Moto-Foodie on the Vermont Cheese Trail: Part 2
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.
Traveling on a motorcycle is quite different from being in the closed environment of a car. On roads that follow the contours of the landscape the changes in temperature and humidity are immediately felt. There’s no escaping the smells of terroir in passing—a pine forest, newly mowed hay, corn in the fields, or food grilling on a barbeque. It was the later that caused me to make a U-turn and park in front of the Dorset Union Store.
Vermont’s general stores are iconic and most of them promote local products. This is one of the fancier ones and has been in business since 1816. On Wednesdays, hamburger sliders and hotdogs hot off the grill are only a buck and I sit on the steps in the shade to enjoy mine.
Lunch finished, I mount up and continue along the beautiful Mettowee Valley before turning west onto Route 315. Route 153 takes me into the hills of the “slate belt” that lies on the border of New York. Although the product most frequently associated with this area is slate used for high-end kitchens and bath tiles, the cheeses made on the Consider Bardwell Farm can be found in gourmet stores and restaurants from Maine to California.
Consider Stebbins Bardwell founded the first Vermont cheese cooperative in 1864 and it survived until 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression. It’s most recent incarnation began when a woman from NYC purchased the farm and began raising goats in 2003, but cheese making was essentially a hobby until 2007 and the arrival of cheese maker Peter Dixon.
The goats’ milk comes from their own herd of Oberhaslis and the cows’ milk from those of two neighbors. Their cheeses, named after towns in the area—Dorset, Pawlet, Danby, and Manchester—are made from raw and pasteurized milk, only microbial rennet is used, and all are aged at the farm. So some cheeses are farmstead and some—because the milk comes from the farm next door—are not, but a very long list of first place national and international awards prove that really doesn’t matter when it comes to taste. The farm store is strictly self-service, but their cheese can be purchased at the Dorset Union Store or in Brooklyn, New Orleans, San Francisco, and many places in-between.
In Pawlet, I turn north on Route 133 to ride through the heart of the Taconic Mountains. Once the top of the southern Green Mountains, they were sheared off during a geological cataclysm and moved westward. The friction created so much heat that the limestone bedrock was transformed into marble and clay deposits on the western edge became slate. They’re also extremely scenic. Just east of Middletown Springs a right turn places me onto
Route 140 and through Tinmouth, then it’s a rapid descent into the narrow Valley of Vermont in Wallingford, and back into the Green Mountains. I’m taking a less-traveled route —off Route 155 onto Tarbellville and Healdville roads—to reach the oldest cheese factory in the nation: Crowley Cheese Company.
Prior to the arrival of the railroads and the invention of refrigerated railcars in the 1860’s, milk couldn’t be shipped to distant markets like Boston and New York. The solution was to convert milk into butter and cheese. Different community dairies developed unique local cheeses, but only a handful of these “heritage cheeses” have survived to our modern era; Crowley is one of these.
Crowley is a curd/granular cheese that is neither cheddar nor colby, but a unique heritage cheese made of raw cows’ milk from the neighboring Carabeau Farm. The recipe has remained unchanged since 1824 and the cheeses are still made by hand in the factory barn Winfred Crowley constructed in 1882. As with most Vermont artisanal cheeses, there are no chemical additives, no preservatives, and the cows are certified BST and BGH free. There are mild to extra-sharp varieties—and if you are lucky, the fantastic ultra-sharp—that also come in a range of flavors: garlic, chive, muffaletta, sage, hot pepper, smoked, and dill.
Visitors can watch the cheese being made and purchase specialty farm products from the wooden-plank shelves. Unlike the attractive tourism-designed Grafton operation or the ultra-modern one at Hildene or even the self-serve farm approach used by working farmers, Crowley is a genuine, rustic—if somewhat funky—farm-barn setting. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this is what I consider to be representative of “real” Vermont and an example of how history continues as a current trend.
My next stop is just eight miles away, “as the crow flies.” Since my motorcycle doesn’t have wings, and Salt Ash Mountain stands between Crowley Cheese and the next factory, I must first go to Ludlow before turning north on Route 100 to reach Plymouth. This portion of Route 103 is built over the Crown Point Military Road constructed by Roger’s Rangers in 1759 and where British Major-General Jeffery Amherst used to move his army through the frontier wilderness on his way to capturing Fort Ticonderoga and then Montreal. After passing a series of beautiful mountain lakes—Rescue, Echo, and Amherst—strung along Route 100, I turn onto Route 100B and immediately climb through Plymouth Notch.
Plymouth is a tiny village of about two-dozen structures—if you count barns, the church, the general store, and the information center in addition to a handful of residences. It was the home of the 30th President of the United States—John Calvin Coolidge, Jr. It was in the parlor of the family home where Calvin Coolidge was sworn into the Presidential office by his father and, across the street, above the general store was where the government of the United States was run during the summer months when he vacationed here. One of these structures is a large barn where the President’s father founded the Plymouth Cheese Company in 1890.
The cheese company closed in 1934 and was revived by the President’s son in 1962 and closed again in 1998 when John Coolidge III sold it to the State of Vermont. Cheese operations began again in 2009 when another Vermonter, Jesse Werner, returned home from abroad. Although the original recipe is being used, in my opinion it doesn’t taste the same as what John Coolidge was making and so hesitate to call it a heritage cheese. It’s good, though, and the company has begun experimenting with the creation of new cheeses. All of the cows’ milk comes from a single farm in Tinmouth, but since the cheese is made in another place it can’t be classified as farmstead. The store carries a great selection of Vermont specialty products, including “hard” cider, and the bucolic setting just begs for an impromptu picnic.
I stop at the gravesite of President Coolidge. There’s no record of our 30
th President actually making cheese, but it stretches the imagination that he didn’t help his father in the family business while growing up. He is buried alongside his father and his son, but the business founded by the Coolidge family lives on. Here in the hills of southern Vermont things change, yet somehow stay the same.
The Vermont Gold Rush of 1857 was centered in Plymouth. There's still gold in these hills. These roads are not the most direct between cheese producers, but all are paved and scenic. There are numerous producers not mentioned, but many of them are working farms that don’t have the facilities—or time—to welcome visitors. For a complete list of producers log onto Vermont Cheese Council.
Moto-Foodie on the VT Cheese Trail Map
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Lodging is an important consideration for any tour. Rutland offers several chain brands. Lodging at the Woodstock Inn tends to be pricey, but well worth the experience. Killington is a major ski area and so there is an abundance of rooms available during the summer. If you are looking for a base from which to explore Vermont, the Killington Grand offers studio rooms with kitchens, a great restaurant, a laundry, and more.