The epic Essex County Cheese Tour is an irresistible combination of many delightful things: the beauty of fall color, the gourmet experience of artisan cheeses, and the cheerful influence of goats.
It can be a surprise that the Adirondacks, known for its mountains and lakes and forests, is also the home of many farms dedicated to organic and sustainable agriculture. The tours are held on select Sundays when three artisanal creameries have an Open House event for visitors.
The third annual Cheese Tour will be October 9, 2016.
The Sugar House Creamery dairy farm has been reborn as a labor of love. Owners Margot Brooks and Alex Eaton are highly committed to sustainable agriculture. Pasture rotation, organic handling of pests and diseases, and a committment to humane animal practices are hallmarks of all the farms on this tour.
They have a herd of Brown Swiss cows (my favorites!) and have become known for their original cheeses. The Dutch Knuckle is a raw-milk, cooked cheese, pressed alpine-style in a wheel which is usually aged for eight months. There's also Pound Cake, considered a "more approachable" cheese for almost anyone, which is made from pasteurized cow milk and aged 45-60 days.
There will be free samples, so choosing can be easier. But it also makes choosing more difficult, because we are always finding another one we'd like to get. Trust me on this one.
There's also tours of the barn and cheese cave. Their Farm Store sells all the amazing cheeses, along with yogurt, eggs, and meat from other local farms.
I love the rolling hills of Sugar House. It's like a picture book come to life. Especially when the big brown eyes of a happy cow blinks at us.
Gourmet lunch options will be available from the Mace Chasm Farm. Sugar House Creamery also offers a place to stay if we want a real farm experience for our weekend in the Adirondacks.
When I think of Asgaard Farm, two things spring to mind. Goats, and goat milk caramels.
Yes, I'm a goat fan. Only the fact that we are in an apartment is holding me back. (My husband is grateful for that much.) I have heard so many funny stories about goats and their sense of humor. Their milk makes the most exquisitely smooth caramels.
This is the former home of political activist Rockwell Kent, who worked as an artist, writer, and adventurer. He spent half a century here, with Asgaard as a working dairy farm and painting model. David Brunner and Rhonda Butler acquired the farm in 1988 and restored the entire property, resuming production in 2003.
While they also husband poultry and eggs, beef, and pork, I can tell it is the goats that are a favorite part of the farm. They are the only ones with their own website section, for instance. Asgaard describes themselves as "a diversified family farm with a goat dairy and creamery at its core."
They have over forty milking goats, mostly Alpines with a sprinkling of Nubians and Saanens. They are very curious about visitors, but I noticed they backed up as I approached the fence.
"They are keeping their distance," a friend remarked. "You told me they would be more friendly."
"That's not it," I said. "They want to entice me into touching the electric fence, because then I'll be funny."
We have to watch out for that famous goat sense of mischief.
Asgaard also has a farm store stocked with their abundance of local products. I picked up some sea salt goat milk caramels, and am tempted by the goat milk soap. But we are only half-way through the tour. I must pace myself.
Northern Feast Catering will be doing the lunch and treats at this farm. Asgaard is also a lodging option with their beautifully restored Emerson House, designed by Kent himself, who was also a trained architect.
It is wonderful that his dream in the Adirondacks is still alive.
The farthest north farm, North Country Creamery, is owned and operated by Ashlee Kleinhammer and Steven Googin. They specialize in fresh and aged cheese, yogurt, and raw milk, which they sell in their farmstore, Clover Mead Cafe. They have a popular CSA share program, with all grass-fed dairy from their Shorthorn and Jersey cows.
Grassfed is the highest form of dairy products. This puts all kinds of micronutrients into the milk, which also makes everything taste better.
It has been a full day of pastoral scenes, and the terrain has shifted a bit, becoming flatter, with more distant vistas. Though we have moved further north, we have also dropped down to sea level with our proximity to Lake Champlain, the sixth largest Great Lake. On the one day of the tour, we will see a difference in the autumn leaf status from farm to farm.
The Adirondacks are a place of micro-climates. It's not just the elevation change, it's also the way the mountains bounce the weather patterns around. Add in the fact that different tree species turn at different times, and there's no end to the variety of fall foliage on this tour.
The catering here is local: their own Clover Mead Café & Farm Store not only sells their dairy, but also produce and eggs. On weekends, there's breakfast and lunch, with really fresh ingredients, of course.
My friends and I are meeting the most delightful people throughout the tour. Everyone is trading favorite flavors, recipe tips, and good photo angles for trees in their full glory. While we are all moving in our own vehicles at our own pace, we seem to keep running into each other without making any effort to do so.
If we cannot make the tour, we don't need to deprive ourselves. Many local outlets, as well as the farm stores themselves, carry different local products, and all three farms are regulars in the Farmers' Markets throughout the area.
Whatever our particular pleasure, this fun day offers many ways of exploring the joys of foodie indulgence, stunning photography opportunities, and a pleasant drive through excellent scenery.
And goat milk caramels. Dang, they're so good!
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