Artisan cheesemaking in Vermont

Will Studd finds a thriving artisan cheesemaking scene in the US, hitherto not known for its cheese culture.

Little more than a decade ago the idea that the United States could make a cheese that would proudly sit alongside the great benchmarks of Europe would have seemed risible. American cheese had a serious image problem and was considered to be a symbol of industrial evil in specialist-cheese circles. But in recent years there has been an astonishing change in how the international community perceives US artisan cheese. The catalyst for this change was a cheese from Oregon's Rogue Creamery being named best blue cheese in the world in London in 2003. After some years of diplomatic negotiations, Randolph Hodgson of Neal's Yard Dairy was able to import this raw-milk cheese to the UK. It sold out in weeks.

Today, Vermont is home to about 70 artisan cheesemakers, more per capita than any other US state. One of the most inspiring is Jasper Hill in Vermont. Established in 2002 by brothers Andy and Mateo Kehler, it ticks all the boxes, producing interesting farmstead cheese with a genuine sense of place.

When I first visited, it was a small struggling family enterprise, but it had well-researched plans and an ambitious vision to make exceptional blue and surface-ripened cheese with raw milk collected from the farm's herd of 45 Ayrshire cows. To meet Food and Drug Administration regulations, these cheeses had to be aged for at least 60 days before sale. In a small maturation room built under the dairy I came across a rack of grey mouldy clothbound cheese maturing in a dark corner. To my surprise I was told they were an experiment made by the nearby Cabot cooperative, which is well known in the US for its industrial vacuum-sealed cheddar.

Ageing this kind of cheese seemed at odds with the ethos of a farmstead dairy, but this cheddar was clearly different. For a start the curd had been drained and formed in old-fashioned round hoops rather than blocks, and instead of using cooperative milk from dozens of properties, the cheese had been produced from the yield of a single farm. The young wheels had then been transported from Cabot dairy to Jasper Hill where they were larded and bound with cheesecloth to seal the surface and prevent it from drying out during ageing.

It was a novel idea, but it worked. Big time.

The unique caramel-sweet flavour of the moist, crumbly cheddar was a triumph. It combined the time-honoured skill of carefully maturing clothbound cheddar with modern cheesemaking techniques using selected starter-cultures. The Cabot Clothbound Cheddar I tried that day marked the beginning of an extraordinary partnership between an industrial cooperative and a small farmstead dairy that would ultimately redefine the cheesemaking reputation of the state of Vermont.

When I returned to the dairy a few months ago I was amazed to see the changes first-hand. Mateo acknowledged that the Cabot cooperative was "the donkey that does the heavy lifting" and their generous philosophy that "a rising tide lifts all ships" had been a catalyst for the development of a thriving local artisan cheese scene. Most significantly, the success of the clothbound cheddar had enabled the Kehler brothers to build one of the world's most impressive cheese maturation facilities and to realise their goal of providing tangible economic benefits to the agricultural community.

The brothers have plans to expand production to new purpose-built farm dairies using proven cheese recipes developed at The Vermont Food Venture Center in nearby Hardwick. At this shared facility, Jasper Hill currently produces its soft and creamy spruce-bound Jasper Hill Harbison from pasteurised local milk and a delicious new hard-cooked cheese called Alpha Tolman. These are both then transported to Jasper Hill's cellars as young cheeses to be expertly ripened before sale.

The production of raw-milk cheese still lies at the heart and soul of Jasper Hill's philosophy and an impending FDA review of the 60-day ageing rule is an ongoing concern, particularly for the dairy's wonderful spruce-bound seasonal cheese, Winnimere, and its flagship Bayley Hazen Blue. But despite these threats the Kehlers agree that their operation is past the fight-or-flight mode. "We're just getting started now," they told me, "and so many things are possible."

jasperhillfarm.com

Take a behind-the-scenes tour of Jasper Hill with Will Studd in the video clip below.


Newsletter

Sign up to receive the latest food, travel and dining news direct from Gourmet Traveller headquarters.

Latest news
The Producers: Box Grove Vineyard Verjus
14.08.2017
What is bee pollen?
09.08.2017
David Jones’ new food hall opens in Bondi Junction
03.08.2017
OzHarvest is fighting food waste by looking in your refrigerator
24.07.2017
Meet Your Maker: RL Foote Design Studio
18.07.2017
Our Baking Cookbook is here
06.07.2017
GT
Signature Collection

Find out more about the Gourmet Traveller Signature Collection by Robert Gordon Australia, including where to buy it in store and online.

Read More
Recipe collections

Looking for fresh dinner ideas? Not sure how to make the most out of seasonal produce? Or do you need to plan the perfect party menu? Our recipe collections have you covered.

See more

You might also like...

Hot 100 2015 - Food

The world is getting hotter and we’re not talking about glob...

Women in Hospitality

A new organisation is empowering women working in the hospit...

The producers: Two Rivers Green Tea

A leading local tea exporter now offers his leaves to the do...

The producers: Colony honey

A selection of regional monofloral honeys sourced direct fro...

Liquid gold

We find ourselves inexorably drawn to salt caramel in a jar....

The producers: Atssu Divers

Hand-dived abalone, turban shell and sea urchin.

Making a scene

Entertainer Julia Zemiro notes there’s little difference bet...

Deutscher’s Turkey Farm

When it comes to talking turkey, the best birds have lived t...

Sandor Ellix Katz Q&A

Food fermentation 'revivalist' and guru Sandor Ellix Katz di...

The producers: Alexandrina Jersey milk

Meet the producers of the creme de la creme of Australian fu...

Gamze smokehouse

Bringing local flavour to artisan-made bacon.

Gourmet Traveller Gourmet Fast app

Now, here's a mighty handful: GT's Gourmet Fast recipes are ...

Food emoji we wish existed

What? More than 200 new pictograms in the latest Emoji set, ...

What is jumbuck?

The jumbuck has leapt straight from the pages of Banjo Pater...

Inside Out almond milk

Thicker, creamier milk, with a more pronounced almond flavou...

get the latest news

Sign up to receive the latest food, travel and dining news direct from Gourmet Traveller headquarters.

×