Back in the USA
By Christine Hyatt
With our tour of the great cheese-making regions of Europe complete, this in-depth series turns to the incredible renaissance we have been lucky to experience coast to coast in our own country. This month, we’ll begin our USA tour with an exploration of Northeast cheeses.
The history of cheese in the “New” world begins with some of the earliest settlers to arrive on this continent. Records of the provisions aboard the Mayflower indicate the Pilgrims had cheese on the voyage, likely an aged Gouda style, perfect for the long voyage. They also brought goats for fresh milk during the initial voyage, making the presence of goat cheese at the first Thanksgiving a real possibility.
Cows arrived in New England on one of the first reinforcement ships, and began to establish a diary culture on our shores. Early cheeses were simple and made in the home using excess milk. Colonial cookbooks include little more than a cursory review of cheesemaking as this would have been a skill taught to young girls as they were prepared for homemaking.
Cheesemaking remained a localized endeavor using traditional techniques until 1851 when Jesse Williams, a dairy farmer from upstate New York, opened the first assembly-line cheesemaking factory in the US. Local dairies supplied milk to the factory, which produced large quantities of cheese. The venture was a success with hundreds of dairy cooperatives using a similar format by the 1860’s.
Thankfully, the rise in “factory cheese” production and the inevitable consolidation that followed also gave rise to a renaissance of cheesemaking in the region. In the last few decades, New Englanders have begun to reclaim their “working landscape,” with new creameries springing up throughout New England, particularly in Vermont.
The Green Mountain State can happily claim more cheesemakers per capita than any other state with over 40 farmstead, artisan and specialty producers thriving within its limited borders. Like Oregon, Vermonters are proud of their artisans and enjoy a thriving Farmers’ Market scene and eat-local vibe, which has contributed to the flourishing cheese industry. Some not to be missed Vermont producers are outlined below.
Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Co-owners Allison Hooper and Bob Reece began producing traditional French-style goat cheese and sea salt butter long before it was a staple on menus across the country.
They purchase milk from 20 local dairies and support sustainable agriculture in their area. In recent years, they have taken their production to a whole new level of goodness, producing a line of outstanding aged surface ripened goat cheeses. Enjoy Bijou, Bonne Bouche or Coupole with your favorite Oregon Pinot Gris, for a knockout combination.
One of the most visionary concepts in the world of American Cheese is emerging from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The Farm and Cellars and Jasper Hill have truly changed the way cheese is brought to market in this corner of the world.
In 2002, brothers Mateo and Andy Kehler and their wives bought a 240-acre derelict dairy farm near the spot where they had spent idyllic summer vacations. On it, they created a business model they hoped would help other Vermont dairies remain viable and, in the process, began producing a line of outstanding cheeses including soft-ripened Constant Bliss, washed rind Winnimere and Bayley Hazen Blue.
In 2003, they collaborated with regional dairy powerhouse Cabot Creamery, agreeing to age Cabot’s traditional Clothbound Cheddar. The results were spectacular, garnering a Best of Show win for the duo at the American Cheese Society conference in Portland, Ore., in 2006.
The perks of the partnership led the Kehler brothers to embark on an outrageous path. In 2008, they completed construction on a 22,000-square-foot cave on their property. The cave has the capacity to age 2 million pounds of cheese and already nurtures the work of more than a dozen Vermont creameries including notables like Cabot, Grafton, Lazy Lady and Twig Farm. Seek out any and all of these cheeses for an incredible treat. The model is similar to European methods in which cheesemakers will send their newly formed wheels to highly skilled affineurs to bring the cheese to its fullest potential. The affinage is a critical step and, often, busy cheesemakers do not have the bandwidth to devote to this key element. Sending the cheese to the Cellars at Jasper Hill frees them up to focus on production. Not only does Jasper Hill age the cheese, they also get it to market, building a reputation of quality and expanding markets for all Vermont cheese.
Beyond Vermont, the New England region has seen cheese growth in Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut as well, making the region a go-to place for quality cheese. Don’t miss these great cheesemakers from beyond Vermont:
• Westfield Farm from Hubbardston, MA has been making delicious cheese since 1971. They are known especially for their surface-ripened Hubbardston Blue Log. Shaped in similar fashion to fresh chevre, this cheese has a rind of external blue mold, which adds flavor and texture to the cheese.
• Cato Corner Farm is a small, family farm in Colchester, Connecticut. This mother-son partnership produces farmstead cheeses using the milk of the farm’s 40 Jersey cows. Their Hooligan washed-rind cheese is tops for those who enjoy “stinky” cheeses.
Check in with your local cheesemonger to find these Northeastern gems. They are rarities on the left coast, but worth the effort. In Oregon, pay a visit to Steve Jones’ new concept, Cheese Bar (6031 SE Belmont, Portland), Foster & Dobbs, New Seasons or The Square Deal Cheese Shop in Steve’s old location. One of these will be able to point out some delightful selections for your tasting pleasure. Pairing with stellar Oregon wines is highly encouraged!
Christine Hyatt is a Cheese Educator and food writer. She welcomes cheesy questions at firstname.lastname@example.org