By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2007 Gourmet Magazine
Woodside farm’s small herd of 30 Jerseys is moved to a fresh paddock every day after morning milking to give them plush green grass to eat and to allow the fields of clover, alfalfa, and orchard and rye grasses they’ve already grazed to flourish again. Each cow produces four to five gallons daily, which, compared with Holstein production, is scant. (Holsteins are black-and-white; Jerseys are brown, as exemplified by their most famous goodwill ambassador, Elsie.)
Farmer Jim Mitchell asserts that the milk from a Jersey cow is more nutritious and better tasting. All we know is that the ice cream at Woodside Farm Creamery is magnificent. The thick Jersey milk makes it more cream-sweet than sugar-sweet. Low overrun (minimal added air) creates such density that as the confection melts, it resembles crème fraîche rather than spilled milk. The butterfat content is about 16 percent (varying slightly depending on how the grass is growing), placing it high on the richness scale. But unlike other high-butterfat, super premium brands, which can have such overwhelming intensity after a scoop or two that you feel like you are gagging on spheres of flavored butter, this stuff tastes positively salubrious. Two or three scoops are no problem; if we lived anywhere near New Castle County, Delaware, we’d come for a cone a day.
Woodside Farm is a particularly nice destination because of its alfresco picnic tables and grassy fields. Some customers bring blankets and boxed lunches, for which ice cream provides the grand finale. The view from the tables is of cattle grazing. This place is the opposite of an ice cream shop in a strip mall; it’s pure country.
The splendid milk produced by Woodside Farm cows has as much to do with their mood as it does with the quality of the beautiful grass they eat. “The pasture-based system isn’t the most efficient way to keep cattle,” Mitchell says. “But it is easy on the cows. And cow comfort is important. Happy cows mean good milk.” He is forthright about his emotional attachment to the breed. “Holsteins’ heads are thick,” he scoffs. “Jerseys have a fine head with an elegant dished face. They are just as they were two hundred years ago. They haven’t been bred for high production, but for quality.”
“Jerseys are just beautiful,” croons his wife, Janet, who is a small-animal veterinarian at a nearby clinic. With a bit of embarrassment, she admits that she and Jim still take care of Abby and Melissa, two of the original cows from the dozen calves that started their herd in 1995. The old gals stopped producing long ago, and now they have no job at all. They just hang out and enjoy their cud.
Woodside Farm has been a family operation for seven generations, since 1796. It was a couple of years after the Mitchells bought their cows that Jim earned a diploma in ice cream making from Penn State. By this time, their calves were grown and ready to produce. They opened the ice cream stand in an old wagon storage shed near the stone house where Jim’s parents live. Now his 78-year-old father, Joe, does the milking twice a day; longtime hands John Turley and Don Wilson make ice cream from spring into the autumn months.
It’s small-batch production from a pair of 20-quart, water-cooled machines housed in a shop with direct access to a freezer box (full of shelled nuts and hard candy for exotic flavors) and to the 20-below-zero hardening cabinet into which freshly made pints and quarts are immediately thrust. Speed is vital in making ice cream, Turley says. The quicker it gets into the hardening cabinet, the smaller the ice crystals. Small ice crystals mean smooth ice cream. As proof, he reminds us of what ice cream is like in a home freezer when it slowly refreezes after an extended power failure: as rough as 50-grit sandpaper. From the hardening cabinet, the ice cream goes into a tempering cabinet, then finally into the dipping cabinets at the stand, where it becomes soft enough to scoop.
Scooped ice cream that has gone through the process is wonderful, but the best ice cream we’ve ever eaten is some we tasted as it came out of the machine before going into the hardening cabinet. The flavor was a zany one that Turley and Wilson were experimenting with: Lucky Charms. (For those whose silly-cereal consciousness is wanting, Lucky Charms contains small multicolored marshmallows in the shape of hearts, stars, horseshoes, balloons, and crescent moons, among others.) Frankly, the bits of frozen marshmallow were irrelevant; the ice cream itself, simple vanilla, was jaw-dropping. Its texture was like muscular soft-serve, as concentrated—and nearly as opulent—as triple-cream cheese. Vanilla was a minor note compared with the flavor of the cream itself.
About the same time, Turley and Wilson were preparing batches of a perennial favorite, available at the farm’s ice cream stand and sold to concessionaires at car shows: Motor Oil. That’s coffee ice cream and fudge with veins of caramel that are tinted green to resemble engine oil. Even that flavor is scarcely bizarre next to such special-order Woodside Farm batches as Barbecue, Bacon, Garlic Amaretto Chocolate Chip, Mushroom—for the annual Mushroom Festival in nearby Kennett Square, Pennsylvania—and Cappuccino Stout, for a local brewpub. Members of a Hindu temple in Hockessin bring their own spices, including saffron, to create ice cream that comes out green as Gatorade. (Mitchell hasn’t been tempted to sample that one.) Not surprisingly, however, vanilla is by far the most popular flavor. It’s maximum moo.