Woodcock Farm

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LONDONDERRY, Vt. — It's a beautiful Saturday morning in early June here at the farmer's market. The early summer clouds that had threatened rain all morning have just blown away, and the sun shines on small stands filled with vendors selling dark wildflower honey, pastured duck eggs, organic hoop-house heirloom tomatoes and artisanal cheese from several different producers.

At one stand, Mark Fisher grins while an old woman from a neighboring town raves about his herbed sheep feta. On his folding table sits a spread of hard and soft cheeses, including a quarter wheel of an experimental Appenzellar that Mark made at a cheese workshop a few months before.

My trip to the Londonderry farmer's market marks the end of a journey that started almost two years ago at the cheese counter of the Brattleboro Food Co-op in southern Vermont. That’s where I first encountered the fruits of Mark's labors. I was still working at Murray's Cheese shop in the West Village then, and I was curious about cheeses that didn't make it to the big city. The variety of locally produced cheeses at the Brattleboro Co-op, which has one of the most comprehensive collections of Vermont cheese anywhere, amazed me. Aged sheep tommes, ashed goat pyramids and sharp, deep yellow cheddars filled the coolers, none of which had yet made their way to New York, at least not on my watch. By chance, the first cheese I picked up was a small, gooey wheel of raw sheep camembert with the distinctive blue and white cartoon sheep label of Woodcock Farm.

Months later I finally called Mark, the farmer, cheese maker and energy behind Woodcock Farm, and asked him if I could come by, see the cheese making facility and maybe buy something for Marlow and Sons. In the slightly distracted tone of a farmer near the end of his season Mark said to call when I got into town and gave me directions.
Woodcock Farm sits at the end of a dirt road just outside Weston in the southeastern part of the state. The small farm and cheese making facility are about seven years old and are the result of a personal evolution that Mark and his wife started in the early eighties.

Mark is a former New Yorker who worked in the video tape industry during the late seventies while living in the still-gritty Bowery. His wife, Gari, was working in the fashion world. After the birth of their first child, Samantha, they began looking to make a move from their culturally exciting but somewhat dangerous home in the city.

They first moved into a small cabin in the Catskills and then later to Vermont where Mark found work as a ceramic tile layer to make ends meet; the rural economy held few opportunities for a seasoned video technician.
A few years after relocating, Mark met David Major, one of the godfathers of Vermont artisan cheese and the owner of Vermont Shepherd, the state's most well- known small cheese making dairy located in Putney. The friendship changed the course of Mark's life, leading him down the path to professional cheese making.

Major, a native Vermonter, earned an engineering degree and originally intended to go abroad to work on infrastructure projects in the third world. But shortly after graduating he realized that his beloved home state's dairy farms had become a sort of human tragedy in their own right. Alarmed at the degree to which the once strong agrarian economy had eroded in the face of industrial farming, he decided to focus his attention on revitalizing agriculture in Vermont, sparking a mini cheese revolution along the way.

Mark was one of Major's first pupils. With the cheese making knowledge Major and his wife Cindy had gathered in the French Pyrenees and the help of a grant, the Majors set out to educate people in a theory of farming that would come to be called "value added." This farming strategy transforms a perishable product (milk, for instance) into more durable commodity (cheese), allowing farmers to liberate themselves from the variable market price of milk, farm more sustainably, and make a product that fetches a higher return.

After attending Major’s initial seminars, Mark was hooked, and soon he began devoting time to a herd of sheep that would eventually grow to a hundred head. He bought a bit of hilly farmland near Weston and built a cheese room that he tiled himself and a milking facility based on the one that David Major had designed for Vermont Shepherd.

The same intellectual curiosity that lead him to the new world of magnetic video tapes transformed Mark into an avid cheese experimenter. He varied temperatures, bacterial cultures and aging techniques in an ongoing quest for cheeses that expressed a sense of place through the quality of their milk and through the style and method of production. His interest in European cheese is rooted in a desire to make cheeses that had the same harmony with the local conditions as a Gruyère has with the small valleys of the Alps, rather than create American clones of great classic cheeses.

That quest continues today.

