April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs from the dead earth, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
T.S. Eliot wrote that opener to The Waste Land when he was having a nervous breakdown. Perhaps the onset of this celebrated season, classically employed as a figure of hope and rebirth, was unbearable in the actuality of his despair. The typically saccharine, floral images are reworked to reflect instead the springtime of his troubled psyche. Eliot might have experienced emotional limbo, haunted by a past abandoned and fraught over the inevitability of his undoing. Or maybe he was just having trouble finding a good sheep’s milk cheese. That’s what’s been eating me lately. I’ve been trying to hold down the last few wheels of 2007’s Vermont Shepherd from cave pillagers – the famed Vermontian reinvention of the classic French Ossau Iraty. A few valued restaurant clients still boast it on menus, audacious enough to defy a plain law of nature: lambing season.
May was in like a lion, and out like a hurricane of baby sheep careening down wooly birth canals faster than farmers can keep up with. Due to the finicky way ewes breed they are all on the same cycle – which means that for the next month or so greedy little lambs will be monopolizing our milk supply in the northeast. It follows that well aged cheeses won’t be made, cured, and ready for eating until August at least. By the time they are extra-aged with bigger, nuttier flavors – about a year from now – they are all but sold out after the holiday drain.
If you’d like to finger blame, please look past the sap responsible for sourcing your farmstead picks, and focus instead on Mother Nature’s convention of short-day breeding. While humans and cows follow a lunar cycle of fertility, a ewe’s inner Gaia revolves around the solstice. I think it has something to do with serotonin levels and pituitary glands, but the basic result is that all sheep in our longitudinal neck of the woods can only breed during the shortest days of the year. Here lies some of the pain and the beauty of cheese seasonality.
What to expect – if you’re looking for ewe’s milk cheese in the spring – Keep your eye out for the younger styles like Willow Hill’s camembert types, which show up in late spring or early summer. Larger productions with more aged varieties, especially in Europe, can guarantee availability all year round – go with Ossau Iraty from the Pyrenees if you have a hankering that can’t wait until fall.
Goats are similarly inspired when days begin to shorten. In natural nature this serves to spare newborn kids from harsh midwinter conditions. However, goats are more easily fooled by urbane tricks of husbandry like the rigged lighting used to mimic long summer days, and central heating. Also, the most popular goat cheeses we carry are the younger variety, so seasonal consequences are more immediate and predictable. Supply issues are easily mitigated because the ‘lightly-aged’ niche is pretty well saturated within the artisan market. Fresh chevre also freezes exceptionally well compared to all other cheese types, so that really helps to bolster our late winter stash.
What to expect – from the goats at this time of year: Blue Ledge farm’s Crottina, a little bloomy cheese is aged for only a few weeks, so they’ll be ready and for sale here in April. Also – Mozzarella Company’s Hoja Santa is double seasonal because of the fresh chevre involved as well as the hand-picked Hoja Santa leaves, which are harvested in the spring and used as an aromatic wrapping. All of our little goats will improve at the grass becomes greener and they spend more time outside – this is especially true of the texture and flavor of cheeses made from frozen milk in the winter.
Cows, as I mentioned, need little more than some frozen stock and a latex arm sheath to get the ball rolling. Most bovine dairy farmers use this flexibility to keep their herd on continual rotation for a more consistent milk supply. But this does not exempt them from seasonal fluctuations in milk composition, quality and supply.
One of the most impressive reflections after a year in the cheese biz is how noticeable these changes truly are between seasons, months, and even from batch to batch. How our affections shift as a pretty good cheese starts ‘hitting super-hard’ or another looses that special je ne sais quoi.
But what accounts for these fluctuations, besides our snobbery – I mean… connoisseurship? ‘Tell me what you eat, cow, and I’ll tell you what your cheese is like’. It makes a big difference. When a cow, goat, or sheep is grazing on pasture they are fulfilling their evolutionary destiny. In fact, people started keeping these ruminants, or four-bellied lawn mowers, to take advantage of that abundant green resource, which we can’t digest ourselves. Seasonal and annual fluctuations in weather affect the nutritional content of grass and other grazed plants. The diversity and type of browse also lends aromas and subtle flavors, which are proven to translate into the milk, probably by piggybacking fat globules.
