March 8, 2005

Dairy Queen

How Gelf's food writer stopped worrying and learned to love the milk.

Aria Sloss

Gelf enjoys a great many things in life, chief among them, good food with good company. In her semi-irregular column, Aria, our guru of all things culinary, will use her expert palate and years in the industry to report on comestibles from New York and beyond.

If, when I was 16, someone had declared that 2005 would find me standing in the glow of an open refrigerator door, chugging whole milk straight from its container, I would have told that prophet there must be some sort of mistake. The years of my misspent youth were, quite literally, my salad days. I didn't eat meat, eggs, dairy in any form, or anything else that had either once had a heartbeat or been housed by something that did. I was, in short, a vegan. It was an ethical choice, blown by the winds of youthful idealism and the sneaking suspicion that if I was the one out there faced with the task of wringing chicken necks or knocking a wide-eyed steer across the head, it'd be tofu and spinach, three meals a day. The zephyr of an undeveloped palate whispered somewhere in there, too, though. I'd never cared much for cheese; eggs, with their bright, amoeba-like yolks and viscous whites, made me shudder; milk, for as long as I can remember, seemed the ultimate offense. Thicker than water, with a tendency to linger filmily across the tongue, milk tasted to me like the stomach lining of a cow. While my adolescent ethics and fussy tastebuds went the way of my propensity for plaid shirts and pleather Birkenstocks, my dislike of plain milk as a beverage persisted. I came to accept it in coffee or tea, but cereal never made an appearance on my breakfast table, and I took my cookies the way J.Lo. takes her bourbon in Out of Sight—straight-up, water back.

Ronnybrook changed all that.

What is Ronnybrook? A gift. More specifically, it is a family dairy farm and creamery in Ancramdale, New York, that has been churning out milk, butter, and yogurt since 1941. The milk comes in glass bottles, the butter comes in flavors like honey and cinnamon toast, and the cows come hormone-free. The farm makes regular yogurt, fresh and perfectly good (though not, as are its other products, extraordinary) in vanilla, maple-vanilla, peach, strawberry, and the unexpected and blessed coconut. They make drinkable yogurts in individual containers—plain, peach, strawberry, blackberry, and mango—that taste like the best of summer thickened with cream. This is cream with a kick, however. The frothy tang of these drinks comes from eight active cultures, which means the helpful bacteria in your digestive system are getting the support they need during these last dreary weeks of winter. The blackberry, grainy with seeds from the fruit, is especially delicious. They also make crème fraiche (a cultured cream), as a kind of homage to those whose purchases at the Ronnybrook stand at one of New York City's Greenmarkets may be meant to comprise some sort of meal. Me, I'm the one standing in the thick of the crowd, change still clutched in one eager fist, consuming in a state of utter bliss. I do not stand alone. Come November, there is eggnog, ready for rum or not. I dare someone to show me a bottle that has made it home to the holiday table with the seal of its foil cap intact.

Ronnybrook milk
Courtesy Ronnybrook Farm Dairy

But there is nothing in the panoply of Ronnybrook products that even begins to compete with its milk. I don't know quite how to say this: It is heaven. It is like nothing you have ever tasted before. Even drinking it with tea that first time, I knew it was extraordinary. There was something going on in that mug of tea that nothing to do with the muslin-encased English Breakfast my mother had sent me the week before. I took the glass bottle back out from the fridge, where I had carelessly shoved it in a corner next to some juice, and poured a bit into a separate cup. I took a tiny sip. Everything got very quiet. I pushed the cup aside, picked up the bottle, and drank. It was the happiest few moments of my day. Now I drink a glass of it every night before bed, and when I wake up in a cold sweat, panicking about my future or past or present, I go to the kitchen, hold the thick, cool glass in my hands, tip my head back, and drink.

