The Brown Swiss Cows of Sugar House Creamery
A wise and worthwhile travel philosophy is: make stops along the way. On a recent journey to Sugar House Creamery in the Adirondack hamlet of Upper Jay, New York, I made a point not to have a plan or schedule. I let the locals, and the vacant mountain roads, guide me. Beginning in Elizabethtown, I headed west to Keene and Lake Placid, northeast to Upper Jay, then south through Keene Valley on the way back to the New York Thruway in a span of just over 48 hours. After exploring a few of the towns of Essex County, and getting a sweet taste of what it’s like to run a micro dairy farm, here are some of my favorite discoveries.
Known as the “Eastern Gateway to the Adirondacks High Peaks,” Elizabethtown was once a booming tourist town with maple sugar at the forefront of its exportable industries. Today, the main attraction seems to be Deer’s Head Inn (7552 Court Street / 518-873-6514), the oldest tavern in all of the Adirondacks.
Outside Deer's Head Inn
Upon arriving at the Inn, I checked in at the counter of their 1808 Store, where a small selection of groceries and gifts were also conveniently located, and was escorted by the hostess to my room on the second floor. The room was large by most standards, clean, and very comfortably furnished. The upstairs hallway, where the four inn rooms are housed, leads to a common area where guests may sit with coffee, relax, and read one of the hundreds of books lining the four walls of shelving.
Inside Deer's Head Inn
After settling in, I ventured downstairs for dinner and discovered the Deer’s Head Inn 1808 tavern lived up to its promise of being one of the best restaurants in Essex County, according to the information pamphlet I had scooped up at the front door. A cheeseboard (of course, because this whole trip was about cheese!), buffalo cauliflower, and poutine (a Canadian dish popular in upstate New York that consists of French fries and cheese curds smothered in brown gravy) filled my table and my stomach.
I chatted with a few local patrons and the Inn’s staff about what to do and see in the area. They warned that it was a quiet time. As the weather warms up, they explained, campers, hikers and climbers, and various other naturists will swarm the Deer’s Head Inn; but, until then, this part of New York, like one of the Inn’s employees put it, is “extra wild” because of the lack of people this time of year.
That said, they suggested the CATS (aka Champlain Area Trails), some easier-to-hike trails than those of the High Peaks, JAMBS on Main in Westport for coffee, and Liquids and Solids in Lake Placid for food. The Adirondack History Museum (7590 Court Street / 518-873-6466) was at the top of my own list. As I learned, however, the best time to visit the museum is between Memorial Day and Columbus Day Weekends. If you go out of season, one needs to call ahead and make an appointment -- or you will lose out like I did.
Before I left the Inn, I made sure to sign the guest book in the entryway like United States Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland did over 200 years ago. The historic throughline pulsed as I wrote my name. Pretty cool!
The following morning, I set out for Lake Placid, just over 30 minutes’ drive away. In contrast to Elizabethtown and the other towns on my drive, there are countless bars, restaurants, and hotels within walking distance of Lake Placid’s village center.
I had been advised the night before to stop by Bliss & Vinegar (2669 Main Street / 518-837-5144), an herbal cafe across from the Olympic “Oval” (2634 Main Street), where you can catch athletes speed skating at times. At Bliss & Vinegar, you can order teas like the Forest Blend, kombucha, shrubs by Forever Wild Beverage Co. (try the Blueberry Mint), coffee, and other libations to go along with delicious chow-down choices made with ingredients sourced from nearby farms. The space is dark, but cozy with colorful floral design features to enjoy -- and a few to buy, such as Erin Hall Studio’s bold botanical tea towels.
Inside Bliss & Vinegar
Farther up Main Street, I discovered The Good Bite Kitchen (2501 Main Street / 518-637-2860) where several New York Makers’ makers’ goods are beautifully displayed for sale, such as the Appetizer Plates by Rooster Studios, hand-forged bottle openers by The Helderberg Blacksmith, and leather coasters by Jay Teske. I learned the menu magic happens at the back of The Good Bite Kitchen, which overlooks Mirror Lake. You can order delicious food to eat on the spot or sign up for their Good-to-Go Meal Kit delivery service. Remember to also swing by Around the Lake Coffee (2517 Main Street) for homey, old-time decor with a side of caffeine, and the shop of another New York Makers' maker, Pure Placid (2423 Main Street / 518-637-3596), where Marcy Miller makes, and stocks the shelves with, eco-friendly, alpine scent-inspired bath and body products and gift sets. Two popular lines are named for the Adirondack Park’s Whiteface and Mount Marcy peaks. Both smell incredible!