Where an animal is in terms of her gestation cycle, physical activity and nutrition causes drastic changes in the levels of fats, proteins, sugars, minerals, microbes, and aromas that can be measured in the milk. In winter the cows are more sedentary and are probably getting dried hay or supplemental grain to make up for grass shortages. Also, cows give richer milk just before they are given a 2 month rest from milking – which is often mid-winter. This results in a fattier winter cheese, often with a rich and creamy texture.
When grazing animals are in their tawny summer mode the milk is leaner of fat and protein but higher in sugars and volatile aroma compounds – so the cheese may be a little less unctuous but surprisingly more complex, floral, and flavorful. For most cheese types, ‘summer milk’ and ‘grass-fed’ are the hot-button terms.
Why then, does Classic-Sharp-White from the grocery always look and taste exactly the same? Measures have been taken to ease your suffering and stifle your joy. Very 1984. The cows behind that milk probably live inside and eat cereal all day, all year round. The milk never picks up that pretty buttery yellow color, which comes from the beta carotene involved in a pastured diet. Don’t confuse this with that lovely cheddar-orange color, which would be annatto- a flavorless vegetable-based dye. (And don’t worry, goats convert all that beta carotene into vitamin A, so their cheese will always be milky white, even when pastured. Sheep’s milk cheeses are usually off-cream colored no matter what.) It goes without saying that commercial milk never gets those volatile aromas from a varied, seasonally-evolving diet either.
The last key difference is breed. The indoor uber-yeilding cows are the iconic black and white spotted Holsteins that have come to symbolize dairying in the US. They are prized for giving lots of clean tasting milk on a diet of just about anything. Well, that’s not exactly true; the breed has been selected to grow so fast and give so much milk that for most of the year they need supplemental grain; grass alone is not enough to fuel these SUV’s of the bovine world.
Other ‘heritage’ breed cows are more traditional and, around here, typically include Brown Swiss, Jersey, Guernsey, or Ayrshire. These varieties tend to give less milk, but richer, more flavorful and colorful milk. They can subsist on pasture and hay in ideal conditions just fine. If you don’t believe me try and find a pint of Evan’s Farmhouse milk. And buy the whole milk too – its way more delicious, and the only way your body can absorb all the vitamins, minerals and calcium which are naturally packed into this luxury-grade product.
What to expect - from the larger cud-chewing contingent in April – Expect shortages from smaller producers who practice total seasonality (see the must-eat below) or even those who keep the herd on seasonal rotation. Jasper Hill Farm up in VT has a small herd of Ayreshires whose total number of milkers fluctuates from 30 - 46, with the lull at the start of each year. We’ve been tragically low for a few weeks now, but bigger batches are underway in newly expanded aging caves and supply should be back to normal by May.
So celebrate, with T.S. and me, the ups and downs of life. The tribulations that make humans human, and sheeps sheep… In the dead of winter when fresh-mown grass is a wistful memory you can take solace in the nurtured fruit of that happy season with a well aged cheese. But now, that too is a fading memory. A warm day here or there beckons pre-emptive jean shorts wearing only to leave us with exposed knees on a drafty subway platform. And summer’s intense grass-fed offerings are still weeks or months away. Our appetites for spring are sharpened after catching a whiff and chasing a wakeful dream. April – you devil you.
Go Big or Go Home Reading Assignment: The ‘Cheese by Hand’ project website: http://cheesebyhand.com. Check out interviews and farm visits with artisans across the country. See why seasonality affects more than just a cheese-maker’s wardrobe.
Cheese You Must Seek Out and Devour: Meadow Creek Dairy’s Grayson. I know last month was also washed-wonder from the East Coast, but here’s a fun activity: Hurry up and buy a hunk of Grayson right now. Then, grab another hunk of Grayson when it comes back in season this summer. The entire small herd of Jersey cows took a break from milking, as per tradition and inclination, early this year. The cheese is aged around 60 days – so that means we’re getting our last batch from last season this week! The herd of ladies are on the same page so that all of the associated tasks surrounding their breeding are consolidated and happening at the same time. Also – the more southern climate (Galax, VA) means that grass is available for 10 months of the year – so their recommended two month dry spell is timed perfectly with the absence of greens! That way, only the best milk is used for cheese, and it shows. The crew just started making again this week so it won’t be ready until June. Take notes both times and compare. Then do it again in August, and then October and…