The Recorder – Celebrating our local food and beer

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A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to attend “Local Loves Local”, a fundraiser for the Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture (CISA) at Four Star Farms in Northfield.

The evening involved a locally sourced supper; beverages from the Four Star Farms brewery; tributes to many “local heroes”, CISA’s apt name for its producers; music from members of the Whiskey Treaty Roadshow, who will be performing at the Shea Theater this Saturday, by the way; and a brief tour of the farm.

Attendees sat outside at picnic tables on a perfect late summer evening. We stayed just long enough to see the sun set dramatically in the west and the glorious full moon rear its head on the eastern horizon.

I spoke to a number of people, including a young farm insurance agent, employees of the River Valley Coop and a couple of enthusiastic cyclists from Whately who dream of organizing a bike tour of local farms.

The meal, prepared by Nathan Sanden at his Port #3 food truck, was simple but perfect: a veggie or local beef burger served with a huge variety of vegetable toppings from local farms — including summer squash relish which I would love the recipe for — and fresh corn on the cob.

CISA’s Phil Korman announced after the meal that the evening represented Sanden’s maiden voyage as a food-truck entrepreneur. The neophyte took up the challenge with grace.

The brewery has provided flights of beer, wine or cider, including a special wet hop IPA that is only available when the hops are picked.

To top off the meal, Sweet Lucy’s Bakeshop in Bernardston used fruit from Clarkdale Fruit Farms to make delicious desserts: a matcha plum jelly donut and a mini peach pancake.

The official program included speeches by Phil Korman and his CISA colleague, Wendy Ferris; Liz L’Etoile, farmer and public relations guru at Four Star Farms; Sweet Lucy (Damkoehler) herself; and Chris Sellers, head brewer and co-owner of the brewery.

Each spoke of the benefits of using local ingredients. They also celebrated the special nature of our region, where farmers and businesses share a commitment to caring for local soils, crops and people.

Chris Sellers observed, “CISA really embodies what we’re trying to do here, which is to connect people with the ingredients that go into their beer. And Phil Korman urged attendees to go home and make a difference by supporting local food and the local community.

At the end of the meal, Liz L’Etoile, up since before dawn, spent the twilight moments of the evening leading a group along a row of experimental hop plants the farm was about to pick.

I had never seen hop plants before and was in awe of the huge vines. According to L’Etoile, they are about 19 feet tall. The hops themselves were small cones nestled amongst the vines. Hidden within each cone were black medic, tiny pods and oils that give the beer its character.

She encouraged us to pick a few cones, crush them between our fingers and smell. The first one I crushed had a citrus smell; the second, more of a pine scent.

Hop cultivation, we learned, has changed dramatically over the years. I knew from reading the story that until recently picking hops was very labor intensive.

When hop harvest time arrived on English farms, whole families traveled from London to the countryside to become temporary farm laborers for about a month at the end of summer.

Liz L’Etoile explained that her farm no longer needs the large number of hop pickers and sorters it used to have. It has a machine that separates the small cones from the vines and removes the black medic.

Hop plants are majestic and beautiful. Spending time at the brewery almost made me decide to hang out there every weekend sipping a beer.

Unfortunately, I don’t like the taste of alcohol, and Northfield is a bit far from my home in Hawley to become a regular destination for me. Nonetheless, I returned home with happy memories of an idyllic evening, as well as a renewed appreciation for the creativity of the farmers among us.

I also came home with a can of “the Northfielder” lager to cook with. I may not drink beer, but I love beer cheese. So I made this delicious fall snack, perfect to serve with crostini or pretzels for dipping.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with beer cheese, I should explain that it is a homemade spread that looks like queso but is not heated. I had done this before, but the Four Star lager gave it a new depth of flavor.

If you want to anticipate Halloween, use an orange cheese for an appropriate color. However, any sharp cheddar will do in this recipe.

Inspired by Four Star Beer Cheese

Ingredients:

1 head of garlic

2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

6 ounces Northfielder Traditional Lager

1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated

1 brick cream cheese 8 ounces at room temperature

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon creole seasoning

Instructions:

First roast the garlic. You won’t need the whole head of garlic, but it’s silly to roast less than a head. You can roast it a day or two before assembling the recipe; Just be sure to refrigerate the garlic until you’re ready to use it.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the outer skin from the head of garlic, but leave the individual skins on the garlic cloves.

Cut off the tips of the garlic cloves. Place the head of garlic in a small baking dish. An oven-safe ramekin works just fine.

Drizzle oil over any exposed clove pieces, using your fingers to make sure the oil touches all visible garlic. Salt and pepper everything. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil.

Cook the garlic until tender, about 30 to 40 minutes. Let it cool until you can touch it; then squeeze the individual cloves out of their skins and into a bowl. Crush the garlic with a fork. Measure 1 teaspoon for cheese recipe. Refrigerate the rest for use in other kitchens.

Let the beer flatten out a bit. (You can do this while you’re roasting your garlic if you like.)

In a food processor or electric mixer, combine the cheeses and 1 tablespoon of beer. Add the teaspoon of garlic, Worcestershire sauce, mustard and creole seasoning. When well mixed, slowly pour in the rest of the lager.

Let the cheese spread in the refrigerator for 2 hours or more before serving. Makes at least 1 liter of cheese spread.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning songwriter and singer. His next book will be “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking”. Visit his website, TinkyCooks.com.

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