The Epicenter of Artisan Cheese
If you’ve been to Vermont, you’re probably pretty familiar with the tastes of the Green Mountains. The sweetness of maple, the hops of a finely crafted local brew, even the purity of a snowflake caught on your tongue on the chairlift ride up a mountain. But there’s more to the taste of Vermont these days, a new and compelling flavor created by the land itself and the people who work it. It’s cheese—artisan cheese, to be specific. And it’s some of the best in the world.
So why should you, the skiing and riding public, care about this? Because aside from being a great way to please your palate and fill your belly, artisan cheese is also helping to keep alive an important way of life and protecting the very landscape that skiers and riders in Vermont hold dear.
If you’ve been to a grocery store in the last 10 or so years, it’ll come as no surprise to you that Vermonters make cheese. “We’ve got some great, long-standing cheese-makers here—I mean, Cabot is cheese. No matter where you go in this country, if you go to the grocery store, Cabot is cheese,” says Rachel Schaal of the Vermont Cheese Council. “They make a consistent, quality product that is ubiquitous. So that’s something people identify with.”
But if you take a few steps over from the deli counter and find the high-end cheese section or visit your local cheesemonger (if you’re lucky enough to have one), a whole new world starts to open up. The phrase “say cheese” is intended to get someone to smile for a photograph. But if you say “Vermont artisan cheese,” you’ll elicit an entirely different kind of smile, a knowing grin among folks who’ve already had the pleasure of sampling some of the best cheese on this side of the Atlantic—some would argue best in the world—and all of it from the green hills of Vermont.
While it might be easy to dismiss artisan cheese as some elitist culinary endeavor, you’d be missing the point, and missing out on some tasty food. You’d also be missing the opportunity to support Vermont’s working landscape—those rolling hills and bucolic farms that blur past your car window on the way to the slopes, the weathered-yet-righteous barns, the farmer ambling along in front of you, his or her F-150 proudly sporting a rich patina of mud and hard work. It’s important to remember that these aren’t museum pieces; those farmers are working—the land is working. The fact that they have so much aesthetic appeal is merely a happy accident, with man and nature sharing equal credit for the alchemy.
THE NEW LANDSCAPE OF DAIRY
Jon Wright, the cheese-maker at Taylor Farm in Londonderry (near Stratton, Magic and Bromley) has seen the changes firsthand. “When I was growing up here, there were 12 or 15 working dairy farms right in this community; there are only two of us left now. And I have always felt that the impact of the working landscape goes well beyond agricultural and really helps to subsidize the whole tourist economy, because a large part of what people think of when they think of Vermont is rolling pastures, rolling hills with cows on them, and red barns with white trim. This sort of bucolic image is very appealing, but in reality is becoming less and less a part of our landscape. My efforts at Taylor Farm have been very much around maintaining the landscape and encouraging tourists and people in the local area to come into the farm, participate and see what we’re doing.”
Fluid milk prices (the wholesale price at which farmers have been traditionally selling their milk) have dropped so precipitously in recent years as to make it impossible for dairy farmers to break even, much less turn a profit. As soon as they cease to be working farms, they’re in danger of being turned into strip malls, housing subdivisions or some other blight upon the land.
If you’re a farmer with 30 or 40 head of cattle, you don’t have a lot of options. It’s not like you can just say to the fluid milk market, “I don’t like your price. I’m taking my milk somewhere else.” So those who want to keep farming, to keep their farms viable and earn enough to make a living, have to find a way to add value to their milk. And that’s where artisan cheese comes in.
