hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture November 2020


Cheese gives new life to landmark

Artisan producer expands to former restaurant at edge of Adirondacks


Co-owner Sheila Flanagan displays some of the varieties of Nettle Meadow cheeses at the artisan producer’s new facility in Lake Luzerne, N,Y. Joan K. Lentini  photo


Co-owner Sheila Flanagan displays some of the varieties of Nettle Meadow cheeses at the artisan producer’s new facility in Lake Luzerne, N,Y. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


A long-dormant landmark at the southern edge of the Adirondacks is being reborn as a destination for lovers of locally produced cheese.

The former Hitching Post restaurant, a sprawling log structure that has been vacant for most of the past 35 years, now displays the circular logo of Nettle Meadow Artisan Cheese: a ring of bright yellow surrounding sketches of a goat, sheep and cow alongside at nettle stalk. Above the logo, the log sign for the long-defunct Hitching Post is still intact.

Nettle Meadow, a nationally acclaimed small-batch cheese producer, has been headquartered for three decades at a farm in the Adirondack town of Thurman, 25 miles to the northwest.

But earlier this year, owners Sheila Flanagan and Lorraine Lambiase expanded its operations to Lake Luzerne, a town known for its riverside campgrounds, a chain of tranquil lakes and a colorful history of dude-ranch tourism. The move gives Nettle Meadow a retail location, and space for a future production facility, within a short drive from Glens Falls and Saratoga Springs.
It’s an in-progress transformation, slowed a bit because of the Covid-19 crisis, but the new retail space has quietly been operating since the spring. Inside the log cabin walls are coolers filled with Nettle Meadow cheeses -- plus complementary foods and condiments, some locally produced, including maple syrup from Toad Hill Farm in Thurman as well as jams, honey, crackers and olives.

Under pandemic-related protocols, customers avail themselves of hand sanitizer prior to entering and must wear masks. On a fall afternoon, two women were perusing the rows of semi-aged cheese shaped into pyramids and mini-cheese wheels. They chose the award-winning triple-cream Kunik, made from a blend of goat milk and Jersey cow cream, explaining that they’d make it the centerpiece of a lakeside picnic.

Word of the new location has been trickling out to the wider world, and cheese lovers are making the pilgrimage for favorites such as the goat-milk-based Crane Mountain; Three Sisters, made from sheep, goat and cows’ milk; and Penny’s Pride, a sheep and cow milk blend.


Room to grow
Flanagan and Lambiase bought the cheese-making operation 16 years ago from the original owners, who founded Nettle Meadow in 1990. They expanded Nettle Meadow’s varieties of cheese and pursued a wider national distribution network. The changes dictated the need for a larger space.

For now, they still produce their cheeses in a cramped, 700-square-foot restored cow barn at the Thurman farm. They age it in a stone cellar, and then ship it around the country (to every state, so far, but Alaska) through a distributor in Queens.

But apart from more space, they wanted a location with better Internet service and infrastructure – and proximity to the Northway.

“We looked at old hotels in North Creek and Lake George, but they were too small,” Flanagan said.

When someone suggested the Hitching Post, which is on Route 9N near Lake Vanare, Flanagan’s initial reaction was that the 14,000-square-foot building was too large.

“Then I thought about how much our business has grown and realized we do need all that space – for production, retail space and tourist trade,” she said.

The former restaurant was constructed by the Adirondack builder Svend Munck in the 1930s with whole logs from nearby forests. Several log pillars are five feet thick, and the building’s longest log beam extends 70 feet.


Link to local history
The structure has had several owners and incarnations in its six decades, including as a roadside tavern, a dance hall in the dude-ranch era, and finally as a restaurant until it closed in the mid-1980s, said Pam Morin, the Lake Luzerne town historian.

People in the community are thrilled to see the landmark structure revived, she said.
“Sheila and Lorraine care deeply for the preservation of such a special place,” Morin said. “I remember going to dinner there the night of my prom. It was magical.”

Behind the retail section is a cavernous the “great room,” which is being transformed into 7,500-square-foot cheese-making plant. Visitors will able to view the process through large picture windows from the tavern, where small plate items, as well as wine and cheese tastings, will be offered.

“We’ll definitely serve Kunik mac and cheese -- and a shrimp scampi dish that pays homage to the Hitching Post’s former menu,” Flanagan said.

Behind the cheese production room will be the packing and shipping area. The renovations now under way are strictly functional, she said, with the architectural integrity and style of the historic building remaining intact.

Flanagan pointed to the long pine bar in the tavern, which is covered with a laminate topping placed there by a former owner.

“Underneath it are years’ worth of initials carved by patrons,” she said. “We’re going to remove the laminate so the original surface can be seen again.”

