Earlier this month I had the opportunity to visit John and Janine Putnam at their farm in North Pomfret, VT.  The Putnams own Thistle Hill Farm, where they make the extraordinary Tarentaise cheese.  Back in my cheese mongering days I regularly ordered from John, who was also extremely generous with his experience and advice when I began to make cheese at home.

Tarentaise is an organic, raw milk Alpine-style cheese in the tradition of Beaufort or Abondance.  Speaking with John he explained that his family chose to make this style of cheese after touring Switzerland, Italy, and France in '99.  They found themselves in Savoie, France, in the Rhone-Alpes, and felt that they could create a similar cheese at their home in the mountains of Vermont.
Wheels and Wheels of Tarentaise Cheese
This would be a reoccurring-theme in talking with John: what could they do with the land and raw resources available to them at home?  While fir planks were regularly used in France, John uses local spruce to age his wheels of cheese.  To help the humidity, he uses absorbent soapstone from a quarry to line the bottom half of his aging-room walls.  They even set the milk into curd by using a batch of whey from the previous day's cheese making, rather than using a commercial rennet. Heck, the Putnam's built one of the barns and the aging room.  I think the only thing imported at Thistle Hill is the enormous copper cheese vat from Switzerland; a giant gleaming bowl in the center of their cheese making room.
Jersey cows at Thistle Hill Farm
When we arrived in the late morning the barn was almost empty, aside from a few cows and calves.  John explained that the cows spent most of their day and night working their way up the hills, grazing on the new growths of grass higher up in the movement of transhumance.  In the early morning the cows would come back down to the barn to sleep.  In the barn, the cows had access to some hay for fiber, but primarily their diet came came from grazing.
New Recruits
A Unique Way to Add Humidity to the Aging Room
The entire herd is made of Jersey cows, which are known for their rich milk that produces an exceptionally bright, golden cheese.  Tarentaise is only made in the spring, summer, and fall when the cows have access to plenty of fresh grass.  During the winter the cow's milk is sold commercially, while the cows and wheels of cheese rest and age.

Seeing the aging room was a real treat.  Wheels and wheels of Tarentaise and a delicious, savory aroma greeted us when we opened the door.  As John walked through the wheels he carefully eyed up his cheese, inspecting this year's new batches and the batches from the previous year.  Living a few yards from the barn and aging room, John is able to keep a close watch on the progress of the wheels.

There are lots of cheese operations in Vermont, but Thistle Hill is one of those rare truly farmstead cheeses (what the French would call a fermier cheese). The day before we visited, John and his sons were making hay from their fields to feed the herd in winter. 
From start to finish, every aspect of what makes Tarentaise an exceptional cheese is tied to the land, the cows that feed off that land, and the labor of John and his family to care and support both the land and the animals.
Tarentaise Cheese: Look at that Color!
In a funny twist, the next day I visited the Cabot Cheese visitor center and took a factory tour.  As much as I like Cabot cheese, it was hard not to notice the absence of any cows.  In their place, I saw large trailers holding 7,000 gallons of milk and towering silos holding an unfathomable amount of milk.  Granted, one thing Cabot did have that John was lacking is an "Everything Bagel" flavor cheese.  Perhaps in the future the Putnam's will reconsider their stance of "One Farm, One Cheese," and churn out an Everything Bagel Tarentaise?

I bought a ginger plant today!

I heard rumors about growing ginger in Pennsylvania, but I've never seen the plants in person.  This little guy came from a local farm that usually sells ginger root at the end of the summer.  This is the first year they've had enough extra rhizomes to offer ginger plants for sale, so I had to snap one up.

The vendor said that ginger should be grown like potatoes: plant the ginger, then mound more earth up around the stems to encourage the growth of new rhizomes.  She also mentioned that the leaves and stems are edible, with a mild ginger flavor and spicy aroma.

Our soil is pretty thick with clay, so I'll lay down a base layer of sand in a hole before planting.  This should help with drainage - it's worked very well with our blueberry bush.

In the wake of my modest-but-exciting success with hunting morel mushrooms this year, I’ve had a gnawing hunger for more morels.  Sadly, the season is over, something reinforced to me two weekends ago when I saw a single wizened, decaying morel on the side of a trail.  Still, I wanted to ride that mushroom high again.
Morel Trees Dot the Ground Pork Landscape
At the beginning of the year, I sampled some amazing morel-studded pork liverwurst made from the liver of my friend Jim’s pigs, along with his own dried morels he foraged last season.  The taste of the morels was amazing and perfectly stood up to the rich, minerally taste of the liver.

While my freezer was short on pork liver, I did have plenty of pork, plus some (sadly purchased) dried morels.  This inspired me to make a morel kielbasa.  See photos of Jim’s wurst-making, I was surprised that Jim added the morels dry to the forcemeat mixture.  When conventionally using dried morels, I would reconstitute them in hot water, then use the soaking liquid to create a sauce for the dish.

Morel-Studded Kielbasa Before Smoking
My thought is that adding the mushrooms dry to the raw meat helps to capture all the morel flavor in the wurst.   But by putting the mushrooms in dry they get evenly mixed with the meat in the grinding phase, and then slowly reconstitute by pulling moisture from the meat.

