Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Place of Shelter

the Little Flower Farm-Stand
Life during the Covid-19 pandemic has been like living in a science fiction novel. Walking into the grocery store this past Saturday, and seeing more people with face masks than without, greeting the clerk from behind plexi glass, and coming home (once again) with no toilet paper, it was hard to avoid thoughts of the apocalypse, and a not to distant future filled with robot employees and virtual workplaces, a society with very little personal interaction.

Some people have met the crisis binge watching their favorite BBC melodramas. Some have carted off cases of Guiness from the liquor store. One guy in the St. Croix river valley who shall remain nameless filled his grocery cart with the entire Cub Foods stock of Yoplait yogurt cups.

 Our family has geared up for the future by reinvesting in the old- fashioned ways of living.

 After another 40 minute commute to Cost-co in the midst of all this madness, only to find their meat section had disappeared, my husband and I bought a Jersey cow.

“A what?” the grocery clerk asked me, face blank, and fingers paused mid-air over the keypad.

“A Jersey cow.”

“What’s that?”

“ You know, a cow! A real cow! So I can make my own butter and icecream, and cheese. A cow.”

Once she realized I was not talking about some product called “Jersey Cow” which was the go-to item of the Corona Virus season, but a living breathing bovine- the kind we all remember from our kindergarten picture books, she chuckled.

“Well, if you got the land for it, why not!”
Guarding against Frost

Which is exactly what we were thinking, looking at our 6 acre farm. A good portion of it went to burdock last season. I have since learned that all parts of the Burdock plant are medicinal. So I’ve made some peace with the stuff. But after days of pulling it out of our pasture and pausing only to disentangle burrs from our hair, boots, jackets, gloves, eyebrows, and one year old baby, we were ready to consider ruminants.

Two steers to make meat for us and our neighbors (and save us runs to Cost-co.), and a cow to give us milk, butter, cheese, whipping cream, ice cream, and a calf to boot. That sounded like a pro-active way to respond to “Shelter in Place”. While we reaped all those delicious rewards, they would be fertilizing our fields and keeping the burdock at bay.

Marigold gives birth to "Boots" and "Dame Judi Dench"
Buttercup arrived the week after my three dairy goats kidded. Each morning I would milk the goats, while my husband sat around the kitchen table with our 3 year old and resident baby, and then we’d switch so he could milk the cow. By the 4th day after her arrival I was awash in milk. Milk filling my fridge in half-gallon jars. Milk cooling in the freezer, milk down my pants and into my boots when one of my goats got saucy and kicked the bucket. I was dreaming about milk even. One night’s dreamscape finale included swimming around with Esther Williams in a giant milking pail beneath a suspended wheel of cheddar.

Anxiety was heightened because I was waiting for a shipment of freeze-dried cultures to inoculate my milk with, and start using my milk for cheese. Until it arrived I felt my hands were tied. On the plus side, the hens were laying more, as I poured surplus into their scrap bucket. The barn cats were sleek and lazy, their bellies filled with the high butterfat Jersey milk. 

Eventually, with the help of a man named David Asher I was rescued by the very thing that was overwhelming me: the milk itself!

David Asher
David Asher is a goat and veggie farmer like myself, and always thought it was strange there wasn’t more buzz surrounding natural cheesemaking- using bacterial cultures you start with your own milk on your counter- top. After all, the sourdough bread revolution has caught on, and the principles are the same. Milk was made to ferment. All the bacteria necessary for cheesemaking can by sourced from its milk! It was Asher’s book “The Art of Natural Cheesemaking” and his “Black Sheep School of Cheesemaking” that inspired me to get started with Jersey milk cheese without the use of boughten freeze-dried starter cultures. I clabbered a quart of milk in a jar on the counter, marveling at how long it took for my raw milk to congeal. It still smelled sweet after 2 days out on the counter. When it became a yogurt like mass I hung it from a bungie cord in a loose-weave cotton cloth and let it’s whey drip for 3 days. I opened it up and worked some kosher salt into it with a spoon before hanging it again for an additional half of a day. The result? A lovely cream-cheese like addition to our family breakfast, lunch, and dinner table. That cheese, so simple, is a” gateway cheese”. It can be enjoyed fresh, or aged to become a blue cheese or a white rinded cheese, depending on it’s treatment during the aging process.
Making Hard Cheese for Aging and Fresh Chevre

One remarkable thing about the Covid-19 pandemic is that it has found us all sympathetically suffering many of the same things around the whole world. Less socialization, more isolation, a change to our normal routines…we are united with so many around the whole world in these new privations. 

But for me, I found that the positive activity of making cheese like this has also given me a feeling of solidarity with much of the world that I didn’t have before. It’s easy to forget that not everyone in the world can just haul off and got to the store for cream cheese or crème fraiche if their recipes  (or tastebuds) call for it! Straining yogurt like cheeses through cloth is how most of the cheese in the world is made and has been made for centuries. 

“Shelter-in-Place” has made us rethink what both shelter and place really mean. We have found richer meaning in both words, since all this began.
Early Spring Brassica Planting