Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Cheesemaker Challenge

Following my visit to Jasper Hill, I headed south to spend the night in Montpelier. I scored a killer rate downtown at the Capital Plaza, where my soap packaging would inform me that Montpelier is the smallest capital city in the country. No joke. It was a lovely spot & I walked down the street to meet up with Zoe & the Jasper Hill cheesemakers for a local brew & tasty bites conjured up by a former Spotted Pig (pretty much my favorite NYC spot) chef. Yum.

The following morning I would finally head south on a quest to visit several cheesemakers over the next two days before my official Vermont exit. I felt a bit like a I was on a reality show with a scavenger hunt format. Maybe, The Cheesemaker Challenge? I scavenged & here is what I found...

Vermont Butter & Cheese
is quite the operation these days. As you can see, it is more of a factory than the quaint creameries I have been visiting. However, they are still churning out delicious goat cheese & even more delicious butter (pun most certainly intended). Founders Allison Hooper & Bob Reese have been invaluable to the American artisan cheese revolution since they joined forces in 1984.
Allison, the cheesemaker of the duo, stumbled into cheese in between college semesters while studying in France. She was looking for room & board, but what she found was an introduction to traditional European artisanal cheesemaking. Once she returned to the states, Bob, working for the Vermont Department of Agriculture at the time, invited her to make cheese for a state dinner, and the rest is history. Their operation now supports over 20 local family farms...and did I mention their cultured butter with sea salt is delicious? Well, it is.

I would not get the chance to talk to Allison or Bob, but it was great to see the operation in all its glory. Next I stopped for a look at Fat Toad Farm, mostly because I liked the name. I was greeted by a friendly dog & this adorable farm shop, but not a cheesemaker in sight. The small family farm has been making fresh goat cheese & goat milk caramel since 2007. I tried several varieties in their shop & left with a maple goat cheese & vanilla bean caramel. They were too good to resist.

Neighborly Farms was the last stop of the day & included a delightful tour of the creamery from...the cheesemaker (Hooray!!!). I enjoyed a moment of curd lovin' scavenger victory. Then, about 30 seconds into the cheesemaker's cheddar shpeal, I realized...I was finishing his sentences in my head & my queries left him speechless. I stumped the cheesemaker! Does that make me an official Cheddarhead? If the hat fits...I shall wear it proud.

Day one of my Vermont scavenge south was coming to a close, so I found a cozy place to rest my head for the night in Woodstock, VT. Not THE Woodstock, which is in New York, nor the last Woodstock I would find myself spending the night before the end of the Tour, but a picturesque slightly touristy town in southern Vermont. That night I would map out one last day of Vermont cheese scavenging packed with exciting stops.

Cue ominous sky & violent down pour.

Day 2 would be a lot like day one...only wet. My first stop was planned for Thistle Hill Farm, makers of the every-so-scrumptious Tarentaise. John & Janine, owners & cheesemakers, traded in the corporate city life to reconnect with the land & well...make cheese (for a little curd of inspiration, follow the link & watch the youtube video). They traveled to Switzerland searching for their recipe and after several tweaks, created Tarentaise. It's an alpine style cheese made by John & Janine from the raw milk produced by their herd of certified organic Jersey cows in a traditional copper vat. It is one of my favorite American cheeses at the moment, so you can imagine my excitement when John agreed to a cheese chat.

I arrived at the farm, slightly later than anticipated due to the storm, and it was beautiful. Not a person in sight, I took it upon myself to explore the farm a bit & take a few pics (left is the aging room & a unique humidifier; right is a member of the herd). Then I began to worry. Determined not to return to my cheese stalker ways, I left the farm without talking to anyone. Later, I was informed that John, Janine, & family were stuck on an island off the coast of Maine...the ferries were not operating due to the storm. Foiled again!

Later that day I visited both Grafton Village (left) & Vermont Shepard (right) for another dose of cheddar making & a vacant farm store. It appears that the rain put a bit of a damper on my last day in Vermont. Luckily, I found a co-op full of beautiful food to brighten my day before my exit. An amazing spread of local produce, meat, cheese, and fresh baked goods, like below, can be found in most small (well...they are all pretty small) towns throughout the state. It is a remarkable thing. I dig it.

For the recap...2 days, 7 farms & creameries, 1 cheesemaker. Did I win?

Goodbye for now, Vermont! It has been a real cheddar slice!