I followed this example, adding just over an ounce of dried morels to 7 lbs pork shoulder, along with white pepper, thyme, and a bit of garlic.  From there it was a straightforward kielbasa recipe: grinding and chilling the meat, casing it into 36-38 mm pork casings, then letting it dry overnight before smoking.

Hot from the smoker, the kielbasa was delicious!  But then, it’s hard to beat the taste of anything fresh from the smoker.  I didn’t get much morel flavor, but the smoke was so intense that I wasn’t worried.  The next day I sautéed a ring of kielbasa for dinner, but still wasn’t getting that rich, earthy morel hit to my palate.  The smoke flavor was milder, but the mushroom taste just seemed to be a muted accent.

Today I went a very different route and poached one of the links, as I’ve been thinking the kielbasa meat mixture might be too dry?  If you’ve ever ground up liver, you know it’s a wet, sqooshy  meat.  The additional liquid from the liver may have helped the morels to reconstitute a bit more and boost the flavor.
Unfortunately poaching did not help the kielbasa.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s delicious, but I would never guess there were morels in there.  Perhaps the issue is that many people don’t buy morels in the grocery store?  I could have bought old stock that had faded in flavor.  I’m still not sure…I’d like to try this again, but I’ll probably start with a much smaller test batch.
Anchovies, sardines, kippers; I love them all.  I spotted these salted anchovies at Marty's Market in Pittsburgh and had to pick up a pack.  

Not only was the brand Ortiz, one of the best producers of preserved fish products available, but they were they ever-elusive salt-packed anchovies.

Many old cookbooks extoll the virtues of salt-packed anchovies.  They have a firmer texture and a more pronounced flavor since they're not diluted by a neutral packing oil.  When you're ready to use them, just rinse off the salt and enjoy as you need them.  The problem for me is that salt-packed anchovies are very hard to find here in Pennsylvania.  

Some Italian specialty stores/deli's do stock them, but they're in large tins and the quality is dodgy depending on how long it's been since the tin was opened.  Occasionally they'll just be old and mushy. 

Ortiz solves this problem by giving you a vacuum sealed pouch of salt-packed anchovies that you can prepare at home.  Simply open them up, separate the two fillets from the spine, and soak them in a little water to remove the excess salt.  Then you can use them right away, or store them in a crock  with your personal choice of olive oil.

It's one of those product that just seems so simple: pack them in salt and let the consumer prep them at home for a fresh product with a firm texture.  And leftovers can be stored under a good quality oil, not some cheap refined oil at a copacker plant.  While not for everyone, I love that I could clean and prepare these at home to ensure I was enjoying the anchovies at their peak.
Some mushrooms hunters call the ever-growing desire for morels "morel madness" or "morel fever."  I think it would be more accurate to title what I experienced as "morel envy."  It all started with a delivery of fiddle head ferns, ramps, and hop shoots at the restaurant...along with eight pounds of morels from a supplier in southeast Pennsylvania.
Eight pounds of morels...sadly not for me.
I've found morels before, but that was a few years ago.  This year, inspired (or extremely jealous) by the bounty I saw at work, I decided to make a more concentrated effort.  Matt, my brother-in-law, suggested I try a recently opened area of game lands that contains an old, overgrown apple orchard.
First Morel of 2015

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the game lands I found the trees in the orchard had been torn up and put through a chipper by the game commission, then the stumps burned.  Poking about, I didn't see any sign of mushrooms or any sort of growth at all.  There were some hedgerows full of ferns and nettles on the perimeter, but they were mushroom-less.

I tried different areas of the game lands for two days last week, then tried a new area this week.  On a hilly, shaded area above a creek, I finally had some luck. I found four mushrooms that day...five if you count the one a deer mashed into the ground.

Still, I was happy to have those four, and they were delicious sauteed over a grass-fed rib eye.  Carla and I were both amazed by the intensely earthly, savory, and slightly smokey taste of the morels.

The next day I returned to the same area and began to work my way farther up the hill into the deeper shrub.  This was where I found my largest morel, along with another ten smaller mushrooms.
Although comparatively a small haul, Carla and I felt rich with mushrooms when we got home and wanted to celebrate.  We decided to enjoy the morels with brown butter and fresh pasta.  I started a batch of pasta dough, then left it to rest while I plucked all the burrs off my clothes and dog.
Fried up in brown butter, the morels filled the house with a woodsy aroma.  The mushrooms were delicious with the pasta, while the infused butter spread the morel flavor across the noodles.  Again, as the night before, Carla and I were amazed by the taste of these mushrooms.  Even compared to the times we've purchased morels, these were by far the best.

Part of the exceptional nature may have been from the fact that we had earned them by crawling along the damp leaves and prickly briars.  On the other hand, I think a big part of the morels' flavor was due to how quickly we went from harvesting them to eating them that evening.

Much like freshly-cut asparagus or a tomato still warm from the sun, these morels were at their peak and full of wild woodland flavor and enjoyed before any of their flavor could fade.

Fettuccine with Wild Morels