it greedily each time it is poured into their concrete trough. It is filled with nutrients—proteins, amino acids and riboflavin.
I turn to the slowly cooling vat and clean it out, scrubbing down the interior of any residual bits of curds and the whey that has cooked onto the sides of the heated interior. I don’t relish the cleaning part of cheese making, but there is a bit of pleasure in seeing the burnished smooth surface of the shiny stainless-steel vat return. The vat is a beautiful thing. It was made in the Netherlands by the C. van ’t Riet Company and it has a presence that demands respect. It is not a flimsy, temporary tool that will be replaced every few years, but rather a well-designed and well-built machine. The welds are apparent and methodical and precise. The controls are large and bulky and have a firmness to them that indicates their quality.
There are few exciting moments in cheese making, but the next step is one of them. Each of the cheeses must be rewrapped and flipped. The followers are each in turn removed and the cheesecloth unfolded to reveal the cheese. The mold is flipped upside down onto the draining table. I remove the mold, leaving the cloth-lined cheese on the table. The mold is filled with many small holes and the sound of the air leaking out from them to release the cheese is audible. What was a mass of small rice-sized curds thirty minutes earlier now resembles a cheese; it has the final form—cylindrical with straight sides and, with a bit of luck, a level top and bottom.
As the cheesecloth is removed, what is revealed is a cheese—a bright, golden yellow, still-moist cheese. Amazing that it can stand up on its own in such a short time, but it can.
The cloth is spread out flat on the table adjacent to the resting cheese. I pick up the fragile accumulation of curds by grasping the sides and lift it onto the center of the cloth. Although it looks like the final cheese in form, it does not yet have either a great deal of the strength or stability.
I pull up the sides of the cloth with the cheese in its center and position it over the mold. With a bit of luck, it can be lowered back in, the air pushing out quickly through those holes with a pleasing whooshing sound. The follower is returned to the mold and pressure is added to squeeze out more whey.
In another half hour I will repeat this step, flipping each of the cheeses, rewrapping them and then putting them back in their respective molds, with more pressure each time. After two flippings, I move them to the side counter in the make room to be pressed. Overnight they will sit on the counter with weights on the followers, further knitting the curds together and expelling as much whey as possible.
The press is a beautiful, ingenious contraption, yet is very simple in design. Above the counter is a four-foot-long stainless steel rod mounted a few inches out from the wall like a towel rack. Five brackets slide along the rod, each one with a two-foot-long handle. On each of the handles slides another bracket with just a short six-inch rod attached. Each of the five long handles can be moved left and right along the length of the wall-mounted rod and each of the short rods can slide along the long handles.
I set a cheese-filled mold on the counter, position one of the long rods above it and adjust the short rod until it is directly over the center of the follower. The long rod acts as a lever with a small amount of weight on its end, giving a larger corresponding pressure onto the cheese.
Once the cheeses are set up in the press with the weights hanging from the handles, the whey slowly dripping from the molds, I flip off the lights and leave the make room. It is late in the afternoon and time to milk the cows. The vat is empty, the floors have been hosed down and sanitized and the temperature has dropped from the warm steamy room of a couple of hours earlier. It is a pleasure to leave the make room and return to the bright sunlight of May. It is not warm out, but it is quite pleasant; the pastures are bright green from the winter and spring rains, and the cows have begun to lose their hairy winter coats for the sleeker, flat coats of summer.
The next morning starts like any other at the farm. The cows are waiting to be milked, lined up outside the milking parlor by order of dominance.
It has warmed up in the past few days and I slept with the window open, airing out the Log House after a winter sealed against the cold. From my perch in the north bedroom I can see down the line over the Cookhouse to the milking parlor and the barn. With the casement window open I can also hear the activities in the milking parlor. The cows are milked with bucket milkers—vacuum-driven milking machines that funnel milk into large stainless steel buckets. Each of these buckets holds the milk of two cows at the beginning of their lactation, and three later in their season when their volume has dropped. Each bucket is three feet tall and a just over a foot across. The buckets aren’t particularly heavy, but they are almost pear-shaped and not terribly graceful to move about, particularly when they are filled with fifty or sixty pounds of fresh milk.
The noise that resonates from these buckets as they hit the concrete floor of the milking parlor is distinctive. The bell-shaped steel buckets bellow as they hit the hard concrete when they are set down next to a cow. The sound is greater when they are empty and ever more quiet as they are filled with milk from the first and then the next cow.
That distinctive sound tells me, from the luxury of my bed, that the cows are being milked. It isn’t too great a physical distance, perhaps 150 feet, but it is a great distance from lying under my thick down comforter to being the one down in the milking parlor cajoling a stubborn cow into the stanchion in the early morning.
When I peek from under the comforter and look out of the window I can see that, instead of Jorge’s bright cherry-red truck with the Guadalupe sticker, the other herdsman’s truck is parked in front of the creamery. It is also a Ford truck, but one that represents a different end of the cultural range of farmworkers. It is a F-250, a larger model than Jorge’s F-150, dark black, with six-inch lifts, locking hubs, a toolbox in the bed, diamond plating on the gunwales and a distinctive diesel roar that indicates a vehicle owned by a white boy farmer. In this case, a very well educated white boy farmer named Ben.
Ben started here at Kurtwood Farms during the dark months of winter, moving over from another farm on the island when I needed more help milking the cows and managing the pastures. Half my age, yet with a comparable maturity, Ben stepped in to bring the pastures into shape. I managed them with more emotion than science, letting cows graze longer than was beneficial, damaging the pastures yet making the cows happy in the short term. Ben came from Cornell, the foremost bookish ag school in the country, and could tick off all the reasons to implement a serious rotational grazing program on my nice but not well managed fields.
Ben studied “Science of Natural & Environmental Systems and Agroecosystem Science.” At least I think that is what he studied. I have spent the past two decades on this farm reading about agriculture and animals and food, and I haven’t a clue what that means. When he got here he certainly knew a great deal about the science of farming and the politics of small farms, but I will contend that I am better with the cows than he is. He does represent a large percentage of the folks working on small farms today. He is just out of school, educated, twenty-five years old, terribly bright, idealistic, intent on having a job that has meaning for him. And he is opinionated. Perhaps he is even stubborn in his beliefs.
Although he worked at other small farms before arriving here, I have watched him slowly realize that most of this work is tedious. Each and every morning the cows walk down the hill from the pastures and line up at the milking parlor where he is waiting. He spends an hour letting in one cow and then the next, milking them out and then herding them back to the pastures, or to the barn during inclement weather, only to repeat this process a few hours later during the evening milking. Even though I never attended a large Ivy League university, I would guess that they never really taught this idea: that farmwork is primarily tedious, monotonous and manual. I do not mean to imply that it is unpleasant, but rather that it is repetitious. Whether it is milking cows, plowing a field or weeding carrots, it is all rather monotonous. I enjoy the nature of it: getting to know the actions and personalities of the cows from day to day. The making of a cheese every day with the goal of an entirely consistent product is a challenge compounded by different seasons and fluctuating milk quality.
I worry, however, about the construct of a nation of small farmers who are well educated, bright and creative. Should those young men and women be doing farmwork—jobs that were at one time deemed “stoop labor”? I would say that it is these new, imaginative, inventive minds that will solve the challenges of our present agricultural system; these students of Joel Salatin and Michael Pollan and Rudolph Steiner who will bring a new way of growing high-quality food that is good for us and for the environment.
I enjoy having Ben here at the farm milking my cows, managing my pastures and guiding this farm into a new phase of its development. From my bedroom window I can hear every time he brings that milking can from the milk room into the milking parlor and sets it down on the concrete, knowing how far along he is in the morning chores. In a couple of minutes I will head down to the Cookhouse and brew myself a cup of coffee, then heat up the gas oven and begin to make the corn muffins that are our customary farm breakfast. When he has finished with the last cow, he will return to the Cookhouse with a handful of dirty towels that he used to clean and sanitize the teats of the cows, headed for the washing machine. After he drops them off, he will return to the long counter of the main room of the Cookhouse as I am pulling out the turn-of-the-last-century cast-iron pan filled with the warm, just-baked muffins. They are still steaming, crispy from the deep black iron of the pan and golden from the pasture eggs and rich milk in the mix.
For a few minutes we will methodically work our way through the pan of eight muffins, four each. Myself with a cup of black coffee on the side, he with a tall mug of raw milk straight from the bulk tank. The conversation will range from politics, to music, to island gossip, to my apparent lack of appreciation of everything new and current in the world.
