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Smile When You Say Vermont

August 16, 2000|EMILY GREEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROHNERT PARK, Calif. — California may have hosted the 17th annual American Cheese Society conference here last week, but Vermont took the crown. Of the 356 competing cheeses, the winner was Vermont Shepherd, an aged sheep's milk cheese by Cindy and David Major of Putney, Vt.

Pleasure at the Majors' win was universal but strongest among small farmers who have turned to artisanal cheese as a way to survive the harsh world of farm economics. The Majors have also developed a system of marketing it that helps farmers across the board.

The couple started making cheese on David Major's family's farm in 1990, religiously following industry manuals. But the cheese from the milk of their 70 Cheviot sheep could not have been worse. "We were making hockey pucks," Cindy Major says.

On an expert's advice, they took some of their cheese to the Pyrenees. The French confirmed their worst suspicions. "I think they felt sorry for us," says Majors. "When we told them how we made the cheese, they turned white and got very upset."

Chastened but excited, the Majors returned to Vermont, where, Majors says, they "made cheese three times a week for four months." When the 1993 American Cheese Society conference came along, they entered their reformed cheese. "We chose the ugliest," says Majors. "I was sure it was going to be horrible. But we cut it open and it was amazing. . . . The year before we'd had the lowest score of any producer, and in 1993, we had one of the top scores. We were blown away."

Soon demand for the Majors' cheese outstripped what they could produce. They had another idea: "We started thinking about what we had seen in the Pyrenees," she says. "About how all the farms were working together."

In 1996, they formed a guild, also called Vermont Shepherd. They not only age and distribute their cheeses, they also formed a single marketing body to include other local farms. Today some 1,500 cheeses from six local farms are aged in a concrete tunnel or "cave," similar to the traditional cool underground rooms used to age cheese.

Since 1992 and the days of the "hockey pucks," the Majors have taken five first prizes at the American Cheese Society conferences.

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Order Vermont Shepherd cheeses on the Internet at http://www.vermontshepherd.com or from Tomales Bay Foods, P.O. Box 594, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956; (415) 663 9335 or online at http://www.cowgirlcreamery.com.

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