Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bobolink Dairy

Smack dab on the New Jersey-New York border lies Bobolink Dairy, run by Jonathan and Nina White. Ever since I heard about the great things that they are doing there, I've wanted to visit. Last month, on our way back from the roaster’s retreat in Connecticut, I finally had my chance since it wasn’t too far out of the way. After turning off the NY State Thruway, we drove down progressively narrower roads until we found ourselves in front of a non-assuming farmhouse. There were a few other cars already there and the small cheese shop was quite busy; remarkable considering how out-of-the-way it is. After everyone else made their purchases, I asked for a sample of the "funkiest cheese they had." I was rewarded with a slice of "Drumm," a cheese made from the milk of the very cows standing in a pasture not 50 feet away from me. Now, how's about that for local? Drumm is a firm cheese with a natural, rustic rind and a very complex, bold flavor. It's a testament to their cheesemaking talents that they were the first American dairy in over 100 years to export cheese to Europe. All of their cheese is made with raw, unpasteurized milk and the cows are allowed to be cows. That means they graze on grass, as they should, and they aren't given hormones to increase milk production. As a result, the Bobolink cows only need to be milked once daily, as opposed to twice, which is the norm for industrial, confinement-based dairy cows. What they sacrifice in quantity though, they gain back in quality. Because the cows graze on seasonal grasses and because cheese is only produced from April to November, the flavor of the grass comes through. That doesn't happen with feedlot cows, which eat silage (semi-fermented, chopped cornstalks) and a lot of grain. You know the TV ad about happy cows? Well, I don't know if it's possible for a cow to be happy, but if it is, Jonathan's are.

After the cheese shop closed for the day, we had a chance to chat with Nina for a few minutes and she showed us the wood-fired brick oven where they bake bread for the market. It's a massive thing, made with over 10 tons of masonry, and so well insulated that the thermometer still read 577 degrees even though it hadn't been fired up since the morning, over 12 hours before. It's too bad that we weren't there earlier in the day. I would've liked to learn about baking. Maybe I can do it some other time, since they routinely hold workshops and seminars for aspiring breadmakers at their farm.

Their dedication to traditional methods hasn't gone unnoticed. They've been featured in Gourmet magazine and last May, more than 50 delegates to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development visited Bobolink Dairy as well as other farms in the New York City region that exemplify successful examples of urban-rural partnerships in sustainable agriculture. Tony Bourdain also shot a segment of his food and travel show, "No Reservations" there, where they made a yummy-looking cheese and egg pizza for breakfast.

There was so much more that we wanted to see, but since it was getting late and we had a lot of road ahead yet, we had to get going, but not before loading up the cooler with cheese, bread, and ground beef from the farm store. If you're interested in traditional farming and are ever in the area, you owe it to yourself to stop by for a visit.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


A friend who was passing through Dubai was kind enough to buy me this little coffee set. The brass thing with the handle is called an "Ibrik" and it's used in the traditional preparation of coffee in that corner of the world. Basically, the coffee is ground extremely fine (to dust, more or less), mixed with water, and slowly allowed to come to a boil three times before being served in the small cups. Many times, cardamom seeds are ground up with the coffee. Well-prepared coffee has a thick foam on the top and does not contain noticeable particles in the foam or the liquid.

I haven't tried this method at home but when I do, I'll post the results.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Northeast Regional Roaster's Retreat

A lot of what roasters do is done alone. Aside from our time at the farmer's market, everything else… roasting, cupping, packaging… is a solitary affair. That's why we take advantage of every opportunity to see what the rest of the specialty coffee roasting world is up to. To that end, we traveled up to Lyme, CT to attend the annual Northeast Regional Roaster's Retreat. Held on the grounds of the beautiful Ashlawn Farm, we had the pleasure of sharing company with some of the most passionate coffee people we've ever met.

In attendance were wide-eyed people just starting out and experienced veterans, eager to share their knowledge (and learn a few new tricks). Terry Davis, owner of Ambex Roasters, a roasting equipment manufacturer, demonstrated how different batches of the same coffee can taste dramatically different just by altering the time/temperature profile of the roast.

As you might imagine, tasting, or as we say, "cupping" coffee is a large part of what we do as roasters. Taste is a very subjective thing, and the more elements that can be standardized, the more consistent the end result will be. We participated in an sensory exercise with a special kit of scents called "Le Nez du Café." The kit serves as a reference standard of the significant aromas that are found in coffee and consists of 36 vials of scents commonly associated with coffee such as tobacco and chocolate as well as less common scents (basmati rice anyone?). Sometimes when cupping coffee, I'm at a loss for words to describe a taste. Exercises like this give me an aromatic glossary to refer back to.

Saturday night, Ashlawn Farm held a cookout that featured organic beef raised literally yards from where we stood. It may have been a result of the sensory exercise earlier in the day or maybe just my imagination, but I swore that I could taste the grass in the beef. Whatever the case, it was the perfect meal to end the day.

Apart from honing our technical skills, the shared camaraderie is what makes these types of events really special. Swapping tips and trading "war stories" over a beer helps create a synergy that just isn't possible on internet bulletin boards.

All in all, a weekend well spent.