When I look outside my window the sun is shining. But I know better. Within that golden, ever-morning light is the frosty air of winter. I feel it in my bones. I become lethargic. Sweaters and thick socks are my dailor armor. Properly swathed in warm gear, my mind goes inward, too. Despite the well-intetioned holidays, I hardly ever make any memories during the cold season. Family get-togethers are muddled into one multi-year extravaganza (if T.V. watching can be called that). Mostly, my brain likes to re-visit a different time when days were much longer and things grew and we ate in the fresh air. There are a few leaves left on otherwise bare branches now. And when the grey wind picks up and scatters them at my feet I think of one autumn day in Cache Valley—a place called Richmond, home of Rockhill Creamery.
We were invited up by the gracious Pete Schropp and Jennifer Hines, a Slow Food Utah tour, if you will. I first met them about a year ago when I first drove up to this city north of Logan (a college hamlet) to don a hair net and make some cheese with Jenn in a building that Pete built. The building, located on their house property, is small, hygenically-sound, and comes with a little aging room where wheels of Zwitser Gouda, Wasatch Gruyere, and Dark Canyon Edam wait patiently for a briny wash, careful inspection, and eventually, life on a plate. That Sunday, in small groups, Jenn took folks through this building and into that heavenly scented aging room where we marveled at the sight of Utah's first cow's milk farmstead artisan cheese operation. (Say that three times fast after a few glasses of wine. I did.)
From the cheesemaking building, you can see some of the cows that produce the milk for the cheese. That accounts for the "farmstead" tag to this cheese, meaning the milk and end product hail from the same piece of green earth. The "artisan" implies Rockhill's small scale, a level where Pete, Jenn, and some talented friends are faithfully and intimately involved in every step of the cheese life cycle. That day, we met some Agriculture folks from Utah State University. They worked with Pete to formulate an all-natural feed to produce the best milk in the cows. Before that, we talked with Devon and Jessica Tveit, who grow some of the most beautiful (and delicious) heirloom produce around.
It was meant to be an educational sort of jaunt. But to drive an hour and a half north of Salt Lake City to learn about sustainable sustenance without any promise of sustenance was unthinkable. How lucky then that Pete and Jenn's friend, Tim Vitale, was around with an enthusiastic crew of former newspaper folks-turned-food-fiends to feed us hungry food tourists. Zwitser Gouda and fig crostini as we mingled. Chard-laced polenta squares as we moved to the dinner table. They made for a much appreciated prelude to dinner.
We were in the thick of fall that day. The leaves were noisy with their brittle selves and everytime a breeze blew by they fell around us as if it were New Year's in Times Square. This part of the state had already experience its share of frosts—we couldn't see Devon's farm in full swing as planned. But the sun was out and with a sweater we could comfortably sit in Pete and Jenn's yard. Al fresco in every sense of the word. The cold made us ruddy cheeked and ever ready for the onslaught of food to emerge from Pete and Jenn's house.
Everything on our plates included, of course, cheese. Desert Star Feta (yes, cow's milk feta—purists don't faint, it's damn good) with shredded chard (yes, uncooked chard!) and vinegared apples. Crunchy, briny, sour, and sweet. It was a stark contrast to the savory Gouda-infused baked semolina gnocchi that warmed our throats just minutes before.
In between the extravaganza, I'd sneak into the kitchen with my friend Amber. Tim and his friends worked furiously, smiling and sipping wine, as they plated entrees of roasted Lau Family Farm beef (from up the road in Idaho), mashed veg, some infused with butter and truffle oil, some with caramelized leeks, and chunks of the purest tasting carrots to ever pass my lips. Amber discovered that Tami, pictured above, keeps bees and sells honey. So we promised to visit Tami at her house after the dinner to visit her bees and sample her wares. I left the crew with a bottle of Sinskey Abraxas (a souvenir from crazy Napa Valley trip) to keep them in a good mood while we devoured our entrees.
As it got colder and the tips of our fingers got numb, we held onto our forks more forcefully. The morsels of tender beef and flavorful veg were plate-licking good. Before dessert—a rustic double-crusted tart—appeared I wandered over to the calves who were hanging out by the Italian plum tree, mooing for attention and getting it from everyone who was giddy with good food and wine. Chock full of food and chock full of memories, it was nearly dark when we made our way to Tami's for home-grown honey before commuting back south. But I left another souvenir (of the Oregon-kind) for everyone left at Pete and Jen's, including Tim, who finally emerged from the kitchen. Maybe it was the bottles of Sinskey Abraxas or the Bethel Heights Pinot Gris. Maybe it was his hospitality. Whatever reason, he was kind enough to share the recipe for ...
Farmstead Cheese Flan
Tim served these with a tomato-chile sauce. Smoky and tangy, it swathed the rich egg custard. You can serve the flan alone or with some of your canned tomato sauce arsenal, or something from the market. Just make sure whatever it is, it does the flan justice. And yes, a glass of Sinskey Abraxas works surprisingly well with this dish.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter * 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour * 2/3 cup milk * 3 large eggs * 6 ounces aged Rockhill Famhouse gouda, grated * salt
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Liberally butter or oil six 4 ounces molds or ramekins. In heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat, then add the flour and whisk constantly for three full minutes to blend completely. Slowly drizzle in milk while stirring constantly to make bechamel sauce. Sauce should be thick but not gluey. (It’s easier than it looks, but it takes patience.) Remove from heat.
Put béchamel in blender. Add three eggs and pulse to blend. Don’t overmix. Add all the cheese and blend for two minutes. Add salt to taste.
Pour mix into prepared ramekins. Place ramekins in roasting pan, put in oven and pour hot water in pan until it reaches 2/3 way up sides of ramekins. Bake uncovered until puffy and firm (about 30 minutes). Remove from water bath and place on rack to cool 1-2 minutes. Flans will deflate.
Run sharp knife around the edge of each one, place a plate on top, turn it over and shake it once quickly to break it free. Serve immediately. EDITOR'S NOTE: Preferably outside with plenty of autumn sun and leaves falling around you. But indoors is okay, too. Especially if it is a cold early winter day.