Monday, July 18, 2011

Cheese That's Good!...Idaho

Hello all!

After we left West Yellowstone (and Montana), we headed for Idaho! We crossed the continental divide at Targhee Pass. It was a pretty easy climb followed by a long down hill making our total mileage for the day amount to 70.

Our destination was Ashton, ID. After eating lunch along the Snake River in Island Park, the town with the longest Main Street in America (23 miles), we bumped into another cyclist named Marty that was headed east. He recommended that we take the Mesa Falls scenic route. He even mentioned it would be mostly downhill for us! Even though it added about 8 miles to our ride that day, we decided it would be a safer route since the highway we were on had no shoulder and heavy traffic.

Island Park - city with the longest main street in America

The 28 mile scenic route was definitely a good choice. Mesa Falls was beautiful. It was hard to capture a picture to describe how amazing it looked. The mist billowing up from the waterfall created a micro-ecosystem with walls of thick green moss growing on the walls of the canyon. Trees were even able to grow out of the side of the rock because of the effect.

We left the majestic Mesa Falls and went on our way, but the one mile climb out of the overlook was not fun. It was the first time since the Appalachian Mountains that I had to get off my bike and walk! We finally made it to the end of the scenic route and we were exhausted. Our extended stay in Yellowstone filled with 20-30 mile days turned us into wimps, so when we finished our 70 mile day we were more wiped out than usual. Plus, we had no idea where we were staying that night...

We made it to downtown Ashton and everything was closed. We didn't realize that it was a Sunday, and when you're in a small town on a Sunday you might as well be out in the middle of nowhere. Nearly everything was closed, but we managed to find a restaurant that was open, so we grabbed a bite to eat and looked online for a place to camp. We found Jessen's RV Park just a couple of miles down the road! The place was run by an '87 years young' (as she put it) woman who liked to meet new people. So, she turned her property, a former seed potato farm, into an RV Park. It had a great view of the Tetons, a place to shower, and we camped out underneath some apple trees and enjoyed another beautiful sunset in a wide open Western sky.

Did I mention the ground level trampoline?

The next morning we packed up and hit the road for Lark's Meadow Farms, an artisan raw milk cheese farm. We found the farm through Local Harvest and got in touch with Kendall Russell, the cheese artisan of the farm. Almost as soon as we arrived, Kendall gave us a tour of the creamery and aging rooms.

sunrise at Lark's Meadow Farms

Lark's Meadow Farms produces raw milk cheese from sheep (no, I didn't mean goat) and cow milk. Turophiles (cheeselovers) would say that raw milk cheese (unpasteurized) is the best kind of cheese, and we would have to agree! Raw milk cheese has a much richer and unique flavor that you can not achieve from pasteurized cheese no matter how hard you try.

Besides a two week internship, Kendall is a self-taught cheese-maker, and even though the farm has only been open for three years, they are already selling cheese coast to coast! After tasting a few samples of the five varieties of cheese that they produce: Helen (a raw cow milk cheese), Dolcinea (a raw sheep milk cheese - the most like a traditional Basque cheese), Janice (a hard cheese that is a mix of sheep and cow milk), Leland (a soft cheese that is a mix of sheep and cow milk), and Wild Blue (a cheese with a natural blue mold) it was easy to understand why they have become such a success. Their cheese is styled mainly after the cheeses of the Basque region of Northern Spain/Southern France and are 'peasant style' cheeses--rustic, simple, durable, and delicious!!

Kendall explained to us the process of making cheese, and we did our best to follow -making high-quality artisan cheese is a lengthy endeavor that involves intently monitoring temperature and levels of bacteria then making the right adjustments to obtain the desired taste. When creating raw milk cheese, everything must be clean and fresh. That is why Lark's Meadow Farms uses milk that is less than 24 hours old, and their creamery, milking room, equipment, and animals are kept very clean.

The first step in making cheese is warming the milk to a specific temperature determined by the type of bacterial cultures that will be added. The special blend of bacterial cultures that is added to the warmed milk uses the lactose of the milk to increase it's acidity. Acidity in cheese is what makes it hard or soft. High acidic cheese is crumbly (like feta), while low acidic cheese is soft (like brie).

The bacteria are allowed to sit for a period of time in the next stage called ripening. The bacteria not only change the acidity of the milk, but they also help the milk curdle, i.e., it separates into curd and whey. Whey is the watery protein compound of milk, while curd is the sticky, globby, more "cheesy" protein component. After the ripening period, more enzymes are added to help further the curdling of the milk in a stage called renneting. The milk mixture is allowed to set as the curd and whey separate even more.

The curd is then cut in the cutting stage. The size & shape of the individual curd can be manipulated by using different instruments. Every cut releases whey from the curd, and the more you cut the curd, the harder the cheese will end up being.

After the curd has been cut to the desired fineness it must be separated from the whey and strained. This stage is called hooping, as it was done with hoops years ago. Lark's Meadow Farms uses a series of colanders for this process. The curd begins to take on a more recognizably cheesy wheel shape as it moves to the next stage.

The newly formed wheel of cheese is flipped multiple times over the course of two days to allow the whey to separate uniformly around the wheel. After this resting period, the cheese is pressed to get rid of any leftover whey and salted to allow for the rind to be established.

