A Cheese Lover’s Retreat

by Gregory
A Cheese Lover's Retreat

I was hoping for a couple of days away. Someplace within driving distance of my Connecticut home. Doing something that would get me moving after the long New England winter. Not being a spa lover — exercise  for its own sake is not my idea of fun or relaxation — I looked for a vacation that would enable me to appreciate one of the best things about New England, the beautiful countryside in late spring. I wanted a distraction from work, a total change of scene.

My interest was piqued by a New York Times article. “A Weekend for Those Who Really like Cheddar” it read. In bucolic Vermont. Hmmm. Pasture to Palate. Well, I wasn’t sure about cozying up to cows (they are awfully large and animals usually make me sneeze), but a few days at a restored inn in a state with fewer people than most large cities was appealing. And I’m always up for a food lesson so the combo sounded just right. Shelburne Farms turned out to be the ideal place to stop and smell the roses. Or, in this cases, the lilacs.

Shelburne Farms was created in 1886 by Dr. William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb, as a model agricultural estate. They literally spent a fortune on it. But after some untimely investments, including Dr. Webb’s experiment in raising carriage horses just as the automobile came into widespread use, the farm gradually fell into disrepair. In what I, as an estate planning and tax attorney, consider a remarkably cooperative and generous act, the heirs gave up their inheritance so that the property could remain a unified estate for the benefit of all people and Mother Nature.

So, in 1972 Shelburne Farms became a nonprofit enterprise dedicated to teaching about the environment. It remains a working farm that features sustainable agriculture, natural wildlife habitats, outdoor recreational activities, land conservation, and community education. There are programs on woodworking, ecosystems, and farming for children and adults. Shelburne Farms is maintained by earnings from the Inn and dining facilities, contributions, sales of its Farm-made products, and memberships.

After a traffic-less four hour Memorial Day drive, I arrived at the gate and was directed to the Inn. Before I arrived, though I had received literature. I hadn’t had a chance to really look at information about Shelburne Farms, which made this first glimpse of the sheer beauty of the farm an even bigger delight. Hugging Lake Champlain, Shelburne Farms is about as gorgeous a setting for renewing the body and spirit as anyone could imagine. The buildings, state of the art when built and faithfully rehabilitated, meld unobtrusively into the natural beauty of the lake, the lush green of the Vermont hills, and the clean fresh air.

I was greeted in the driveway, checked in quickly, and shown to my room. I was a bit early, and because the doors to unoccupied rooms are left open, as I walked through the Inn I had an opportunity to view a dozen. Each was different. All were lovingly and painstakingly restored and beautiful. My room, though one of the smallest, was spotless and bright with a view of the gardens and Lake Champlain. Cuttings of the fragrant lilacs in bloom everywhere on the property were in a vase, a basket of cheddar and fruit was on the dresser, a down comforter (the Inn is neither heated nor air conditioned) on the bed.

I wandered down to the North Porch of the Inn where the cheese making students were to meet for introductions and a tour of the property. A minute later the resident fox, which, as I had been warned, had no fear of humans, trotted to the edge of the patio. It picked up a dead groundhog it had apparently stashed there, glanced at me, and, its prize clutched firmly in its jaws, leisurely headed off into the woods. As I watched it, I caught a glimpse of the trees, the lake, and the flowering lilacs whose perfume had greeted me on arrival. The residual tension from the work-world I had left just hours before disappeared. And it did not intrude for one moment during my entire stay.

I met the other students, an eclectic group of, with one exception, novice cheesemakers. We toured the Farm, riding in an open cart pulled by a tractor driven by Donald Campbell, the Director of Agriculture Education. His lecture (really, more of a chat) was on sustainable agriculture. I thought I’d be uninterested in this part of the program, but the passion of those who live it and clearly love it rubs off. And the plain common sense of using, but not abusing, the land and natural resources is easily persuasive.

After a brief introduction to some of the resident Brown Swiss whose high protein, moderately fat milk is used in the Farms’ cheddar making, we headed back to the Inn where we got to the reason I was there. Cheese. We sampled about 20 local cheeses, most of them handmade artisan cheeses, many of them award winners. We even drank Vermont wines. New and not particularly complex, the wine was still quite drinkable and went well with the local cheeses. We met with several of the cheeses’ creators and purveyors including Allison Hooper of Vermont Butter & Cheese Company, one of the few of these brands available in my local stores (Wild Oats carries it in Connecticut; check your local natural foods store), Deborah Messing, who buys cheese for the Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier, Vermont, and Ross Gagnon, the delightful cheesemaker- more accurately the cheese master- of Shelburne Farms.

