Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 20, 2017

© Marshall Webb

Farmhouse cheddar is made on-site at Shelburne Farms from the milk of purebred Brown Swiss cows.

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Dairy queens

Five of the finest farms on the Vermont Cheese Trail

Neighborly Farms

1362 Curtis Road, Randolph Center
tel: (802) 728-4700; neighborlyfarms.com
Weekdays from 8am to 4pm


The farm, perched on a rolling green hillside, boasted all the Vermont clichés rolled into one. There was a group of chubby, black and white Holsteins jostling at the fence, mooing on cue. The barn cat luxuriated in a splash of sunshine at the shed door, one eye closed and one open, keeping an eye on her four kittens. Norman Rockwell himself could not have painted it better.

Ball cap tipped back, Darrin Messier swung open the door to the small shop at Neighborly Farms, one of the open-farm stops on the Vermont Cheese Trail (vtcheese.com). The statewide trail connects 44 cheese makers and family farms that craft more than 150 varieties of small-batch, specialty cheeses. It’s enough to whip even the most unflappable Vermonter into a rare state of excitement.

The 15-year-old has been working at his neighbours Rob and Linda Dimmick’s dairy farm for four summers, and what he lacks in years he makes up for in knowledge. A straight shooter, Darrin delivers the goods on Vermont cheese.

“Neighborly Farms is known for organic cheese,” he explains. “We use only organic feed, no growth hormones and the cows have to get one-third of their biomass intake from grazing. Basically, chewing their cud all day.” (I’m a city slicker; I nod and pretend to know what this means.)

The farm is a soup-to-nuts stop on the Cheese Trail. Family-owned and operated, it has a herd of 70 milkers and uses only their milk to produce award-winning cheeses, including a raw-milk cheddar, jalapeño jack and green-onion cheddar. Visitors can touch the wet noses of newborn calves, stroll through the main barn and, twice a week, watch the cheese maker at work.

Darrin seems destined for a life in the business. “The cheddaring process is cutting, stacking and flipping the 18-kilogram blocks of cheese. The whole purpose is to press even more of the liquid whey out — that’s what makes cheddar a hard cheese.”

Plymouth Artisan Cheese

106 Messer Hill Road, Plymouth Notch
tel: (802) 672-3650; plymouthartisancheese.com
Daily from 9:30am to 5pm


On a good day, when his throwing arm is limbered up, cheese maker Jesse Werner can fire a baseball from the front step of the historic Plymouth Artisan Cheese Factory and shatter the window of the home where Calvin Coolidge was born, lived and was sworn in as the country’s 30th President.

To say that Plymouth Cheese is close to its historical roots is an understatement; the heritage cheese factory sits on the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site.

Jesse had been cooking batches of a true curd cheese using the original 1890 recipe and employing traditional British cheese-making techniques that date to the 1600s.

“This is the second oldest cheese factory in the country,” he said proudly. “It was started by President Coolidge’s father. He was a dairy farmer and an entrepreneur here in Plymouth Notch.”

In the late 1800s, the little valley’s four dairy farms produced more milk than they could use, so the farmers decided to make cheese with the excess. More than 120 years later, visitors can watch Jesse make the traditional Plymouth cheese and visit the small upstairs museum, filled with antique cheese-making equipment like scales, presses and the long hot water-heated vats used to bring the milk to temperature.

“Small batch. Handmade,” he nodded. “No rushing, really — that’s the secret.”

Sugarbush Farm

591 Sugarbush Farm Road, Woodstock
tel: 802-457-1757; sugarbushfarm.com
Weekdays from 8am to 5pm; weekends from 9am to 5pm


The cows grazing on the fertile hills of Sugarbush Farm north of Woodstock would make a panoramic screen saver. And in the 1870s farmhouse, there’s cheese aplenty, being smoked, dipped in wax and wrapped for distribution. Aging cheddars and smoking is the specialty of the Luce family, third-generation owners of the family farmstead.

