Murray’s Does the VT Cheesemaker’s Festival

by Tim Erdmann

There isn’t too much that can draw me out of my apartment at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning. Promises of coffee and the cheese adventure of a lifetime, however, made this Saturday a little different. I, and 34 like-minded cheese adorers, arrived to Murray’s bright and early, eager to journey to the second annual Vermont Cheesemaker’s Festival. We were beaming. The sun was, well, not. Likely on an errand, we hoped it’d return soon. Goodie bags, bagels, and coffees in hand, we set out into the northern morning.

It was around the point where 17 meets I-87 that I think we all began to notice our new terrain. The color palette had shifted dramatically: our urban grays changed in favor of new greens and blues, the topography likewise ruffled and varied. The consideration of our environment could not have been more appropriate as we pulled into our first stop, The Farmer’s Diner in Middlebury, VT. Tired of the commercial food scene, the diner purchases as much as possible from local farmers. They are currently spending an impressive 83 cents to the dollar on products from within 70 miles, all ingredients with only the most enviable pedigrees. Greeted with Raspberry Sangria by Chef Denise, we were honored to celebrate their mission. While she delivered us a four-course feast and we quieted our stomachs, we heard from the local and charismatic cheesemaker Steve Getz of Dancing Cow Farm in Bridport, VT. It was an excellent taste of what was to come.

With satisfied bellies and happy spirits, we rejoined at the bus. Driver, and whey-cation alumnus, Sylvester adeptly maneuvered us across a beautiful mountain range to our next stop, the Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery in Websterville, VT. Seemingly joined by fate, cheesemakers Allison Hooper and Bob Reese pioneered the company in 1984. Though it’s hard now to imagine Vermont without its artisanal cheeses and locavore ethics, the pair started as dairy mavericks. Allison was even so bold as to foresee Vermont as cheese’s Napa Valley. Today, their spirit is just as alive, and their approach to production has barely changed, except for maybe a little more cows’ milk and fancier gadgetry on site. Wearing lab coats, hairnets, and protective booties, we played cheesemakers for a day as we toured the drying room, laboratory, production spaces, and churning room. Even more impressed by the cheesemaker’s duties, we gathered again to taste the final products, the little gems that quietly explain why it’s all worth it.

After we checked in to the hotel, which boasted a pool, sauna, and all the luxuries due a proper cheese lover, we found ourselves at the festival’s kick-off cookout. Shelburne Vineyards hosted the night, and naturally, we were invited to tipple on the property’s wines and other local brews. A light drizzle and a local band made the soundscape as we lined up to get one of Marc Druart’s delicious burgers. As the Murray’s crew gathered to sit and eat on the grass, I realized that it was one of those iconic summer moments that I will treasure for the rest of my life. As the night closed, we made our way back to the hotel. Though we were all tired from a busy day well spent, I don’t think any of us could temper the excitement stirring for the coming day.

At last, the time had come. In spite of all of our anticipation, I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the beauty of Shelburne Farms. The 1400+ acre estate sits on the shores of Lake Champlain, with silhouettes of the Adirondacks finishing the landscape. The farm’s buildings and stables are veritable agricultural castles. Built in 1886 by Lila Vanderbilt Webb, and William Seward, the estate – now also an inn, nonprofit, and restaurant – maintain a presence of another time, where the relationship to the land is reciprocal and tender. Few communities that can mirror that sentiment like the producers of Vermont.

The festival’s arrangement was notably casual. We entered through a large tent housing old friends and new, tables running the spectrum from Cabot to the Vermont Cheese Council. One of the most surprising was a producer offering local ice cider (Eden Ice Cider Co.), made in the style of the famous and luxurious ice-wines. At least a few Murray’s employees escaped with a bottle or two. After the tent, the rest of the producers were set up in long great halls within the permanent structures of the farm. In total, there were 50 cheesemakers, 20 wineries and breweries, and 15 other artisanal producers, all of whom offering generous and wonderful samples. In case our palates needed a rest, there were a few seminars and demos to distract the mind, not to mention the entire estate grounds to explore. Any of us could have spent days at the festival, but alas all things must end. With goodie bags refilled, souls rejuvenated, and perhaps some career-paths drastically altered, we boarded the bus for the long return home, already looking forward to next year.

