Moto-Foodie on the Vermont Cheese Trail: Part 3
If you're a foodie biking through the Northeast, you'll definitely want to check out the Vermont Cheese Trail. Here's an inside look at some of the stops.
From the idyllic village of Plymouth and my visit to the Plymouth Cheese Company, this moto-foodie has ridden out of the Green Mountain Range and down the Ottauqueechee River valley. There’s more to tempt the appetite—Long Trail Brewery in Bridgewater Corners, Mountain Creamery in Woodstock, Eaton’s Sugarhouse on Rt. 14 at the junction of Rt. 107—along the way to the next cheese producer. Historic buildings, numerous covered bridges, and gorgeous scenery are all part of the mix that makes the Vermont Cheese Trail special, whether traveled by motorcycle or car.
The eastern region of the state is the Piedmont, an area of random, jumbled mountains where roads twist and undulate along streams and rivers before cresting ridges to descend to the next series of interconnected valleys. It’s stunningly beautiful.
Blythedale Farms is located in the middle of the Piedmont and next to the Corinth Town Clerk’s Office. The gravel driveway leads to the farmhouses, barn, and creamery. The modest red-clapboard dairy certainly doesn’t appear to be a place where award-winning cheeses could originate, but from here they go to gourmet shops and restaurants from New York to San Francisco and during the Bush Presidency they were frequently served at the White House.
Blythedale Farms has a history that began with master cheesemaker Tom Gilbert and Karen Galayda at Craigston Cheese Co. in Wenham, MA. As with so many others, they left their jobs and set up their own operation on the Gilbert farm, Blythedale. Outgrowing the family farm they moved to Cookeville (Corinth, Vermont) in 1995. Producing a line of artisanal cheeses—Camembert Vermont; Green Mountain Gruyère; Vermont Brie; Cookeville Grana; and Jersey Blue—and selling through distribution networks they became one of the first successful modern artisanal cheese in the state. In 2004, Tom and Becky Loftus purchased Blythedale, sold their house in Rochester, NY, and moved to Corinth. One does not mess with success and the only change they’ve made to the product line is to add a 1-lb brie.
This is a farmstead operation and all the cheeses are made from Tom and Becky’s herd of Jersey cows. Only whole, unpasteurized milk-- no rBST hormones-- is used, the cheeses are hand ladled, and they are aged in their own “cave”.
Vermont Brie is on par with the best that’s produced in France and Jersey Blue— with a Roqueford mold and made like a Stilton—is one of my long-time favorites. Their extensive list of awards includes American Cheese Society Best in Class and Reserve Grand Champion (of the entire show) for the Jersey Blue.
There is no farmstead store and visiting the farm is by appointment only. Farming is very time consuming but Blythedale cheeses are sold coast-to-coast and can be found in many Vermont grocery stores.
A short backtrack to continue north on Brook Rd. brings me to Rt. 25 where I make a left turn to continue towards Barre. Approaching the Granite Capital of the World, the Rock of Ages quarry can be seen at the top of the Barre Pluton. The Vermont Creamery, another one of the hippie-back-to-the-land success stories that Vermont is known for, is located just around the corner from the Rock of Ages Visitors Center in Websterville.
Allison Hooper was raising goats and making cheese in Brookfield in 1984 and met when Bob Reese needed some chevre for a function held by the Vermont Agriculture Department. They teamed up and moved the creamery to Websterville in 1989 and Adeline Druart, a master cheesemaker from France joined the team. This socially responsible B corp now has 20 employees; supports 17 goat farms in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Ontario; and their award-winning cheese is distributed across the country.
The creamery is a large red, industrial-styled building that's located in a commercial park. Recently a greenhouse-like vistors' center has been added where small windows allow people to catch a glimpse of production taking place in the cheese room. There is no tasting, but some of their products can be purchased from a tiny refrigerator in the center. Better yet, look for their products in better grocery stores and cheese shops.
Going down the hill and following Rt. 14 through Barre and past Hope Cemetery—world famous for its memorial sculptures—I bear right on Rt. 2 in East Montpelier. Willow Moon Farm is located on the banks of the Winooski River just before entering the village of Plainfield and only a few yards off the main highway.
Willow Moon Farm breeds and milks registered Nigerian Dwarf goats. This is a mother-daughter team that has been milking goats since 2006, but didn’t get licensed until 2010. The following year they entered the ADGA (American Dairy Goat Association) cheese competition and tied for 3rd place (with VT Creamery) for their feta. Pretty impressive.
