facebook twitter pinterest instagram

Login With

Leisure: Cultural Evolution

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Listening to Bach’s Cantata no. 131 and talking about cheese while tending to the machinery that tugs on the teats of his Jersey cows—is there a better way to spend a Sunday morning in Vermont? Not for John Putnam, a 50-year-old lawyer–turned– cheese maker. The music, courtesy of Vermont Public Radio’s Sunday Bach program, comes from the speakers that Putnam installed in his barn. “I like Bach, Mozart, all the good stuff, masters of their art. Life is too short to deal with crap,” he says, then adds, “Not to be crass, but I have only 20 cows. If I’m not doing top-shelf cheese, what’s the point?”

Each batch of Putnam’s Thistle Hill Farm Tarentaise requires the yield of four milkings from his cows, and on this May morning at 7:30, he is gathering the third milking. He will collect the fourth later today and make the cheese tomorrow morning before returning to the barn to start the cycle anew.

“Milk is fundamentally immune to contamination for two hours after it leaves the cow, but you can see that we don’t wait,” Putnam says, his hazel green eyes blazing as he carries a full, 5.2-gallon stainless steel bucket into an adjacent room, where he will empty its contents into a tank chilled to 38 degrees Fahrenheit. “The law is, ‘Thou shalt get the milk below 40 degrees in two hours.’ That’s common sense.”

Putnam left a law career to purchase Thistle Hill Farm, an 83-acre property in North Pomfret, Vt., 14 miles north of South Woodstock, the town where he grew up. With his wife, Janine, he produces Tarentaise, a Vermont version of Abondance. Janine is absent from the milking session because it is Mother’s Day, and she is sleeping in. (The Putnams have four children, who are not required to participate in the farm work.)

The Putnams first tasted Abondance during a 1999 cheese pilgrimage through the Alpine regions of Switzerland, Italy, and France. Since they made their first batch of Tarentaise in 2002, the cheese has won four awards from the American Cheese Society (ACS), a professional organization of American cheese makers.

John Putnam believes there is a right way to make cheese and that many producers are departing from the one true path. “I learned from the French: one place, one cheese,” says Putnam, who makes only Tarentaise at Thistle Hill. “If you do a second, do it on another farm. People who make five cheeses in one place make five mediocre cheeses.”

Putnam’s cheese has been acclaimed, but its taste is not consistent; the flavor changes with the season as his cows’ diet changes. “May cheese is different from September cheese,” he says. “I don’t try to standardize it, and I don’t want to. It varies like crazy, I love it.”

Putnam is one of nearly 350 artisanal cheese makers operating in the United States, according to Jeff Roberts, author of The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007). Their ranks have more than doubled since 2000. In Vermont, a state known for its cheddar, the number has risen from 18 to 34 since the turn of this century.

Vermont’s cheese makers encourage the notion that their state is to
American-made cheese what Napa Valley is to American-made wine. The
Vermont Cheese Council (VCC), a promotional organization, reinforces this idea by touting the Vermont Cheese Trail, a map that shows some three-dozen farms, dairies, and other cheese-related facilities, many of which conduct tours and tastings. In Burlington, the University of Vermont established the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC) in 2004, intending it to nurture cheese makers in the same way that the University of California at Davis’ viticulture program assisted nascent vintners (see “Cheese Courses,” page 390).

“There’s a lot of innovation taking place. People are beginning to understand that careful pasture management—monitoring the things that the animal eats—will distinguish the milk,” says Roberts, who is also a consultant to VIAC. “But we have a long way to go.”

Allison Hooper probably was the first to grasp the Napa Valley analogy, and she has promoted it for years. She and her business partner, Bob Reese, cofounded the Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. in 1984, a time when goat cheese was exotic. Hooper, who is now president of the ACS, and Reese purchase fresh milk instead of minding a herd of goats. “In the beginning, we dealt with five farms that were very small,” says Hooper, who is 49. “We would pick up 10 gallons per farm, and we could only process 50 gallons of milk at a time. We were in business 20 years before we had the resources to hire someone whose only job was to work with the farmers.”

Vermont Butter & Cheese grew by catering to French chefs in New York, who liked having a domestic supplier of goat cheeses, butter, and crème fraîche. The 10-by-10-foot milk house in Brookfield, Vt., where Hooper and Reese initially established their business would fit inside their office at their current headquarters, a 15,000-square-foot facility in Websterville, Vt. The company’s 32 employees make 450,000 pounds of cheese annually, packing logs of herbed chèvre to songs broadcast by Froggy, the local country station. The company offers 12 products (including five made from cow’s milk), which collectively have won more than 100 awards, including seven at the ACS conference in August and a gold medal (for the Vermont Chèvre) at the 2007 World Cheese Awards, which are held annually in London.

The company produces its line of three ripened goat cheeses in an adjacent 3,000-square-foot facility. The cheeses—Bonne Bouche, Coupole, and Bijou—resemble those that Hooper made while living on farms in France after graduating from college. “I’ve come full circle,” she says.