Our group had its own room, which functioned as a meeting place, dining hall, and library. We were provided with a dozen books on cheese for perusal and a personal copy of Cheese making Made Easy by Ricki and Robert Carroll. Though our meals were not in the dining room, they were prepared by Shelburne Farms, head chef, David Hugo. Monday night’s dinner menu offered a choice of locally raised beef or local trout. Having long lamented the fact that American meat isn’t what Daddy used to bring home (he was a grocer and son of a butcher) I chose the beef. It was delicious, tender and flavorful. Marbled, but not fatty. The au gratin potatoes with a touch of rosemary were light yet creamy. I could have easily made a meal of them alone. Asparagus, perfectly cooked, was so fresh I’m sure they were plucked from the Farm’s Market Garden just minutes before.

Dessert was a decadent bread pudding made with brioche and served on a plate decorated with both caramel and chocolate sauces. That the kitchen can prepare this quality of food for a crowd makes me confident in recommending the Inn’s restaurant. In addition, however, on Wednesday, the late rising members of our group (I had gotten up early for the cheese making) got to sample the chef’s breakfast cuisine. Not that the rest of us went hungry. We had excellent local yogurt, granola, fruit, delicious Inn-made muffins and pistachio biscotti, and buttery croissants. Still, their raves about waffles served with fresh figs, Shelburne Farm’s own maple syrup, and mascarpone made me very sorry to have missed it.

On Tuesday evening, after more cheese sampling, we had a barbeque on the North Porch. David presided over the grill and served us done-just-right free-range chicken kebabs, grilled vegetables, and a mélange of roasted fingerling and purple potatoes. All locally produced, of course. We could taste the freshness in the vegetables and, especially, the potatoes. Their right-out-of-the-garden flavor needed little enhancing.

We had spent the day visiting nearby farms and cheesemakers. During a stop at the Forgues’ Farm, a certified organic dairy just this side of the Canadian border, I “communed” with the cows, as Theresa, the New York City representative of our group, referred to our up close visits with the animals. And I got a whole lot closer to a bull than I ever need to be again.

The organic certification process is rigorous and can take up to 3 years. But the Forgues and their fellow organic farmers are dedicated to raising healthy, pasture-grazed, drug-free animals which in turn produce healthy, drug-free milk and cheeses. Organic farms are not allowed to use drugs or growth hormones. If an animal becomes ill, drugs may be used to save its life, but that animal cannot be returned to the organic herd.

Next on our itinerary was a sheep farm. Also certified organic, Willow Hill Farm produces milk, cheese, wool, and meat. The proprietors, Willow Smart and David Phinney, have just erected a fantastic aging cave for their cheeses. It’s built into the side of a hill and, with special variance from the state agriculture department and a few measures to keep the health department happy, they were able to take advantage of the natural cooling capabilities of a huge boulder that constitutes one side of the cave. More than one of us remarked that it would be a terrific place to store a few choice Burgundies.

Finally, we made our way to Orb Weaver Farm, a certified organic dairy and vegetable farm. Marjorie Susman and Marian Pollack produce, by hand, a fantastic Colby, available in wax or cave aged. If you want to sample this gem, I recommend you order early. In an attempt to make their farming lives a bit less all-consuming, the duo has reduced their herd of Jerseys from over 30 to a half dozen. They make cheese only in the winter and early spring. They grow vegetables for their farm market and local restaurants in the summer, supplying them with, among other garden delights, a dizzying array of tender baby lettuces.

Maybe it’s the pastures where they graze and look out over the verdant hillside, maybe it’s the care and attention they receive, or maybe it’s the summer vacation, but these cows produce great milk. Which makes great cheese. When we visited, Marjorie and Marian were completely sold out of the cave-aged Colby. They did, however, have a sample for us and it was terrific. Unlike any Colby I’ve previously encountered it maintained its buttery cheddar-like quality, but was much more rich and complex.

On Wednesday morning, our taste buds now thoroughly awakened to the nuances discernable in fine artisan-made cheeses, we began what I thought of as the main event. Learning to make cheddar. We weren’t up quite as early as Ross, who rises at 4:30 each morning so that he can start the cheesemaking immediately after the morning milking. But we arrived at the Farm Barn, where the cheddar is produced and aged, in time to see the milk being unloaded, by hose, into the 600 gallon stainless steel vat.