Also seen again is the original wood-carved sign of the Hitching Post, aloft again over the back of the tavern’s bar. It was salvaged by area resident Mike Griffin when the restaurant closed years ago.

“He couldn’t bear to see it go, so he kept it all these years and sold it back to us for a song,” Flanagan said.

Griffin, who lives in Saratoga Springs, has had a seasonal cabin in Lake Luzerne since 1963.
“Everyone loved the Hitching Post,” he said. “It was no ordinary log building. It’s made of logs that are massive and beautiful. It’s really comparable to an Adirondack Great Camp.”
As of late September, Flanagan hoped to start serving sandwiches, coffee and bagels to go this month.

“The original plan was to have the tavern open for sit-down meals and a tasting room by Memorial Day,” she said. “Now I’ll be happy if it happens by November.”


Working with other farms
Flanagan and Lambiase say they love the new space for its size, history, ample parking and proximity to the interstate highway. But the piece-de-resistance proved to be the building’s stone cellar, which offers perfect subterranean conditions for aging cheese.

The building’s third floor will eventually be used as office space. Lambiase and Flanagan purchased the building for $340,000 and estimate another $400,000 will be spent on renovations.
“We got some help from a private loan and eventually will receive some funding from a grant from the New York state Department of Economic Development once the job is complete, which will help a lot,” Flanagan said.

When Flanagan and Lambiase bought Nettle Meadow 16 years ago, the company made five varieties of cheese: four soft chevres and the semi-aged Kunik. The addition of a honey lavender chevre opened the door for exploration.

When they decided to add cheeses made from sheep and cow’s milk, they realized the rocky terrain of Thurman wasn’t ideal for supporting these animals. So they began partnering with Amish farms in the wider region – in Amsterdam and Galway – by leasing goats, sheep and cows for milking. Nettle Meadow picks up milk at these farms several times each week.

Flanagan, who handles the business side of the farm, also is responsible for the morning cheese-making shift, sometimes starting her day as early as 1:30 a.m.

“Lorraine does the afternoon shift and makes cheese 363 days of the year,” she said.
They currently employ 18 people needed for every aspect of the process, cheese making to packaging to deliveries, and they expect to add another 10 in the coming years.


Farm sanctuary
The relocation of the milking livestock doesn’t mean the Thurman farm is empty. Lambiase and Flanagan have a strict policy of retiring milkers to the farm to live out their golden years.
In most dairy operations, “animals are sold to slaughter after five years of milking,” Flanagan said, adding that many of the animals would naturally live for at least another 15 years.
Nettle Meadow’s original farm in Thurman has become a sanctuary where cows, sheep, and goats live out their post-milking lives.

“I don’t look at animals as a commodity,” Flanagan said. “They have thought patterns, feelings and family structures. They experience life on a level we should honor.”

In addition to the retired production herd, the sanctuary has taken in unwanted, injured or disabled llamas, horses, donkeys, pigs, turkeys and rabbits.

“Currently we have about 100 animals,” Flanagan said. “We just can’t turn anyone away.”
Lambiase and Flanagan have opened the sanctuary for tours, which they say is an excellent way for children to begin making a connection to food consumption and ethical practices.

“We’ve had to cut back on weddings and other group events at the farm because of Covid, but we still offer self-guided tours for families every Saturday,” Flanagan said, adding that visitors are required to wear masks.

Flanagan, a former trial lawyer, described Nettle Meadow as operating on a shoestring budget. But she tends to see solutions where others might see obstacles.

When the Covid crisis shut down restaurants and many retailers for much of the spring, Nettle Meadow’s cheeses began to stockpile. So Flanagan and Lambiase decided to donate $80,000 worth of idling inventory to food banks from the Capital District to Queens.

“We got a PPP loan for the expansion but gave away as much as we got in order to keep all the farms going,” Flanagan said.

The expense of running the sanctuary, the high-quality organic diet of their animals, plus paying Nettle Meadow employees a fair wage add up to cheese prices that some find objectionable. At their retail space, Kunik is $23 per pound, soft cheeses are $6 for five ounces, and blocks of semi-aged cheeses typically cost $10 and up, depending on weight.

“I’ve had old ladies wag their finger at me at cheese festivals and tell me my pricing is criminal,” Flanagan said, shaking her head with a smile. “My response to that is: Every choice matters -- what we feed our animals, what we pay our employees, and how our animals live at the sanctuary. I’ve read about artisanal farms who take great care of the animals but treat employees terribly or visa versa. We do both.”

Nettle Meadow’s new retail space and tasting room is at 1256 Lake Ave. in Lake Luzerne. Visit www.nettlemeadow.com for more information about the store or self-guided Saturday tours of the farm in Thurman. Visit www.kempsanctuaryatnettlemeadow.org for more information about the farm sanctuary or to make a donation.