Making Cheese the Vermont Way

The washed rind wheel, goat tomme, and square cheese from Twig Farm, a small Vermont goat dairy and cheese producer Eric Zelman / Courtesy Twig Farm

I could sooner live without chocolate than without cheese. I eat it every day: cheddar grated in my omelet, Gorgonzola crumbled on my salad, Brie-smothered crackers for an afternoon snack. It has occurred to me that I might be considerably thinner if I would just give up cheese, but I don't think it's worth the sacrifice.

Like most cheese snobs, I've always believed the good stuff came from Europe: English Stilton, Swiss Gruyère, Spanish Manchego, Dutch Gouda, Italian Taleggio, French … you name it. Then I moved to New England and discovered a small-scale cheese revolution going on in Vermont. From its northern border with Canada to Lake Champlain in the west to the spine of mountains running down its center, the state is nurturing a growing number of independent farmers who are moving beyond cheddar and hand-making a variety of sophisticated cheeses, some of which are beginning to rival Europe's best.

Vermont has done a masterful job of marketing itself as a haven for food tourists. Even casual eateries promote their organic and local fare; the charming Farmers Diner in Queechee—whose motto is "Food From Here"—highlights in red all the locally produced items on the menu, from "Champlain Apiaries honey" to "slow-roasted, Vermont-raised pulled pork." The American Flatbread restaurant in Middlebury recently boasted "locally foraged ramps" among its specials.

But nothing has risen higher in the state's pantheon of locally produced foods than cheese. The Vermont Cheese Council, a nonprofit consortium of local cheesemakers, has blazed the Vermont Cheese Trail, a network of roughly 40 premier-cheese farms all over the state. They range from large producers with organized tours and tastings—including Cabot Creamery, Grafton Village Cheese, and the stately Shelburne Farms near Burlington—to modest husband-and-wife operations that don't even post a sign. They produce an array of farmstead (meaning made by hand using only the materials on the farm) and artisanal (hand-made, but may incorporate ingredients from elsewhere) cow-, sheep- and goat-milk cheeses. Most welcome tourists by appointment.

After visiting a few farms, I have determined that I am not cut out for cheesemaking. I prefer living the good life to catering to it, and making cheese is grueling work. Those animals need to be milked whether you're tired or it's sleeting out or not. And I never thought about this before, but the only way to make cheese out of a goat or a sheep is to take its newborn baby away and co-opt the milk as long as it lactates. For sheep, which produce richer milk but are skittish and rather dense, that's five or six months; goats, which are more playful and personable, lactate for eight or nine months.

Vermont cheesemakers tend to fall into two categories: career farmers who couldn't make a living out of meat, vegetables, or straight dairy, and former white-collar professionals seeking the idyllic country life. "You have to be stupid or very inspired to do this kind of thing," says Mark Fischer, who gave up a small video-production company in New York to move to Vermont with his wife and young daughter 12 years ago. They bought a former gravel pit outside Weston for cheap, and eventually established Woodcock Farm, one of only five sheep dairies in the state. "All the dairy farms are going to be gone within five years unless they're really big or make cheese or ice cream," says Fischer. "You have to make a value-added product." Woodcock Farm, which was gearing up to start the season's milking when I visited—and was therefore overrun with adorable, bleating lambs—makes and ages several kinds of farmstead cheese, including a semi-hard buttery cheese known as Weston Wheel and a softer, rinded Camembert-style cheese.

Having a mentor is key. After Michael Lee attended art school, he received an education in cheese while working at a gourmet-foods shop in Boston. When he and his wife, Emily Sunderman, moved up to Vermont, he apprenticed at Peaked Mountain, a sheep farm in Townshend. By the time the couple bought eight hectares and five goats near Middlebury in 2005, the state had hooked them up with a mentor, so "we hit the ground running," says Lee. Today Twig Farm is home to 35 goats that produce about 2,700 kilograms of cheese each year, including a semi-hard raw-goat-milk cheese and a farmstead aged "square" cheese formed in a tied cloth.

Thistle Hill Farm founders John and Janine Putnam went even farther to learn their craft: all the way to Europe. After running an organic beef and vegetable farm for 15 years—which was "neither interesting nor profitable," says John—they turned to dairy. "Cheese was in the back of our minds for a long time." They traveled to the French Alps, in search of a cheese they liked from a region that mirrored the climate and terrain of their farm in North Pomfret, and settled on the Savoie town of Beaufort. They bought a giant copper vat from Switzerland, the kind most Alpine cheesemakers use, and began turning out their own farmstead Tarantaise, a firm, golden-hued, aged cheese reminiscent of a mild Gruyère. Putnam says every wheel has a subtly different flavor, depending on the weather conditions, the cows' feed, and the length of aging. He has customers who might ask for an "early spring" or a "late summer" cheese—and can actually tell the difference. "The increasing sophistication of the American palate is really exciting," he says. He's already preparing for what he hopes will be the next big farmstead trend to migrate from Europe: charcuterie.