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For a slice of Vermont farm life, say cheese

The state is first in the nation in production of farmstead cheeses, and there's no shortage of dairies that invite visitors to see how they do it.

October 05, 2003|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

As I visited with cheese makers Jonathan and Kate Wright at their Taylor Farm in southern Vermont, Fiona the cat was delivering kittens on the kitchen floor, and the phone rang repeatedly with customers placing orders. Kate joked that the callers actually were their neighbors, on cue.

In truth, the Wrights, who make Gouda on their land in Londonderry, don't need to fake it. Like several other former dairy farmers in this state, they have prospered by making cheese.

Say "cheese," and Vermont doesn't leap to mind. Vermont and maple syrup, yes. Although the state produces 37% of the nation's maple syrup, the sweet stuff pours only about $125 million a year into its economy. Cheese, a major slice of the billion-dollar dairy industry, accounts for $400 million. Feta, brie, Camembert, provolone, Gruyere -- all are made here, 70 million pounds a year.

That's a drop in the milk pail compared with leader Wisconsin or with California, one of the nation's top five. But little Vermont is first in farmstead cheeses: those made down on the farm using the farm's animals. And its 34 licensed cheese makers have been winning ribbons galore.

In early September, I drove from Putney in southern Vermont to Alburg, three miles from the Canadian border, visiting six cheese makers, all of which welcome visitors. I walked through 36-degree rooms where cheeses aged, watched curd being shoveled from great steel vats into molds and cheddar being hand-dipped into caldrons of hot wax.

Cheese making in Vermont dates back 200 years, when farmers started making cheddar to use milk that would have spoiled without refrigeration.

"It's kind of come full circle," said Jonathan Wright. "Just in the last 10 or 12 years there's been this resurgence of artisanal cheese makers."

Vermont Shepherd

At Vermont Shepherd in Putney, David, 42, and Cindy Major, 40, make cheese with milk from their 200 sheep. David grew up on this farm, which then produced lamb and wool, but economics steered them to cheese.

"The sheep were there," Cindy says. "The property was there.... One day my dad said, 'Why don't you start milking the sheep and making cheese?' " Cindy, who grew up in Manhattan, said, "I had no idea you could milk sheep."

Their first natural rind cheese was, she said, "the worst cheese ever -- despicable. It was like eating a hockey puck." But, determined to sell it, off she went to Dean & DeLuca in New York, whose cheese buyer sampled it, "spat it out and said, 'This is horrible. Never, ever bring me cheese like this again.' I walked out and burst into tears."

In the winter of 1993, the Majors went to the French Pyrenees to find out what they were doing wrong. "The French farmers tasted our cheese and just shook their heads," she said. The French told them not to freeze their milk and to stop working against the cheese with mold inhibitors.

Six months after they returned, their Vermont Shepherd, a semihard raw-milk cheese that is their signature product, won a blue ribbon as best U.S. farmhouse cheese. The same Dean & DeLuca buyer deemed it "absolutely delicious."

Vermont Shepherd produces 40,000 pounds a year. Two border collies bring the sheep in twice daily for milking. The sheep are bred on the farm, with Dave mixing breeds to produce "self-confident sheep, ready to give milk."

Vermont Shepherd, 875 Patch Road, Putney; (802) 387-4473, www.vermontshepherd.com.

Taylor Farm

The cheese-making Wrights, Jon and Kate, live with their three young daughters in a weathered gray farmhouse on land Jon worked as a teenager. "We came here as tenant farmers" in 1989, he said. They planned to sell milk but found it tough going. Their lives changed one day in 1998 when they took a tour that included a visit to a cheese maker.

They marketed their first Gouda in 1999 and now sell 7,000 pounds a year.

When I arrived in late morning, Jon, wearing a long yellow rubber apron over his clothes, had been at work since 4 a.m. and with a helper had turned 350 pounds of Gouda into molds to be pressed. We walked through the barn, where there was a cow's name at each stall -- Calamity, Petunia, etc. "They file in here and go right to their own stalls," he said.

Kate, a substitute teacher, markets the cheese and, with her interest in education, hopes to expand the farm's on-site programs for schoolchildren. Cheese was a wise decision, she said, adding, "You're not going to ship a gallon of milk to California."

Taylor Farm, 825 Route 11, Londonderry; (802) 824-5690, www.taylorfarmvermont.com.

Grafton Village Cheese

Grafton Village Cheese Co. is in Grafton, a town of 600 so picture perfect that the local garage has a steeple and Grafton Cheese its own covered bridge. This midsize cheddar producer is under the umbrella of the not-for-profit Windham Foundation, founded in 1963 to revive the dying village, once a wool-producing center. Profits go to the foundation.

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