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Voices Spring-Summer 2005:
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Volume 31
Spring-Summer
2005
Voices

The Cheese Stands Alone by Lynn Case Ekfelt

Foodways This summer the Kraft plant closed its doors in Canton, and the loss of jobs was devastating. Almost as sad to many people, though, was what they perceived as the end of a local cheese-making tradition, stretching back to the 1880s. But wait! Cheese making can scarcely be declared dead in the town of Canton when the grand champion cheese at this year’s state fair—County Meadows Farmstead feta—was made right here in a room smaller than most people’s kitchens.

This David and Goliath story began when Don and Shirley Hitchman visited the animal barns at the fair and fell in love with the goats. Deciding they wanted to show goats as a hobby, they bought five. Soon the sweet little kids began to arrive—much too cute to get rid of—and before long the Hitchmans had twenty-five goats and a lot of extra milk. Happily, they didn’t believe the naysayers who told them they couldn’t sell the milk and nobody would buy goat cheese. As a teenager Don had worked at the Red Rock Cheese plant near DeKalb for a summer. Calling on that experience, he began to make trial batches of cheese on the kitchen stove.

The milk kept coming, and the Hitchmans began visiting small cheese plants to see how they were set up. They read books and took a cheese-making class. Finally, after retirement, they were ready to begin their second careers in a small shed adjoining the barn. Because their operation was so small, all their equipment had to be custom-made. Needless to say, such special equipment is very expensive; Shirley says that’s why there are so few members of the Cheesemakers Guild. In fact, the Hitchmans are the only goat cheese makers north of the Thruway.


Peanut Butter Cheese Pie

Shirley substitutes goat cheese for cream cheese in all her recipes—lasagna, cheesecake, marbled brownies. This pie is a special favorite.

4 ounces soft goat cheese
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup milk, preferably goat’s milk
1/3 to 1/2 cups smooth peanut butter
8 ounces frozen whipped topping, thawed
Graham cracker crust

Beat the goat cheese until smooth; add powdered sugar, milk, and peanut butter. Beat again until smooth, then stir in the thawed whipped topping. Mix well and spread into a graham cracker crust. Freeze until set and firm (about an hour). Serve alone or with hot fudge sauce drizzled over the top.



Expense isn’t the only deterrent to budding cheese makers. Milk can be held for only three days before you have to turn it into cheese. When the Hitchmans drove to Syracuse to receive their grand champion award at the fair, they milked first, drove the two-and-a-half hours to the city, picked up the award, then drove back to milk and feed again—no time off for a celebratory dinner. They will get a break from the cheese making, though not from the feeding and barn chores, between December and April. That’s when this year’s crop of kids will be needing all the milk their mothers produce, and the Hitchmans can relax a bit before heading back to the cheese shed.

There the morning begins with Don pasteurizing the milk in a large tank, then transferring it to the steel cooking pan where Shirley adds the culture. After the mixture sits for half an hour, she adds vegetable rennet and lets it sit for another hour until it resembles very thick yogurt. At that point Don takes over and cuts it into cubes, which he stirs constantly for the next hour. Then he drains off the whey (to the delight of the waiting pigs) and begins the cheddaring process, cutting the gelatinous mass of cubes into bricks. Once the whey has been drained off, these bricks stick together enough that they can be picked up and turned over, forcing out still more whey. Patiently Don turns the bricks, until the stack is about half as high as it was originally. At that point it is cut into small cubes, which can either be bagged as curd or put into a press to make cheddar.

Meanwhile Shirley is starting the soft cheese in a stock pot, using a different culture. It sits with the rennet for about twelve hours until 10:00 p.m., when she scoops it out of the pot and hangs it overnight in a cheese bag to drip out the whey before the herbs are added. Shirley also acts as the record keeper. Her meticulous lists of temperatures and ingredients are inspected once a month, but that’s not the end of the hurdles the couple must clear: the barn is inspected every other month and the water twice a year.

To those of us lucky enough to have tasted their cheese, it’s no wonder the Hitchmans sell everything they make. Their booth at the farmers’ market is always mobbed, and the Potsdam Co-op and Canton’s Nature’s Storehouse stock their products. They are especially proud that the president of St. Lawrence University often serves their soft cheese at receptions at his home. In spite of the fact that they beat out such companies as Kraft and Helluva Good Cheese to win their grand champion award, it falls to their friends to do the boasting. Shirley says only, “I’m happy we won it for the goats. I hope it gave the impression that goats aren’t too bad; they’re usually pretty low on the totem pole.”

Note: For more information about Don and Shirley’s operation, write County Meadows Farmstead, 6384 CR27, Canton, New York 13617; call (315) 386-8912; or e-mail dshitch@northnet.org.




 






Lynn Case Ekfelt is retired from her position as a special collections librarian and university archivist at St. Lawrence University. She is the author of Good Food Served Right: Traditional Recipes and Food Customs from New York’s North Country (Canton, New York: Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, 2000), available on-line from our New York Traditions gallery store.


To those of us lucky enough to have tasted their cheese, it’s no wonder the Hitchmans sell everything they make. Their booth at the farmers’ market is always mobbed, and the Potsdam Co-op and Canton’s Nature’s Storehouse stock their products.





This column appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Spring-Summer 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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