Ben represents a new class of young farmers in America certainly, but he also plays a more personal role for me.
Ben is half my age with a few months to spare. He is fit and active and energized by all that is new and exciting about this farm. He has a great sense of wonder about it all. He doesn’t know what the future will hold for him, even if I have a pretty good idea. He is at that great tipping point of our lives—when the uncertainty and immaturity of childhood and college is replaced with finding the first steps of a great path toward adulthood. He doesn’t have a family yet, nor his own farm, but he will. He has finished his education and now is striking out on his own, and he relishes it, even if he doesn’t always show it.
I myself, however, have long since passed through that phase. I am in no way elderly or frail, but I can no longer pick up a seventy-five-pound bale of alfalfa hay with anywhere near the grace that I could when I started here. I rarely if ever drive the John Deere tractor around the farm any longer, my eyesight so damaged by an accident with a cow a couple years ago that I cannot gauge the distance of the front bucket and have crashed into the odd fence post and barn door too many times. And bending down under the low udders of a mature cow to attach the inflations onto the teats makes my knees ache like I never thought possible when I was just twenty-four.
Thankfully the business of this small farm has improved greatly in the past couple years and the selling of cheese has allowed me the financial wherewithal to hire Ben to do a lot of the physical work of running a dairy. I have moved from milking the cows each of the fourteen shifts every week, to ten when Jorge came on board, to now just two, with Ben taking the majority of shifts. Jorge still keeps three shifts every week as well. Officially I still hold two shifts—Thursday evening and Sunday evening—but it is common knowledge that I give them away at any chance, passing them off to Ben or Jorge when a weekend party invitation comes in or any such diversion.
I don’t always relish this position of management. It feels dilettantish and silly. My mud boots sit by the door for too long unused; I don’t always head to the upper pastures daily to check on the cows as I did every day for years. My days are spent in the office, or wrapping cheeses in the make room, or at a cheese festival offering samples of our cheeses. What it means to be a farmer crosses my mind far too much; I’m often convinced that I have lost the right to the title I spent so many years earning.
Ben represents so much of this. He comes into the Cookhouse with his Carhartt jeans caked with manure on the leg, his cuffs stuffed into his mud boots, his hoodie up around his ears to keep out the morning cold and he has just come down from the far pastures, checking on the dry cows, filling the stock tanks and throwing hay into their paddock. He is the embodiment of the youth that has escaped me.
When the last muffin has been consumed, the pan returned to its place above the range and the mixing dishes in the wash, he will return to the milk room to wash out the milking equipment, and then to the barn for hay for the cows and grain for the chickens, and I will head to the make room to check on yesterday’s hard cheese.
Through the night the bulky lead weights that were hung on the end of the long stainless steel handles pressed the followers down onto the cheese in their molds. Through the night the whey slowly dropped out from the many small holes in the rigid plastic molds. The trays beneath the molds are now filled with enough whey to coat the bottom of the broad aluminum trays. Not gallons by any means, but a cup from each individual cheese.
I lift up each of the long handles, propping them against the wall, where they will rest until the next batch of cheese is made. It is good feeling, like shutting down the power with large electrical toggle switches. The handles are clunky and loud and bang around a bit, making the task seem much more dramatic than it is.
The molds are moved back to the draining table, the followers removed, the cheeses inverted onto the table and the cheesecloth carefully peeled away. What remains are five beautiful, still slightly moist golden cheeses, and with some luck and skill they are level and straight and true and even in size with one another.
Hard cheeses such as these are salted by brining. I make up a supersaturated solution by adding boxes of kosher salt to hot water in the same Cambros that held the whey from the vat yesterday. The test for supersalination is to keep adding salt until the water can hold no more, and then to add more until the salt falls out of suspension. Into this salty bath the cheeses will be floated for more than forty hours—nearly two days. Every few hours I will flip them and make sure that they remain submerged. If any part remains above the surface, I will dredge it with dry salt as well. I always want to believe that I will without question remember when I began brining the cheeses and when they are due to be removed; instead I write it down explicitly, as I have never actually remembered on my own.
Starting the brining is a quick task and I am in the make room just a few minutes. It is satisfying and hopeful. Nothing has gone wrong at this point. It doesn’t occur to me that anything other than a lovely cheese will come from these five simple forms bobbing in the buckets of salt water. After this quick task, I turn off the lights, leave the make room and move on to other tasks, only returning to flip and check on the cheeses throughout the day and early evening. It is a pleasant task, a comfortable break from other chores around the farm.
The Cheese Cave and the Aging of the Cheese
After forty hours in the brine, the cheeses are ready to begin their aging. I reach into the Cambros and pull out the wet, somewhat slippery cheeses. A quick drying off of the salt water is helpful and then I load them up for their trip to the aging room. I head out of the make room with the cheeses, down the driveway and up to the barn. Then, with a bit of balancing, I unlock the main gate, lock it behind me and continue up the north road, past the curious pigs, and to the base of the hill. Here, to the left, is the entrance to the cheese cave. From the road it is startling to visitors. Generally they remark that it looks like the entrance to a hobbit house. It does in fact bear that resemblance.
At the base of the hill is a long gravel path that starts at the north road and goes straight into the hillside. Twenty feet from the road the hill begins to rise, and on both sides of the gravel path are large boulders that act as a retaining wall leading to the door of the cave. The gravel path begins to decline where the boulders begin and it drops a few feet by the time it reaches the door of the cave ten feet along. The boulders that line the pathway down are large, some very large. I’ve heard rocks termed one-man rocks and two-man rocks. I used to think that one-man rocks were those that were as large as one man—presumably in a fetal position. I was later corrected that a one-man rock is one that a single man can move. A two-man rock would take two men to push and shove into place. I watched these rocks being put into position—some were difficult to move with a large hydraulic track hoe. Perhaps these boulders are ten-man rocks.
At the end of the ten-foot path is a door. I call it the first door because, unbeknownst to the first-time visitor, there is an identical door four feet behind this first door. I must state categorically both of these doors are the most beautiful I have ever seen.
The first door is set into a concrete wall that rises up fourteen feet from the path. It is six feet wide, and all that is seen is this simple vertical wall with a beautiful door set into it, a light above and a light switch to the right. It is rather disorienting. Behind and nearly above you are the many large boulders, ferns growing between them, and beyond that is the sod of the pasture that surrounds the boulders and goes up the hill to the upper pastures.
The doors are works of art. They were made by Frédéric, the island Frenchman who also built the cow barn here and the roof of the Cookhouse. They are made entirely of Douglas fir and contain no nails, only pegs of black locust wood, known for its strength. The frames of the doors are four and a half inches thick—meaty—and the doors themselves are three and a half inches thick—also quite meaty. And those are straight measurements, not the confusing modern lumber measurements we now accept.
The hinges are bullet hinges that Frédéric buys in France periodically, stows in his luggage and brings back for his projects. They look and feel nothing like the poor imitations for a hinge that can now be found at a Home Depot or local hardware stores.
The basic design of the doors is traditional: each has a top and bottom rail, with a hinge stile and a lock stile. Dividing the top and bottom of each door midway up is a cross-rail as well. There are two additional, smaller stiles that divide the top half of the door and two more that divide the bottom half. This creates a framework of six areas. Each of these is filled with a floating panel. These are the nonstructural parts of the doors and are decorative. In this case they are very decorative. Each was hand-carved by Frédéric in a classic French motif. The design is of a long, vertical ribbon that flows from the center out. The panels appear to be tall, skinny, open books where the pages flow out from the central spine.
The carving is superb. I often run my fingers up and down these Douglas fir ribbons to feel the subtle flow of the wood and pick up on the subtle handwork that is apparent. What is surprising is that the backs of the doors also have carved panels. One of Frédéric’s qualities that I have always admired is that he adorns that which is in sight and tends to ignore that is which is hidden. It is his economy of work. There is no need to beautify the hidden. In this situation a case could be made that I can see the reverse of the doors when I exit the cheese cave, but it is a thin argument. More likely is the fact that the winter when I hired him Frédéric had little or no work and needed the cash. If he made them more intricate he could bill me additionally. I’m happy with either reason—they are beautiful and I appreciate them every time I go in and out of the cave.