This cheese is made from raw, that is unpasteurized, unhomogenized cows’ milk. I was not alarmed by this, even though, as a chef, I’ve always been meticulous about sanitation. There is much debate among cheesemakers, food scientists, and government agencies over the use of raw milk. Especially recently, with numerous, sometimes deadly, food borne illness making headlines across the country, there has been a push by federal regulators to require pasteurization. Current regulations permit the use of raw milk in cheeses that will be aged at least 60 days.

Most raw milk cheeses are produced by small farms and artisan cheesemakers. Every one of them that I saw, admittedly a select sampling, was spotless. The emphasis on health and cleanliness could not be more emphatic. I must say, however, that I am among those who continue to use raw eggs for mayonnaise and mousse. I caution my students not to serve these foods to children or the infirm, but I continue to enjoy them. So, perhaps I am not the best critic of the use of raw milk in cheese making. Certainly, any milk may contain dangerous bacteria. Still, I have never read about an outbreak of illness specifically traced to raw milk cheeses. And pasteurization doesn’t insure safety.

The artisan cheese producers we visited are scrupulous about sanitation during every step of the process of transforming milk into the cheese on our tables. The issue of alerting the public that the cheese was made with raw milk can readily be addressed by labeling regulations. Personally, I’d like to continue to have the option of choosing these delicious raw milk cheeses and sustaining the small family farms they help support.

The cheddar making began with the milk delivery into the cheesemaker’s vat. The milk from the morning milking at about 100o is combined with the refrigerated milking of the previous evening so it comes in at about 50o. It is then slowly warmed by the hot water circulating through the sides of the vat. Ross Gagnon, Shelburne Farm’s cheesemaker, explained that the temperature modulation must be carefully controlled and monitored at each step. The starter bacteria are added at 75o. This begins the development of the cheddar’s distinctive flavor.

The milk is then heated for an hour to 90o at which point the rennet is added. Rennet, an enzyme extracted from calves’ stomachs, causes the milk proteins to coagulate. It is ready to be cut when a finger (impeccably sanitized, of course) dipped into it lifts up a softly solidified mass the consistency of yogurt.

The coagulated milk is then cut into cubes with stainless steel cutters. This process releases a great deal of the whey from the curds. Ultimately, the finished cheese will weigh only about 10 percent of the original weight of the milk. The curds, in the whey, are heated to firm them. Then the whey is drained off for use as fertilizer. The curds are gently pushed against the sides of the vat. As they sit, more whey drains out and the curd mounds become firmer.

“Cheddaring” begins at this point when the curd mounds are sliced into slabs, about the width of Ross’ fist, and then stacked on top of each other. As they are stacked the slabs are rotated so the warmer ones on the bottom, become the top layer. This helps keep all the slabs at the same temperature so the bacteria can multiply uniformly. Eventually, the slabs are stacked 7 high, which is the optimum number for maintaining the desired moisture level. The acidity level of the whey that runs off is measured several times during the cheese making process to assure that bacterial action is progressing at the required rate.

The slabs are then feed into a paper-cutter like machine that dices them into “fingers.” Salt is added which inhibits the bacterial action, adds flavor, and extracts a bit more whey. These fingers of cheese are then packed into cheesecloth-lined hoops. At Shelburne Farms, Ross makes 40 pound blocks of cheddar so these hoops filled with cheese are quite a chore to lift onto the press. In fact, the entire process requires constant lifting and bending. Cheese making on this scale is only for the fit and agile. It’s hard and demanding work. But to Ross it appears to be a joy. I’m convinced there is an element of Ross’ sunny attitude in the cheese he produces. Good Karma, perhaps.

The hoops are pressed overnight. The next morning the cheese blocks are removed and wrapped. They are aged, at 42o for 6 months to 2 years, sometimes a little longer. The cheese is then sold to retailers or consumers through the Farm’s stores and catalogue. The sale of this artisan cheese helps support the educational programs to which Shelburne Farms and its personnel are so dedicated.

Our cheese making wound up at the stage where the hoops were being pressed. Before we left, however, Ross took three blocks of cheese from the aging room for us to sample. It was remarkable how different these cheeses, from milk of the same cows, processed in the same manner, by the same cheesemaker, were from one another. It was easy to identify which had been aged the longest by its drier texture and tangier or sharper taste. All were delicious. Ross cut us each bars of our favorites and, as is done for the catalogue sales, we dipped them in wax to keep them fresh and stamped them with the date they were made.

I brought mine home, along with samples I purchased of the other artisan cheeses I had tasted, to my family. We have enjoyed them as snacks and in recipes. But the cheese we’re really looking forward to is that which we left in Ross’ expert care for proper aging. That cheddar that will be arriving several months from now. The cheese that Mom made.

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