Peggy Galloup, head cheesemaker and farm manager at Hildene in Manchester, adores her goats. “We take extremely good care of our girls,” she said, as a fluffy herd of impossibly cute kids approached us. It was spring on the farm — kidding season — and Galloup was busier than usual, attending to birthing mothers, bottle-feeding the newborns, and milking the herd so she could make her award-winning chevre. Later, she would guide about 36 goats and kids into a rolling pasture overlooking the Green Mountains, where, “the kids will do the milking for us and the mothers will get to bond with their babies,” Galloup explained.
Hildene Farm is one of the stops along the Vermont Cheese Trail. There are 46 cheesemakers in the state, producing approximately 150 varieties of some of the best artisan cheeses in the world. Visit local farmer’s markets throughout the state and you’re likely to see a selection of these hand-crafted cheeses. Or, better yet, go to the source. Forty-three cheesemakers are listed on the trail, and 12 of these are open to the public. (The others are open by appointment or for special tours.) With map in hand, downloaded at www.vtcheese.com, we visited five cheesemakers in south-central Vermont. The best thing about this tour: We not only sampled a variety of fabulous cheeses and learned about the cheesemaking process, but we met passionate and creative artisans, stayed at two lovely inns, and took in some of Vermont’s beautiful farmland-to-mountains scenery.
TIP: The annual Vermont Cheesemakers Festival will be held July 20 at Shelburne Farms, with more than 40 cheesemakers and 200 products to sample and purchase. Other specialty food producers, local distillers, breweries, and wineries will also be on hand. www.vtcheesefest.com
1. We started at Grafton Village Cheese (533 Townshend Road, Grafton, 802-843-1062, www.graftonvillagecheese.com). The village looks straight out of a movie set: the Green Mountains surround the tiny town of impeccable 19th-century homes. Many of the buildings were restored by the Windham Foundation, which also owns the cheese company, and whose mission is to promote the state’s rural communities. The small cheese factory, where you can watch the process, sits next to the Saxtons River and the McWilliams Covered Bridge. The company produces more than a million pounds a year of its prized cave-aged cheddars, made with raw milk from the brown Jersey cows that live on nearby farms. Much of the process is still done by hand, including the labor-intensive cheddaring, which involves flipping and stacking the slabs of curd. After watching the process, we walked to the company store in the center of town, where we tasted cheddars that had been aged for one to four years. The two-year-old is the top seller, but we liked the four-year-old; it was crumbly, sharp and slightly tangy, with a smooth, rich creaminess. We bought a bar of it, along with some maple smoked cheese.
2. We stayed at the Grafton Inn (92 Main St., 802-843-2245, www.graftoninnvermont.com, $129-$210), and that put us in good company. Rudyard Kipling was a resident at the inn while he was writing “The Jungle Book”; Ulysses Grant stopped by in 1867, and Daniel Webster, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ralph Waldo Emerson were all guests. Today, the inn on the common, one of the oldest continuously operating inns in the country, has 45 rooms with simple country decor. We skipped the cheese and cider social held in the Phelps Barn Pub, but had dinner in the more formal Old Tavern restaurant, passing over the Grafton cheese board appetizer, but unable to resist the cheddar gnocchi with sweet peas and asparagus.
3. “I’m just trying to hold on to my cows,” said Jonathan Wright, owner of Taylor Farm (825 Route 11, Londonderry, 802-824-5690, www.taylorfarm
vermont.com), of his cheese making business. “We were dairy farmers and desperate for revenue.” The 180-year-old working dairy farm was our first stop the next morning. It was about a half-hour drive from Grafton, along Route 11, a two-lane scenic road flanked by forest, farmland, and a gurgling stream. The farm is a busy mix of buildings and enterprises, with farm animals, coops, pens, barns, and corrals. They give sleigh and wagon rides, have a small farm stand, and sell Vermont-made products, along with their farmstead cheeses, from a small gift shop. They’re Vermont’s only Gouda producer, handcrafting raw milk from their own herd of Holstein and Jersey cows, producing about 300 pounds a year. The Vermont Farmstead Gouda is impossibly fresh and sweet, unlike any other we’ve tasted. Along with the cheese, we buy a jar of homemade jam and honey.
4. Just up the road is West River Creamery (1061 Middletown Road, Londonderry, 802-824-6900, www.westrivercreamery.com), a pristine, spruced-up farm with more than 200 acres and a herd of about 40 milking cows. The farm produces about 400 pounds of its farmstead cheeses a week, made with milk from its own herd, stirring and cutting the curd by hand, and hand-filling the molds, which are stored in a recently-built cave. There’s no store, but we grab a chunk of Farmhouse Jack cheese from the tiny fridge and leave money in the coffee can.
5. The Rowland Agricultural Center at Hildene (1005 Hildene Road, Manchester, 802-362-1788, www.hildene.org) is a new facility, with glass showrooms that take visitors through the cheese-making process. The backdrop is fabulous, set in the heart of The Shires of Vermont on the 412-acre estate of Robert T. Lincoln, son of President and Mrs. Lincoln. The center’s passion is the making of small-batch, fresh chevre with milk from its herd of Nubian goats. “I don’t like to taste goat in my cheese. I like a clean, fresh taste with a slight tang,” says Galloup. “I purposely make a very gentle goat cheese so people aren’t blown away with the first taste. I’m very proud of it.”
6. Yankee magazine named Crowley Cheese (14 Crowley Lane, Healdville, 802-259-2340, www.crowleycheese.com) the best old-time cheesemaker. Started in 1824, this tiny store and cheesemaking kitchen is a designated National Historic Place and the oldest continuously-operating cheese factory in the country. “It’s an American original,” said Ken Harp, head cheesemaker, of Crowley’s unique recipe. “It’s got a higher moisture content than cheddars but it’s still creamy.” A four-person team makes cheese three times a week using milk from a local farm. Most are flavored young cheeses, including the Muffaletta made with olive oil and olives, and the best-selling garlic and chive.
7. The rambling Red Clover Inn and Restaurant (7 Woodward Road, Rutland, 802-775-2290, www.redcloverinn.com, $125-$250), housed in a pristine, restored 1840s farmhouse and carriage house, has plush and updated rooms, some with spa tubs and fireplaces. The restaurant, spread across two first-floor parlor rooms, serves farm-to-table dishes, including a local cheese plate.
8. The stirred curd cheeses of Plymouth Artisan Cheese at the President Coolidge Family Homestead (3780 Route 100A, Plymouth, 802-672-3650, www.plymouthartisancheese.com) are made from a recipe dating to the late 1800s. The original factory was founded by John Coolidge, father of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president. “It’s a piece of history,” said Jesse Werner, head cheesemaker. Werner heads up a three-person team, producing about 50,000 pounds a year in small batches. We watched the cheese being made, visited a small museum housing old cheesemaking tools, photos, and exhibits, and sampled several varieties. Werner is experimenting with a new line of cave-aged cheeses, but the Original Plymouth (said to be Julia Child’s favorite cheese) remains the bestseller. Softer than a cheddar, it’s rich, sharp, and buttery. Two more hunks of cheese go into our shopping bags before we head home.