The two doors are each locked with a dead bolt. My house is not locked, my truck never, but I keep the cheeses under lock and key all of the time. The sound and the feel of locking these two doors is tremendous. They both have identical dead bolts that are of very high quality and which are very well engineered. The heavy, dull clunk that is audible when they are turned is reassuring. The doors are equally well designed and engineered. They fit precisely within their frames. Add to the effect the resonant quality of the cheese cave. The sounds of the dead bolts and the door handles and the opening of the doors are greatly amplified by the reverb chamber that is the cave. This is further enhanced by the experience of coming to the doors. On this spring day it is quite warm, not hot but certainly pleasant. Walking the ten feet down to the entrance of the cave is dramatic. The temperature drops precipitously during this quick walk. On both sides are the cool stones of the retaining wall, shaded by the ferns growing from their crevices. The entrance faces north and the sun rarely glares down this approach to the entrance. It is a physical change I experience, approaching the first door to the cheese cave. Turning the key and hearing the resonant sound of the dead bolt further tells me that I am somewhere different. This is not the front porch of a simple house in the suburbs.
When I open the first door of the cave, I am confronted with a small vestibule—just four feet square with a ten-foot-high ceiling. The two walls and the ceiling are all cast-in-place concrete, the floor as well. There is only an industrial light in the center of the ceiling in this small room. Directly opposite this first door is the second beautifully adorned hand-carved door. It resembles the exterior door—the ribbons, the pegged frame, the bullet hinges.
The vestibule is simply an air lock. It is to guard against bringing in too much warm air in the heat of summer or too much cool air in the depths of winter. I close the first door behind me and enter the small chamber. The caged light overhead is lit. I unlock the second door, the dead bolt giving an even more ominous thud, and I push open the second door.
The cheese cave is 330 square feet, all of cast concrete. From the doorway I can see to the end of the rectangular room. Above me are three more of the industrial lights. On the left and the right of the center nave that divides the room are the floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves that hold the cheeses. Frédéric built these as well—the frame that holds the individual shelves is made of Douglas fir with black locust pegs.
Each of the shelves is made of spruce, the wood of preference for aging cheeses due to its absence of deep odors. The shelves are loose; they are not attached but rather simply rest on steel pegs that come out from the fir posts of the framework.
The ceiling is barrel-vaulted, curving down from its apex of eleven feet to the six-foot-high side walls. The gentle curve is designed to encourage the air to roll down the sides as it heats and cools; in a flat-roofed room the air would stagnate in the corners. The vaulted ceiling also keeps moisture from dripping down onto the cheeses. If moisture rises up in the room, it will hit the cool ceiling and roll down the vault to the sides rather than collect and drip straight down.
This tidy bunker was built three years earlier on a whim. I had made a hard, aged cheese five years ago. I made a lot of different cheeses then: Tomme, mozzarella, Camembert, Gouda. Some were good, some ended up as pig food, but the Grana-style cheese after a year of aging was magnificent. I had one wheel of perhaps six pounds and I ate most of it myself. I shared what little remained with folk who had a good palate and some experience with cheese. I am not sure what all the comments were, but the ones that got through to my overly confident ears were all positive. I was convinced to begin making this cheese at my creamery.
I knew I needed a cave to produce it consistently and in a professional manner. I must correct that. I wanted a cave because they are beautiful structures; I could have made great cheese in an industrial building with a refrigeration unit. The final product is important to me, but equally important is the process. I like food to have a story, a pedigree, a tale to tell.
I drew what I wanted on a cocktail napkin or a scrap of paper and began asking around for advice. An architect friend of mine set me up with an out-of-work architect who had worked in his office before the building boom ended. She gladly took up this unique project.
There are few true cheese caves in this country and little information on their design. With great gusto she investigated all that she could find, emailing other creameries and calling around for tips on the design. Thankfully they are rather simple contraptions.
The basic element needed for success is depth. The entire goal is to keep the interior of the room at a consistent temperature year-round, despite a highly fluctuating outside temperature. Although mechanical refrigeration can accomplish this, I wanted a much lower-tech solution: burying the room underground can satisfy the temperature concerns.
The temperature of the earth below the frost line is consistent. In this part of the country, that line is at four feet. If you were to dig down four feet in your garden today—or any day, for that matter—the earth will be a bit above fifty degrees. It is never thirty, nor eighty, but rather an ideal fifty. Perhaps in the desert of Arizona that depth is ten feet, but here in the moderate Pacific Northwest four feet is adequate.
When Dawn calculated the thickness of the concrete and the height of the room, together with the needed barrel-vaulted room design and then the thickness of the bottom slab, the depth of the hole needed for this room was impressive.
What was needed, therefore, was a hill. Only then could the entrance to the cave easily come out to daylight without a long staircase down to reach it. Being able to easily access the entrance was a design necessity. Dawn and I walked around the thirteen acres of Kurtwood Farms repeatedly before deciding on the only possible site.
This site had everything we needed, the hill first and foremost, but also access to a road for construction work and also for its eventual use, proximity to the main water line, and with room for the construction equipment and vehicles. It was a long distance from the cheese production area, but I was confident that would not be a deterrent.
Once the location was set, she drew up the plans with the assistance of a soils engineer, a structural engineer and a wetlands scientist. My seemingly simple project became dramatically more complicated once reality entered into the project. We were building a room underground where I would work for an hour or two at a time. I really didn’t want to die inside of a crushed subterranean concrete bunker. Doing the extra work to guarantee that the cheese cave was structurally sound was paramount.
Once the plans were drawn and approved by the local building authority, the contractor began his work. The first step was to remove the existing hill. I like writing that and thinking about that task. We removed an entire hill from the farm. What was remarkable was that it was not a time-consuming project. Two small track hoes went to work continually moving dirt for three days. The difficult part was not the digging but rather moving the soil as it came from the hole. One track hoe dug the hole and passed the dirt to the next piece of heavy equipment. The second would then pile the dirt around the excavation.
They did this in studied unison. Both Stuart and his young daughter are well experienced in earth moving and could make it appear effortless, and steadily the hill disappeared and in its place two large piles of dirt appeared.
What made it more interesting was that there were cows watching at all times; a herd of terribly inquisitive cows. I learned that they are more agile on their feet than it appears and they would climb to the top of each of the two tall, profound dirt piles and stare down with curiosity into the hole deep below. They never slipped, they never fell, but they appeared to precariously balance on the edge of the shifting soil.
After three long days the hole was complete. Twenty feet below grade was the base where the cave would be built. It was leveled and squared and then Stuart and his daughter began to build the wooden forms that would contain the cast-in-place concrete. The structural engineer had specced out—at least to my uneducated eyes—a massive volume of steel rebar to reinforce the concrete.
The engineer explained to me that the hydrostatic pressures—which I assumed just meant water pressure—applied to the sides and top of the concrete structure could be substantial. There was to be a large quantity of soil—and in winter, wet soil—pressing down onto this bunker. In addition, there needed to be the ability to withstand the possibility of trucks driving across the upper pasture and, unbeknownst to the driver, traveling over the largely hidden cave beneath. Although I had little understanding of the structural forces at play, I was convinced that the wet soil would indeed be weighty and the water pushing against the sides of the concrete was not a small force. Again, I remembered my initial request that I would prefer not to die in a collapsed pile of concrete rubble.
Stuart and his small crew followed the plans diligently and began to fill the forms with concrete. Once the base was poured, they moved on to the side walls and then the barrel-vaulted ceiling and the entrance. For days the same procedure would repeat—building the wooden forms, adding the steel reinforcing bars, pouring the concrete, stripping the forms and then building the forms for the next section. By the end of three weeks, in place of the empty hole deep below the pastures stood a small concrete bunker—solid, massive and heavy.
And then began the backfilling of the soil. What came out quickly in three days took longer to return to its original location despite the great advantage of gravity. The soil was pushed back into place, compacted and settled, then more would be added to raise the level higher and higher. Slowly the concrete bunker disappeared, covered by the ever-greater mound of relocated soil. Once the concrete was no longer visible, the soil was mounded on top of the subterranean structure. More than four feet of soil was needed to fully insulate the interior room from the changing heat and coolness of the weather outside the cave.
Once the bulk of the soil was mounded over and around the concrete, the retaining walls holding up the earth on either side of the path down into the doorway were set. Two dozen large boulders were collected from the surrounding pastures and woods and dragged to the site and set into position.
By the end of eight weeks the hill had been removed and replaced with a sturdy concrete box hidden within it. In the coming weeks the doors would be set, the shelves installed and the pastures reseeded on the surrounding hillsides. All so that today I could walk down the short gravel path, unlock the pair of carved wooden doors and bring in five freshly made cheeses to be aged.