Lest you think that the cow is the only animal able to produce milk worthy of such praise, let me tell the story of the Old Chatham Sheep Farm. There, on 600 acres of lush New York grass, run over 1,000 East Friesian cross-bred sheep that produce the milk necessary for some of the loveliest yogurts and cheeses this side of the Atlantic. Without the help of hormones nor antibiotics (in the sheep), herbicides nor pesticides (in the sheep-food, commonly known as grass), Old Chatham makes around a dozen different cheeses, many of which have won prestigious cheese-world awards. All that fame, and Old Chatham's proprietors have not lost an ounce of whimsy. Their famous Hudson Valley Camembert, a soft-ripened cheese with the mellow, buttery consistency of a fine Brie, comes in a neat square, wrapped in paper and sealed with their signature bright-green sticker featuring a lop-eared black sheep at its center. Those with children, or simply a child's penchant for individually-wrapped food products, can purchase the charming Mutton Buttons, rounds of cheese small enough to nestle in your palm.

This Valentine's Day, I nearly wept when a friend told me of the "Cupid's Choice Camembert" he'd spotted at Murray's Cheese on Bleecker Street. It was heart-shaped, he said, and available only on that day. He mumbled something about thinking of me, but we both knew he had done something unforgivable. Luckily for our friendship, the Camembert in question was still in stock when I wandered morosely into Murray's a few days later, looking to console myself with the reliable Nancy's Camembert, or perhaps the creamy Ewe's Blue. For under ten dollars, I bought myself the best Valentine I could ever have hoped for. Diamonds be damned. I got Camembert, soft enough to slice with a spoon, aromatic with the scent of fresh, clean grass, and with the tang that can come only from the milk of a ewe free to roam as she pleases. I have preserved the sticker—featuring a sheep wearing its bright red heart around its woolly neck—for posterity.

In addition to cheese, Old Chatham sells a sheep's-milk yogurt that all but converted me from the traditional cow variety. The sheep's milk imparts, as it does to the cheese, a certain lilt to the flavor. It also gives the yogurt a bit more texture, a slightly grainy thickness that makes its low-fat content a pleasant surprise. Old Chatham yogurt comes in only two flavors: plain, and maple. Every now and again, I like to be told what to like. How many squabbling couples would be silenced, the claws of hunger-driven indecision retracting, if the waiter simply said, as Old Chatham does, "Here—this is what's good. Taste it. Enjoy."

I would love nothing more than to make this homage to dairy a purely New York State ode. I believe whole-heartedly in eating locally. I wake up on Saturday mornings energized by just the thought of my weekly trip to the Park Slope Greenmarket. I turn up my nose at restaurants serving tomatoes in December. But the history of man is nothing without temptation. For every Eve, there is an apple, and this Eve's apple is called the Cowgirl Creamery.

Ronnybrook milk
Courtesy Cowgirl Creamery

Peggy Smith, a Chez Panisse alum, started Cowgirl eight years ago with partner Sue Conley, also a former restaurateur. From their grounds in Tomales Bay, California, they make cheese with the kind of heartfelt dedication to quality and great taste one only wishes everyone in the food industry threw into their trade. They make the Mt. Tam, a cheese so good you can buy it in New York. Made of triple-cream cow's milk (meaning its dry matter must be at least 75% butterfat), Mt. Tam manages to be both earthy and sublime, mellow in flavor and shout-it-from-the-rooftops good. Their Red Hawk, also a triple-cream, has a fuller, more robust flavor. It is laughably tasty. In true Chez Panisse spirit, Cowgirl produces certain cheeses in accordance with the ebb and flow of the seasons. During the colder months, there is the Pierce Point, a creamy round washed in moscato wine and rolled in herbs from Tomales Bay farms. As March goes out like a lamb, Cowgirl releases the St. Pat, a mild disk wrapped in stinging nettle leaves. The sting has been leeched out (the Cowgirls take care of their loyal clientele), but the smoky, artichoke-y flavor lingers on.

For Christmas, I ordered my family a gift basket trio—Mt. Tam, Red Hawk, and Pierce Point—and though my mother is a superior cook, I am sad to say that we didn't do justice to her roast beef and Yorkshire pudding this year. Being American, not French, our cheese plate came at the beginning of the meal. Some things are too good not to eat first.

Related on the Web:

• Janet Fletcher wrote about the decadent delight that is triple-cream cheese in the San Francisco Chronicle last month.

• Stephen Byrnes attacks vegetarianism for health effects on Power Health, and Stephen Walsh rebuts one of Byrnes's arguments on

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