A Cheese Culture at Gray Barn

Silhouetted by slate-colored shingles, ancient beams and rolling pastures, the Gray Barn and Farm dairy produces cheese even before the dairy cows are brought into the living room in the morning.

It’s a good thing that master cheese maker and creamery manager Joe Alstat is an early riser – he puts on his gown and fishnet around 4 a.m. and fills the milk vat to start his day.

For Alstat, who invited The Times to the dairy for an early morning cheese-making demonstration, working at Gray Barn has been a dream job. “It’s just a lot of fun – I love working with food and doing something people love,” Alstat said.

Particularly on Martha’s Vineyard, finding success in such a niche market can be difficult. But Alstat explained that because of Gray Barn owners Molly and Eric Glasgow’s vision for the creamery, all the right ingredients were there for a great operation.

“They were able to invest the money to set up an operation like this and make it work at this level – I think that’s a very good benefit for the food culture of the island,” Alstat said. .

Having the resources and equipment to make the eight different artisan cheeses produced by the creamery has allowed Alstat to refine recipes and make better products over the years.

“I was probably releasing a new cheese every year, and I started seven years ago,” Alstat said.

As soon as he joined the team and started running the creamery, the cheese started winning awards.

The delicate washed-rind Prufrock was the cheese that started it all. After years of process and recipe refinement, Gray Barn Prufrock is now a well-decorated cheese – leading the New York International Cheese Awards, the Good Food Awards, the World Cheese Awards and the American Cheese Awards.

Gray Barn has been making their signature Creamy, Hazelnut Blue Bluebird Cheese for years, but when Alstat found a block of Bluebird sitting deep in one of the aging caves, it had a bulb moment.

“It was always perfectly good,” he said. “I made a slightly drier blue recipe where the cheese is supposed to age in the cellar for six months instead of three.”

And with that, the stronger Bluebird reserve was born.

Making a new cheese is a matter of experimentation, but Alstat said adjusting different variables such as culture levels and the pH of the milk to the conditions it works in is only part of the process. process. Even when developing a brand new cheese, the process is thought out and based on the same fundamental principles.

“The milk enters the tank at 100 °, we add the coagulant and the good bacteria. Wait for the curd to form and make sure the milk is at the right pH, then it is in the hoops, the refrigerators, then in the caves where it is aged, ”Alstat said.

While the rennet (a coagulant) added at the start helps separate the milk solids (curd) from the liquid base (whey), the cheese knives agitate the mixture inside the vat and break up the curd into small pieces resembling popcorn.

After emptying the vat of liquid whey, the curd is then placed in containers of different shapes and sizes called hoops.

Depending on the type of cheese being made, the hoops are turned and the water drained until the desired humidity level is reached, and the cheese is either soaked in brine or directly salted, using brushes.

“Some cheeses you want really salty – It’s all about the percentages and the balance,” Alstat said.

After years of working with these scientific methods, the process has become routine for Alstat, and he appreciates this fact. “I know what I’m going to do about seven days in advance, but I’m doing something different every day. Everything has its place here at work, you have your process flow, your rules to follow – but I really like the pace. It’s almost meditative, ”he said.

The last resting place of the almost finished product before it is sent to hungry cheese lovers are refrigerated aging chambers, called caves. Cheese racks age for different times. Blue Bluebird cheese ages for about three months, and Prufrock is a washed rind cheese, which means you scrub the outer coating with a brush to remove the top layer of bacteria as it ages.

A batch of 300 Prufrock cheeses takes about 45 minutes to an hour for Alstat to wash completely, but time flies for him. “I just start a podcast and get to work. As I know it, I have cleaned up the last cheese, ”Alstat said.

If for some reason a cheese doesn’t look good after aging, Gray Barn Bakery will use it in delicious breads and danishes so that no good food is wasted.

One surprising thing about the creamery is the amount of cheese it ships to distributors off the island.

Although cheese is incredibly popular in the vineyard, thousands of pounds of cheese are produced year round, which is more than enough to meet the demand here.

Every two weeks, Alstat assembles a shipping pallet with 30 to 100 cases of cheese stacked on top of it, and it is shipped to Long Island, where it is dispatched for the dairy’s six distributors.

“That’s between $ 3,000 and $ 10,000 worth of cheese. Yeah, we’re not kidding, ”Alstat said with a laugh.

A unique and primary part of why Gray Barn cheese tastes so good is the milk it uses; It’s extremely fresh, certified organic, and the approximately 45 dairy cows are raised and fed on the pasture. “Good milk makes good cheese. With some cheeses, it is good to do with inferior milk. As with Kraft Cheddar, it will taste the same no matter what, ”explained Alstat. But for a top-of-the-range cheese, the taste and quality of the milk is essential to take into account.

In most dairy operations, milk is purchased from the market and brought to the facility for processing. But Gray Barn has lots of cows and lots of open pasture for grazing.

They even use fodder to create their own bales of hay which are used as feed for livestock.

Preparing for a cheese contest is often a daunting task, Alstat says, and bringing home cheese ribbons involves a lot of planning and some dazzling.

“There is definitely a bit of playfulness in these competitions. There are so many categories – usually around 26 different categories for cow’s milk alone, ”Alstat explained.

After choosing the category in which he wishes to enter, Alstat packs the cheese and sends it to judgment.

“Of course, I always choose cheeses that peak and are like halfway through their life, and I always choose the nicest of the bunch, but everyone does,” Alstat said.

But just because a cheese doesn’t do well in competition doesn’t mean it’s not a great cheese and people don’t like it.

Eidolon – Gray Barn’s bloomy, herbaceous rind cheese, for example, has never won an award, but Alstat cannot supply the farm stand due to its popularity. “Some judges say it’s too liquid. But what the judges are complaining about is what people love the most about it, ”Alstat said.

Whether he’s getting ready for a competition, planning a new cheese, or just going about his daily routine every morning, Alsta said he couldn’t think of anything else he’d rather do. . “It’s definitely a way of life. I try to make very good cheese, ”said Alstat. “I love working with food and doing unique things that people enjoy.”

Visit thegreybarnandfarm.com to learn more about the artisanal cheeses that are made there.

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