On a gorgeous Sunday morning, 20 Seattleites rose early to make their way aboard the Fauntleroy ferry to Vashon, where the cool oasis of Kurtwood Farms awaited. Resisting the World Cup final fever the rest of Seattle had seemingly fallen victim to, they anticipated a taste of the farm life Kurt Timmermeister had depicted in his two celebrated books: Growing a Farmer, and his most recent release: Growing a Feast.
Once the caravan of 20 convened at the farm and the dust settled in the adjacent lot, Kurt stepped out for a quick greeting and then led us through the hedged walkway into a long, airy, stonewalled farmhouse kitchen, the scene for many of his feasts and more recent culinary adventures. (More on that later).
Kurt opened with a brief introduction on his background as both chef and owner of the former Septieme; an acclaimed Capitol Hill restaurant he ran for 18 years before shuttering in the early 90’s, as the pace of island began to beckon him to Vashon. He shared how he came to find the farmstead which he, along with several extra hands, lovingly restored and built to become Kurtwood Farms. A true story of love at first sight, Kurt didn’t even get out of the car before he announced to his realtor “This is it.”
That certainty is undoubtedly what drove Kurt to devote countless hours of hard work over the ensuing years, and inspired him to endeavor on some initially lucrative, yet ultimately unsustainable pursuits, such as beekeeping, a CSA and a raw milk franchise, all of which he detailed to us as cautionary tale on the pitfalls of going into farming with idealistic notions.
Kurt spoke to our Slow Food Seattle group for about an hour, giving us an intimate look at his life leading up to his days as a dairy owner, farmer, chef, and author, while also giving us a glimpse of what we would be encountering on our tour.
He then took us through the back of the kitchen, and walked us around the farm. We started with the milking parlor, a wall-less wooden structure that the farm’s seven Jersey cows are led into twice a day (usually 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.) to be milked. These seven cows each produce roughly 5 gallons a day, resulting in 35 gallons of pure, creamy milk.
Next door from the milking parlor, we ventured into the small cheesemaking facility, but due to contamination concerns (after all, cheesemaking is a sensitive process!) we just peeked our heads into the window of the room where the actual cheesemaking takes place. To maintain a safe environment, the cheesemaker herself dons a separate set of clothes, apron, and shoes before entering the cheesemaking room.
One of the most anticipated tour stops came next: the bovine stars themselves! Many of the group went up to meet and snap photos of some of the herd, half of whom were resting, while the other half was grazing and drinking from the trough near the fence.
We next walked up the gravel road towards the cheese cave, which resembled a Hobbit home and was constructed in a grassy hillside, with a charming handcrafted door in the front and an air vent in the rear. Kurt mentioned that on warm days he liked to enter and walk the cave’s earthen floors just to savor its subterranean coolness beneath his feet. I bet some of us wished we could do the same –the day was a scorcher.
On the way back towards the farmhouse, we walked through another dairy barn, one housing a couple of 2-month old calves who shyly stayed back from the viewing area, but whose doe-eyed sweetness captured the attention of all who cooed back at them.
Once back at the kitchen, we finally got down to the business of sampling the end product of this operation: Kurt’s famous cheeses! Kurt had earlier set out a wheel of his staple, Dinah’s Cheese, (named after one of his first cows, Dinah) which he shared, “pays the mortgage, pays the electricity bill.” He sliced the oozy Camembert style cheese and passed the plate around for our first sample of the day. All agreed it was rich, creamy, and delicious.
Afterward, as a special treat, Kurt shared his latest project: ice cream! With the caveat that some of the samples would contain chunks of butter, due to some processing challenges he was working through, Kurt brought out three flavors – helado de queso, chocolate mint, and tomato jam – all made with ingredients grown on his farm. He scooped up samples of all three into cones, which were passed around and savored, drips lapped up quickly by the eager farmhouse dog.
Following our final day’s tasting, Kurt opened his “store” for cheese and book sales, and many of the attendees queued up with coolers at the ready to take home a Dinah’s, LogHouse or both –fresh from the farm -as well as have their books autographed or purchase a new one for their collection.
Slow Food Seattle’s visit to a working island dairy farm on a gorgeous summer day was made even better by being some of the first to sample Kurtwood Farm’s new frozen offerings.
We look forward to revisiting this culinary experience closer to home while picking up some of his wares (cheeses, books, and other products) at the new micro-sized Chophouse Row retail space near 11th and Pike on Capitol Hill opening in Fall 2014.
Thank you, Kurt and friends, for the wonderful visit and glimpse into a day on the farm, and, with your incredible artisan cheeses, for bringing that experience from your table to ours.