Strolling along in between my many food and drink stops, I took a moment to study the afternoon recreational scene on Mirror Lake as bundled-up skaters dotted its frozen ice, in an undulating, amoeba-like constellation. In the village of Lake Placid I could almost feel the residual energy from the thousands of fans and World Class athletes of the two Winter Olympic Games (1932 and 1980) hosted there. Lake Placid has all the elements of the peaceful, great outdoors, combined with the buzz of a busy downtown district.
Skaters playing hockey on Mirror Lake
Round out your lake experience by ordering a cocktail at dusk at The Cottage Restaurant at Mirror Lake Inn (77 Mirror Lake Drive / 518-302-3045).
Scenic drive tip: Follow Adirondack Loj Road route off Route 73, just south of Lake Placid, down to a few trailheads. Drive a few minutes, then find somewhere along the road to pull over safely. You’ll know why.
Along Adirondack Loj Road
KEENE / KEENE VALLEY
My next stop was the Keene/Keene Valley area. Keene and Keene Valley are both about serious shopping...plus more food (it’s cold outside, so you need to add a little extra padding, especially in the mountains)!
The retail merchandising experts of the expansive Keene Dartbrook stores, both Rustic Goods and South (10923 Route 9N, Keene / 518-576-4360 and 10913 Route 9N, Keene / 518-576-2777) instantly impressed me. Every corner of the buildings imaginatively brought to life different out-indoor vignettes of what we might dream our homes could look like someday. Then there’s The Birch Store (1778 Route 73, Keene Valley / 518-576-4561) in Keene Valley, a two-story Adirondack lifestyle shop with endless adjoining rooms filled with everything from hand-stitched High Peaks balsam-filled pillows to old books (my personal favorite).
If you want to be a hardcore mountain man or woman, need some serious gear, or just want to dress the part, head to The Mountaineer (1866 Route 73, Keene Valley / 518-576-2281) in Keene Valley. They have everything you need from fly fishing to hiking and skiing and other mountain adventure accessories.
Keene Arts (10881 Route 73, Keene / 914-309-7095), a creative congregation operating out of an old roadside Methodist Church in Keene, functions as a sort of cultural hub for the High Peaks region. Keep an eye on this group for summer event announcements involving art, music, literature, cinema, theater, and more.
The Church of Keene Arts
Come for the pie, stay for the food at Noon Mark Diner (1770 Route 73, Keene Valley / 518-576-4499) in Keene Valley. The sweet homemade raspberry jam was quite delicious, too. Cherry-peach, apricot crumb, maple-walnut and pecan, and rhubarb are just 4 of the made-fresh-to-order 40+ pie flavors they offer. Those with Adirondack camps know to order ahead and pick up en route.
Dinner is served at Forty Six (2837 Route 73, Keene / 518-576-4646) in Keene. I absolutely loved this restaurant. The employees were incredibly kind and more than willing to suggest their favorites on the inventive menu (get the dessert -- no matter what it is!). Forty Six is an intimate, feel-fine dining escape best experienced in the evening. Your check’s metaphorically on us if you can guess why it’s called “Forty Six”...(Think High Peaks!)
UPPER JAY / SUGAR HOUSE CREAMERY
Leaving the Adirondack Mountain Coffee Cafe (8 Artos Way / 518-946-6080) in Upper Jay (ok, so maybe this trip was about cheese AND coffee), I drove a short distance to the entrance of my final, and much anticipated, destination, Sugar House Creamery (18 Sugar House Way / 518-300-0626).
Sugar House includes a working farm, complete with twelve Brown Swiss cows, a cheese-making operation, two rental suites, a farm store, and the homes of the Eaton-Brooks family and Creamery Manager Casey Galligan.
Sugar House Creamery buildings and land
Owned by farmers/spouses/parents/hosts/superheroes Margot Brooks and Alex Eaton, their paths crossed years ago when they met at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. Margot grew up in Central New York near Cooperstown and is a sixth generation dairy farmer. Originally from Vermont, Alex grew up in farm country with a similar affinity for this life. After college, they decided to pursue a future together, one of both family and career.
