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Food

Young cheesemaker takes over 120-year-old business

Jesse Werner, owner of Plymouth Artisan Cheese, mops the curds.

Wendy Maeda/Globe staff

Jesse Werner, owner of Plymouth Artisan Cheese, mops the curds.

PLYMOUTH NOTCH, Vt. — It’s easy for visitors to the Calvin Coolidge State Historical Site to imagine life as it was lived here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This tiny town has been kept virtually as it was when Coolidge took office. Here’s the homestead where Silent Cal was born on the Fourth of July in 1872 and sworn in as president in 1923. Here are the barn, the church, the general store — all preserved as if in amber.

Wendy Maeda/Globe staff

Garlic and peppercorn cheese.

And here’s Plymouth Artisan Cheese. Unlike nearly everything else in this tiny village — so remote and lost in time it’s been dubbed “Vermont’s Brigadoon” — the cheese factory is very much a going concern. Founded in 1890 by the future president’s father and four other local farmers, it’s been producing cheese off and on (mostly on) ever since. In its early years, Plymouth cheese was known and appreciated well beyond Plymouth; much of it was shipped to Boston and other Massachusetts locations. The Great Depression closed the factory in 1934. It sat idle until John Coolidge, the president’s son, brought it back to life in 1962; he oversaw operations until 1998, when he sold the factory to the state of Vermont. Over the next 10 years, the factory produced cheese in fits and starts, under various operators.

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Meanwhile, of course, artisan cheesemaking took off in this country. Young, eager cheese lovers were drawn to the craft. It was only natural that one of them would step in at Plymouth.

That cheese lover turned out to be Jesse Werner, who grew up in Vermont and was seven years out of Brandeis University, where he’d earned a degree in sociology. He arrived in Plymouth in 2009, armed with an MBA, a certificate in cheesemaking from the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont, and a vision for what the old cheese factory could become.

Wendy Maeda/Globe staff

Plymouth cheese wheels.

“I was excited about the possibilities,” says Werner. Nothing in the rental agreement stipulated that the cheese needed to be historically accurate, but Werner made that part of his mission. “Coming in, I really wanted to re-create that early cheese from 1890, to abide by the recipe and try to reposition and rebrand Plymouth cheese,” he says.

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He began to produce Plymouth, a granular curd cheese. It’s a sharp, full-bodied, raw-milk cheese that somewhat resembles cheddar, but is created by a rather different technique. Original Plymouth, as it’s now called, is aged at least 10 months; Werner produces several variations on the theme, including younger, older, smoked, and flavored versions. The cheese world has begun to take notice. Earlier this month, Original Plymouth won a second-place award in its category at the prestigious American Cheese Society competition in Raleigh, N.C.

Plymouth cheese is largely made by hand. Visitors can head upstairs, passing through a small shop stocked with Vermont-made specialties, to observe the process. Werner tries, somewhat, to have production coincide with expected surges in tourism, but this is a working factory, and cheesemaking, with its tricky stages of timing and temperatures, waits for no one.

On a recent hot summer afternoon, Werner and an assistant dipped 8-ounce blocks of East Meadow cheese into a vat of yellow melted wax (Original Plymouth sports a red wax coating). Even the decision to wax the cheese was done in the name of historical accuracy, and Werner concedes that the choice wasn’t an easy one. “A shrink-wrap vacuum bag is a lot easier to do. But Plymouth was always a waxed cheese, and it’s something we wanted to continue to do.”

Few consumers today recall the original Plymouth cheese, but in tiny Plymouth, memories are long, and locals appreciate Werner’s efforts to bring it back. When he first got to Plymouth, he says, “One of John Coolidge’s cheesemakers lived up the road. She’d come in from time to time and see if I got the texture right, the flavor right.

“I’m always happy when someone says they came here as a kid, and it’s just what they remember. I’ll take it.”

Plymouth cheese is available at A. Russo & Sons, 560 Pleasant St., Watertown, 617-923-1500, and Central Bottle,
196 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge,
617-225-0040, or go to www.plymouth
artisancheese.com.

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at
jdornbusch@verizon.net.
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