This past summer, I had the opportunity to assist with cheesemaking at Jasper Hill Farm. One of my favorite cheeses made by the team in Greensboro, VT is called Harbison, a fairly recent addition to the line-up but no less spectacular than their other cheeses.
Harbison is made from pasteurized cow milk and is named after Anne Harbison, considered by many to be the grandmother of Greensboro. It is a soft-ripened cheese with a pudding-like texture and irresistible flavors that include sweet cream and berries when younger, growing stronger and more mushroomy with age. Taking a card from the classic European cheese, Vacherin Mont d’Or, Harbison is wrapped with bark harvested from spruce trees that populate the woodlands surrounding the farm. In particular, the cheesemakers use spruce cambium. Cambium is the soft tissue growing between a tree’s bark and wood – something like a softer, second layer of bark.
During my stay in Greensboro, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to make Harbison with expert Jasper Hill cheesemakers, Calista and Evan. One of the key things I learned while helping out: making cheese has a set rhythm to it – a rhythm determined by the milk itself. Cheesemakers monitor the changing acidity, and adjust the pace of their day according to how the milk is reacting.
Cheesemaking vats are made from a heavy grade white plastic. They are freestanding units with wheels, making them easy to maneuver. To make Harbison, the vats are lined up in two rows, as the space dictates. After the milk has been pasteurized, it is directed into 8 vats (maybe 7 depending on how much milk there is) and then, the cheesemaking begins.
The first step is to add a bacterial culture to the milk. The culture plays a major role in determining the flavor of a cheese. The next step is to add rennet. Harbison is made with traditional rennet which comes from the lining of a calf’s stomach. Once rennet is added, the cheesemaker has to wait until the cheese reaches “flocculation” or, in other words, has started to set. This process takes about 40 minutes. Then, it is time for the dance to begin!
First, Calista cut the curd using a long metal tool. Then, there was a pause to let the curd rest. The next step involved using a perfectly shaped mesh screen that cut the curd into 1-inch pieces – the first pass was made moving front to back and then, the second, moving left to right, so that the end result was uniform, 1-inch cubes of soft, delicate curd with the texture of jello.
This process is repeated on all bins, but in an overlapping pattern and timed to allow the curds to rest as needed. This is what made it seem like a well-timed, well-paced and rather beautiful dance. Calista slowly moved from vat to vat – first, using the mesh tool moving front to back. Then, in her second pass, she went from side to side, allowing each batch of curds to rest before moving the operation along.
Once all of the bins were ready, Evan and I rolled them over to where they were to be lifted so the curds could be poured into cheese molds (set up while we were waiting for the curd to be cut). As Evan cranks the lever to lift and dump the vat of curd, Calista gets in position to mold the cheese. The vat is tilted and the warm curd comes rushing out. Calista molds quickly and evenly. This team effort is repeated with each of the eight vats.
The next day the cheeses are removed from their molds, soaked in a brine solution and “barked.” While the cheeses are soaking, the cambium strips are boiled – to soften and sanitize them. The room that the cheeses are barked in is steamy and smells like a sauna. The cheeses are brought in and, one-by-one, wrapped snugly with a soft, pliable strip of spruce cambium, held in place by a rubber band. The cheeses are then stacked on metal racks, ready to be sent over to the Cellars for aging.
Harbison is aged at the Cellars for five weeks. In that time, each wheel is flipped regularly and patted delicately, nurturing a fuzzy white mold that is encouraged to develop evenly on the rind.
Once Harbison has finished aging, many wheels make the journey to our shops in Boston, Cambridge and New York and from us, finally, to cheese-loving homes! Stop by and give Harbison try, we’re sure you’ll be able to see why this cheese won 2nd place in the “Soft-Ripened Cow Milk Cheese” category at the American Cheese Society Conference and Competition this past August in Raleigh — and, of course, why it has so quickly become a staff favorite!
For a video of the Harbison cheesemaking process, please click here.
Sarah Spira is the domestic cheese buyer and a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen South End.