I have been making just a few of these hard cheeses each week for the past few months. There are four sets of shelves on either side of the windowless room. When it is fully utilized, it will hold nearly a thousand of the eight-pound wheels of cheese. Today there are at best seventy youthful cheeses in residence. Today five more cheeses will be added to the ranks of the aging, here four feet below the pastures and the cows. I find the next empty shelves in the rack and place the cheeses on a spruce wood shelf. A tag with the number of the make goes on the end of the shelf and the cheeses now will live out their time in the dark, cool space. Once the cheeses are all lined up on the loose shelf, I turn and go back through the pair of doors and out to the farm. The doors are locked in succession as I leave, the heavy thud loud and apparent as I close each door and lock the dead bolts.
It is a bit jarring to come out of the cave and walk back up the short gravel path to the north road of the farm. The cave is confined and small, with deep echoes and a limited range of sensations. It smells deeply like the cheeses that inhabit it, but you can hear nothing of the outside world and feel no vibrations or movement from outside. It is a room of stability and calm. The temperature is stable, the humidity as well. Outside of the cave, the surroundings are immediately vibrant and full; high overhead planes pass by on their way to the airport, the cows are methodically grazing on the grass above the cave door, the trees are filled with small, quick wrens and the faint sounds of the highway a few thousand feet through the adjoining woods can be heard when a large commercial truck drives by. The sun filters through the tall Doug firs on the north road and a canopy is created by the adjoining madrone tree, blocking the light until the wind begins to blow, disturbing the leaves. I wasn’t in the cave for more than a few short minutes, putting the new cheeses on their shelf and then checking on the older cheeses. I spent a couple of minutes perusing the crates of wine that are also stored on the floor in the back of the cave. It was enough time to get used to the quiet, the faintly dull existence in the monochromatic gray box, and enough time to be alarmed, and frankly also relieved, to walk out into the vibrant, bright, chatty surroundings on the other side of the thick wooden door.
Early Planting in the Garden
Fall has arrived at the farm; the heat of summer has settled down but the heavy rains have yet to arrive. The garden is at its tipping point. The lush tomato plants are still filled with fruit, some deep red and ready to be picked, others green with little chance of ever ripening on the vine. The pumpkins are full-sized, deep orange and ripe, yet their large green leaves are browned on the edges and beginning to fade. The onions and garlic were harvested a couple of weeks earlier and are in the kitchen drying, soon to be used in cooking through the winter months.
Although it appears to be the end of the growing season, it is also the beginning for one plant: the garlic. To achieve full, large, bulbous heads next fall, I will plant the garlic this week. October has arrived but there is still warm weather for at least four more weeks, ample to get the garlic sprouted and established in the ground. In the kitchen I sort through the heads of garlic I picked a couple of weeks ago. Some are small, some grew better and are larger and then a few grew too much. When the individual cloves are too large—most likely from harvesting too late—they burst from their paper coverings and are more vulnerable to rot than those completely tight and covered in their dry outer skins.
I select a dozen of these robust heads, all with large, full cloves. I break them apart with the heel of my hand, fully separating the individual cloves. The table is now covered with at least a hundred cloves of garlic. Thankfully Jorge has prepared a bed in the garden for me, improving it with a couple wheelbarrows of compost and turning under the weeds from the summer months.
I plant four long rows of garlic, filling the bed. Each clove is planted with the root down, just below the surface, a few inches apart from one another. The soil is already moist from a couple of light rains last week and the temperature is an easy fifty degrees today. I am confident that by the end of October each ivory-colored nub will have sent down an inch of roots into the soil beneath and a small green shoot will have emerged. Although little growth will occur through the cold winter months, this initial start will guarantee success next year. The weather in this region can be mild during the depths of winter, even if a few odd weeks drop well below freezing. Those days in the forties and fifties will certainly help the garlic crop along.
The task is simple, quick and easy. Getting my hands dirty, if only for three-quarters of an hour, is enough to reconnect with the soil. The frequency of working in the garden seems more valuable than the duration.
After scrubbing up in the Cookhouse, I head up to the cave to check on the cheeses. Once per week I enter the subterranean bunker to look in on my charges. They change little in the span of seven days, but it is a schedule easy to maintain.
Walking down the gravel path and through the double doors into the cave has little of the drama that it did in the heat of the spring and summer. Today is dull and cool. The sun is barely out and the skies are gray and flat. Consequently, the atmosphere of the interior of the cave resembles that of the exterior.
There is a lintel above the door, partially hidden by smaller boulders and soil and ferns and the pasture, but it is certainly a lintel, the horizontal element above every door that both physically and visually supports the opening. I look up at it as I approach the cave and am always reminded of the phrase that I should have had inscribed on it but did not. I wanted it to read ET IN ARCADIO EGO. I forgot to ask Stuart to find a way to cast it into the concrete as he made the forms. I also thought it would appear to be pretentious and forced. It may be better that I know what should be above the door, and that I am reminded every time I enter, and that it is just for myself.
Et in arcadio ego is a Latin phrase that I first came across years ago while reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. In the 1980s a miniseries had been made of this book about the wealthy of England before the First World War, and I was drawn into the rich interiors and decadent lives that Waugh had so beautiful described and which the television series presented. I found a copy of the book and pored over it, enjoying the petty lives as they began to crumble in the early part of the twentieth century.
The Latin phrase is the title of one of the first chapters in the book and has various translations. I never took Latin in school and have little understanding of the intricacies of this diminutive phrase, but it speaks of arcadia and death. I prefer the translation “the one that lies in this tomb lived in Arcadia.” Obviously a lot of additional meaning is attached to these four short words, but I like that interpretation. This cave is without a doubt a tomb, sure to be in existence far longer than anything else on the farm. And I consider this farm to be my Arcadia: my rural, idyllic, pastoral site.
When Stuart finished the building of this cave I asked him rhetorically what it would take to remove it if there was ever the need or desire. He paused for a few moments, and then described the effort that would be needed to dismantle and destroy this room deep in the earth. The concrete is thick and of high strength. It is reinforced by a virtual cage of weighty steel. And it would be quite a Herculean task to destroy. He thought that he could go inch by inch with a jackhammer and break up the concrete, but he appeared to find the question odd and obtuse.
I walked away from our short conversation and thought about what he had said. My Log House is 130-plus years old, constructed entirely of wood, and has little chance if any of not continually degrading back into the earth. I spent ten years bringing it back to a livable state, replacing a sizable percentage of the fragile wooden logs. Many other structures on the property are constructed of masonry, yet all have wooden rafters and purlins that hold up their roofs, and are sure to rot and degrade over the decades. The barn is entirely made of wood, with barely a tiny percentage of steel nails in its structure. Even the roof is made of cedar shingles. At least the other roofs are clad in galvanized metal.
This tomb, however, is entirely reinforced concrete with little if any chance of degradation. It will survive. I have placed something on this bit of arcadia that presumably could remain for centuries. Few people have that opportunity or the desire to leave something behind with such longevity. Certainly the doors will rot, their thick, strong fir structures in essence simply long strands of organic fiber. Cellulose, if you will, parading as permanence.
This tomb will be found decades or centuries later and confuse those who come across it, perhaps thinking it was a bomb shelter from the middle of the last century, or a gothic mausoleum.
I think too much and these ideas pass through my mind today as I walked beneath the lintel, and read the slogan et in arcadio ego, pondering its significance even though it has never been inscribed into that concrete.
The task at hand is clever, necessary and tactile. The cheeses need to be flipped. Those made just a few days ago are moist and likely to stick to the board on which they are stored. They need to be flipped so that the dryer top side can now be on the bottom and the moist bottom side can now have a chance to dry. Those that were made weeks or months ago are not likely to stick to the spruce shelves, but flipping guarantees their even curing during the duration of their time in the cave. The act of picking up each cheese, flipping it and then replacing it on the shelf also gives me the chance to rub the molds down, keeping them short and managed. And finally, the possibility of cheese mites living under the cheeses is diminished if the cheeses are constantly flipped and the boards brushed clean.
What is clever about this simple task is the way it is achieved. If I were to simply flip each cheese and replace it in the same spot, that seven-inch round on the spruce shelf would never dry out. Never exposed to the air, always covered by a wheel of cheese, that circle would potentially harbor bacteria—good or bad—and would arrest the drying process.
