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Blended Whiskey

The Recorder – Celebrating our local food and beer

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

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

Attendees sat outdoors at picnic tables on a perfect late-summer night. We stayed just long enough to see the sun set dramatically in the west and the glorious full moon stick its head up over the eastern horizon.

I chatted with a number of different people, among them a young insurance agent specializing in farms, employees of the River Valley Coop, and a couple of enthusiastic cyclists from Whately who dream of organizing a bicycle tour of local farms.

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

Phil Korman of CISA announced after the meal that the evening represented Sanden’s maiden voyage as a food-truck entrepreneur. The neophyte handled the challenge gracefully.

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

To cap the meal, Sweet Lucy’s Bakeshop in Bernardston used fruit from Clarkdale Fruit Farms to make delectable desserts: a matcha-plum jelly doughnut and a mini-peach galette.

The formal program included speeches from Phil Korman and his colleague at CISA, 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 at the brewery.

Each of them touched on the rewards of using local ingredients. They also celebrated the special nature of our area, where farmers and businesses share a commitment to nurturing local soil, crops and people.

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

At the end of the meal, Liz L’Etoile, who had been up since before dawn, spent the evening’s twilight moments leading a group along a row of experimental hops plants that the farm was getting ready to pick.

I had never seen hops plants before and was awed by the huge vines. According to L’Etoile, they grow about 19 feet high. The hops themselves were small cones nestled among the vines. Hidden in each cone were lupulin, tiny pods and oils that give beer its character.

She encouraged us to pick a few cones, crush them in our fingers, and smell. The first I crushed had a citrusy odor; the second, more of a piney scent.

Hop farming, we learned, has changed radically over the years. I knew from reading history that until recently hop picking was highly labor intensive.

When hop-harvest time arrived at English farms, whole families would journey from London to the country to become temporary agricultural workers for a month or so in late summer.

Liz L’Etoile explained that now her farm doesn’t need the huge number of hop pickers and sorters of yore. It has a machine that separates the small cones from the vines and weeds out the lupulin.

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

Unfortunately, I don’t care for the taste of alcohol, and Northfield is a little far from my home in Hawley to become a regular destination for me. Nevertheless, I came home with happy memories of an idyllic evening, as well as a renewed appreciation for the creativity of the farmers in our midst.

I also came home with a can of “the Northfielder” lager with which to cook. I may not consume beer, but I do love beer cheese. So I put together this lovely fall snack, perfect for serving with crostini or dipping pretzels.

For those of you not familiar with beer cheese, I should explain that it’s a homemade spread that resembles queso but isn’t heated. I had made it before, but the Four Star lager gave it a new depth of flavor.

If you want to anticipate Halloween, use an orangey cheese for appropriate color. Any sharp cheddar will do in this recipe, however.

Inspired by Four Star Beer Cheese

Ingredients:

1 head 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 8-ounce brick cream cheese at room temperature

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon Creole seasoning

Instructions:

First, roast the garlic. You won’t actually need the entire head of garlic, but it’s silly to roast less than a head. You may 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. Pull the outside skin off the head of garlic, but leave the individual skins on the garlic cloves.

Cut off the tips of the garlic cloves. Place the garlic head in a small baking dish. An ovenproof ramekin does nicely.

Drizzle oil all over the exposed pieces of clove, using your fingers to make sure the oil touches all the visible garlic. Sprinkle salt and pepper overall. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil.

Bake the garlic until it feels soft, about 30 to 40 minutes. Allow it to cool until you can touch it; then squeeze the individual cloves out of their skins and into a bowl. Mash the garlic with a fork. Measure out 1 teaspoon for the cheese recipe. Refrigerate the rest for use in other cooking.

Allow the lager to flatten a bit. (You may do this while you roast your garlic if you like.)

In a food processor or electric mixer, blend the cheeses and 1 tablespoon of the beer. Add the teaspoon of garlic, the Worcestershire sauce, the mustard, and the Creole seasoning. When they are well blended slowly pour in the remaining lager.

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

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

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