American Made: On The Vermont Cheese Trail

There he stood, tough looking but with kind eyes a striking amber color. With the name Thunder along with his long black goatee he resembled a character out of the show Portlandia – northwest urban hip. He was just missing the required piercings and tattoos. Oh yeah, and he is a goat.

Thunder was one of the many acquaintances we made while touring Vermont and striking out on the Cheese Trail. He is the main stud at Fat Toad Farm, that magical place where they make the goat milk caramel our students swoon over at our cheese classes. This small family farm, (they have about 100 goats just next to their red cottage), also makes phenomenal fresh goat cheese. I love the one with Maple – but they only sell those locally, out of a shed they’ve turned into a tiny shop.

A goat named Jupiter, who was over with the other females, stole my heart. She nuzzled and cuddled and made me want to move from my modest Hollywood home so I could have a few goats of my own.

The Calf That Ate My Skirt

Over on the Western edge of Vermont on the banks of Lake Champlain we had the good fortune to get a private tour of Shelburne Farms, a farm and educational center set on an old Vanderbilt Estate. Set amid acres of farmland and trails butting up against the lake there is a glorious hotel with huge porches in what was once a summer home for the Vanderbilts. There are also animals, a petting zoo, a farm, classrooms, an old milking barn that hosts performances, a world-class cheese making facility and some of the cutest brown cows I’ve ever met. Cute to the point of being distracting.

So cute that while talking to the herd manager I was oblivious to the fact that this little creature with the huge brown eyes had managed to consume the majority of my long gauze skirt. I looked down and there it was in her mouth! I slowly pulled it out, like a magician with the scarves coming out of his sleeve; it just kept coming and coming. A little slime here and there but no harm to the skirt. Alison, our tour guide, said a cow had once gotten most of her jacket. They’ll eat anything. Ah, the hazards of hanging with the animals.

Vermont Sunset

The Vermont Cheese Trail had been on my to-do list for a long time. Yes, I am a nerd, as is my husband Wally. We spend many of our vacations talking to the producers of our products at Fancifull, meeting with winemakers, cheesemakers, chocolatiers and such. Traveling to the areas where our food is made gives us sense of place. We get to see the operation personally, talk to the people making the food, smell the air, pet the animals, and feel like we are part of a community.

We are very much a part of the community that celebrates American Craftsmen, while also supporting people around the world who grow food responsibly.
I feel very strongly that they are the stewards of the land. They are growing food that is healthy while also taking care of the health of the planet. They ask us almost as many questions as we ask them. What do our customers like? Is the organic label important? This is a big question because, as one farmer said, “to do that you have to let the government run part of your business.” It isn’t because these people don’t farm organically. But the cost and the rules, often inane, can make operating a small farm with limited resources difficult.

We were encouraged when a farmer in the Hudson Valley told us that more and more young people are coming back to the farm rather than going off to college and on to new careers elsewhere. And they are coming back armed with new knowledge and better practices that make farming viable again. So, whereas a decade or so ago many farms were abandoned, now you have some flourishing due to the renaissance of American food. Yes you may pay a little more for artisanal food, but when we meet these farmers and see all the work they put in, we are getting a bargain. For most of them it is a passion, not just a job. They deserve to live comfortable lives as do their animals. The food they are producing is also higher in nutrients, so this is of personal benefit to all of us.

Thunder

I will try to stay off my soapbox, which I keep handy at all times, but I do think this celebration of American Food is vital to all of our survival. Organics and sustainability makes sense for our planet at large. I often get asked, “Is this fascination with food just a trend?” I hope not. I don’t think it is a trend at all. Fifty or sixty years ago this was not “artisan” food, it was just food. Big industry came in and took over and often went for the cheapest solution, not the best. I think producers will come and go and maybe our zeal will lessen as this becomes the new normal. With any new movement there is bound to be some overdoing. We all don’t necessarily need to know where every particle of food comes from and we certainly should never be pretentious or snobby about it. The people we meet aren’t. They are hard workers who want to create great food. My theory is that once you begin to eat real food it is hard to go back to industrialized food as your main diet. The stuff that is being created by Artisans the world over is just too darn good. And I intend to keep meeting them, one by one, so I can better understand the process and help bring their food to market. That is my passion.

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Cheese Bread

Wally and Terry in Italy


If there is just one thing I love about my husband (and there are many) it is his attention to detail. This trait of his is one reason he is known for his Cheese Bread. He’s made it ever since I’ve known him. Even when on the road with his band in the 70s, Wally had an electric skillet in the bus so he could make it.

Yes it is simple, but the taste is in the details. He toasts the bread (sourdough) just so, fits the cheese like a tile layer putting together a mosaic, then the salt… I’ll let him give you the full rundown, if he will indulge.

