Palisade, Minnesota; (218) 845-2443
If you'd told me a year ago that there was a difference between various brands of milk, I'd have thought you were trying to put one over on a city girl--wasn't milk just like crystal sugar in bags, canola oil in bottles, Cheerios in boxes? In the Dark Ages, back in about 1998, I'd have told you that milk was just a uniform product with a standard taste.
But hallelujah, brother, the scales have fallen from my tongue, and now I can taste. One kind of milk can be as different from another as peonies are from daisies. Gemini Guernseys, a tiny, single-herd dairy up in Palisade, Minnesota, is responsible for my conversion. Their milk is so rich, so buttery, so fresh, sweet, velvety, and good it makes ordinary, anonymous milk taste like some kind of flat soft drink.
I first tried Gemini milk at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market, where Dick Bowne, who heads the little operation with his wife Pam, runs a stand every Saturday and Sunday. Dick's hard to miss--he's a giant, bearded guy who looks like a florid sheepdog, and he'll talk your ear off if you ask about his half-gallon and gallon containers with the cute little cow pictures on them. "This is the freshest milk you're ever going to taste, short of sticking your head under a cow," he'll offer, "and if you want to see how fresh it is, all you have to do is get on the road." The Gemini Guernseys farm is 145 miles north of Minneapolis. "Come up and you'll see your cows. It's not just a crock of bullshit. When you buy this milk, we are your farmers, these are your cows. You call this number." He points to the phone number on the package. "It rings in our house, it rings in the barn."
So I took the bait and drove up to the rich, flat, muddy lands around Palisade, Minnesota, a one-horse town on the Mississippi. There I learned that the phone in the barn doesn't necessarily ring--that phone is a mess. See, the Bownes are a little tight for cash, having recently invested all their money, and then some, in setting up their own dairying operation. Now when they milk their cows, they collect the milk, pasteurize it (the process heats milk to a high temperature to remove bacteria), cool it, and bottle it themselves.
This is a nearly unheard-of situation: For the past fifty years, mainstream milk production has involved collection and sales operations separate from the farm. But the Bownes are anything but mainstream. They're workaholic dreamers who passionately believe in an ethical system of intimate production. They spend their week caring for, protecting, pasturing, moving, talking to, and philosophically admiring their Guernseys. "We go along with Indian thinking," Pam Bowne told me as we stood in the barn. "Cows are the surrogate mother of mankind. The difference between cows and other mothers is that cows produce much more milk than they need for their own children--they adopt everyone around them. They're spiritually, physically generous." I fumbled with a camera while Dick Bowne tried to get cows to hold still and pose for me. "We'd never want to make an image of a cow on a surfboard or any of that Kemp's crap," he said. "The cow is a noble, friendly beast, you know? She's a mother--that's so slick!"
Worse than putting cows on surfboards, in my book, is shooting them full of hormones, trapping them in giant, noisy sheds, and treating them without respect. The Bownes decided to sell their own cows' milk directly to consumers in direct response to the debut of Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) in 1994. BGH is that controversial injectable that industry flacks insist does nothing but boost milk production, while others suspect it may damage the health of both cows and people. "It's run down a lot of cows," maintains Dick Bowne. "Forcing her to give more than she's able. Why try to turn a cow into a factory?"
The Bownes started their brand in 1994 by having the milk bottled at the North Branch dairy. Dick Bowne would drive down to the Cities and do a traditional predawn urban milk delivery route Friday and Sunday mornings, delivering to homes, restaurants, daycare centers and grocery stores throughout Minneapolis and western pockets of St. Paul. (This system was not without peril: Dick remembers one night in North Minneapolis when police took him for a burglar and surrounded him, guns drawn, as he left a house porch. "I'm the milkman!" he says he screeched, no doubt to the amusement of the officers.) He'd spend weekend mornings at the Farmers' Market and do additional deliveries to churches on weekend afternoons. It took a couple of years of this grueling routine, but it finally looked like the little old-fashioned business was going to succeed--they had a loyal, and growing, customer base, and word of mouth was working its magic.
Then suddenly, last summer, the North Branch dairy announced it was going out of business. There was nowhere else to process the milk. Was this the end of Gemini Guernseys? Dick made his standard milk run, but was notably depressed at the Farmers' Market. A regular customer asked why he was so blue, and then casually offered: "I've got some money. How about I buy it and you run it?" Five thousand dollars from one very dedicated customer later, Dick and Pam packed up all the dairy machinery and carted it to their farm. "You'd like to think peace and love and all that," says Dick, who gets wet-eyed at the memory, "but sometimes you need money."
