The Heath Agricultural Society gave us all a chance to go exploring the cellars and caves of our neighbors this past Saturday. Root cellars, cider cellars and a cheese cave. Who could resist this opportunity? Over 50 people signed up for this tour, many of them from towns beyond Heath. Even Springfield! I took one group around beginning with Sheila Litchfield who first explained the basics of cheesemaking. Chemistry. Bacteria. Sheila is a nurse so she knows all about bacteria. When Sheila isn’t milking her three goats to make cheese, serving as Rowe’s town nurse, and serving as a member of Heath’s selectboard, she spends ‘her spare’ time canning the produce from the large Litchfield garden. Oh, and she also gives cheesemaking workshops!
Sheila built her cheese cave in the cellar. Here, with carefully monitored temperature and humidity, she stores cheese that needs aging. She explained that she can only have one kind of cheese in this small cave, because the different cheese bacterias will infect each other, to the benefit of neither.
Our group got a bonus! Sheila showed us how she stores root vegetables, in crocks, on the bulkhead stairs. Not too much left at this time of year.
Then it was off to the Benson Place Blueberry Farm, where noted artist Robert Strong Woodward often painted, and where I often took young grandsons to pick their own low bush blueberries. Andrew and his family have been farming here for three years. When the basement was given a cement floor in the 1960′s a corner space was left unpaved, in expectation of a root cellar. Andrew finally finished the root cellar which now has two cement foundation walls, and two walls built of rigid silvery insulation panels, extra fiberglass insulation and heavy weight black plastic. His root cellar has a window which makes it possible, with the help of flexible ductwork, to bring extra air circulation. At this point Andrew says they buy bulk vegetables from farms like Atlas Farm to store. They also use the root cellar for other foods like yogurt and meat when the refrigerator is too full.
Andy and Sue Draxler could not put their root cellar in the cellar because their furnace made that space too warm. They poured a cement floor in their large garage/workshop, but left one corner unpaved to provide the necessary moisture for their root cellar. While Andrew’s root cellar is a little room with a window, the Draxlers built what is essentially a large closet. It is divided in two, with the intention of providing dry cold storage on one side, and moist cold storage on the other. That has not worked out as they expected, and both sides are quite moist. Sue Draxler explained are working on a fix for that. They do have their potatoes on one side and apples on the other. These two should never be stored together because the apples produce ethylene gas as they ripen, and this will cause the potatoes to sprout more quickly. Like, Andrew, the Draxlers have very little left in their root cellar at this time of the year. Sheila, Andrew and Sue all acknowledged that they had some produce loss because of the extremely cold temperatures for an extended period this year, made it impossible to keep root cellar temperatures above 32 degrees. Generally speaking root cellars should be keep between 40 and 55 degrees.
After root cellars, we went off to explore cider cellars. Hard cider, that is. Bob Bourke took everyone down to his cellar to show his equipment and fermenting carboys of cider. Then we all went up to the porch to see his cider press. Bob bought his house and property about five or six years ago and was happy that it came with a cider orchard. He has 45 trees of various apple cultivars like Golden Russets, Baldwins, Northern Spy, Gravensteins, Jonathans and others. Good, complex ciders depend on a flavorful mix of apples. Making cider also depends on controlling the yeasts, which means cleanliness and isolation in air-locked barrels and carboys. Bob explained that it is not really difficult to make cider, but cleanliness is vital. It is also very timeconsuming when it is time to sterilize the bottles, fill and cap them. He gave out samples to our thirsty crew.
Doug Mason gets most of his apples from Bob. They do a lot of work – and tasting – together. He has some additional equipment that we hadn’t seen at Bob’s. To cut down on the time required for washing and sterilizing bottles, he has bought several stainless steel kegs, like those that beer comes in. Much easier to clean a keg than bottles for an equal amount of beer. He also has a bottling and capping gadget that, with a two man crew, makes this operation fairly quick. He also gave out samples. Warming! And very nice. This cider cellar is about 50 degrees. Chilly. Doug ferments his cider in the barrel for about a year or so, then bottles it, and keeps it for another year. Bob’s cellar is warmer, and it takes the cider longer to mature in Doug’s colder cellar. So much to learn.
Back at the Community Hall we could warm up. Hours spent talking about food and drink prepared us for a fabulous lunch, chilis, soups, breads, pies and cider! All prepared for tour participants by members of the Heath Agricultural Society. That is Justin Lively, Society President, in the center rear of the photo. Lots of enthusiastic conversations! The big question? What other kinds of tours can we have in Heath? What kinds of tours might other towns create?