Moto-Foodie on the Vermont Cheese Trail: Part I
Headed to the Vermont Cheese Trail? Check out these great places to visit along the way.
It’s Wednesday and hot dogs and hamburger sliders hot off the barbeque are only a buck. I pick up a couple of items in the Dorset Union Store and sit in the shade on the front steps with my grilled hotdog.
History is very much alive here. The idea of Vermont was born in this small village and, on the green in front of me the local militia, the Green Mountain Boys, departed to battle the British at Hubbarton and Bennington. Across the street is the beautiful Dorset Inn. Established in 1796, it’s one of the oldest continuously operated inns in the U.S. Touring through the Green Mountain State, its history seems as tangible as the forests and rolling hills, but right now I’m thinking about how the past is connected to the present culinary scene.
European settlers brought cheese making to North America where it remained a farmstead process until the early 1800’s when the first commercial operations appeared. With the arrival of railroads and the invention of the refrigerated railcar in the 1860’s, dairies processed excess milk into butter and cheese for shipment to urban markets. Unique strains of cheese—what we now call “heritage cheeses”—were developed by these creameries, but the advent of modern large-scale production and distribution led to their extinction. The resurgence of farmstead and artisanal cheese in America is barely three decades old and Vermont is at the forefront of this renaissance. In 1995 there were only six Vermont farms making cheese; as of 2008 there were 290 farmers involved, one way or another, in cheese production. This state now has more cheese producers per capita than any other and most of them are small family farms.
This morning my first stop was just outside of Brattleboro at Grafton Village Cheese Company’s new facility on Route 30. This location has windows for viewing the cheddar being made and a beautiful store filled with Vermont food products. Known for great cheddars, they also make leyden, alpine, and shepsog cheeses. Small cubes of various cheeses arranged in trays on the cash counter entice visitors into taking advantage of these free tidbits. I sampled an old favorite of mine, sage-flavored cheddar, and discovered a new one: St. Pete blue cheese layered between one-year-old cheddar. Their Sepsog, which is mixture of sheep and cows milk that’s cave aged for at least five months, just took third place for best in show at the 2014 World Champion Cheese Contest and Bear Hill, an alpine-style washed rind sheep cheese, captured 2nd place Best of Show at the 2013 American Cheese Society Awards. That, and a long list of national and international awards, does provide some bragging rights. Bismark—named after a famous Vermont ram, not a German chancellor—is an aged sheep tome that won a gold medal at the World Cheese Awards in 2012. What caught my eye was the last wedge of Bismark made with bits of white and black truffles—that cheese would come home with me.
The shortest route is rarely the most scenic—especially on a motorcycle. Continuing on Route 30 along the West River I crossed the West Dummerston Bridge— a 280-foot long covered bridge built in 1872—and wound my way east to Route 5 along a road that, except for asphalt, has changed little since the early 19
th century. In Putney, a left turn by the general store took me up the hill and past the Noyes House.
In 1844 Humphry Noyes, a spiritual leader who espoused “Perfectionism,” founded an organization that included communal living and “complex marriages.” It ultimately resulted in the founding of the Oneida Community in New York and the silverware company bearing that name. This state has always attracted eccentrics and visonaries.
In contrast to my first stop, Vermont Shepherd is not on the main highway and, like most farmers, the Majors don’t have time to entertain visitors. The old milkhouse, where cans of milk once were stored, has been converted into a self-serve farm store. Frozen lamb is in the top freezer of the frig, a selection of cheeses is found in the lower section, and maple syrup is on the table; leave your money on the table. No, it’s not strange. This is normal—at least around here.
Verano, David Major’s farmstead cheese, is made from pasteurized sheeps’ milk and vegetable rennet then aged for three to five months in their own cave. This seasonal cheese has won a very long list of national and international awards. Invierno is not a farmstead cheese simply because their sheeps’ milk is mixed with cows’ milk from the neighbor’s Jersey herd. This ages for five to nine months and is ready for sale by early winter.
Continuing on Westminster Road to the Saxtons River, I follow it upstream via Routes 112 and 35 to Grafton. This iconic Vermont village was saved and restored by the non-profit Windham Foundation. in the 1960’s. The original Grafton Village Cheese factory and “caves” are located here, but longer accessible to the public. They do have a retail store located next to the Grafton Inn, an original stagecoach inn along the Boston-to-Montreal route where notables Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Rudyard Kipling, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson often stayed. The profits from the cheese—and the inn—are used to fund sustaining rural communities, not corporate shareholders.
Things change, yet remain the same: Route 35 from Grafton to Chester is an original stage road, and with stonewalls and centuries-old maple trees; proof that, except for asphalt and some drainage culverts, it hasn’t changed in the last couple hundred years.
Climbing to the crest of the Green Mountain Range, I rode past the Taylor Farm on Route 11 just west of Londonderry. This has become a tourist attraction, but it’s also a working, multi-generational, family farm where visitors can see chickens running around and purchase authentic homemade products in the farm store. Their farmstead traditional European-style gouda is famous, but they also make it in maple-smoked, garlic, and chipotle flavors. Even though these goudas are handmade, the Wrights produce about 1,000-pounds a week using raw milk from their own herd of Holstein and Jersey cows.
Dropping down from the crest of the Green Mountain Range, I entered Manchester. While city folks have been coming here on summer holidays since the mid 19th century, the attraction these days seems to be the upscale factory outlet stores. During the summer of 1863, Mary Todd Lincoln would bring her two sons to the Equinox Hotel for the summer. Robert Todd Lincoln eventually would return to build the Georgian-style summer home he named Hildene.
The 412-acre estate remained in the family until the last surviving Lincoln descendent passed away in 1975. Completely furnished with the family’s possessions, including some belonging to President Lincoln, it is now owned by the non-profit Friends of Hildene. The Rowland Agricultural Center was built in one of the back pastures in 2009 and this state-of-the-art facility is where Hildene Artisanal Cheeses are made from their herd of about 70 Nubian goats. Like all farmstead cheeses, their availability is seasonal and taste varies depending on what, when, and where the animals are grazing. The chevre and harvarti can only be purchased in the museum store, but there’s a very high demand for a limited supply so if you’re coming just for the cheese, call ahead. Once again, profits from cheese and ticket sales go to funding education and sustainability.
. . . to be continued.
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