Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Liz's Cheese Tour, Ithaca New York, Part 1

With so many guidebooks available, I’m setting out to tell the broader story of real American cheese, and I’ve got until June, 2008 to do it. Ever wonder why there are practically no producers of sheep milk cheese? Or why Vermont seems to suck in young entrepreneurial types like moths to the flame? Or why formerly desert landscapes in California have become the home of (traditionally) grass-eating cows? I do.

I love the cheese; it’s what brought me to Murray’s more than 5 years ago. But the longer I do this the more I’ve started to wonder why and how we’ve gotten to our present landscape in American cheese (and American food in general). The teeny-tiny obscure-o producers are fascinating and fun to find, but there is an entire of larger producers that support whole local dairy economies through their purchases of fluid milk that go to foundational, but less sexy cheeses, like Cheddar, Jack and Colby.

Part of writing my book is traveling to various areas and talking to producers: the big, the small and the renegade. Last weekend I was in upstate New York, zooming around the greater Ithaca area to visit a goat cheese producer (Lively Run), a sheep cheese producer (North Land Sheep Co.), and two cow folk: Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese Company and Sunset View Creamery.

I began at Susanne Messmer’s place outside of Trumansburg. Lively Run began in 1982 in Interlaken, and is one of the oldest goat cheese producers in the country. Clue number one right there. One of the oldest in the country, and it only dates to 1982. That’s a key theme, I’m finding. The American renaissance of handmade, small production cheese is fuelled by the small goat dairies that began popping up in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The culprit? Women looking to make yogurt and milk for their small children. Mainly this was women in northern California, but not always.

The land this way is beautiful, more like Maine that the Catskills I associate with “upstate” New York. It was one of those blowy days with liquid blue sky and huge, fat gray clouds rolling wavelike across the sky. Susanne’s house and barn are surrounded by flat fields of corn and stubby patches of sun-bleached wheat. Everything was bright and almost too clear to look at it, cold, clear, rattling wind. When Susanne came out of the make room her hands were sticky and damp from cheesemaking.

I was killing time while she talked to a couple from Pittsburgh, swinging through to buy some fresh chevre, and noticed four ducks with their beaks tucked under wing. It was a little offputting: they had that broken-necked look of peking ducks in Chinatown. When I wandered over and they sat up I realized I wasn’t looking some morbid lawn ornament.

Susanne and her husband Steve have bought Lively Run from the original owners, a couple named Feldman, who moved to Africa in 1995. After a 6 week crash course they began making cheese and moved Lively Run from Interlaken to its present location. In a barn built for cows, they’ve got 55 milking goats, a combination of Alpine (the mischievous ones), Nubian (the floppy-eared sweet ones) and Saanen (the generic white, bearded ones).

One of the things I’m trying to understand is: what’s wrong with New York State (in terms of cheese, I mean). Meaning…New York is the third largest milk producer in the United States. Factory cheesemaking (at its inception, in the mid 19th century), an extremely efficient and progressive thing, was invented in Herkimer and Oneida counties. There is a long, strong, and well established history of dairying in New York. Considering our size, though, there aren’t very many artisan cheesemakers. Why? And why when dairy farms are closing right and left, unable to stay in business on fluid milk production alone, are they not turning to cheesemaking to make a value-added product?

Susanne has a few thoughts. The first is actually the thought she gave me. Susanne’s German, and moved here when the Wall came down and her husband no longer needed to be in his military post. They were very committed to creating a program through which refugees could come to the U.S., learn skills and make a viable life here. This was their vision. The farm was very specifically chosen as part of this plan. Very rarely does a cheesemaker say they just fell into the business. I think it’s simply too much work to be accidental. Most of the time, people tell me that farms, or animals, or cheese was in their blood. More than a few times people have told me that they just can’t be still, they need a job that’s physical, and farming/cheesemaking fits that. Nota bene 1: you’ve got to really want to do it.

Back to Susanne, and New York. She was quick to point out that New York is a hard place to be a cheesemaker. In fact, I believe she said, “If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t do it in New York.” The 2nd highest tax rate in the country is a big part of that, but so are stricter regulations and government involvement. Over the weekend I started to see that New York’s well-established history as a milk and cheese producer on a larger scale, makes it increasingly complicated and cumbersome to operate on a smaller scale.

Add to that tradition a sizeable population of dairy farmers. And herein lies Nota bene 2: dairy farmer does not equal cheesemaker. The routine of dairying is more about farming than it is about milk. Cheesemaking, meanwhile, if it’s going to be good and successful, has to be about cheese, first and foremost. It’s got to be about gathering and holding milk to craft a product. It’s about marketing and selling that product. It’s about understanding the market enough to make a product people want, and these are all skills that many farmers couldn’t care less about. They’re happy being farmers. It’s what they like, it’s what they’re good at. Just because they have cows that produce milk doesn’t make them cheesemakers. Nota bene 3: milk does not equal cheese.

Lest you think that I took the word of a goat-milking lady with an interest in agro-tourism, I’ll have you know that I spent an afternoon with a 4th generation dairy farmer who said many of the same things, though his story includes a wife that was hellbent on expanding their business, and so there is now cheese. But that’s Sunset View Creamery, a story for another day.