Hooper long had wanted to make cheeses like those she had made in France, but it did not make sense from a business perspective until now. “It’s partly from necessity,” she says. “Goat cheese was special in 1984, but it’s not special anymore. We had to reinvent ourselves and diversify the offerings. Also, we had to condition the American palate for these kinds of cheeses, which have a rind and a shorter shelf life. By the time they’re in the market, they cost $30 a pound. Consumers weren’t willing to pay that kind of money in the early 1980s.”

Paul Kindstedt, a professor of food science at the University of Vermont, commented on the changes in the food marketplace in general in his keynote speech at the 2007 ACS conference. “I am not a social scientist, but I sense a deep cultural change in the way people view food,” he told the crowd, explaining that since the 1960s, an increasing number of shoppers have come to dislike the methods of mass-market food producers and are seeking other types of vendors to patronize. “A desire for an alternative food system is now embedded in the cultural landscape. It’s pervasive enough that it can no longer be avoided. My advice for you is that the more different you are [from mass-market products], the clearer the choice becomes for consumers. Choice will be the hallmark of the future.”

Mateo Kehler, one of the owners of Jasper Hill Farm, drove down from Greensboro, Vt., to hear Kindstedt’s speech, and later, a different employee accepted an ACS award for the farm’s Bayley Hazen Blue. (The demands of the farm allow no one person to leave for more than a day.) In 2003, Jasper Hill introduced its first two products, the aforementioned blue cheese and Constant Bliss, a small, soft cheese that is aged no longer than 60 days. The farm has since increased its offerings to six. Last year it added Aspenhurst, a cloth-wrapped hard cheese, and Winnimere, a winter cheese with a rind that is washed in beer. Bartlett, another blue cheese, appears in summer.

Jasper Hill’s scarcest cheese is the product of a collaborative effort with Cabot Creamery, a long-established Vermont dairy. Together they created Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, which won a gold medal at the 2004 World Cheese Awards and Best in Show at the 2006 ACS conference. The cheddar is in short supply because Jasper Hill ages each 38-pound wheel for 12 to 18 months, and the farm’s on-site aging room lacks sufficient shelf space to meet the demand.

Mateo and his brother and fellow co-owner, Andy, grasp the ideas that Kindstedt addressed at the conference and had these and other practical concerns in mind when they created their cheeses. “We learned that blue cheese is the fastest-growing market segment in the specialty cheese market, so we wanted Bayley Hazen Blue to be the engine that drove the business,” Andy says. “Constant Bliss was intended as our short-term capital cheese. It would turn over quickly so we would have an income. We had to grow really quickly and reach a certain amount of production in a certain amount of time to make it work. We also wanted an assortment of cheeses, so that instead of selling a vendor 30 pounds of one, we could sell 90 pounds of three varieties.”

The brothers and their wives ran Jasper Hill without additional staff until 2005, when they were able to hire their first employee. They now have a full-time staff of seven.

On a May morning, when Mateo is away on business, his wife, Angie, watches another employee ladle Constant Bliss mixture into hundreds of little molds covering a long stainless steel tabletop. Acoustic rock songs from Jack Johnson’s debut album, Brushfire Fairytales, play in the background. “When Mateo is here,” says Angie, “there’s a lot of Grateful Dead and bluegrass.”

Andy describes Jasper Hill’s products as “bastardizations of old-world cheeses.” Constant Bliss is influenced by Chaource, a cheese from northern France. Bayley Hazen Blue is based on Fourme d’Ambert, which has been produced in central France for more than a thousand years, and Aspenhurst bears resemblance to an English cheese, Leicester. The Kehlers chose to invent their own recipes instead of replicating European cheeses. “It’s much harder to market a copy than an original,” Andy says. “Why buy mine when it’s the same as another cheese?”

The Kehlers reinforce the distinctions between their products and the European derivations by giving their cheeses monikers with local relevance. Constant Bliss is named for a Revolutionary War hero who was killed by Indians while guarding Bayley Hazen Road in Greensboro. Two soldiers died in that 1781 incident, but understandably, the Kehlers deemed Bliss’ name more marketable than that of his comrade, Moses Sleeper.

The brothers bought Jasper Hill in 1998 and experimented with tofu and beer before settling on cheese. “We were trying to come up with a way to support two families on a farm in Vermont. This is where we want to live, this piece of land, and the cheese is a vehicle for supporting us,” Andy says, noting that as children he and Mateo spent their summers with an uncle whose home is a few hundred yards from their farm. “By 2002, we had a business plan written. We had planned to milk sheep, but the computer told us we wanted to milk cows instead. The financial projection said we’d need 600 sheep versus 40 cows.”

The Kehlers trusted the projection and purchased a herd of Ayrshire cows. Once their cheeses reached the market and received a promising reception, they started their families. Mateo and Angie have a 3-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son; Andy and his wife, Victoria, welcomed their first child, a boy, nine months ago.