If every chef has their star dish, this would be Wally’s. It has been his staple for breakfast for many a year. Our kids grew up on it. Today I watched him as he grabbed the Point Reyes Toma, like an artist with new paint. “Ahhh…Toma and my fresh tomatoes….”

Cheese Bread. I like the fact that it still excites him after more than 35 years of making it.

But that is another thing I love about him…

Wally: How I Do It.

Ah, so much hoopla about so little.
The first and most important thing is to start with good ingredients.

Bread: No light, airy, squishy breads, please. I generally like a good sourdough although a bit of the fig bread from the Breadbar is also a wonderful choice.
(The Fig Bread is also available at Fancifull and is finding its way into many of our gift baskets.)

A good cheese: Almost any kind of cheese works – but nothing pre-sliced! Cheddar, Brie, Goat Cheese – and today’s choice Toma, are all great.

Options: Fresh tomatoes from your garden are a great addition. Fresh herbs if you like. Slices of hard boiled egg would be great, too.

Toma Cheese Bread


1) Slice the cheese thinly – 1/8th inch. Could be grated but it’s easier to use slices.
2) Slice the tomatoes, chop the herbs and have ready any other ingredients you might want.
Tomatoes need to be at room temperature. (They should never be refrigerated anyway.)
3) Turn on the broiler or toaster oven to 400 degrees.
4) Toast the bread lightly in a toaster. For a richer version you can pan fry the bread in butter lightly on each side. Mmmmmm… Today I just used the toaster.
5) Lay out the cheese slices on the bread. I try not to leave any gaps. Don’t let the cheese hang over the edge – it will melt off and fall into the oven. Cover the bread
completely with the cheese.
6) Place the bred in the oven – you can put it on a piece of foil to catch drippings.
7) Let broil for 2 – 4 minutes. Time will vary depending on the type of cheese! Watch it. When it’s melting over the entire surface it’s ready.
8) Pull the rack out and add the tomatoes.
9) continue to broil for up to 1 minute.
10) Add fresh basil if desired. A pinch of salt if desired.
11) Enjoy the aroma while the cheese cools enough to eat!

You remembered to make your tea or espresso, right?

By the way, it was delicious! And my tomatoes this year are absolutely mahvelous.

Quit Wining and Enjoy Life

I’ve been on forums and read many a discussion regarding fine wine and “cheap” wine. One recent discussion revolved around what is the lowest cost wine you are willing to drink if you have a fine palate.
It is funny, because even though I sell wine for a living and have tasted thousands of wines from all regions of the world, I am intent on not becoming a wine snob. As I read about the pain people go through drinking “lesser” wines it made me think. I certainly love a good white burgundy, which is rarely a bargain, but I’ve also had $10 bottles of wine that are fine. I have no desire to go through life wearing blinders, closing myself off to whole categories of things and people. Here is what I realized: traveling is what can really make the difference in your palate and sensibility.

Our Wine Garden In UmbriaRecently, in Umbria, we bought many a bottle of local red wine at under 7 euro a bottle, some as little as 3 euro. When you are sitting on a porch in the hills, looking over Lake Trasimeno surrounded by herbs and olive trees, eating wild boar salami, peccorino cheese, focaccia and the like this wine is fine. I can’t imagine lamenting the quality of the wine – and some were better than others, and noted for the next trip to the store. It opens my taste buds to a greater variety of wines and food when I get home as well as how to enjoy them. This “far niente” is contagious. I grab a bottle of red, create a cheese plate and sit in my backyard with friends and enjoy the day, bringing a bit of Italy to them. For my formal Christmas dinner with prime rib I may opt for a better Bordeaux or perhaps a burgundy, it just seems to go with that particular flow and meal. Pairing food, wine, and atmosphere is one of my passions, so I indulge at every opportunity.

The impact traveling has had on our relationship with food and life is significant. I am thankful that it has taught me to relax and enjoy what is in front of us and take it as a whole rather than pick it apart. While attending a seminar on Italian wines I heard a famous restaurateur speak who had a wine cellar of tremendous renown. Tasting a simple wine from Sicily, he explained its virtues: it was a well made wine yet you don’t expect too much from it but it would be great with Pizza Margherita. He said it isn’t a “meditation wine,” meaning one of those big complex wines that you sip in front of a fire and marvel at the depth and textures in the wine – and possibly your life.
Isn’t that true of so many things we enjoy? There are movies you see to just relax and laugh and those that shift your viewpoints, books to read on the beach and those that require more time and attention, art that is playful and that which has a message to impart. Wine is no different. You still want well-made wine with balance and a degree of complexity, just as when I read a light book I still want good story telling.