Sebastian von Trapp, who, along with his brother Dan, started Von Trapp Farmstead in Waitsfield—in the shadow of Mad River Glen and Sugarbush—has seen it all on his family’s farm. “There’s plenty of farms we see going out of business for the same reasons. The family sells off the farm and then develops [the land]. And my brother and I talked about doing something on the farm, figuring out how to create a business that would let us stay at the farm, keep the farm in business, and of course, that would keep our folks in business who’ve always run the dairy side of things. So we came up with an artisan cheese-making business as a way to capture more value coming off the farm here. Take our fluid milk, turn it into a finished product, then sell it, and create a brand that we can market and distribute across the country, really. And in doing that, we’re able to say, ‘We need to charge this amount for our finished product,’ and then we can scale a business that will support myself, my brother, our families, and our folks.”
THE FUTURE OF CHEESE IS IN THE CELLAR
One of the most compelling advancements in Vermont’s thriving artisan cheese industry isn’t happening on a farmer’s field—it’s happening beneath one. Below the rolling fields of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, two brothers, Andy and Mateo Kehler, are more than doing their part to keep Vermont’s working landscape alive. There, the Kehlers have built the Cellars at Jasper Hill, a cheese aging facility and incubator of sorts that’s dedicated to artisan cheese. The Cellar’s seven vaults hold some of the finest cheeses in America, all just sitting there getting moldy and tasty, biding their time until they are aged to perfection and ready to eat. Some of the vaults are dedicated solely to Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, the flagship artisan cheese made in partnership with Vermont’s pioneering dairy cooperative, which was instrumental in helping the Cellars get up and running. Other vaults contain cheeses from smaller farms around the area.
On a special tour of the Cellars (they’re not open to the public—both to ensure the food safety of the product and, frankly, because the Kehler brothers are way too busy to play tour guide), you can see the cheese age as you walk through the stacks, the newer “green” cheese fading to the more aged ones, their moldy and mottled rinds so essential to making the cheese within develop just the right flavor and texture.
Zoe Brickley, a former cheesemonger from New York City who now works in sales and marketing for the Cellars, explains the philosophy. “I start by saying that we’re an aging facility. We’ve designed a space that can accommodate the inventory of small farms’ cheeses, with the purpose of freeing them up to really concentrate on the most important steps of the production process, which are animal and herd management and the cheese-making skills themselves. So we are able to lower the barrier of entry for new cheese-makers into the artisan market and help them succeed,” she says. “We handle all the marketing, sales and distribution—and the aging, which is the time-consuming part of it. Andy estimated that about 60 percent of the labor is in the aging process. You can make the cheese within a few hours, but it takes hours [of labor] on a weekly basis for as long as you age the cheese to finish it.”
In many ways, Cabot’s success has opened the door for smaller cheese-makers to have a go at it. Unlike what happens in other industries, where you might see a Walmart forcing smaller retailers to close because they can’t compete on price, Cabot supports artisan cheese-makers. “The stronger Vermont gets in its cheese production, its specialty in cheese, the better it is for all of us,” explains Roberta MacDonald, senior vice president for marketing for the Cabot Creamery Cooperative. “We’ve always led with Vermont.
“We play the grandmother role, since we were the first co-op in the state to make a branded product,” MacDonald says, adding, “[It’s] that reverence for the land, keeping the land open; the valleys of the ski areas are all the work grounds of the farmers.”
“That’s really what has made it possible to get off the ground with this end vision,” concurs Brickley. “The end goal is lots of little individual producers coming together and aging here, but Cabot was definitely at the center of the beginning here. Part of that is they were able to [immediately] create a volume of a really consistent cheese that we knew we had a market for.
“They’re making it possible for us to finance the inventory of the smaller producers like the von Trapps,” she adds. “It’s really a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s kind of like, ‘Why would Cabot do that for us?’ What’s in it for them is that they’re getting their brand hopping over from the deli counter to the gourmet cheese counter. So they’re being associated with a gourmet, artisan, import level.
“For us, it really works both ways. We’re getting people from all over the country who know Cabot, really like Cabot products, and [then they] see the Cabot logo on our label and are willing to go out on a limb and try something new. And then the next time they go to the store and they really liked the Cabot Clothbound, then maybe they’ll try an artisan cheese that they never would have tried before.”
