Ye Olde Bobolink

In food on 06/18/2010 at 10:31 pm

Last weekend, the other half was hankering for a trip to the country. Staring wistfully at our wintry red barn landscape painting (courtesy of a neighbor’s dumpster) was just not enough anymore. So we headed northwest for a NJ farms tour. Three ended up being bust, one had literally gone under, but one was just right.

Bobolink Dairy Farm was our first and best stop. We thought we had happened upon an undiscovered treasure, but of course, it is an open secret to which we hadn’t been privy. It’s even a tourist destination for Europeans. Bobolink has been featured on Bourdain’s show, and if he knows about it… First, a tour of the grounds, on the rolling-est hills of the Garden State.

This is where the tractors come home to roost every night. The landlord should be cutting us a check for the royalties for this free advertising of his property. The story is this was actually a rental property, and these were the final days for the location. Bobolink was shutting down because the owners found another property out west to purchase, after decades of searching.

The other half thinks they got a sweet deal since the new place is hallowed farming grounds (circa the American Revolution) bought up by a local land preservation group hoping to find new crunchy granola stewards. Both parties scored, big time. My only thought on the whole deal was, wow, it’s got to be such a pain in a cow’s rear to move such an established bread baking/cheese making operation.

This is ye olde Ovenmaster 5000, aka Anderson Wood Heat Retention Bake-o-Thingy. We requested a peek at the ‘bakery’ out back after the European types ahead of us were done drying off their Euros. This was not a podunk pseudo-small-farmer-operation, like the faux farm stand we stopped at on the way back home. This is an authentic Mom n’ Pop LLC in the best sense of the phrase. Mom is Nina, a former dancer, and Pop is Jonathan, a former engineer. They have three sons and gave up city life to pursue their food fetishes. They’re courageously and successfully living out the pastoral dreams of our collective urban consciousness.

They employ a handful of interns that are paid a living wage (>$10/hr). Their positions switch depending on the day. This worker bee was up at 3:45am heating up the olde beast to 900ºF, slapping the daily dough into shape, hurrying to bake off the loaves before the oven cooled down below 600. She seemed happy.

(l to r) roasted garlic in duck fat, red onion and olive, scrap cheese, and plain ciabattas

These gorgeous, QQ and delicious slippers were assembled while the cashier for the day listened to Nina-of-attached-Bluetooth-to-ear babble about different farmers markets and product distribution. She mistook us for her interns, but quickly realized her boo-boo and engaged the other half in some small talk. So she’s a little bit cuckoo. You’d have to be to commit to this hard scrabble lifestyle.

Under the tractor barn is the cheese-making and retail shop, both fancy names for a big concrete room next to a smaller concrete room housing a dishwashing area and glass counter to display their unique products. The freezer containing packaged meats doubled as the cheese-wrapping surface.

The cashier was handing out samples of all their cheeses when we returned from the baking area. Jonathan makes all the cheeses himself, and by that I mean he makes them up, letting the curds tell him where they want to go. He’s the Yanni of cheese-making, the whey whisperer! The cheeses don’t conform to any standard of flavor or texture, and can vary from wheel to wheel. The only type that comes closest to a known product is the squarish blocks of cave-aged mild cheddar. I didn’t care for it as much as the others, but maybe because I tasted the strongly odoriferous ones first.

Our resident cheese expert breaks down each cheese:

Foret (ale-washed rind): Description online – “As this cheese ages, we wash it repeatedly with Foret, an organic farmhouse ale from Belgium. The alcohol and hops from the ale suppress the growth of molds on the rind, and then the terroir yeasts from the ale colonize the cheese, giving it a sweet, fruity note, with perhaps just a hint of hops. This cheese is wonderfully full-flavored, hinting at a good gruyere.  The texture is smooth and yielding.

This is one we didn’t try and wasn’t available. Alas.

Drumm: “a medium sized wheel, and has a bit of soft-ripening going on around the edges, which gives it a slightly sunken-in look (and thus the name).”

It tastes like popcorn. It was buttery and had crunchy lil’ bits. Maybe it was the encrusted mold. You can eat that, you know. Free probiotics.