The remedy for this dilemma is to flip the shelf boards at the same time as the cheeses. Frédéric installed these spruce boards three years earlier laying them on long steel rods that come out from the vertical supports of the shelving system. Each board is resting on two of these simple rods, anchored only by gravity.
I walk down the center apse of the cave and then turn into one of the small naves of shelving. Each shelf is filled with five cheeses, except for one.
The top shelf contains no cheeses. I go to the next shelf down, pick up each cheese, rub it down completely, flip it and then place it on the empty shelf above. When the last cheese is relocated, the now-empty shelf is flipped over and returned to its steel supports. While I have it out of the frame and in my hands, I quickly brush any errant bits of mold or cheese or cheese mites to the floor.
Now I continue with the next shelf down and replace its cheeses onto what is now the inverted second shelf. The top side has had all week to dry; the bottom side, which held five cheeses just a moment ago, now has the next seven days to dry out as well.
I had hoped that my mind would empty as I passed beneath the phantom Latin motto on the lintel, but it has not. The flipping and brushing of the cheeses is mechanical and tactile and my mind can wander. I am struck by the idea of Arcadia. It is in fact a region of Greece on the Peloponnesian peninsula, still rural, mountainous and partially inhabited by shepherds. What strikes me as remarkable is our continued need since Hellenistic Greece to look to an area outside of the cities to romanticize.
This farm is a few miles outside of Seattle, on an island greatly underinhabited compared to its nearby cities and suburbs. There are without a doubt many small farms and homesteads, most with a goat or two, perhaps a pig, and a few that keep cows, such as my farm.
I would not consider myself a shepherd per se, but I do tend to cows on a daily basis, albeit in a modern dairy practice, rather than goats or sheep raised in a transhumance manner. I love this lifestyle, enjoy the nature that surrounds me daily, revel in the beautiful days when the sun shines through the often thick clouds of winter. Yet I also comprehend the reality of this life—the challenges of a business and a life connected to the cruelties of nature. Most everything of daily life and business in a city is controlled—the heating, the air-conditioning, the artificial lighting, the paving—all in an effort to limit the unpredictable effects of nature.
This is a real life. I am cold. Animals die. The mud and manure of winter is overwhelming in the darkest days. And in the summer, on the best days, it is a remarkable, idyllic existence. Until it gets too hot, the pastures dry up and the flies take over the farm.
And yet, on a weekly and often daily basis, I get emails from those who have heard of this farm, of this life, and who express their envy; a desire to experience a place of Arcadia. They want to believe there is such a place of fantasy. A place where shepherding the animals from pasture to pasture in the bright days of summer exists. Where all is calm and verdant and pastoral.
The cruel part of this envy is that this farm and all others like it are not idyllic, nor always pastoral. What most do not realize is that Arcadia is the concept of an idyll that has passed. It is utopia that is the dream of the future. Yet we all crave the hope that just over the water, just a fifteen-minute ferryboat ride away, is a place that we can dream about. And we have been dreaming of such a place for more than two thousand years.
This is where my mind goes as my hands lift the cheeses, rub them and flip the boards and shuffle over to the next row. It is a pleasant thought, neither bleak nor dour. This ancient thought—that of Arcadia—together with this ancient practice of crafting cheeses, connects me to our past.
This flipping of cheeses and flipping of boards takes not even an hour, yet the entire time I have a silly grin on my face. The process of flipping boards is just too clever for me not to smile. I wish I had come up with the idea, but alas it is a method that has most likely been around for generations. It matters little to me; I am pleased each time and revel in the simplicity and great utility of it all.
It is important to me that I age my cheeses here on the farm. There is a trend today in this country to have a separate person and business age cheeses off of the farm. These affineurs—the people who perform the affinage, or aging of cheeses—are the next darlings of the food world. It is a tradition in France that is slowly gaining acceptance in this country. I see the benefit of it in some cases, but I prefer to keep the control of my young cheeses here in this cave a short walk from the make room, surrounded by the curious cows who are largely responsible for the cheese.
In the new model, the cheese maker produces his cheeses, and as soon as they are out of the molds, they are transported to the affineur to be turned and brushed and cared for over the life of their aging, and it is up to the affineur to decide when they are ready to be sold.
I am an opinionated and often arrogant bastard, and I feel that I know better when my cheeses need to be flipped or turned or cared for. I am also often incorrect. There are certainly far more knowledgeable folks in the cheese business and I should listen to them more. Trial and error has been my teacher, often with disastrous results. My pigs have fattened well on the missteps of my earlier affinage. An added force in this is my wanting to retain full credit for the success of my products in the consumers’ eyes and also financially. If I send cheeses off to another facility, I am also sending off part of the profits of my enterprise. At this small scale, attention to retaining every bit of profit is paramount.
Thankfully, this thirteen-acre farm, with now seven cows in milk and another six dry, has managed to become profitable. In the last decade, this small farm has evolved from my initial dream of raising and selling honey and vegetables, to serving farm dinners in the Cookhouse, to selling raw milk, and now to concentrating exclusively on selling the finest farmstead cheeses I can produce.
This refinement has been necessary, if at times a bit exhausting. Goats were attempted, sheep as well. A farm stand was set up and quickly dismantled when it proved impractical. Raising one cow and then a second taught me the necessary skills for being a dairyman. Raw milk was a great beginning, even if it exposed me to far too much liability. By the time I arrived at this point a decade later—as a profitable farmstead cheese maker—I had acquired the skills needed and also the necessary barns, fences, paddocks and vibrant pastures required for the business.
I’m glad I stumbled onto that first Jersey cow—Dinah—early on and quickly realized my great love of Jersey cows. That breed has served me well. The small scale of the cows in comparison to the larger, weightier Holsteins is ideal for the small acreage that I own. The deep golden color of the Jersey milk and the unusually high butterfat content makes for delightful, rich and special cheeses.
Nine Months Before; Alice Is Bred
It is nearly the end of the year. Christmas is just a couple of days away and winter has arrived. The days are the shortest of the year and the weather is characteristic of the Pacific Northwest in December: overcast, wet and dreary. It is not snowing, nor even freezing, but it is difficult to find joy in such damp, dark days. Today I have a project to break up the monotony of these bleak winter days.
Alice is ready to be bred. Although she is still young, and looks rather small in comparison to the mature milking cows, when she calves in nine months she will have gained weight and stature. I check my watch and realize the AI tech will arrive in a few minutes at the farm. The AI (artificial insemination) tech will breed Alice now that she is fifteen months old. To call him a tech seems quite impersonal; his name is Wayne and he has been to the farm many times.
I leave the comfort of the Cookhouse and head out the front paddock, where I can see Alice and also wait for Wayne’s minivan to come down the driveway. He is coming from off-island, so it is very predictable what time he will arrive from the ferry dock, and he does not disappoint. When I noticed that Alice had come into heat early this morning while Jorge was milking the other cows, I called Wayne and he agreed to come out this afternoon to breed her.
While I have had bulls in the past to breed the heifers, I have since switched back to AI. The bulls were simply eating too much expensive hay, the quality of their genes was suspect and, most importantly, I was fearful that they would hurt a visitor to the farm.
Those who have grown up on traditional farms with bulls know of their inherent danger. They are extremely strong, bullheaded and potentially aggressive. Over the years many of the older visitors would tell me harrowing stories of bull encounters with a casualness that always surprised me. Quick comments as, “My uncle was killed by a bull” or “My grandfather was attacked by a bull and only lived by stabbing his bull with a pitchfork” were not uncommon. I grew up in the city and had little such culture in my genes. Over the years I came to respect my bulls, but I was unable to convey that sense to visitors. Many people would put their hands inside the electrified fence to pet the bulky beasts, even with my protestations. When the last one encouraged his young children to do the same and headed for the locked gate of the bullpen, I decided it was time to switch to AI to breed the cows.
Wayne hops out of the deep blue minivan, wearing a polyester cap emblazoned with the name of his national semen company and holding a catalogue in his hand. I meet him by the side of the van and he begins to open the catalogue to the Jersey cow page, showing me the names and stats of the Jersey bulls he represents. My life is full and busy and I have little interest in complicating it further by studying the cryptic tables of heights and weights and potential fat content and ash content of offsprings’ milk. He pushes me to pick one and I casually pick a name and a photo that I find appealing. Wayne may judge me as a casual farmer, but he doesn’t show it, excited about my choice of bull semen to breed Alice.
He drops the catalogue in the front seat and heads to the rear of the van, opening the doors wide and pulling out a strawful of semen from the nitrogen tank, and a thin plunger together with the needed supplies.