THE TERROIR OF VERMONT
When you think about skiing, specifically about skiing in Vermont, certain things are sure to come to mind: The way the land falls away on your favorite trail. The spacing of a certain strand of trees in a glade. The way the snow is attracted to a certain bowl so that you’re sure to find the goods waiting for you. The way a snowmaking system is designed so that there’s always plenty of the white stuff to play on. The way the sunlight hits at a certain time of day. The quintessential Vermont village scenes below.
Sure, you can pick words and phrases to describe the parts, but other than the word “Vermont,” there’s nothing that sums up the whole. And really, that’s the point. While there are other states where you can ski and ride, nothing is quite like Vermont. No other state can duplicate this place; it’s got its own unique flavors and hues that are a product of the natural environment and the people who shape and care for that environment.
But if you were a winemaker, you’d know exactly the word to describe it: terroir. The dictionary defines terroir (pronounced “tear-WAR”) as “the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.” It’s a term you’ll hear a lot in regard to Vermont’s artisan cheese-makers. It’s also the reason Vermont is such a damn good place to make fine cheeses.
“Vermont is a green place, and not just in color. The environment is so integral to recreation, to history. People are more careful here. They realize how much they have to lose,” says the Cheese Council’s Rachel Schaal. “It’s sort of a great collision of things. Agriculturally, the land is very rich. And because it’s not a super-populated place, there is still agriculture. And unlike some parts of the country, it’s still a lot of small farms, so you have farmers who can create these small unique products. Agriculture is really strong here. People who are farm people, who grew up around agriculture and have made the choice to continue down that path, it’s heart for them. It’s where their soul resides. It’s more than just making a living.”
“We have a real diversity of topography,” explains Jon Wright of Taylor Farm. “We have a really great selection of indigenous grasses which in turn make wonderful cheeses. The best cheeses are made from cows that are out on pastures, grazing on the land. You’ve probably heard this term terroir, which speaks of the flavors of the earth and the very local characteristics of cheeses and other food products based on where they’re made and what the cows are fed and how the cows are cared for. The very local, small-scale, regional aspect of these Vermont farms is what really sort of goes back to our European traditions.
“It’s a special combination of factors,” he continues. “If you look at a map of the Vermont Cheese Trail (which can be found at www.vtcheese.com/cheesetrail.htm), you’ll see little clusters of cheese-makers in various regions, and they tend to pop up in these pockets where larger, conventional agriculture just no longer can compete, but [here] these smaller, hands-on producers can compete. Very often, it’s the little dairy farms that have gone out of business that have been revitalized by these new, up-and-coming cheese-makers.
“I don’t know if I could put specific words to it, even. It’s about so many things. It’s about the microclimate that each of these farms is in. It’s about the soils that they’re on. It’s about the grasses that grow there. It’s about the different breeds of cows or sheep or goats that are raised. It’s how those animals are handled. I even think it’s the love that physically goes into the cheese-making itself.”
FRIENDS OF THE FARMER
One of the most compelling reasons one wants to live in or visit Vermont is the continuum of life that is so evident here. Summer becomes fall becomes winter, and so on. The ski resort’s customers support the restaurant, which supports the cheese cellar, which supports the farmer, which gives the ski resort its singular scenic views. This is the state that Jack built.
All of which makes supporting farmers crucial to the survival of Vermont as people know it. Asked about the importance of the working landscape, Allison Hooper, co-founder of the Vermont Butter & Cheese Company, puts it bluntly. “It has a huge role, because once it’s gone, it’s just a race to the bottom. You’d have nothing unique that defines the place. I think when people come to ski here, yeah, they may go to a ski area, but I still think that the character of the place here in Vermont has a large influence on their choice of where they’re going to ski. I think it’s absolutely crucial. And the way that Vermont can position itself in the larger skiing marketplace is to say, ‘We don’t have to build the small village. We already have the small village.’ There’s an authenticity here that you may not get in some of those places out West. [Vermont has] something very real.”