The secret is to always find the good in life, relax and drink it in.

Fancy Food Show 2010

Attending the Fancy Food Show in New York is not for the weak of mind, heart or stomach. It fills a cavernous 675,000 sq ft jammed with over 180,000 products from 2500 exhibitors representing 81 countries. Whew! You have 3 days to explore and find the lucky ones that will make it back to your shop. You either want to run out screaming or sigh and take a toothpick and start tasting, regretting those reservations you made for dinner because, let’s face it, you won’t be hungry for hours after the convention floor closes.

Exhausting as it is, I do get the chance to meet vendors, see new product and compare products through tasting. This is a godsend when trying to determine which is good enough to make it onto the shelves of Fancifull or be designed into one of our gift baskets. I once was sold on a cherry in liquer that had good packaging. Two rows over there was another manufacturer, with a simple label, but oh my, they were so much better. There was no contest.

I really am a bit crazy about tasting and finding the best. I found a fantastic cheese from Utah that is rubbed with espersso beans giving it a slightly sharp flavor that melts as you hit the more mellow cheese. Next booth over was the guy from Colorado who made wild boar sausage better than what I ate recently in Italy. Sampling, comparing and talking gives me an opportunity to get to the heart and soul of the food, rather than buying due to convenience, marketing or a glitzy package.

The number of artisan producers who had booths at the show surprised and thrilled me. This is an industry ruled by the big boys, who mass produce with often more care to the bottom line than the quality of the product. (I do have to say there are some big companies who do it right, I don’t want to slight them or anyone making a great tasting product). I am proud of the number of American Craftsmen out there who are creating cheese as good if not better than Europe and the chocolate makers sourcing fair and good chocolate as well as the many women I met starting their own baking companies. The good ones really stand out – small doesn’t always mean better which is why tasting the product is an imperitive. Their passion and dedication is contagious and I can’t wait to share their products with you. I delight in introducing you to new artisans and delicious food, it is a mission with me, and one which we can all savor.

Everything is Butterful…

Vermont ButterI look at the shopping list for the dinner I am preparing for friends and see butter scribbled just under bread and above asparagus. Simple enough, go to the dairy section and grab a pound. Ah yes, for the uninitiated that may be fine. But I have a good crusty bread in my cart and would love the Vermont butter with coarse salt that comes in this cute wooden basket with blue gingham paper. I will be reducing a sauce with butter for the fish so I have to think, what do I want that flavor to be? I hate to admit this, but I love butter. I don’t dream of it, or think about it all the time, just when I need to cook with it, or when I walk by the refrigerator section of a grocery store , or am traveling to a country that specializes in dairy, or am eating toast, or …there are so many times to think about butter. Some people can’t pass by a shoe shop for danger of being lured in by footwear. My obsession is butter.

I blame England for my addiction. Okay, it isn’t completely responsible. I do remember sitting at a holiday meal with my sister-in-law – long before English butter entered my life – loading our baked potatoes with pats from the silver dish and laughing that the potato was just a delivery vehicle for the butter. It is something I’ve enjoyed since I was a child, when we had “real butter” on Sunday and margarine during the week. Living on my own meant “real butter” daily.

But it was mid 1990’s, while vacationing in the Lakes District of England that I first ate farm fresh butter. We sat around the kitchen table of our little cottage, eating the scones we had picked up that morning. I remember biting into it and the flavor jumping out at me. It was so light yet had so much flavor, not just fattiness, it was like eating fresh cream only better. I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is the country known for shortbread ,which is just butter held together with some flour and sugar. My favorite cookie.

We slathered butter on everything we ate in England and Scotland. When we returned home, the poor American butter felt inadequate and we’d sit at the dinner table and sigh over the English version. But we got on with our lives and the British butter became a faded memory.

Come the year 2000 we made a trip to France. We bought some butter at a local farmers’ market and as we were biting into the baguette laden with it, my daughter and I both looked at each other and exclaimed, “Oh my God, the butter.” Yes French butter was just as good, sometimes better, than the English.

Jean Yves Bordier Butter

Jean Yves Bordier Offering Butter

It has everything to with where and what the cows are fed as well as the hand of the producer. I read about the famous Brittany butter maker Jean Yves Bordier. When asked why his butter is so good he said, “I haven’t invented anything new, I use old methods that respect the land, the animals, and tradition.” That respect is what makes his cow’s milk churn into such a creamy delight.

I was now on a mission to learn more. When I went to the Fancy Food shows trade shows for people in the gourmet industry, I found myself in the dairy aisles talking to the artisan butter makers. This is how I found the stuff not carried in the big chain stores: Vermont Butter and Cheese company , Sierra Nevada, and Meyenberg Goat Butter. I learned about cultured butter (the cream is slightly fermented adding depth of flavor) more popular in Europe, and sweet cream butter (made with pasteurized milk).