The cheeses are made from pasteurized milk and vegetarian rennet. They produce Winooski Tomme (aged for 3-7 months) and Willoughby Tomme, a semi-hard tomme from summer pasture milk. Little Goat Blue, Spruce Peak ash-ripened, aged Rock River Red, and gouda are among the cheeses produced. I sampled the herb and garlic chèvre—it will become one of my standard snack cheeses— and the feta doesn’t taste at all like a goat cheese.
Visitors are welcome and can visit the goats, take a tour, and purchase cheeses from the cooler in the farm store. I’d also suggest picking up some of the honey they produce. My next stop is only a few minutes away, but as so many visitors have remarked, “this is in the middle of nowhere!”
The village of Cabot has a population of only 233 (1,433 in the entire township), but there’s a post office, church, public school, a restaurant (Downstreet Eats); the Cabot General Store for groceries and such; Harry’s Hardware has a couple of gas pumps and the Cabot Garage is right across Main Street. There also is the Cabot Creamery and its visitors’ center where each year up to 40,000 visitors pay to take the creamery tour (educational groups aren’t counted since they are admitted free of charge).
To paraphrase a line in the movie
Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”
Cabot Cooperative Creamery started in 1919 when 94 dairy farms kicked in $5 per cow and a cord of wood—electricity didn’t arrive until the 1930’s—to get started. They didn’t start making cheese until 1930 and entered their first cheese competition—U.S. Champion Cheese Contest—in 1989 and captured first place for cheddar. In 1989 they also merged with Agri-mark, another New England cooperative, but remain 100% farm-family owned.
Major decisions are democratically made by members and included 20-million dollars for a whey processing plant in 2000 and this year approved three million for a reverse-osmosis machine to water content in the whey. This is agri-business done the right way.
The Cabot Cooperative Creamery now processes a million pounds of milk and produces 84,000 pounds of cheese a day, 24/7. This includes Colby Jack, Monterey Jack, Muenster, Pepper Jack, American, and Swiss. Their flavored cheeses include my favorite, Pepper Jack, and the 2014 award-winning Hot Buffalo Wing, but what Cabot is most known for is cheddar.
In my opinion, Cabot sets the standard for sharp cheddars and these come in sharp, extra sharp, and seriously sharp grades. However, even these have to take second place to their specialty aged cheddars: Alpine, Farmhouse Reserve, White Oak, Artisan Reserve, Vintage Choice, Private Stock, Classic Vermont Sharp, and Clothbound Cheddar. As with almost any food, what is “best” comes down to personal preference, but Clothbound Cheddar did win the silver medal at the 2012 World Championship Cheese Contest and Best of Class in the 2013 American Cheese Society competition; Vintage Choice captured Best of Class in the 2014 World Championship Cheese Contest.
Cabot produces a wide range of block cheddars that are aged for two to 36 months. Even if lactose-intolerant you can eat aged cheddar cheese because most of the lactose is removed when the whey is separated from the curd during the cheese-making and any remaining lactose is broken down by the aging process. Cabot products have no additives or preservatives, gluten or gliadin, the rennet is not of animal origin, and most cheeses are certified kosher and Halal.
It turns out that White Oak is the same cheese as Clothbound Cheddar, but the difference is that the former is block aged while the later is cave aged at Jasper Hill. Tasting both illustrates the difference between the more costly method of cave aging—where the rind is exposed and develops a bacterial rind—and the modern practice of vacuum sealing 42-lb. blocks plastic to preserve moisture and prevent a rind from forming.
Each block is graded by hand and a very small percentage of the best are cut, waxed coated, and sold as Classic Vermont (red wax/aged 8 months); Private Stock (black/16 mo.), Vintage Choice (purple/24 mo.); and Artisan Reserve (red/36 mo.). Certain “reserved” cheeses are only available at the four Cabot retail stores and by ordering online. The Clothbound Cheddar has to be ordered online in quarter-wheel sections. All three are worth the effort to obtain.
Cabot cheeses can be found in almost every supermarket and convenience store in the Northeast and they have four retail outlets: three in Vermont—Cabot, Waterbury, and Queechee—and in Portland, ME.
From here the trail leads into a region known as The Northeast Kingdom and to one of the most unique cheese producers in the state. I'll tell you about it next time.