On 4 October, I had the privilege of experiencing a day-long internship at the artisnal and sustainable Bobolink Dairy and Bakeyard in Vernon, NJ. Ordinarily, the fee is $100 a day, but I bartered with Jonathan and Nina White (the owners) for two large boxes of Deb's Delectables chocolates. It was a nice trade.
It took me almost 2 hours to drive up there from my house, but I plugged in my brick of a GPS (a hand-me-down from Mom and Dave that has proven to be more than handy), and watched the sun rise as I drove to the farm. When I arrived at Bobolink, I met B, the baker first. B previously was a baker at Balthazar, but I didn't find that out until much later in the day, but I'll get to that.
Because my visit to Bobolink happened in early fall, they were still making cheese. The Whites only make cheese from the milk given by the cows from April through November, when they happily eat the grass and clover grown in the fields. In fact, Jonathan sprinkled clover seeds on the backs of the cows when they were out in the pasture earlier in the season to spread the cheese in an organic way. Just as an aside, Jonathan has made goat's milk cheese as well. And, he may be the only man in America able to produce human milk cheese (done as part of an art installation).
The farm was started in 1989 as a hobby farm. In 1993, Jonathan quit his job as an software engineer to run the 200-acre farm full-time. I met Jonathan through my friend Richard Factor and his friend Barbara. Bobolink's dairy makes 12 different cheeses, but while I was there they were making Jean-Louis, a 22-lb wheel named for chef Jean-Louis Palladin, "who encouraged food artisans to aim for bolder, earthier flavors," says the Bobolink site.
My first task (which wound up taking all morning) was to help the full-time interns escort the cows from the pasture about a mile up the road back down to the dairy where they would be milked, then escorted back up the road and into their pasture. The interns were an international mix of young people who decided to do something completely different with their time than what they studied at school, with one exception, the chef Sara, who was the chief intern.
I followed the small group of interns to the pasture, past another field filled with calves from the Bobolink cows. Most of them were Kerry calves, since Jonathan and Nina are in the process of breeding Kerrys at the farm. Arriving down in the pasture, I noticed that there was clover everywhere. I wonder if this leads to sweet milk from the cows. Since I know very little about cows or farming, that's only a guess.
We drove the cows from the pasture by raising our voices "A-yup!" I mainly clapped my hands in back of the cows I needed to move, and that seemed to work. We walked the cows down the road to the farm, staying out of the way of big cow poo, pee, and the amorous bull, Seamus, who seemed to want to mount one particular cow in heat. Nearly all the cows were pregnant except for a couple who had recently calved and that one coming into heat. Seamus appeared to be responsible for all the pregancies, the busy guy.
When we moved the cows into the portion of the road near the other pasture with the calves, there was such a chorus of mooing! The cows also wanted to socialize with the calves, so it took a bit of doing to move the cows down into the main farm area and to the corral where they would be moved into the milking barn.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the milking area was that it was clean and didn't smell like cow poo/pee. I noticed this because after the cows had been corralled for a minute or two, they really let loose and emptied out. I don't want to focus on this, but it was a big part of the morning. Because the milking took over two hours (28 cows and only 4 milking hook-ups -- and 3 new interns), I was pretty well nauseated and had to vacate the milking area frequently. I guess if I lived on grass and clover, I'd probably be "regular" too. Just that part alone convinced me that owning a cow was not for me. I didn't stick around for the cleaning out process, choosing instead to visit the bakery (see that portion a bit later in this story). Jonathan said, "Cheesemaking is part-time. Cleaning is full-time."
Jonathan told me that he is planning to rebuild the milking area, as well as purchase more milkers to streamline the process. He'll also need to build because he plans to grow the herd to 50 head. Right now, it's about 28.
As the cows are milked, the milk travels down a tube and is heated in a large vat at 93 degrees F. Whey from the previous day's cheesemaking as well as rennet are added to the vat to make the cheese form. After the cheese forms, they pull out whey for the following day, and use a long cutting device (looks like it's strung with piano wire) to slice through the cheese in the vat, to make the curds. Then, there's some stirring, and finally, the curds are scooped up and placed in a mold to settle and drain. The whey drains into a large milk can, and is later fed to the Bobolink pigs. These are the happiest and healthiest looking pigs I've ever seen. Bobolink sells their pork as well as beef at their web site. They also sell their cheese, but not their bread there.
As the molded cheeses harden, they are salted, and eventually moved to the cave (which I didn't see) to age.
The cheese itself varies from week to week as the cows are moved from pasture to pasture. Jonathan told me that in cheesemaking, weather is everything. Cooler udders produce less of the good bacteria needed for better cheese, hence his seasonal style. He absolutely will not make cheese from milk produced when the cows are eating hay.
I was fortunate enough to sample some Baudolino that had not been aged long at all. They call it the "brie of Barbarossa," but I found it to be immensely buttery, sweet and creamy. I wanted to buy it as is, but I'll have to wait.
After the forms were filled, I went into the bakeyard to learn more about the famous brick oven designed by Alan Scott. They start the fire at 6 pm, the night before they plan to use it, and rake out the embers of the wood at 7 am. They bake their breads quickly at high temperatures, moving to larger loaves as the temperature in the oven falls.
The day I was there, the oven was too hot in the morning to do any baking. When B arrived at 7 am, he saw "fire still shimmering with blue flame." The rhythm of the day is based on the oven -- the degree of heat as well as the space within the oven.
They don't use the milk from the dairy since it's too precious, however, they do use Bobolink cheese on their cheese ciabattas. They use soaked oats in all their breads, and no added sugar. Interestingly, they work without refrigeration within a converted trucking container cooled to temperatures conducive to producing the delicious breads.
First, B does his mixing, then, the doughs ferment. Next, the loaves are pre-shaped and left to rise, then they have their final shaping before they are loaded into the oven with a bread/pizza peel.
I tried quite a few of the different breads: a kalamata olive ciabatta made with olive brine instead of water, the cheese ciabatta, a cranberry-walnut stick (divine!), and their classic epi (my favorite).
Overall, it was a refreshing and different experience. If I were to do it again, I'd skip the morning with the cows, and spend the time in the bakeyard instead. Then, I'd come for the cheesemaking experience, which didn't take that long, and go see the cave.
On my way out, I stopped in the store and bought some of their Drumm and Foret cheeses, along with a cheddar made by Pennsylvania Dutch farmers that Bobolink ages in its cave. I brought those along with a host of breads to Mom and Dave's house for a little sampling dinner on my way home. They were fond of the cheeses and the breads as was I.
Bobolink does several farmer's markets in New York City: on Fridays at Union Square Greenmarket (Bwy and 16th St.), and on Thursdays and Saturdays at Lincoln Center Greenmarket (66th and Bwy). Go visit Nina there and try their cheeses and breads!