Cheese comes to Sugarbush in large, 18-kilogram blocks, supplied by local dairy co-ops. After aging — the longer a cheese ages, the sharper the flavour becomes — the blocks are cut into 450-gram pieces, and stacked on wire racks in the smokehouse, 2000 at a time. Trial and error has perfected the process. And yes, there have been errors.

“The cheese stays in the smokehouse for three days, under a smouldering burn of hickory and maple woodchips,” says owner Betsy Luce. “Has to be smouldering. We don’t want a fire. We’ve burned the smokehouse down. Twice.”

Three days in the aromatic smokehouse infuses the cheese with a tantalizing, smoky flavour. The blocks are removed from the smokehouse, cooled to room temperature, wrapped in foil and dipped in coloured wax to seal.

The original family farmhouse has been pressed into use as the processing centre, and a small shop for cheese and the maple syrup tapped from the acreage surrounding the farm. Tens of thousands of visitors pass through what once was the farmhouse kitchen (check and you’ll still see the stove and dishwasher) to sample smoked cheeses, an impressively piquant blue cheese and cheddars with zippy flavours like jalapeño and horseradish.

Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery

40 Pitman Road, Websterville
tel: 802-479-9371; vermontcreamery.com


Weekdays from 9am to 4pm


There’s nary a goat at the Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery. A few times each week, tanker trucks arrive to pump fresh, vitamin-rich goat’s milk picked up at 15 Vermont farms into a large holding vat. The process of making the creamery’s award-winning goat cheese begins.

“There’s a lot of love that goes into every piece,” said Betsy Thompson, a customer service rep with the creamery. “And a lot of attention to detail.”

The Barre-area creamery sources the milk from small family farms, with herds as small as 50 and as large as 250 goats. The flavour of the milk reflects the goat’s diet: the happier the animal, the better the milk. The better the milk, the better the cheese.

One of the creamery’s speciality cheeses, Bonne Bouche, snagged first place in the 2013 American Cheese Society competition. “It’s very time intensive to make Bonne Bouche. The hand-ladled round of goat cheese is ash-ripened: sprinkled with poplar-wood ash and salt before the aging process.”

As if this calorie overload wasn’t enough to strain your belt a notch or two, the creamery also produces crème fraîche and an 86-percent butterfat cultured butter, made from cow’s milk supplied by the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery.

Visitors can watch the cheese-making process (mornings are best), follow a short self-guided tour, sample the creamery’s products and stock up on cheese at the shop.

Shelburne Farms

1611 Harbor Road, Shelburne
tel: (802) 985-8686; shelburnefarms.org Welcome centre and store winter hours: daily 10am to 5pm
Adults US$8; kids 3 to 17 US$5


Cheese making is just part of the goings-on at Shelburne Farms, a nonprofit educational property with the goal of cultivating change for a sustainable future. Poke around the hiking trails that crisscross the 570-hectare farm site near Burlington and you’ll find market gardens, flocks of sheep and goats, herds of Brown Swiss cows, a children’s farmyard, a cheese-making facility and a field dotted with 230 solar panels that provide one-third of the energy for the property. (Hiking trails and the children’s farmyard are open mid-May to mid-October).

“We’re known as a farmstead cheese maker,” explains Nat Bacon, head cheese maker, “which means the milk for all our cheese comes from our own herd, right here on the farm, and we make all our cheese right here on site.”

Nat stood by the window at the “make room;” kids clambered up to the glass to look at the assistant cheese maker stirring the enormous vat of white curds.

“This spot is all about people coming to a farm and learning where their food comes from; to understand the story of the land growing the grass for the cows to eat, the cows producing milk, and the cheese maker making the cheese for us to eat.”

Shelburne Farms sticks to a traditional cheddar recipe, aging the blocks of fresh cheese from a mild six-month version to the sharper three-year-old cheddar. There’s a craft to the process; the cheese maker uses his experience to judge when to hurry the process or slow it down. A cheese maker uses all of his senses to guide a developing cheese from start to finish: watching the progress of the culture, monitoring the taste and the texture, knowing how long the cooked blocks of cheese need to age to the characteristic cheddar flavour.

Picking a favourite? Impossible, said Nat. “It would be like choosing a favourite child.”

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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