While he is loading up what he needs, I bring Alice into the stanchion of the milking parlor, luring her in with a bucketful of grain. She tenuously approaches and is quickly locked in. Once she begins to eagerly eat the grain, her apprehension falls away and she settles.
Wayne comes into the milking parlor and quickly goes to work. Today he will breed one of my cows, but most of his days are spent at large commercial dairies. He drops numbers that seem incomprehensible—a hundred cows bred this morning, fifty tomorrow, two hundred the next day. Consequently he is rapid and competent in his work.
On his left hand he fits a thin, shoulder-length pale green plastic glove. It is nearly four feet in length and bears little resemblance to the tiny plastic gloves I wear in the cheese make room. With his right hand he squirts a long line of lubricant on the glove starting with the hand and on up to his elbow. He sets the bottle of lubricant down and grabs the syringe filled with the straw of bull semen. While he is putting the glove on and lubricating it, I notice that the plunger and straw are cupped under his armpit, in that way gently warming the frozen semen in the moments before it will be given to Alice.
He then inserts his gloved and lubricated hand into the rear of the cow held in the stanchion. Miraculously, he gently and rapidly inserts his entire hand and arm and elbow up to his shoulder. Alice appears to notice and possibly be confused, but is neither hurt nor particularly concerned. The grain is far more interesting to her than Wayne.
With his free hand, he pulls the plunger and straw from beneath his armpit and precisely guides it into Alice, following the path of his gloved hand. In a moment he is rotating and moving the syringe until it is just where he wants it, then he pushes the handle on the end, releasing the barely frozen bull sperm deep within Alice. The syringe is removed, and then his arm. He offers me the empty straw, which I accept. It is an odd part of the operation. It is marked with the serial number of the bull and the lot, but it feels rather more like he is offering me a cigar, toasting to the future calf. I play the part, and graciously accept the straw.
Wayne inverts the glove as he removes it so that only the clean interior is apparent, and he returns it to his van with his supplies. He has been in the milking parlor for at most two minutes. He quickly writes up the invoice while seated in his van and in a couple minutes he will be headed back down the bumpy driveway off the farm and back to the large commercial dairies that are his usual clients. Alice slowly finishes her bucket of precious grain, I unlock her from the stanchion and she returns to the paddock, seeming unaware of what all has transpired. With luck, she will give birth to a calf nine months later, in the last week of September.
Today has very little resemblance to spring. It is still quite cold in the morning, with a bit of frost on the roofs when I stumble out of bed. The days are certainly longer than they were on the solstice six weeks earlier, but not enough to make me think that summer is just around the corner. By the calendar, however, I know that it is time to get ready for spring.
The seed catalogues arrived in the mail more than a month ago and the orders were placed online soon thereafter. Now that the small box has arrived from the seed seller, I can begin in earnest in the greenhouse. I order few seeds for the farm. When I started growing vegetables for the farmers’ market and for a CSA eight years ago, Matt was working here and did the seed orders. He is by his nature an optimistic soul and ordered a vast quantity of seeds. At the time I was rather annoyed by his exuberance. Actually, when the Visa bill arrived on my desk I was annoyed. Eight years later I still have a great box filled with vegetable seeds. Granted, the most useful seeds were long since planted and some seeds have short periods of viability. But I still have a few years’ worth of arugula seeds, for example. My parsimony keeps me from throwing out the entire legacy of that first year of farming; my sentimentality as well.
I did order fresh onion seeds and a few new varieties of tomatoes and squash, and they are laid out on the kitchen table. The greenhouse is prepared. This small glass house is eight feet wide and fourteen feet long, tiny by commercial standards and large by household standards. It is ample for this farm’s needs. From mid-February until June it will hold flats of plant starts, begun in the protection of surrounding glass and planted out into the garden when ready. When the last of the small starts have left the confines of the hothouse, the benches will be removed, the dirt floor augmented with compost and the greenhouse will be directly planted with pepper plants, greedy for the continuing warmth of the greenhouse. By September this confined room will burst with the heady scent of peppers, the capsicum airborne even though the peppers are just ripening on the small, sturdy plants. Halloween will signal the time to pick the final deep red fruits, pull up the exhausted plants and leave the greenhouse empty until it is time to begin again with the flats of onions in February.
Today, the greenhouse is bleak. Completely empty, it appears forlorn and unable to sustain any life whatsoever. As it is an enclosed space, sealed from the elements, no rain reaches the dirt floor of the house. It is completely arid and dusty when I open the stubborn sliding doors even though it has been raining most days this wet winter. A few desiccated leaves and peppers remain on the ground, left from my sloppy cleaning in the fall.
The benches are stored when not in use in the attic above the milking parlor. Wobbly, feeble aluminum tables, they came with the greenhouse when I bought it eight years ago. Every year it is a miracle that they survive, barely able to hold the weighty flats filled with wet soil and plants. And every year I promise to replace them before the next growing season begins. This past winter was no different and today I climb the skinny stairs to the attic and begin to pull the rickety excuses for furniture down for their season of service. In the cramped quarters above the milking parlor are the vacuum pump that runs the milking equipment, the stacks of benches and an assortment of discarded dairy accessories: in-line milk filters, dented milking buckets made unusable by their damage, gallon jugs of dairy detergent, milkstone cleaners, iodine teat washes and antibacterial teat dips, square black plastic flats and hundreds of four-inch plant plots. One by one the six benches are passed down the skinny stairs to Jorge waiting below, followed by a stack of twenty of the flats and a couple hundred of the pots. With a small amount of effort the benches are set up in the greenhouse, lining the walls with a central alley remaining in the middle. In a matter of minutes the greenhouse moves from an ignored, empty space to a greenhouse capable of housing hundreds of small plants in the luxury of climate control.
Onions are the first plants to be seeded in this new year; they need the most time to reach the large, robust size by autumn. Onions are slow-growing and need this early start. They also have a unique characteristic.
Onions have two distinct growing periods in their season. The first is when they are growing their roots and tops. The second is when they bulb up and create the part of the plant that we know as the onion. The plant determines when to stop growing the green top part of the plant and begin to grow the bulb part by the length of the day. In reality, onions are sensitive to the amount of darkness, but for practical reasons, it is easier to think of them as aware of the volume of sunlight.
Because of this fairly unique characteristic, onion varieties are divided into two distinct groups—long-day and short-day. Long-day onions are planted in the northern latitudes of this country, and short-day are planted in the southern latitudes.
What makes this even more interesting is that short-day and long-day onion varieties are not the same in other characteristics. Long-day onions are generally storage onions, with the ability to be held for months after they are harvested. Short-day onions are the opposite, needing to be eaten soon after their harvest. In addition, onions’ storage ability is directly related to the quantity of sugars in the onions. The short-day onions are those grown in the southern states such as Georgia, known for its Vidalia onions. The Vidalia onions are characterized as sweet onions, I would guess as a marketing tool. So it is now assumed that short-day, southern onions are therefore sweeter than their northern long-day neighbors. In fact, long-day onions contain more sugars than the short-day ones. What we are tasting in an onion is its relative pungency. Onions that are sharper, with a great pungent onion flavor, seem to us to be less sweet. It is onions that have less of that sharp onion quality that we perceive to be sweet. It is the relative amount of sulfur in the onion that creates those pungent qualities. As it happens, the counties where Georgia Vidalia onions are grown are low in sulfur in the soil.
This would all be simple, except that Walla Walla sweet onions are in fact, long-day onions grown in the northern latitudes, and yet they are less pungent, nonstorage onions. There are always a few anomalies.
I prefer to have the ability to keep onions for weeks after harvest, so the varieties I plant here, at the forty-seventh parallel, are all long-day storage onions. The two varieties that I ordered last month were Copra, a consistent, sweet storage onion and a cipollini onion as well. The Copras are large, robust, yellow globes. The cipollini are white, squat, small onions, nearly flat in shape. When you look at them, they seem like a strange aberration, as if they were stepped on mistakenly at a time when they were curiously flexible.
I also ordered a small packet of Ambition, a large shallot variety recommended by Leda, a grower on the island. I have always grown shallots from bulbs of the former year’s shallot crop, in the same way that I plant garlic. For years, I used this method before asking Leda her opinion on shallots. She assured me that without a doubt I needed to grow them from seeds, and not from saved bulbs. I trust her. The seeds have arrived and will be planted along with the other alliums.