Once the Bownes got the equipment assembled, they ran smack into another brick wall. It turned out they needed something called a phase converter to get the 1940s-era machinery running, and it needed to be made to order by a shop in Owatonna for two grand. There was no way to process their milk. Deliveries to the Cities stopped. "It was terrible," remembers Dick. "But then the phone rang off the hook. It was customers. How much do you need?"
Envelopes started rolling in--$20 here, $50 there. "We owe all those little loans out," says Pam. "People have just been phenomenal." Then another metro customer came through with the $2,000 for the converter. "It was just all this magic shit," marvels Dick. "We didn't lose one damn customer in Minneapolis. All our grocery stores and co-ops made space for us--some had held our shelf with a sign saying what was going on."
As Dick and Pam told their tale, I marveled at the mellow, toffee-colored cows. These 60-or-so Guernseys spend their summer days wandering the pastures, where the Bownes contain them with movable fences. This keeps land from getting torn up by too much hoof traffic; it also allows for that natural fertilizing and reseeding process that animals excel at. And, as Pam Bowne puts it, "It means that what wants to grow grows here--like alsike, timothy, clover, dandelions, green hay."
As we walked through the center aisle of the barn, all the cows turned their heads to look at us. From the nose up they looked like Betty Boops, all giant eyes, red ringlet hairdos, and sweet dispositions. Guernseys are valued for their excellent milk, which has a yellow tinge and a fat content of about 4.5 percent; milk from the black-and-white Holsteins preferred by conventional farmers runs around 3.5 percent.
And what exactly is the difference between conventional milk and the Gemini Guernseys? Think of it like the difference between a single-malt Scotch and a blend, between box wine and the product of a single estate in a single bottle--and no, I'm not pulling your leg with a lot of foodie bullshit. The taste of the milk is most aptly--and inadequately--described simply as "fresh," a taste I previously had known only from the fresh ricotta cheese I had in northern Italy. If you allow the milk to sit, it will form a cream layer on top; simply wedging a teaspoon in there and eating the cream is a delicious treat. (Is it the cheapest thrill in town? Maybe--the milk costs $1.75 a half gallon or $3.15 a gallon at the Farmers' Market.) You should experience what it's done for my banana cream pie. I used to make what I thought was a great cream pie; now it's twice as good. It has a broader, richer, finer taste. It rocks.
My only caveat: Gemini Guernseys doesn't have the shelf life of conventional milk. You've got only about ten days, tops, till it goes bad. If you're the sort who only buys milk to use in coffee on weekends, you won't like this. (Also, if you're buying it from certain co-ops, dig! Sometimes I've seen week-old milk in the front blocking the fresh stuff behind.) However, if you make rice pudding, bisque, chowder, risotto, paneer cheese, mozzarella, ricotta, panna cotta, ice cream, crème fraîche, flan, or custard, you've simply got to try this milk. Local chefs--from Teresa Conner at St. Paul's Prairie Star Café, to Café Brenda doyenne Brenda Langton--sing its praises. So does Greg Smith, who works in the dairy department at the pretense-free Jerry's Foods in Edina: "Weekend pancake warriors can't get enough of the Bownes' milk," he says. But Steven Brown, chef at the Local, best described the treasure that is Gemini Guernseys: "It makes the best coffee drinks in the world. It's just like the milk we used to have growing up--our neighbor had cows, and we got milk from him. I remember being little and getting real mad at my mom because she got store-bought milk one time. I mean--eewww, it tastes like water!"
So where can this elixir be found? Aside from the Minneapolis Farmers' Market, 312 Lyndale Ave. N., (612) 333-1737, and Dick Bowne's delivery route, which all are invited to join, Gemini Guernseys milk is available at Jerry's Foods, 5125 Vernon Ave. S., Edina, (612) 922-4858, and at local co-ops, including:
Linden Hills Co-op
2813 W. 43rd St., Mpls.; (612) 922-1159
North Country Co-op
1929 S. Fifth St., Mpls.; (612) 338-3110
The Wedge Co-op
2105 Lyndale Ave. S. Mpls.; (612) 871-3993
Seward Community Co-op
2111 E. Franklin Ave., Mpls.; (612) 338-2465
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