The final part of cheese making takes the longest amount of time, but is the least labor intensive. Aging involves moving the cheese to a drying room that is maintained at a controlled temperature of 62 degrees Fahrenheit. The cheese is first placed on wire racks to help it lose moisture at a controlled rate. This is where the rind is formed. At this stage the cheese is still being flipped everyday. This is also where mold starts to grow (yes mold is a good thing in the cheese world). The cheese is then moved into another room with wooden racks. The wooden racks help to slow the loss of moisture and also to control humidity in the room. The cheese is flipped less and less as it is aged (at least four months!!).

cow's milk cheese (left) is darker in color because it contains beta-carotene; sheep's milk cheese (right) does not

After we learned the cheese making process, we enjoyed a lovely dinner with the whole Russell/Reynolds family. They were also kind of enough to let us stay the night in their spare bedroom. It was nice to get a warm shower and a cozy bed because the next day we woke up at 4:30 to begin milking the cows and sheep!

sheep not goats!

Mike explaining the milking process

much more efficient than doing it by hand

In case you didn't notice, they don't milk animals by hand anymore...thank you technology! Kevin and I now have a new trade in case architecture doesn't work out for me and teaching doesn't work out for him.

We had so much fun we ended up staying another night! The weather was also looking pretty rough that day, and I had to go into town and buy a new tire because my rear tire had a giant hole in the side of it. Luckily, Mrs. Reynolds needed to run some errands, so she dropped me off at the bike shop. I am glad I noticed it before it caused a major problem. Kendall was also nice enough to take some time out of his day and drive us to the famous Idaho sand dunes, which were quite breathtaking to say the least.

that's Kevin if you can't tell

After staying two nights at Lark's Meadow Farms, we finally decided to head out, although we contemplated moving in...haha. We were sad to go because we had so much fun, but we needed to complete our journey! So, we said goodbye to everyone at the farm and rolled on to Mud Lake, ID.

We were a little nervous to head to Mud Lake, ID because everyone we spoke to told us there was NOTHING in Mud Lake. They said it was just a dot on the map. So, we biked the forty miles there and hoped for the best. We arrived in Mud Lake and decided to head down a dirt road two miles to what we thought was a campsite. When we arrived, there was a pit toilet, piles of garbage everywhere, overgrown grass, and a dirty running water. So, we biked the two miles back to the highway and kept moving. We arrived at the town's watering hole (because no matter how small the town is, there always seems to be a bar of some kind) called the Wayside Lounge and Cafe. We sat at the bar, ordered a few beers and a pizza, and struck up a conversation with the bartender. Mary was extremely helpful. We told her we were looking for a place to camp and she recommended the city park up the road. All she had to do was call Chris (the guy who took care of the property) to ask him to turn the sprinklers off for the night. We enjoyed a few more drinks, met really nice people from the community, and then headed to the park.

The next morning we woke up at 'milking time' (4:30am) so we could hit the road by 6am. We had been having trouble with the afternoon Idaho wind and needed to get to our destination before noon because in the days prior, the winds had been picking up to 20+ miles per hour by then. It wasn't so bad to get up that early, plus we were able to see the moon set at the same time the sun was rising.

the moon setting

We made it to Arco, ID by noon and enjoyed a nice meal (milk shakes included) at a burger joint and then camped at the KOA. By the way, can someone please tell me when KOAs became so expensive?

The next morning we decided to hit the road early again to not only beat the wind, but also to secure a campsite at Craters of the Moon National Monument. This was one of the strangest places we've ever been. A remnant of a giant volcanic explosion, the area is blanketed with black, jagged, volcanic rock. We met a friend of Kevin's here who insisted that this area was in actuality, Mordor from Lord of the Rings.

We explored the amazing lava caves and climbed a 'cone volcano' named inferno cone. It was also interesting to learn about the geology of the area; the current geologic hotspot that created craters of the moon nearly 6 million years ago has been pushed east due to plate tectonics and is now underneath Yellowstone National Park, waiting to erupt again...

cooled lava!

inside a lava tube cave

We left Craters of the Moon and headed west through the Snake River plain to Boise, the capitol city of Idaho, passing high plains desert, buttes, and vast mountain ranges along the way. We have been taking a few days off to get a some things together, write this blog post, and prepare for the final leg of the journey -Oregon.

We are estimating that it will take us around 9 days to hit the coast as we travel down the Columbia River Gorge just as the Lewis and Clark expedition did so many years ago. We will end up in Astoria, OR near the end of the month ending our nearly 4000 mile journey across this great country. Both Kevin and I have had an amazing time, but are just plain exhausted -being on the road for over 2 months takes its toll on the mind and body. It will be a mix of emotions when we reach the ocean, and hopefully Kevin will prevent me from tossing my bike in the Pacific.

Until then, keep following and remember that if you're interested in getting your hands on a postcard, souvenir, t-shirt, or our 'foodguide for touring cyclists' visit our kickstarter page. You have 10 days to pre-order, so tell everyone you know!

Hope all is well back east, and rest assured we will return soon enough!

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