Guest Author - Brenda Potter Reynolds
Forty cows, mostly Holsteins, chew their cud contentedly inside a Londonderry, Vt., barn. The warmth inside is a delicious contrast to the March winds outside, and they seem to know it.
Welcome to Taylor Farm, makers of award-winning Gouda Cheese, and one of some two dozen stops on the Vermont Cheese Trail.
"Vermont produces 70 million pounds of cheese a year," said Denise Russo, Dairy Marketing Specialist for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. "The Vermont Cheese Trail highlights the high quality and diversity of Vermont cheeses."
For Taylor Farm owner Jon Wright, cheese making begins at 3:30 a.m. four times a week. He pumps 4,000 pounds of milk from the holding tank into the cheese vat, where it is slowly heated. Then he starts the morning milking. By the time he's done, the milk is warmed and ready to begin the process of becoming cheese.
Enzymes are then added to begin the fermentation process. As the liquid solidifies, a tool called a "harp" (picture a tool with thin wires criss-crossed, like a square tennis racquet) is pushed through the cheese to cut the whey from the curd.
Next, Wright explained, some of the whey is drained off, then the curd is flushed with hot water, which washes out the lactic acid and keeps the cheese mild. The curds, which look like cottage cheese, are pressed into round metal containers called "hoops". The containers fit inside each other snuggly enough to bear down into the cheese in the container below it. A weight is placed on top of the third or fourth hoop, and the containers are set aside to press for three hours.
The cheese spends time in saltwater brine to stop the fermentation before it sits in the cooler to dry out. Finished cheeses are hand dipped in wax and then aged for 60 days to one year, depending on the type of cheese.
Another stop on the cheese trail is Vermont Shepherd Cheese in Putney. Here, Cindy and David Major produce award winning cheese from another kind of milk, sheep's milk.
"Sheep's milk is the gold of milks," Cindy explained. "It has a sweet flavor."
The rolling hills of the area seem a natural home for raising sheep. In fact, David grew up here on a sheep farm. Cindy grew up in New York City, where her dad was a dairy businessman.
The cheese-making season begins in March for Vermont Shepherd, when the sheep begin lambing. In April, the Majors will begin milking the sheep and making their sheep's milk cheese. Their sheep's milk cheese is produced seasonally, and will be sold out long before April rolls around again. The Majors also produce two types of cheese from cow's milk, purchased from local farmers.
Another unique aspect of Vermont Shepherd cheeses is that they are ripened in a man-made cheese cave, the first one to be used in Vermont.
Like the other producers on the Vermont Cheese Trail, pride and passion for her product is evident on Cindy's face when she talks about cheese making.
The secret to making good cheese? "Practice. Taste. Evaluate," she said. "Try to improve on the last batch."
And finally, "You've got to have your heart in it."
The formula has definitely worked for the Majors. Vermont Shepherd cheeses have earned over 15 awards, including Second Place, Aged Sheep's Milk Cheese, from the American Cheese Society in 2003.
Continued in Part 2