When we think of European cheeses, we tend to imagine fairly well defined regions where we can expect to find specific styles of fermented milk goodness. Dry, sharp cheeses from the arid regions of Spain and Italy, velvety buttery cheeses from the cool climes of Northern France, giant wheels of robust and hearty cheese from the Alps. Certain areas are known for their cheese making prowess, just as certain soils are touted as producing some of the finest wines.
In the US, farmstead cheese has grown up in a much different way than in Europe. Whereas across the pond there was a slow percolation of culture (bacterial and human) that lead to certain areas producing certain types of cheese, here in the states it has unraveled in more of a willy-nilly fashion. American farmstead cheese makers have come to their craft from many different walks of life, and in many respects their cheeses are unique edible artifacts that represent the experiences, apprenticeships, travels, and influences that lead up to their taking the crazy plunge into the world of curds and whey.
That said, there are definitely cheese regions of our own odd American making that are coalescing before our very eyes. Twenty years ago there was a smattering of farmstead cheese makers across the country; each farm was an island, a renegade, a strange exception to the rule of what farming should be. Now, there are little pockets of farmstead cheese making that skip and bound over the tremendous gap from California to Maine.
Vermont’s Champlain Valley is one of those hotbeds of artisanal cheese making that has erupted quietly but surely as mushrooms after a good dose of rain. I spent last weekend traipsing around the Valley with my family, and was struck by the number of cheese makers nestled within a ten mile radius of the little town where we stayed. There is a true cheese culture developing there, putting down its roots and slowly but surely altering the farmscape and the surrounding community.
In an area known for dairy, artisanal cheese is a new take on an old farming tradition. Most farms in Addison made their living producing milk and cream for far off markets. Some of it left the Valley as fluid milk bound for Boston or New York, and some was sent off to one of the big coops in the state to be turned into cheese. Now there is a proliferation of local cheese makers who are demonstrating that there is a way to run a dairy and produce something of higher value than commodity milk. And that something (glorious, succulent cheese!) enriches the community threefold. It preserves the farm landscape, encourages a burgeoning craft, and provides us with something ridiculously tasty to eat.
At Saxelby Cheesemongers, we are proud to feature a small army of cheeses from Vermont’s Champlain Valley, and encourage you to come in for a taste of the region. Each one is unique as its maker and the patch of farmland it hails from…
Twig Farm (raw goats’ milk. West Cornwall, VT)
Cheese maker Michael Lee and his thiry-odd does are the forces behind this earthy and musky tomme. The herbal and floral flavors that issue forth from the ivory-colored paste owe their existence to the rough and scrubby pastures and woodlands the goats spend their days browsing.
Dancing Cow Farm (raw cows’ milk. Bridport, VT)
A simple, but elegant tomme made from the pastured milk of Steve and Karen Getz’s herd. Bouree is aged for about five months, with the Getz family entrusting the affinage to the folks up at Jasper Hill Farm. All that rind-washing tlc renders Bourree supple, and delicate, with a buttery pliant paste and flavors of toasted nuts, tobacco, and freshly cut grass on the palate.
Blue Ledge Farm (raw goats’ milk. Salisbury, VT)
One of the gooiest cheeses this side of the Mississippi. Dunmore is a raw milk marvel from Greg Bernhardt, Hannah Sessions, and their troupe of stalwart caprine amigas. The wheels are coated by a bloomy white rind that comes to buckle and bulge as the cheese ages, evoking the finest and most mushroomy flavor one could dream of. Beneath the rind is a layer of buttercream soft cheese, leading to a core that is chalky, yet fine in texture.
Crawford Family Farm (raw cows’ milk. Whiting, VT)
Taking its name from the Crawfords’ handsome herd of Ayrshire cows, Vermont Ayr is rich and swissy, with an undeniably fruity quality. Vermont Ayr is aged in the Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm; the gorgoeous natural rind is rustic and mottled with white and coffee colored spots. The cheese imparts a mineral zing that’ll make you pucker just a bit.
Scholten Family Farm (pasteurized cows’ milk, VT)
Weybridge is a rich and buttery cheese made from the milk of Dutch Belted cows, a traditional breed of dairy cow not so often seen these days in Vermont. Weybridge is quite light and moist for a bloomy rind cheese, evoking the tang of rich crème fraiche. The finish is delicately barnyardy (a paradox if ever there was one) and slightly tart.