At the end of March, Jeremy Stephenson, head cheesemaker at Spring Brook Farm in Vermont, visited our Cambridge shop. He led a staff tasting on the Friday evening, sampled out to customers on Saturday and, along with several other amazing domestic cheese and beer producers, taught a class that afternoon. It was a busy weekend!
The Friday evening tasting was attended by staff members from all areas of the shop. We tasted Spring Brook Farm’s Reading and Tarentaise – the latter at four different ages. Three of the wheels were from February, 2011 and the last wheel we tasted was a “Reserve” wheel, about 2 years old.
Jeremy kicked things off by giving us a bit of background on the farm. Turns out, it began as an initiative for the Farms for City Kids Foundation. The farm serves as an outdoor learning space for children living in an urban environment. Through group tasks – such as caring for the farm animals, planting and maintaining a vegetable garden and making maple syrup – students develop their ability to work as a team. Ranging between the ages of 8 and 12, the children typically stay on the farm for about a week at a time.
The cheesemaking operations at Spring Brook came a bit later but were also designed with education in mind and were launched in collaboration with Thistle Hill Farm. The cheese house, built in 2008, has a glassed-in viewing area so the students can watch the cheesemakers at work. The equipment was imported from France and included copper vats, much like those used to make Parmigiano Reggiano (as a side note, before becoming a cheesemaker, Jeremy imported parm, making this seem somehow especially appropriate!). Last year, the farm produced about 80,000 pounds of Tarentaise and 20,000 pounds of Reading.
Spring Brook is home to more than 100 Jersey cows and roughly 40 of them are milked. Jerseys produce great cheesemaking milk – it has a higher fat content, usually about 4-6% as compared to, for example, Holstein milk which usually rings in at roughly 3-3.25% fat.
Reading and Tarentaise are made with raw milk, inspired by traditional cheeses of the French Alps. Indeed, the cheesemaking operations at Spring Brook have a very strong French influence – a French cheesemaker was consulted both on the construction of the cheese house and on the cheesemaking itself. He continues to visit each year, to help nurture the Spring Brook program. Jeremy said he was shortly expected at the farm for his 2012 visit.
At the staff tasting, we started with the youngest Tarentaise and worked our way up in age. The first two samples were only a day apart in terms of production, with the third being a mere 10 days older. The fourth, as mentioned above, was a two-year-old wheel. Tarentaise is a washed-rind, cooked curd cheese and is generally aged between 5-12 months.
Staffers remarked on the variation in flavors, even between the cheeses produced in the same month. This isn’t terribly surprising when sampling a raw milk cheese – since the good bacteria in the milk is not killed off by pasteurization, unique flavors, specific to what the cows had been eating before they were milked, are more likely to present themselves. This is why it is a good idea to taste all of your cheese before you buy it, particularly if it is made with raw milk – each wheel of cheese can be a little different from its fellows and tasting helps to make sure that the cheese still falls within your “love it!” parameters. When Jeremy asked what we thought of the cheese, comments that were heard, included: “a lot like Comté,” “tastes like toast or bread,” “nutty,” “delicious,” “spicy finish on the Reserve” and “horseradishy.”
We also tasted the farm’s Reading – a cheese not too dissimilar from Raclette. Aged about 4-4½ months, this cheese is more pliant than Tarentaise, to some extent a function of its youth (cheeses of this type lose moisture as they age and tend to harden as a result). Very buttery and a little milder than Tarentaise, this cheese is a great melter and is ideal for mac and cheese.
After taking questions from staff members, Jeremy shared some of his favorite pairings with Spring Brook cheeses: Belgian beers, Cabernet Franc based wines and white wines. He also told us about a delicious fondue he had made, combining Reading and Tarentaise. We’re certainly game to try it!
A big thank you to Jeremy for making the trek from Vermont and sharing his cheesemaking expertise with us!