“The quality of life that the animals live, the dedication and hard work of the cheese producers—it’s their life,” says Leslie Stewart, owner of Ludlow’s Wine & Cheese Depot. “They’re up at the crack of dawn working all day. When they’re not making cheese, they’re taking care of the animals, they’re trying to market and sell their cheese. I honestly don’t believe they make a lot of money doing it. It’s a labor of love, and it shows. It’s reflected in their product.”
She’s right. When you start exploring and tasting different cheeses, the difference of artisan cheese is unmistakable. The way a tiny piece of Willow Hill Blue Cheese explodes in your mouth, and how that contrasts with the exquisite tastes of a Bayley Hazen Blue Cheese from Jasper Hill. The sharp flavors of a Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. The silky texture and buttery taste of an Oma from Von Trapp Farmstead. It quickly becomes infatuating and then addictive as you strive to discover new flavors. And once you do, you also quickly realize how much love, attention and hard work must go into making these special gems.
EAT GOOD CHEESE
If you’re driving up I-89 and find yourself hungry, try swinging into Hen of the Wood in Waterbury, just off exit 10 and on the way to Stowe, Sugarbush, Mad River Glen and Bolton Valley. If you’re lucky, maybe someone will have canceled a reservation (but don’t count on it). Hen of the Wood is situated in a beautiful old grist mill and features a rotating cheese list and some of the best locally raised eats around. In fact, Chef Eric Warnstedt was named one of the best new chefs in the country by Food & Wine magazine.
“We get used to it living here,” says Warnstedt, “but if you don’t live in a place like this…I think maybe people don’t see it as much as they would like to, or only a small amount, or only a restaurant here and there. But when you come up to a place like Vermont, and places like Hen of the Wood, or Kitchen Table Bistro [in Richmond], or Bluebird Tavern [in Burlington], and you see a handful of people who are really giving it their all to showcase what’s going on up here, it just seems to connect people. I’m not sure how to put that into words, but there is some connection. You’re in Vermont to eat all of this good Vermont food, and the food producer’s just down the road not too far away. I think people make that connection, and most people seem to really like that.”
Allison Hooper has seen the cheese evolution firsthand. “Now we have over 50 people making cheese in Vermont. I can remember saying, ‘Vermont will be the Napa Valley of cheese.’ And you’d hear people saying, ‘What on earth is she talking about? What a preposterous idea.’ It was really audacious at the time, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I just said?’”
But clearly Hooper was prescient in her concept, one that Warnstedt also sees. “Sort of the way that California or Oregon can discuss wine, Vermont would fall into that mold when discussing cheese,” says the Hen of the Wood chef. “It’s a world-class product; it’s not just a small thing that we enjoy because it happens to be made in our backyard. It’s something that’s known nationally and internationally. Vermont’s become this really unique little region, to grab this sort of Old World thing and make it New World, and keep the landscape working.”
Maybe it’s something in our DNA. Maybe we’re just lucky to live in a place like Vermont that values great food and the hard work it takes to create it. Either way, Sebastian von Trapp has seen it too. “Vermonters, in general, are more tuned in to good food, and want to know where it’s produced, and want to show the food producer appreciation,” he says. “Which lets businesses like us, a smaller cheese-making operation, have a go at it. There’s this support. You actually feel good about what you’re doing, working your butt off to make this product. And there’s this general good vibe coming from your community. I think that’s what separates Vermonters and [puts] them on the cutting edge.”
Whatever the reason, these people clearly love what they do. And they deserve your support. Jon Wright from Taylor Farm sums up the sentiments of many: “I love working with the cows, I love interacting with the guests that come to the farm. I can’t imagine anything I’d rather do.” He pauses. “Except maybe skiing.”See All Food and Land Articles