The process is simple and straightforward. One of the square black plastic flats can hold all of the season’s onion starts. The trays are sixteen inches square and two inches high. The bottoms are perforated for ample drainage. Under the bottom I lay a single sheet of newspaper, most likely the unneeded and unwanted weekly sales circular from the local supermarket. There is a touch of irony that the publication advertising distantly grown vegetables will form the base for the growing of local, superior produce. I smirk as I pour two inches of potting soil over the brashly colored photographs of onions and lettuce and tomatoes on this chilly February afternoon.
The soil is smoothed over to make the bed a consistent depth, then nine equidistant parallel troughs are created in the soil by pressing in a short wooden stick left in the greenhouse from staking peppers in the last summer months. The troughs are just a half inch deep and V-shaped, the nadir made from the stake, angled forty-five degrees to make the indentation.
Plastic tags are found and the varieties are scribbled with a permanent black marker that will stand up to the months in the shinning sun. One is placed at the head of each small row in the plastic flat filled with potting soil. The seed packets are then opened as needed to seed the rows.
Onion seeds are truly one of my favorite seeds. Seems like an odd item to categorize as good or better or best, but seeds are distinctly different. Brassicas are terribly boring: dark brown or black, tediously spherical and uniform. Squash seeds are large and in fact quite vulgar, almost grotesque in some varieties and often still have remnants of the sticky wet mesh of the interior of a pumpkin or Hubbard. Oddly, corn just seem to be not terribly bright. Not sure why, but that is the impression they give. Tobacco is special, but not in a good way; the seeds for a plant that grows to ten feet tall with an incredibly thick, rigid stalk and large, resinous leaves are nearly microscopic. They simply make no sense. They are far too small to produce such a hotly contested agricultural product.
Onion seeds are different. They are black in color, and neither round nor oblong. They remind me of the charcoal pebbles that I would use to filter my fish tank as a child. I doubt if they are tetrahedrons, but they do have flat, chiseled faces. They are certainly very similar in size and shape, but each is unique.
Because onions seeds lose their vitality quickly, I do not want to carry over any remaining seeds to the next year. I have three short rows for each variety and I make sure that all the seeds are used. This may make them very tight side by side, but the roots are quite strong and resilient and the small onion plants can easily and successfully be disentangled when they are to be transplanted into the garden.
When the nine rows are filled with the black nuggets and the paper seed packets are emptied, I will push a thin layer of soil over the rows, covering the seeds, my fingers tamping down the soil at the same time. The potting soil was moistened before I placed it into the flat, so I have no worries about adequate moisture for the seeds to germinate. They do, however, need added heat, as it is still thirty to forty degrees this time of year, even in the greenhouse.
The method of gently warming this weighty, wet flat of soil is to use a heating mat, made of flexible plastic, with an electrical cable running through it carrying just enough current to bring the temperature up enough to help the seeds germinate. A long temperature probe runs from the thermostat mounted on the wall of the greenhouse into the soil in the flat, guaranteeing that it won’t overheat on a warm day and burn the tender seedlings once they emerge.
The flat is left sitting on the warm mat, the small red light on the thermostat aglow, on this chilly February afternoon. It is difficult to see ahead eight months to a warm autumn day, picking large, bulbous onions from the warm soil in the garden. At this point the seeds haven’t even sprouted, nothing is green, nothing is growing. In the greenhouse is the dusty, dry dirt of the floor with a few dried peppers that fell off the plants last fall and a pile of dried weeds that I pulled up last week when I started cleaning out the greenhouse in anticipation of today’s first seeding. I can only rely on my past experience. In a few days the charcoal-colored seeds will sprout, pushing a bright green thread up through the potting soil to the light. In a month each of the nine rows in the flat will be filled with tiny onion seedlings, all growing vigorously. And when the weather turns, and winter turns to spring, they will be ready to be planted out in the large kitchen garden. We will have onions for cooking this fall, I am confident.
Whereas the onions are seeded in long rows reminiscent of a field of corn, the tomatoes will be seeded in individual soil blocks. I utilize a clever tool to produce these potless squares of potting soil. The soil blocker is made of tinned metal and is three feet tall. Most of that height is the handle, with a long square tube connecting it to its base.
The base of the soil blocker is a grid of individual cells in four rows of six. Each individual cell is one and a half inches square and two inches deep. This grid is open on the bottom, and the top is made up of individual squares that fit into each cell.
To make the soil blocks, I push the grid of cells into a mound of moist, friable potting soil. The downward pressure pushes the soil up into each individual square chamber. The moisture of the soil together with the pressure keeps the soil inside the squares. I lift the soil blocker out from the mound of potting soil and place it on a short plastic flat. The flat is perforated on the bottom to allow water to pass through, yet rigid enough to hold a hundred of the soil blocks. I press the apparatus filled with wet soil onto the base of the flat and then engage the lever that presses the twenty-four individual plates down into the cells. The movement of the plates presses the compressed soil blocks out of the cells. Once the blocker is removed, the twenty-four soil blocks remain, all lined up on the plastic greenhouse flat. The process is repeated three more times until the flat is full of ninety-six small cubes of potting soil, ready to be seeded.
It is an ideal number for my garden—I will seed ten different tomato varieties. Eight varieties will have eight individual plants, and two will have sixteen plants. Out of the large box of seeds I can easily pick ten different varieties, some from years past and some just ordered this year. I break down the selection into types of tomatoes first—cherries, paste, heirloom and beefsteak. I pick out a couple of different varieties of cherries: Sun Gold and Sweet 100, the former yellow-colored, the latter red, and both sweet and full of flavor. I will plant double of the Sun Golds. For the heirloom varieties I have a few seeds remaining from my favorite tomato packets: Pineapple, Persimmon, Cherokee purple, Constolato Genovese and Marmande. I decide that if I only have two cherry varieties I can have five heirlooms. For beefsteaks I pick two: Early Girl and Taxi. The latter is not really a beefsteak but rather a predictable yellow fruit that is always prolific and holds well. Although the heirlooms have superior flavor and are beautiful to look at, their season is shorter and their output smaller. There are times when I just want a slice of tomato for my lunch sandwich and Taxi will do just fine. Taxi is more reliable than an heirloom even if it isn’t the tastiest tomato. I am not really sure why I grow Early Girl, but I think of it more as insurance—against the possibility that the summer is so chilly that no other tomatoes will ripen and I will by default be excited to be eating the Early Girls.
For the paste tomato slots I decide to allocate sixteen plants in the final garden bed. I choose Bill’s Tomatoes. You will not find such a variety in any one of the many tomato seed catalogues that overwhelm every gardener’s mailbox in the late months of winter. It is as the name implies: Bill’s tomatoes.
Bill is a fine older man who has lived on Vashon for more than forty years. He is skinny and now a bit frail but is still the chatty, cantankerous man I met twenty years ago when I first arrived on the island. He shows up at my farm unexpectedly, but very welcome, on a regular basis. He drives the same white panel van that he has for years, it sounding a bit less vital every year. In the van are numerous paint cans and buckets and brushes and cans of solvents that he uses for his painting business. On the back bumper of the creaky vehicle is a faded bumper sticker that states I DIDN’T QUIT—I SURRENDERED! I have never really understood the sentiment, but I can recognize his van easily in the crowded grocery store parking lot. He wears the same white painter pants, stiff paper painter’s hat with a company logo on it, a tidy small towel hanging from his side pocket and dusty brown work boots with few if any drips of paint on them. I doubt that I have ever seen him in any other attire. After the front door of the van is closed with a bit of effort, he goes to the rear of the van, opens wide one of the doors, from among the sea of paint cans and mixing buckets picks up a plant that he has grown for me and walks into the Cookhouse to find me. I can’t help but smile every time I see that thirty-year-old van round the curve in the driveway.
I suppose you could call him an old hippie but that sounds somewhat facile and uninteresting. It is, however, rather apt. He moved to Vashon in the late 1960s because it was cheap and out of the city. He, thankfully, never left. He has often told me his story of Vashon Island. Prior to the late 1960s, Vashon was a very blue-collar, conservative place with a small population of farmers and working-class folk whose families had lived on the island since it began to be inhabited in the late 1870s. It was only when he and his kind moved to the island after the Summer of Love that it began to acquire the deeply liberal, educated character that it now possesses.
For most of his working years he has worked as a house painter and, I know from hiring him, an excellent one. He has painted and maintained all of the many windows and doors on the Log House, the Cookhouse and the creamery. I worry that he is close to retiring and that I will have to find some less experienced kid to paint the thin mullions of the 130-year-old sashes of the Log House.