Murray’s Sojourns at Nettle Meadow Farm

by Chloe Zale, Murray’s Summer Intern

Greek yogurt with honey, steaming coffee, and the excited faces of Murrays’ employees Sascha, Louise, Michael, and Jason eased my pain at the Saturday at 7:30 AM meeting time for our trip to Nettle Meadow goat farm. It was early, especially for a college-aged intern on a Saturday, but don’t get me wrong – I had been looking forward to this Whey-cation for weeks. I literally dream about the farm’s famous bloomy-rinded, milky, oozy, sweet and just-tangy-enough goat and Jersey cow milk cheese, Kunik. Well, at least I had the night before the trip.

The forecast was dubious for our final destination of Warrensburg, NY, and sharp streaks of rain decorated our coach bus’s windows as Sylvester, our devoted driver, escorted us up the Hudson River. Jason (Murray’s Director of Wholesale) and I (Summer Intern) concentrated on manifesting good weather for the rest of the day, and before we knew it we were without rain and at our first stop of the day:  New World Home Cooking, in Woodstock, NY, the proud establishment of locavore Chef Ric Orlando and his media-hyped blackened string beans. The café sits on the foundation of an old Olympic-sized swimming pool and features brightly-colored décor and a light-flooded back room that looks out onto Chef Orlando’s two-acre property.

We were immediately greeted with berry bellinis and generous portions of the green beans. The beans. Were. Otherworldly. (I really wish I could upload tastes to this blog). Dipped in a dusky orange paprika-dijon sauce, the spicy, crisp veggies were, as Jason put it so eloquently, “like crack.” Next on the menu were a few different options, including a ripe strawberry and basil crepe, a local egg frittata with seasonal vegetables, and smokehouse ham with grits and a fresh pea salad, which was the most popular dish of the morning. Just when we thought we couldn’t eat any more, we were presented with a parade of delectable mini cheesecakes made with Nettle Meadow’s fromage blanc (unsalted fresh goat cheese) and graham cracker crust, garnished with fresh peach compote. They disappeared. Quickly.

Rapidly descending into food-coma-heaven, we stumbled back to the bus and promptly passed out for the second leg of our journey, the star of the show, Nettle Meadow farm, where happy goats make great cheese. And are those goats happy! We awoke to Sylvester backing our oversized coach into the farm’s dirt driveway (at an impressive 90 degree angle to the road, I might add), and pampered goats, sheep, and even a llama or two perked up their ears in excited anticipation of their new playmates-to-come.

Lorraine and Sheila, who run the farm, showed us around their multiple barns and waited patiently as we cozied up to their prized herd. Some of us got perhaps a little too friendly with our new companions – one unnamed Murray’s employee almost lost her shirt to a curious goat’s overzealous mouth.  But all order was restored when Sheila led us through the farm’s cheesemaking and aging facilities. We were privileged to see almost all the stages of the cheesemaking process at once, from pouring the first fresh curds into their perforated containers to sorting through the crisp, white cheeses as they age. Sheila also reminded us that although cheesemaking as a profession seems like a bucolic paradise, it is, in truth, a job that demands eighteen-hour work days. But when a passion like Sheila and Lorraine’s is the foundation for such a job, the result is truly astounding.

After our cheesemaking lesson, an array of savory and sweet chevre delights brought us to the end of our stay at Nettle Meadow. It seemed that each whey-cationer had his or her own personal favorite, since I overheard accolades of the ginger snap, walnut, and goat cheese cookies and the juicy figs with chevre and pepper, but I and a few others went gaga for the crunchy pancetta/Kunik/sweet pear/fresh thyme concoction that completely redefined my conception of finger food.

Bellies full and legs tired, we mounted the bus once more for an epic four-hour journey back to Murray’s. As the country landscape morphed into urban skyline, we began already to reminisce about our magical day at the farm and to look forward eagerly to our next Whey-cation at the Vermont Cheesemaker’s festival!

The Murray’s Crew at Nettle Meadow