One day I was waiting in the checkout line at my local grocery store and there was Saveur Magazine with a whole issue devoted to butter. I had hit the mother load. I bought several copies, certain that everyone would want to enrich their knowledge of this golden goodness. Isn’t it funny that when you are intensely interested in something you assume everyone shares your enthusiasm?

An article in the magazine lead to me to Restaurant Jean in Paris. They serve the Brodier butter from Brittany. I had to try it. Yes it was worth the trip. I was in a local French market and noticed their huge assortment of butter from around the world. I filled my basket with Anchor from New Zealand, Pamplie from the French Coast and at least thirty dollars worth of other butters from all parts of the globe. Oh the decadence, the joy of being able to sample such an array all in one sitting.

French ButterMaybe it isn’t just the butter that captivates me. It is the fascination of where products come from, how they are made, what makes each different, much to the boredom of my friends sometimes. I don’t want to eat something just because it is touted by the latest gourmet magazine or blog. I need to see for myself, form my own opinion. My shop feeds this obsession by allowing me to taste five different english toffees before deciding which I’ll carry. Recently we opened four different bags of potato chips to determine which had the best potato flavor. Today I listened to the man behind the counter at Canter’s Deli as he explained how to reheat the pastrami I had just bought to bring out the best flavor. It is the pride he had in his pastrami that delighted me. Artisan product is crafted by someone who wants to bring out the best in the material he is working with, whether that be stone, fabric, or cream.

It comes down to the search for truth in every aspect of life; my true passion. They say curiosity killed the cat. It won’t kill me, but it certainly contributes to the fifteen pounds I chronically want to lose.

Kitchen Meditation

About to hit the frying pan

Down comes the knife, it glides seamlessly through the fennel. First I cut it lengthwise, along the green veins; four long slices, then I hold that together as I cut along the width, making nice small bites. The 8 inch chef’s knife I am using, one of the few possessions I care for lovingly, was picked up after a knife skills class at Sur La Table. The teacher emphasized the need for a good one, that it was a personal decision, it had to feel good in your hand. Mine fits me perfectly. I can’t wait to get into the kitchen and start slicing.
I hear the leeks sizzling on the stove, and Etta James wailing At Last as the orchestral strings swell in the background. I feel all the worries of the morning slip away as I cut nice even squares of fennel. I breathe deeply, sway a bit to the blues coming from the cd, and concentrate on making small uniform pieces. This is where I relax, in the kitchen. A few minutes earlier I was thinking, thinking, thinking – making arrangements to meet my sister in Italy, who will get over to help grandma with her lunch, organizing the fundraiser at my shop tonight, which flight do I put Rene on, I need to make hotel reservations for New York , oh I forgot to answer Gary’s email, a client is coming at 9 am, can Wally handle it or should I be there…and so on and so on and so on.
But now I have asparagus on the counter behind me and it needs tending . I add a little lavender salt to the mixture of leeks, fennel , celery and garlic I have in my treasured oval copper skillet that used to be my mom’s. I remember the day in the early seventies when we were at the store buying it, another one for her collection of Revereware. She loved looking through the catalog to decide which would be next, hung them on the wall of the kitchen, but rarely used them. “I don’t want to get them dirty,” she would explain. As a teenager I used them as a mirror, loving the copper tone they gave my skin. I’d put my hair in braids and pretend I was Native American, vogue in the mid seventies – this was the era of Cher and songs like Half-Breed. It is the skillet I use the most, partially as a connection to my mom.
The music has shifted to the funkier horns of Tell Mama and I pick up my dance moves as I watch the spinach curl up as it hits the heat. Luckily I am alone so I can do all the very jive dance moves I want – that is part of the therapy. My IPod has playlists for most of life’s activities including cooking. Sometimes it is the jazz/blues styling of Ella and Etta, but then Dean Martin is always a good cooking companion. My guilty pleasure is pure 80s with Footloose, Kung Foo Fighting and some Wham thrown in. That’s when my dancing is at its best – sliding across the floor, hands in the air, maybe a twirl or two.
I know some people unwind in a bath, candles lit with a glass of wine, or maybe a good massage. My sister loves the sense of running, running away from her house and all the responsibilities therein. But for me, it is the rhythmic chopping of vegetables, Wusthof knife in hand, with my favorite music playing. Give me a counter full of washed vegetables and a good knife and my blood pressure drops.
I look at the pan admiring the comingling of the different shades of green and add in chopped tomatoes. The bright red just pops. I sigh, both for the visual appeal and how good this is going to taste. Food for the body and the soul.