The Sunday after we met Mark at the market in Londonderry my girlfriend, Annaliese, and I drove to Woodcock to see what he had been up to since our last visit in November. The first thing that Mark showed us was one of the most interesting and delicious cheeses I've seen from Vermont, a sheep's milk washed rind Havarti- style cheese called Timberdoodle (another name for a woodcock, or so he says). True to Mark's experimental nature, Timberdoodle is a new version of a cheese he made earlier in the season with cow's milk.

Speaking to the constant intellectual challenge -- and frustration -- inherent in cheese making Mark said, "the cow's milk is much more forgiving. On the last version we could get it to get soft all the way through. The curds would come together. It takes more doing to get sheep's milk to ripen."

The flavor of the washed sheep cheese was typically minerally and grassy with a sweet and salty middle. The texture was slightly elastic and somewhere between a young Jasper Hill Winnimere and a young Colby. The rind is flavorful and aromatic, but because Mark only washes the wheels with brine once a week it was not as medicinal and grungy smelling as a Swiss washed sheep. Please don't mistake this for the Havarti they sell at your local deli; this is serious cheese with a good balance of sweetness, salt, and sharp, earthy flavor.

Next, Mark emerged from his stuffed cheese cooler/aging room with two unforgettable gorgonzolas. The first was a quarter wheel of creepy looking sheep gorgonzola. Mark cut through the paste of the cheese, and it was clear that this cheese was R-I-P-E. He brandished a knife blade's worth of the cheese to us and cocked his eye, as if to say he wouldn’t blame for not trying it.

"I think I got the cultures wrong on this one," he said. "You can have a recipe but it makes different cheese depending on the climate and local bacteria."

The gorgonzola was funky, wild and a little fermented.

Always looking to further the value-added ethos, Mark tried to make the aggressive cheese more saleable. "There's a local chef who tried to help me make it into a blue cheese dressing, but I didn't sell much of it."

The other wheel was much more solid and crumbly with a sweeter and cleaner taste somewhat similar to Rogue Natural blue. He said that the blues tend to have variation in flavor even within the same wheel. I loved the milky sheepy sweetness and pronounced blue mold flavor so much that I took half a wheel home to Marlow and Sons.

After the blues Mark brought out two Magic Mountains, his sheep's milk take on gruyère. He showed all of his trial versions of this cheese with variations in bacterial cultures, aging times and various washes.

The first one had a dark reddish-brown rind and an intense soy sauce quality that was the result of the periodic brine washes and the use of mesophilic bacteria. The second wheel was a natural rind that was ash colored and slightly crumbly. The texture and color of the rind come from the microscopic cheese mites that live in aging caves, slowly munching away at the exterior of the cheeses. Much nicer than the brine washed version, the flavor carried a smooth milky profile and a more supple texture than the earlier wheel.

Toward the end of our visit Mark pulled out a tub of sheep milk ricotta that he makes by heating and straining the leftover whey from the making of the Magic Mountain and Weston Wheels. It was sweet and a bit grassy but not gamey. Mark takes pride in his delicious ricotta and rightly so: New York restaurants like Mario Batali's Babbo order weekly shipments.

The Vermont morning had turned to mid-afternoon. We needed to rescue one of Annaliese's sisters from a house full of rogue relatives and Mark needed to get back to his one day off.

We packed some 40 pounds of cheese for Marlow into our abused Mercury Tracer. As a parting gift Mark gave us a few pounds of the sheep ricotta with which we made the following recipe:

FLYING SAUCER-SIZED WOODCOCK SHEEP RICOTTA RAVIOLI

Ingredients:
8 (8x11") sheets fresh pasta
1-pound of Woodcock Farm Sheep milk Ricotta
8 egg yolks from fresh pastured hens
1 small bunch each thyme and rosemary, finely chopped
Fresh ground pepper
Sea salt

Put your largest pot on to boil with 8-10 quarts of well-salted water.
Combine all ingredients, except the egg yolks and pasta, in a medium sized bowl.
Using a sharp paring knife, cut out 16 (6-inch) circles of pasta using a cereal bowl or tart tin.
Place two tablespoons of ricotta filling in the middle of eight of the pasta circles, making a dent in the filling with the back of the spoon.
Carefully place the unbroken yolks of the eight eggs in the dent in the ricotta.
Wet the edges of the pasta circles with water and gently place the tops on the raviolis.
Seal with fork tines and lower into boiling water using a large ladle or Chinese frying basket.
Cook for 5-7 minutes and let rest before serving.

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