Alex Eaton and Margot Brooks with dogs Wendy and Stella
In August of 2012, Margot and Alex bought Sugar House Farm, on Sugar House Lane, and built Sugar House Creamery. At some point in the farm’s history, the home their family lives in was a sugar house, a building where maple sugar was made. Alex says about the land that there are “a few old dinosaur maples out there, but there must have been more to warrant that type of operation.” The maple operation has been replaced by the dairy operation, and thus the land given new life.
As I entered the farm, I was looking forward to an added treat. I had been delighted to find out the night before in Elizabethtown that a mini winter farmers market, aka “The Snowy Grocery”, with a Juniper Hill Farm (82 Loukes Road, Wadhams / 518-524-5652) root vegetable stand, Mona Dubay’s hot soup, and Spirit Gatherer’s bottled golden lattes was also happening on the first floor space of the carriage barn I had rented for the night.
Inside Sugar House Creamery's farm store
My first stop was the farm store, the cutest I’ve ever laid eyes on. Inside I was greeted by Margot and Courtney Grimes-Sutton of Mace Chasm Farm (810 Mace Chasm Road, Keeseville / 518-963-4169). I became lost in heaven, poking through old records for sale, displays of farm photographs and postcards, wool yarn, locally-made soaps, coffee, ghee, honey, maple syrup, and DIY fermentation kits by Small Town Cultures. Behind the refrigeration coolers, I found the Sugar House Creamery-made cheese and sweet raw milk I was eager to try. But it was 4:30 PM, and time for the second and final milking of the day. Visitors are always invited to observe this ritual.
I eagerly made my way over to the main barn just a couple steps away, and was charmed to meet William (or Will), Sugar House’s one-eyed, orange cat and adorable overseer. We bonded right away, with Will climbing up my arm and onto my shoulder to sit. I later found out Will is a feline of the people, a real smoosher on this farm. But back to the milking!
Will (and me!)
Margot, Alex, and even their baby Harriet (in her own way) stood prepared and ready for work in the milking parlor, which was situated down the hallway past the processing room, the creamery, and above the aging cellar. In proceeded their twelve Brown Swiss cows: Speculoos, Jules, Sardine, Sabine, Garbardine, Mary, Bran Flake, Jubil, Kitty Wells, June, Prune, and Alphie.
Milking happens every day, twice a day, all year-round. On Tuesdays, Margot and Casey, who worked together as cheesemakers previously at Consider Bardwell Farm in Vermont, make cheese. Dutch Knuckle is their signature raw milk mountain cheese. It takes almost a year to age properly, and is done so on locally-sourced spruce planks on site. Little Dickens, otherwise known as my favorite, takes the shortest amount of time to age and is creamy and perfectly delicious. And lastly, Poundcake, which has my vote for best name, is aged a little over a month and washed with beer from Ausable Brewing Company. Sugar House Creamery also sells their raw milk (if you are local, you can participate in the bottle share which allows the milk to be even more affordable) in the farm store on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 10 AM to 6 PM.
The next morning, I rose in time to make the morning milking at 6:30 AM (which mightily impressed my hosts, since most guests apparently skip that early hour chore!), then made my way back to the carriage barn with Will, the cat, for coffee with Sugar House Creamery's raw milk and samplings of Dutch Knuckle, Little Dickens, and Poundcake for breakfast. I watched the sun rise over the barns and distant mountain range.
Sugar House Creamery's Brown Swiss cows
I recommend staying overnight in either the carriage barn or guest quarters to experience a small bit of what it’s like to live the life of a dairy farmer and cheese maker. It has its own rhythm and routine, definitely early to bed and early to rise.
Sugar House Creamery's carriage barn
When I asked Margot and Alex what’s next, Alex confidently said, “Our whole idea and philosophy have been to improve our product,” and Margot agrees, adding that the goal is also to focus on “our efficiencies and quality of life and to get to a point where we can be more philanthropic.” In terms of making a product from start to finish, Margot tells me that “it starts with managing our pastures and ends with selling a product to a customer. It’s just really rare in today’s food landscape.”
And as parents, they want to “give her [Harriet] a good life, maybe get days off.”
Margot and Alex's daughter Harriet in the milking parlor
At Sugar House, they work with neighboring farms to share resources, so each operation can work on what it does best. Margot reveals that since they’ve been farming on the land, she has started to see more and more wildlife -- bluebirds, deer, and wild turkey.
I drove slowly away, Margot and Alex’s dogs Wendy and Stella trailing behind to give me a perfect farm send off. As I turned onto Route 9N, I reveled in how sweet a community this is, and this trip had been, and hoped I could carry that spirit with me once I returned to my faster, urban world.