Making Cheese @ Mecox Bay

the barn

I have long been a fan of Mecox Bay Dairy cheese, which I first tasted at the farmers market in Westhampton in the summertime a few years ago. Since I am (somewhat of) a food fanatic it didn’t take me long to become a regular and befriend Peter, whose father Art Ludlow runs the family farm.  (Here is a great video on YouTube of Art talking about the farm and his cheese.)

It took me a few years, however, to finally screw up my courage and ask if I could come out and help make cheese. I guess all those farmers market purchases paid off because my request was met with an affirmative.  And so it was that at 5am on the Monday after Thanksgiving I hopped into a Zipcar (a Prius – see, I am offsetting my carbon footprint!) and drove out to Bridgehampton to, if not help, at least participate in the fun.

Mecox Bay Dairy makes 5 cheeses – 6 if you count the blue cheddar as distinct from the regular cheddar:

les fromages!

  1. Atlantic Mist: a camembert style, soft cheese (also my favorite)
  2. Farmhouse Cheddar: self explanatory
  3. Blue Cheddar: the above, with some blue mold mixed in
  4. Sigit: a gruyere style cheese
  5. Shawondasee: natural rind tomme
  6. Mecox Sunrise: washed rind tomme (stinky and delicious!)

They work with all raw milk from a herd of 9 Jersey cows, whose high-fat content milk is ideal for cheese making.  Because the milk is raw (=unpasteurized), the State of New York requires that the cheeses must be aged at least 60 days.  The Atlantic Mist is best when very young (60 days or close to), but the cheddars, gruyere and tommes are often aged upwards of 6 months.

straining the curds

On Monday I helped make the cheddar, and there was also some gruyere action going on.  Upon arrival I was given a piece of sheet plastic with some string tied on it to wear as an apron.  I had been told to wear waterproof shoes and short sleeves and it was good that I had followed instructions since soon I was shoulder deep in curds and whey.  That’s right, not elbows, shoulders.  The milk for the cheddar had been sitting in a big steel vat for a few hours with the cultures and had congealed into a big white-jello like mass.  The first step was to “cut the curd” with a metal and wire contraption that made first vertical, then horizontal cuts.  And then we stuck our hands in and started mashing it up with our fingers, into as small pieces as possible.  It felt sort of like warm jelly, or maybe very loose panna cotta (which makes sense – cooked cream and solidifying milk), and occasionally we’d come across a particularly large bit that was hot inside.  I felt like a kid playing with something very messy and fun to play with.  Soon, in spite of the plastic apron I was pretty well covered in whey.

cheddar draining

Having spent an hour or two separating the curd, it was then time to pack it all back together again in the cheddaring process.  This began by scooping the curds out of the whey with a large strainer, and dumping it out onto a stainless steel counter, slightly graded to let the liquid run off into a plastic bucket.  Once all the curd was out, we let it sit a few minutes, then cut it into large blocks and flipped each one over to the opposite end of the counter.  Let sit fifteen minutes.  Repeat four or five times, then do a final dicing into 1-1.5 inch cubes with a big double-handed curved knife, salt liberally, pack into molds lined with cheese cloth, cover and stack so the curds get weighed down and pack together. For the blue cheddar, we sprinkled a bit of blue bacteria over the cubes before packing.

After about half an hour, you flip what is now starting to be a wheel of cheese, and put back in the mold.  Later that day, the wheels are removed from the molds and left on shelves in the aging room (a cool, dark, pungent, delicious place).

in the molds

I departed with a nice wheel of Atlantic Mist, some Sigit and a piece of Mecox Sunrise.  Not bad for a morning’s work!

Dinner for 6

I have been toying with the idea of taking some cooking classes, but each time I come close the price tag brings me up short.  I asked two chef friends of mine whether they thought school was worth it for someone who does not want to be a professional chef and just wants to learn more and improve.  Both gave me the same advice: skip school, spend the money on groceries and experiment at home.

So this past Saturday marked the first in what I hope will be a series of dinners during which I buy a lot of food and cook it for friends.  It ended up being a 3 day affair: Friday I went to the farmer’s market, looked up recipes, ruminated about which things to puree and which things to glaze, whether to make soup, what kind of wine to get; Saturday I cleaned, prepped, cooked and served; and Sunday I cleaned and made stock with the leftovers.

The Menu:

  • Celeriac, potato and leek soup
  • Individual roast Poussin with sage and lemon
  • Glazed carrots and parsnips
  • Brussel sprouts with pork belly lardons
  • Smoked Berkshire blue cheese & sliced Bosc pears

And we drank white Burgundy, red Burgundy and a Semillon from Argentina for dessert.

The Produce:

On Friday I went to the market at Blue Hill Stone Barns and stocked up on 6 little poussins (baby chickens), carrots, parsnips, celeriac, onions, leeks and pears.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

the goods

The next day I supplemented with Brussel sprouts from Essex Street Market, smoked blue cheese from Ann Saxelby and pork belly that I got from the Mecox Bay Dairy a few weeks ago.

For help in the kitchen I enlisted one of the aforementioned chef friends, Sam, and his Vita-Mix blender (an item now on my Christmas list).

The Soup:

I took as loose guidance a potato-leek soup recipe from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters.

Ingredients:

  • 5 medium sized Yukon Golds (or other yellow potato), peeled and sliced
  • 1 medium celeriac, peeled and sliced
  • 2 leeks, halved lengthwise and coarsely chopped
  • 3 Tbs. butter
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • a few springs of fresh thyme
  • salt & pepper
  • some pork fat
  • 1 cup white wine

la soupe

Melt the butter in a large pot, add bay leaf, thyme, salt, pepper and the leeks.  Cook for a few minutes, then add the potatoes and celeriac.  Cook a few minutes more then add 1 cup white wine (I used the bottle I was drinking, which was from Sicily).  15 or so minutes later add the chicken stock, simmering all the while.  Since we were sauteing pork belly anyway, we threw in a little pork fat along the way as well.  When the vegetables are soft, but not totally falling apart (about 30 minutes), remove from heat and blend.  With the Vita-Mix, we put in about three cups of solids and liquid at a time, pureed, then “mounted it” (technical term, seriously) by adding a bit of olive oil or pork fat (a few tablespoons).

We finished each bowl with a little drizzle of olive oil.

The Poussin:

Drawing on an Epicurious recipe, I tied up the legs of the little chickens and stuffed butter and thyme under the skin.  We then roasted them at 375° for about an hour.  They didn’t get quite as brown and crispy as I might have liked – noted for the next time round as a “development area”….

the birds, trussed and stuffed

To finish it off, Sam drizzled each one with a little “jus” (super concentrated chicken stock) on the plate.

The Veggies:

For the Brussels sprouts, we trimmed and cut them in half, then cooked them cut side down with a little bit of olive oil in a saute pan until brown and crispy.  Before dinner we tossed with some browned pork belly and stuck them in the oven for about 10 minutes.

Since the carrots where small anyway, and so fresh, I just scrubbed them down (no peeling) and cut off the tops and any scrawny bits.  Then I cut the parsnips up into batons of commensurate size.  We cooked them separately in saute pans with a bit of chicken broth, a big pat of butter, a thyme sprig and salt.  Usually, Sam said, he would cook them under a parchment paper cut out with a whole in the middle.  Since I didn’t have any parchment paper we improvised with various pot lids.  After cooking we set them aside until a few minutes before dinner when we threw some more butter and stock in a pan, emulsified it, tossed the veggies in it and put in the serving dish.

Et voilà, dinner is served:

the plate