Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Visit to Grassfields Creamery in Western Michigan

     In September, 2014 I had the privilege to visit and tour Grassfields Farmstead Creamery in Coopersville, Michigan. With a quick phone call the day before, I happened to get lucky during my two week visit to Western Michigan and score an opportunity to learn from the pros how they make their most delicious cheeses.
     Evan Velthouse is the cheese maker and creates the various dutch artisan cheeses right on site. A long wall separates the dairy operation (run by Jesse Meerman) from the artisan cheese factory with Evan in command of all things cheese. Grassfields is a dutch family business which began five generations earlier. The oldest son, Luke Meerman, in charge of the business side and wife Vicky works in the shop while managing five children.
     I arrived just as Evan was cutting the cheese using large wire screens which require some heft to cut evenly through the vat of 450 gallons of fresh cow milk, now on its way to becoming cheddar. To fill the vat requires around 1 ½ days of milking from the 50 cows on the dairy. All I can say to my bovine friends is thank you for your contribution!
    Once cut, it was a labor of love to see the slow evolution of transformation separating curds from
whey. It’s rather like watching grass grow; a slow, nurturing process that Evan does with finesse. If it sounds boring, it’s anything but. You would have to take a tour yourself to realize there’s magic in the mixture and Evan, a trained culinary chef, knows exactly how to manage the milky creation to ensure a tangy, creamy, delectable cheddar worthy of high praise.
    We talked about how he came to be the cheese maker at Grassfields and shared a little of what Jesse taught him when he took over the reins. Jesse had been the cheese maker for ten years prior to Evan. Once inside the creamery, there’s a door that leads to the cheese cave. What a treat to see the 2014 Christmas specialty. Lying comfortably in a brine bath were wheels of sage and cherry cheese aging in a beautiful eclectic mixture. The brine itself is not changed out I’m told as all the goodies from earlier batches fall to the bottom of the vat and continue to impart their unique flavors to the next batch of cheeses. Moreover, some cheese makers will vie to purchase wooden planks to store and age the wheels from other creameries for the same purpose – the wood acts as a flavor conduit in the same manner as a chardonnay wine aged in an oak barrel will take on subtle toasted oak-y flavors in the wine.
    This is a small operation. Fifty cows. Family run. Few employees; yet their hearts are big and they are eager to share whatever knowledge they have acquired without thought of return. Why? Because it’s the way things are supposed to be. It’s what we’ve sometimes forgotten about as we rush home after a busy hectic day and pop a microwave dinner in front of the tv. It’s the tiny strings that bind us together as we learn from each other; just as I now share with you what I’ve learned from my visit…but I have a surprise for you! In my exuberance I purchased a wide assortment of the Grassfields cheeses while at the creamery. I bought with reckless abandon as if I would never get the chance to taste these fine cheeses again. I did this because I live two days drive away and even though there’s mail order, I wanted it all now. The cheese I could buy there was more than retail, it was memories too.
    I've been home a month now and once a week I play pinochle with a few local ladies. We share a bottle of wine and some tasty snacks mid-way through the cards and chat like the old friends we are.
I've slowly been sharing the Edam, Gouda, Herb-ed Cheese and Lamont Cheddar with them since my return from Grassfields Cheese. I’ve been keeping a beautiful large cut of creamy Fait Gras in the fridge and have looked at it every day since my return. Tonight it spoke to me from the fridge. It said if I give it 30 minutes, it will surprise and delight my evening meal. Here’s what it said…

Fait Gras Fettuccine 
(adapted from Emeril Lagasse’s 2004 recipe from Television Food Network)
1 pound fettuccine
6 Tbsp butter
1 shallot minced
1C heavy cream
1C Grassfields Fait Gras Cheese, shredded
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
fresh minced parsley to taste or chiffonade basil for garnish

Cook fettuccine according to directions in salted water until al dente. Drain in a colander reserving ¼ C of pasta cooking liquid.While the pasta cooks, melt butter in medium saucepan over medium high heat. Add shallots and saute until tender. Add heavy cream and bring to a boil. Cook until sauce has reduced slightly, about 5 minutes stirring frequently. Remove from the heat and add half the Grassfields Fait Gras Cheese to the sauce. If it gets too thick, thin it with the reserved pasta cooking liquid. Return pasta to the pot it was cooking in and add the sauce. Toss to combine thoroughly. Season with salt & pepper to taste. Sprinkle the remaining shredded cheese on top so that it begins to melt on the fettuccine. Garnish with fresh parsley or basil if desired. Serve immediately.

With gratitude & thankfulness to my new friends at Grassfields. Thank you for your kindness.

Audrey J Brown
Sheridan, Wyoming
October 16, 2014