Frolic: “a simple, traditionally made raw milk cheese, which expresses the true seasonal nature of grass-fed milk. It has a rich, beefy flavor! Will continue to improve at room temp for 1-2 weeks.

There’s actual streaks of blue mold in this one, but it’s a mild funk, like a cheddar that’s been partying a bit too hard.

Spring Baudolino: there’s no official description for this one, must be one of the limited edition ones.

This is the best Taleggio you’ll ever taste. Not as funky, oozes like baked brie but way more sophisticated. It’s the savory equivalent of condensed milk for toast sliced from their luscious loaves.

Jean-Louis Palladin: “a great man who made a profound imprint on cooking in the US before his untimely death took him from us.  This is a great big wheel, as befits such a great man. Because of its size, the body heat of the cows stays in the cheese for several days after it is made, giving the cheese its characteristic bright, sunny lemony flavor, with bold grassy, winey, and fruity notes.  We make Jean-Louis in the spring and again in the fall, when the grass, cows and milk are just right for this remarkable cheese.

The intern said they call this one ‘bright’ but I don’t know why. I think it’s bright because the flavor really grabs your attention, like, wow, I didn’t know cheese could taste like this! Jean-Louis is Jonathan’s idol who encouraged him to give it all up for the cheese. It’s nutty, hard but creamy, sharp, earthy, pungent, reminds me of a meaty mushroom or fermented soybeans. And it goes really well with a nice Zinfandel (Stone’s Throw, natch). It’s essence of a ripe cow!

Here we have the whey machine, where the magic happens. I love that Jonathan takes a loose cooking approach to making his cheese, instead of a strict baking method. They also breed special trade-marked hybrid cows to this end. They are very much the tinkering type.

These cheeses highlight what is so wrong about the American food industry and the huge blobby monster it’s become. Because raw milk is used as the starter, it results in a more savory and flavorful cheese than you could ever buy in retail commercial markets. You can taste the love. This is why European cheeses tend to taste ‘better.’ They use raw milk too, but with the silly FDA rules like you must age raw milk cheeses at least 60 days, some are banned from importation.

With pasteurization- i.e.boiling the milk to kill all the playful bacteria – goes the umami, and the satisfaction you didn’t know you wanted to have in the food you consume. With Bobolink cheeses, I can only eat one finger width’s worth and be ‘full.’ There is so much richness packed into a tiny sliver. Having more would make me nauseous. I definitely couldn’t say that about a square of neon orange Kraft American Singles.

This aim at massive blandness inherent in big industry bleeds into all the other food groups. Quantity outweighs quality. And the more you eat, the less happy your belly is. I’m not saying obesity is solely the fault of corporations, but maybe people just can’t get no satisfaction, even after shoveling super sized portions into their gullets.

Upon surfing their website when we returned, happy as clams, I discovered a hyperlink description (like a hidden message!) saying: contact Nina if you want offal. Now I was secretly hoping to find a supplementary source for organic farm meats closer than Vermont, and this was definitely a sign from the food gods. I emailed Nina post haste and the other half took care of the haggling and details.

Turns out Nina was ecstatic we wanted to clean out her freezer before the big move. We didn’t even have to drive back to the farm to pick up this above stash: they have a modest stand at the Union Square Greenmarket, the biggest farmers market in Manhattan. This afternoon, we went to pick up our sampler pack of all the organ meats available at this time. Unfortunately, we’ll never be able to get chicken feet because Nina and Jonathan hoard them all for themselves. But we’re putting in our order for pig’s head for the next slaughter as soon as the new place is up and running, which Nina says will be the beginning of July.

More deets: Nina wants to start breeding lamb at the new place, and will also apply for a permit for a smokehouse so they can produce their own country ham. The bread intern divulged they will be building a replica Anderson oven at the new place so rabid fans of their ciabatta won’t start a riot.

I had no idea veal was so desirable that it warranted a double-bump up in price point compared to beef. Cheapskate that I am, I was tempted to renege on those items, but the other half’s logic prevailed. We will sample one time, then decide if we are going to get it again.

Happy trails Bobolink. We will see you soon!

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