Seeking Great Cheese, and How it’s Made
On Memorial Day, my good friend Alex Schaff and I set out from Swarthmore for the enchanting hills and meadows of New England, with the goal of visiting and talking with dairy farmers and cheesemakers. Alex, who suggested the trip, is a prospective veterinarian and a master’s student of dairy science at Colorado State University; I work as a cheesemonger at DiBruno’s in Philadelphia. So one could say the idea didn’t just come out of the blue!
We first stopped in the town of Bantam, Connecticut, to pay a visit to Arethusa Farm. This place is known for its award-winning show cows and the superb dairy products made from their milk. We parked in the lot for Arethusa’s ice cream shop (already packed to the gills) where Jeff, a sales representative for the farm, and his wife Jenn greeted us and led us to the creamery’s cheese caves.
Strolling among wheels of blues and cheddars resting in the climate-controlled cheese aging cellars, we talked with Jeff and Jenn. They told us about all of the positive changes the farm has made for the community and what they hope to achieve in the future. From the caves we made a short drive to the farm itself to see the stars of the show — Arethusa’s herd of more than 300 heritage breed cows.
“Every cow in this barn is a lady, please treat her as such” is the message painted above the entrance to Arethusa’s barn. The cows, each with her name and lineage posted above her stable, lie on fresh straw that is changed daily. We admired the stunning bovines, many of whom gladly accepted a friendly scratch behind the ear. In the half hour we spent with the cows, we did not hear a single “moo” which, as Jeff and Jenn informed us, is a sign that the ladies are contented.
After our barn visit, we returned to the ice cream shop, queuing up in the snaking line that filled the store. The cones were beyond satisfactory, perhaps the best of my life. Our bucolic experience continued as Alex and I were invited to spend the night camping in Jeff and Jenn’s lush meadow of a backyard which overlooks the countryside.
The next morning, a mist rolled in and turned to rain just as we departed from our impromptu campsite. We set off, continuing north to the town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to see Rubiner’s Cheesemongers. Heavy rain beat down as we scurried into the shop which occupies a beautiful former bank building. The shop is well curated and the tasty products are carefully displayed, which gave me the feeling of being in an art gallery. We chatted with owner Matthew Rubiner, who invited us to taste a few cheeses and sent us off with a couple pieces for our travels.
North we went on U.S. Route 7, which offered us some very pretty sights despite the poor weather. We got a hotel room in South Burlington and spent the night playing pool with some locals at a bar, sampling other fermented products.
The following morning held a special trip from Burlington to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom to see more cheese caves. Jasper Hill Farm, much like Arethusa, dearly values their community and revitalizing its local economy. Delivering a “taste of place” is also at the core of their mission — each bite of the natural-rinded and raw milk cheeses tells a tale of the land it came from.
We met Leigh, an employee of Jasper Hill, who was happy to guide us through seven magical caves. Clad in hairnets and booties, we walked among the maturing wheels beneath 50 feet of Vermont earth. Nearly-ready truckles of their Bayley Hazen Blue resemble the bark of a birch tree. In the cellars a soft mechanical hum can be heard among the shelves of meditating wheels.
Jasper Hill’s impressive cheese-flipping robot, one of only two in the world, automates two processes which are essential to the aging process, gingerly flipping and brushing wheels of the precious cheeses. Leigh told us about the microbiology team working at the farm and how they study the local strains of bacteria, yeasts, and molds crucial to their delicious cheeses. The practices of Jasper Hill are a wonderful convergence of advanced science and centuries-old techniques.
With incredible luck, our coming to Jasper Hill placed us a stone’s throw away from one of the most celebrated breweries in the world: Hill Farmstead. We sat, soaking up its pretty views and sublime beers. We talked with a kind gentleman from the area who told us about life in Vermont and gave us good suggestions of other places to see.
We returned to Burlington where we enjoyed a memorable meal at the Farmhouse Tap and Grill, one of the town’s many excellent restaurants. We walked along Lake Champlain before retiring to a peaceful hostel downtown, preparing for a too-soon return home from this gorgeous haven of handmade and unique cheeses, made from the milk of some of the country’s most valuable and well-loved cows.