In addition to his painterly skills, Bill also showed a knack for growing and propagating plants. On his property is a large greenhouse filled with plants. He is too cheap to buy large, expensive trees and shrubs from local nurseries in five-gallon pots ready to drop in the ground thirty minutes after you pick them up at the nursery. Instead he propagates trees and the like by seed or grafts or by root cuttings. Certainly it takes much longer and in many cases years to produce a plant equal in size to that super-grown nursery stock, but Bill’s way is much cheaper and the experience much richer.
Bill also is profient at growing tomatoes. Primarily he simply grows starts from seed and then plants them out. The difference is that I order seeds by mail-order from large seed companies with glossy catalogues filled with color pictures of the tomatoes in question. Bill saves seed from the each year’s fruit for planting the following spring. It is the much more erudite way of growing tomatoes and one that Bill has inspired me to attempt.
The tomato variety that Bill has brought me I now know simply as Bill’s Tomato. I am not even sure how he came across it originally, but he has been growing it for many years. He first gave me one of the fruits five or six years ago and I let it get very ripe, to the point where it was starting to lose its shape, then I cut it in half and began to harvest the seeds that were in the interior. When I cut this beautiful deep red tomato in half, I realized why this tomato was special. The vast majority of it was actually tomato, as opposed to half flesh and half seeds. It was a paste tomato, with thick, dense, ruby-colored pulp ideal for cooking down to sauce. A few neatly arranged seeds ran down a slender valley from the stem end to three-quarters toward the bottom. This also was no usual tomato in its size and shape. Generally paste tomatoes are two and a half inches to perhaps three inches long and an especially long example could run four inches. These Bill’s Tomatoes regularly passed the four-inch mark and easily could hit six. Their girth was equally profound. I have had many experienced gardeners pass through my garden and inquire about the bell peppers ripening on the exceptionally tall pepper plants. I take great pride in elucidating to them that, in fact, those lofty plants are tomatoes, and not simply tomatoes, but Bill’s Tomatoes.
And now, at the end of each of the past five growing seasons, I hold back a couple of the best-looking, largest, and most flavorful specimens for the next year’s seeds. I remove the seeds from the very ripe fruit, pushing the gel-covered seeds out with my thumb down the valley and onto an awaiting paper towel. I separate them in hopes of their quickly drying without molding. In a few days sitting on the counter of the Cookhouse in the warm heat of late September they will fully dry. What remains is a stiff, crusty paper towel with small, flat brown seeds. Difficult to comprehend that they contain the ability to create large, robust, verdant plants the next summer. I must admit that I mistakenly threw out the seed-covered paper towel one year and had to return to Bill, ashamedly asking him for a few more seeds to get me through the coming growing months. I had failed and yet he had no judgment, eagerly giving me a few more precious seeds.
What makes these seeds, these plants so much more precious and special to me is Bill’s vision of their place and significance. I mentioned to him one day, when he came by the farm to see how my garden looked, that I was thinking of dropping off some seeds for my friend Leda, a commercial plant grower. I mistakenly expected him to be excited, flattered that I thought he had come across a great new variety, worthy of propagation and distribution to other growers. On the contrary, he explained to me that those seeds he gave me were a personal gift, to me and to me only. I assured him that I respected his wishes and that I would keep the seeds for my own exclusive use.
There are a couple of interesting aspects to his reaction, which I both relish and question at the same time. Bill is fully aware that all someone would have to do is grab even just one single seed from one of his fresh tomatoes, and grow it the next season. That would be fairly easy to do, by simply stealthily sneaking one off the plate while enjoying a beautiful tomato salad on a lovely summer day on the back porch of Cookhouse. That one tiny bit could easily create a six-foot-tall plant filled with ripe ruby fruit the next summer.
The other interesting facet of his conviction is that Bill is not a young man. The chance of him propagating this tomato himself on a grand scale is not likely; he has had a couple of strokes and is slowing down a bit every year. He wants to retain that proprietary nature of Bill’s Tomatoes even if it isn’t logical. It is, however, passionate, and it is his vision. I can respect his wishes in spite of the purely emotional qualities and lack of logic.
I finish seeding all of the blocks of soil. Ten varieties of tomatoes are represented in the two flats. My priorities and interests are reflected here: what kinds of tomatoes I like—the flavors and shapes—but also the climate here, its lack of hot summers, and also the varied uses these tomatoes will fulfill. I could have planted fifty different varieties, but ten will suffice.
Each variety is tagged with one of the small white plastic markers. The flat is put onto one of the heating mats on the benches in the greenhouse and the leftover seeds are returned to the large box of seeds. The sliding glass doors of the greenhouse are pushed and shoved and cajoled into closing; the runners on the threshold are clogged with dirt from my coming and going over the past couple hours. The latch is closed and I can see the red light of the thermostat is on, indicating that the heating mats are gently warming the trays of onions and tomatoes, helping them to germinate during this late winter day.
Every couple of days during the next two weeks I will stop by the greenhouse and check in on the blocks, to see if the seeds have germinated, if tiny sprouts have broken the surface. On this first day, however, there is little evidence that spring is on its way, that the temperature will warm and the days lengthen and that eventually twenty friends will walk into the Cookhouse and enjoy a slice of pizza with a rich, ruby-colored tomato sauce fresh from the wood oven and then continue on through dinner, eating a large plate of pasta with cippolini onions, chicken livers and grated cheese. It seems improbable on this chilly winter day. It is only blind faith that keeps gardeners going through this ritual, knowing that these tiny seeds will yield great rewards in a matter of months.
Just a week after I spent that cool morning in the greenhouse, seeding tomatoes in the flats of moist soil, I received a phone call from a friend on the island. I anticipated a light chat about her recent vacation and catching up on the goings on at her small farm a few minutes up the island from mine. It took me a moment to react when Sara’s voice was not her usual happy tone. What she called to tell me was that Bill had died the night before, and that she wanted me to know.
Evidently the man I saw four weeks earlier was not simply a man fatigued from his daily work, but rather one ravaged by lung cancer, unbeknownst to him until the last couple weeks of his life. We ended the conversation quickly, my reaction both shocked and saddened. It was not for a couple more days before I comprehended fully that he had passed and that I would never get another chance to chat with the irascible but giving plant grower.
Once it settled into me, I returned to the greenhouse and checked the small cubes of seeding soil, looking for the bits of green life sprouting from the cubes in front of the white plastic tags with the scrawl of Bill’s Tomatoes written on them. They were there—wispy bits of leaves poking through the soil, on their way to becoming full-sized, mature tomato plants.
I returned to the box of seeds and dug through the shiny commercial seed packets until I found the simple white envelope with his name written on it. Inside there remained the crusty paper towel with many seeds from last year still stuck to it. I felt relieved that even if I forgot to water the tender seedlings in the greenhouse, I could always start a second batch, or a third, to guarantee the continuance of these now-precious plants.
A walk along the edge of the farm, and I came across three trees that he had given me over the years: a Spanish pine that he was especially fond of and a couple of American larches. Originally I’d had three larches, but they were short and Jorge had mistakenly cut one down with the tractor. Bill admired the European larches I had planted two decades earlier and wanted me to have a couple of American varietals to complement those. Thankfully they have grown nicely and have little chance of being mowed down. The three trees he gave me will grow to maturity and remind me of Bill’s contribution to this small landscape. The tomatoes will accomplish even more. Each year I get to plant the tiny dried seeds, watching them germinate and grow leaves. After a few weeks I can plant them into small pots and then, when the weather breaks and the garden is warm and sunny, they will be planted into the raised beds of the kitchen garden. Through the summer months I can prune and water and fertilize them, all for the eventual treat of picking and enjoying the large, robust ruby-colored fruit. It is an active memorial, an active legacy.
Bill fiercely guarded this funny, overweight tomato. I will never know why, but I can now respect it. It is tempting to hand the seeds out to friends and other growers, hoping that many gardens will contain the tomatoes ideal for making rich, thick tomato sauce. But I won’t. He wanted them private and special and personal.
My gardens will continue to have a large, long bed filled with the pepperlike plants, however, and come fall, the guests around the table here will enjoy the sauce from those tomatoes, full of the flavors of a warm summer. They may have no idea of the significance of the tomato sauce smeared across the thin pizzas, but I will. Each time someone enjoys a bit of this legacy I can smile and remember my chatty and cantankerous friend in the white painter pants.