Having met their own goals, the Kehlers want to help fellow cheese
makers achieve theirs. In October, they opened a huge cheese cave on their property, a facility that eventually will span 18,000 square feet, will hold a million pounds of cheese, and will employ 10 people. The cave, which should be fully finished next year, addresses the fledgling cheese maker’s problem of finding a suitable place to age his or her cheese. Many cannot afford to build their own caves, and those who can rarely have extra space that they can rent to neighbors. “This is a golden opportunity to make money and revolutionize cheese production in Vermont,” Andy says. “With this piece of infrastructure, we’re looking to increase the number of viable dairy farms in the area. If we can create 10 farms, that would be priceless.”

Contributions such as Jasper Hill’s cave should encourage more farmers to join the community and should move Vermont closer to its goal of becoming the Napa Valley of cheese making. Even Putnam is mulling over an expansion, but on his own strict terms. “I’m in discussions now with Spring Brook Farm in Reading, which is about 19 miles to the south,” he says. “They have 40 Jersey cows. It might happen a year from now.

“It’s all going to be exciting,” he adds, enthusing over the subtle differences in climate and pasture that inevitably will affect the two Tarentaises. “Two cheeses, two places. But it’ll be fundamentally the same cheese. It’ll be a gas.”

Jasper Hill Farm, 802.533.2566, www.jasperhillfarm.com
Thistle Hill Farm, 802.457.9349, www.thistlehillfarm.com
Vermont Butter & Cheese Co., 802.479.9371, www.vtbutterandcheeseco.com

Cheese Courses
The riboprinter machine appears unremarkable, but it is capable of catching a killer. Catherine Donnelly, codirector of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC) at the University of Vermont, explains that by identifying different strains of Listeria, a potentially deadly bacterium that can contaminate cheese, the RiboPrinter helps cheese makers pinpoint where and how a particular type might have invaded their facilities.

Recently, a cheese maker asked VIAC to determine how the bacterium appeared on his farm. “Our best guess is the dairy inspector’s boots,” Donnelly says. “This particular form showed up on many farms. The link is human foot traffic.”

VIAC was established three years ago. “We accelerate the learning curve and give them the tools they need to succeed,” Donnelly says of the cheese makers who the institute serves. “A small artisanal cheese maker could never afford a lab like this.”

The institute’s other main contribution is educating the next generation of cheese makers. Jeff Roberts, a VIAC consultant and author of The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese, estimates that 12 percent of all the cheese makers included in his book have attended at least one VIAC class. “Right now, we’re focused on the basics,” says Donnelly. “As we grow, we’ll get into the finer points of cheese making.”

Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, 802.656.8300, www.nutrition.uvm.edu/viac

Increasing the Flock
Vermont shepherd produces one of Vermont’s most coveted cheeses and possibly the finest sheep’s milk cheese in America, but 17 years ago the company was making a product that cofounder David Major has likened to sawdust. That changed after he and his then-wife, Cindy, visited the French Pyrenees in 1993 and spent two weeks moving from sheep farm to sheep farm, learning by doing. (The Majors divorced in 2006.) “We used the same recipe, but all the cheeses tasted different,” he says. “It made us realize that if we were careful, we could capture the flavors of particular pastures in the milk and the cheese, and make it extra-special.”

In 1993, the Majors submitted a revamped version of Vermont Shepherd for consideration for an American Cheese Society (ACS) award, and it won first place in the farmstead category. It earned top-of-class honors at the August ACS conference also. (A farmstead cheese is made from the milk of the farm’s resident herd; Thistle Hill Farm and Jasper Hill Farm are farmstead cheese makers.) Theoretically, Vermont Shepherd is available from August to April, but it sells out rapidly. The Putney, Vt., farm always retains a few batches, however, for fans who drive out to purchase the cheese.

The farm’s contribution to Vermont’s artisanal cheese-making industry extends beyond its namesake product. In the 1990s, the Majors accepted a government grant for an apprenticeship project that lasted for three years. They trained six students to make sheep cheese, and three of them have established farms of their own: Woodcock Farm in Weston, Willow Hill Farm in Milton, and Bonnieview Farm in Craftsbury Common.

“I’m all for Vermont being the center of artisanal cheese production in America. Vermont is suited for it,” says Major. “But I don’t think it has to be the Napa Valley of cheese. I’m not sure if Vermont has to be anything but Vermont.”

Vermont Shepherd, 802.387.4473, www.vermontshepherd.com

Read Next Article >>
Photo by Gina Taro
Photo by Francesc Guillamet
Photo by Jill Paider
Photos by (from left) Roger Ball/Getty Images, Gareth Brown/Getty Images, Roger Mastroianni/Getty Images and Ted Morrison
Photo © John Arandhara-Blackwell 2012
Photo by Lesyy