We all know about wine trails, but Vermont is the first place in the country to celebrate the bounty of its agricultural landscape with a cheese trail. Pack your Lactaid and get ready.
The Vermont Cheese Council (tel. 866/261-8595; www.vtcheese.com) was started ten years and created the cheese trail in 1998 as outgrowth of the council, whose mission is concerned with the "production and advancement" of Vermont cheese. Throughout the state, more than 150 varieties of artisan and farmstead cheeses are produced by 38 different council members and the number is "mostly going up," says Ellen Ecker Ogden, coordinator for the Vermont Cheese Council and author of The Vermont Cheese Book. While most Americans probably know Cabot cheddar -- perhaps the most widely commercially available cheese from Vermont -- the state is home to a burgeoning community of cheese makers. "Cheese making is saving Vermont agriculture," says Ogden.
Nearly two dozen of the state's cheese farms are open to the public and all will have samples available to taste, but the hours will vary so Ogden suggests checking individual listings on the cheese council's site and call ahead to make sure. For all year-round cheese trailing, stick to places that make their goods from cows; production typically falls off in the late fall and winter in farms where goats and sheep are mostly used. (Currently, there are seven farms using sheep and seven using goats; the rest of them are using cows.)
Woodstock Water Buffalo Company in South Woodstock (tel. 802/457-4540; www.woodstockwaterbuffalo.com) proves the exception with its yogurt and award-winning buffalo mozzarella. Six of the cheese makers have real caves, not just ones that duplicate the environment by a temperature-controlled refrigerator. In fact, farmstead cheese pioneers Mateo and Andy Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm (tel. 802/533-2566; www.jasperhillfarm.com), in Greensboro are currently renovating to create a much larger underground cave system. The farm's cheeses, made from Ayrshire cows, have been featured extensively in the media. "Those guys are the poster boys for Vermont cheese," says Ogden.
Vermont is a compact state but one with lots of variety in its terrain. "Vermont is like Italy -- we've got the mountains and the plains," says Ogden, and not one particular cheese type dominates. Roughly speaking, you can drive from Bennington to Burlington, or Brattleboro to Montpelier, and come across a handful of places to stop; a good portion of them are located in the middle portion of the state, such as Frog City Cheese (tel. 802/672-3650; www.frogcitycheese.com) in Plymouth Notch. Granular curd cheese is made at the company's Plymouth Cheese Factory of President Calvin Coolidge's Historic Site.
Not far from there, Taylor Farm (tel. 802/824-5690) in Londonderry is known for its gouda and Ogden describes it as a full-fledged working farm with "sleigh rides and chickens and puppies and kittens." About twenty miles south of Rutland, Crowley Cheese (tel. 800/259-2340; www.crowleycheese-vermont.com) in Healdville is the oldest cheese maker in the state, and you can tour, eat cheese, and buy cheese before you leave. Goat cheese lovers may recognize the name of Vermont Butter & Cheese Company (tel. 800/884-6287; www.vtbutterandcheeseco.com), which is available across the United States. At its facility in Montpelier you can watch the process through its viewing gallery. At Shelburne Farms (tel. 802/985-8686; www.shelburnefarms.com), you can watch its various cheddars becoming cheddar through a large picture window it its enormous, recently renovated barn.
When navigating the trail, it's important to keep in mind that this is a decidedly more rustic adventure than visiting wine rooms common in even a moderately developed wine region in the United States. Not all cheese makers will have facilities that will be polished, insulated, or otherwise conducive to large groups of people; they're just not set up for that and, as Odgen says, to some extent "there's not that much to see" other than the milking process and cutting the curds. Cheesemaking is a slow process, but people are curious.
Of course, wine and cheese have and historically rich combination, but beer is getting into the action too, especially craft brews, whose consumption is on the rise. Ogden says the cheese council is looking into the possibility of partnering with Vermont's breweries and creating a beer-and-cheese trail. I'll eat -- and drink -- to that.
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