The Big Cheese

Travel East
Mountain Life

Vermont cheesemakers think small. Unlike the large commercial dairy operations that crank out truckloads of nondescript supermarket cheese, local producers know virtually every cow on their farm. Each day's batch of cheese is different because the cows, goats or sheep are pasture-fed and tend to munch any combination of grasses, legumes, wildflowers and herbs that they happen upon. A healthy, diverse diet translates to subtly flavored milk—and superb cheese. Small-batch, handmade cheeses from Vermont rival the best cheeses from Europe. And some of them can be just as difficult to track down—unless you go to Vermont. The state's many country stores and farmer's markets often stock all the top regional cheeses.

Vermont is best known for its razor-sharp cheddar, an ageable cow's-milk cheese first conceived to help farm families survive the state's long winters. Two tips on understanding cheddars:

1) Orange cheeses derive their color from additives. Traditional Vermont cheddar is additive-free and therefore retains its natural white color.

2) A cheese's sharpness is determined by the amount of time it has been aged. Longer aging equals sharper, stronger cheese.

Shelburne Farms in northern Vermont makes one of the best raw-milk (i.e., unpasteurized—the ultimate, according to cheese lovers) cheddars in the state. Its 3-year cheddar offers a mix of sweet flavors and a sharp acidic bite. It has a much more intense taste than the average "sharp" supermarket cheddar. Grafton Village Cheese Company, based in the southern region of the state, makes 6-year cheddar with a lovely crumbly texture and an even sharper finish. Cabot, the largest operation of the big three, offers a smooth, full-flavored 18-month Private Stock Cheddar.

While cheddar is undoubtedly the big cheese of Vermont, it's just the beginning. Ascutney Mountain from Cobb Hill, a community-run farm in Hartland, is a raw cow's-milk cheese made in the style of a fine Swiss, offering lovely floral notes and a bright acidic finish. Laini Fondiller, who makes cheese at her Lazy Lady Farm—a solar-powered operation—has become known for a creamy goat's milk cheese called La Petite Tomme, reminiscent of a rich French chèvre. And Tarentaise, a nutty-flavored cheese from Thistle Hill Farm near Killington, pays tribute to the famous cheeses of the Savoie region in the French Alps. Start enjoying the expanding world of Vermont's cheeses and you'll soon develop a taste for a local product other than the beautiful forested slopes of the Green Mountains.

November 2005