BRIDPORT, Vt. – When last January’s temperature hit 16 below zero, Alissa Shethar was in her Western Vermont barn, 7 miles from Lake Champlain and the New York line, trying to coax 72 sheep into the field. “They didn’t want to go anywhere,” says Shethar. “They looked at me like, ‘You first.’ ”
The scene was a stark contrast to Shethar’s former life as an education researcher and lecturer at San Francisco State University. In the evenings, when she wasn’t taking cheese-making courses or working on her small Sonoma creamery, she toiled away at her desk, longing for more time with her teenage daughter, Zarrah. “We never saw each other,” says Shethar, who was driving an hour and a half each way to the creamery and teaching nights.
In 2012, during what Shethar, now 54, describes as a “bizarre midlife crisis,” she bought Fairy Tale Farm, a 250-year-old sheep farm here in the heart of dairy country. She produces five raw milk cheeses based on traditional Alpine and Spanish recipes. Zarrah promotes the lineup at local farmers’ markets.
Earlier this fall, Fairy Tale’s Will o’ Wisp cheese, a semisoft cow’s milk cheese, won a third-place ribbon at the American Cheese Society competition in Rhode Island. The competition featured more than 1,700 cheeses. Shops and restaurants from New England to Montana now carry Shethar’s line. At the Cambridge shop Central Bottle Wine + Provisions, chef and provisions buyer Stacey Daley says, “We love working with smaller producers who are trying to become sustainable.” She calls the tomme “a beautiful cheese. And [Shethar’s] rinds are stunning.”
Cow’s milk for the cheeses comes from Ayrshire stock, a Scottish breed, raised on nearby Scapeland Farm, in Whiting, Vt. They produce “a really special milk,” says the cheesemaker, who describes it as subtly sweet with a pale gold color. Goat’s milk comes from Goats Galore Creamery, in neighboring Bridport. Fairy Tale Farm’s own sheep will star in next spring’s Manchego cheeses, now that Shethar’s new milking barn is complete.
Although starting a microcreamery might seem bold, Shethar has always set her own agenda. Raised in Washington State and Connecticut, she graduated from Yale and went on to the University of California at Berkeley, where, after 10 years of research in Germany, she earned a doctorate in linguistic anthropology.
When she was 43 and single, she adopted 8-year-old Zarrah from Russia. “There was something about her and me that just clicked,” says the mom. Three years ago, when the California housing boom more than doubled the value of her Oakland cottage, Shethar sold it to purchase the farm.
At 4:30 a.m., Shethar arrives at her tiny, two-room creamery, which she rents from Scapeland Farm. She hauls 60 gallons of fresh milk to a small creaming vat (a step up from the soup cauldron she once used). She adds starter cultures and rennet, monitoring the temperature, acidification, and consistency. Curds and whey are separated and the cheese is molded and set to dry. She brines the wheels overnight, then brushes them during a months-long aging process.
“When I make this in winter,” she says about a piece of Tomte, an Alpine-style tomme, “I get a little grassy note in there. But this one should be more nutty because it was made later in the year.” It sharpens as it ages.
A Nuberu cheese with goat’s and cow’s milk uses a Spanish Manchego recipe. Its consistency is creamy, with small air pockets and a mild aftertaste. Traditional Manchego is a sheep’s milk cheese, so next year’s batch should bring new flavors from Fairy Tale’s flock. She also makes Barbegazi, an Alpine-style cheese dusted with Lake Champlain cocoa. Her latest experiment is Cluricaun, an aged goat brushed with local barrel-aged gin from Stonecutter Spirits in Middlebury, Vt. The rind has the gin’s subtle cardamom flavor. “That creativity, like washing the cheese in gin, makes the cheeses interesting,” says Tim Bucciarelli, a manager at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge. “They’re based on traditional recipes, but she’s making them her own.” Formaggio recently sold out of Cluricaun, Will o’ Wisp, and Tomte, but expects more.
All the cheeses are named for obscure mythical figures. Tomte is a Scandanavian elf who protects the farm, a nod to Shethar’s Swedish heritage. Cluricaun is an Irish leprechaun who is usually awash in potent spirits.
Fairy Tale Farm is a fitting tribute to the landscape of rocky hillsides, deep woods, and gnarly thickets. As Shethar climbs the hill and calls out to her “girls,” they respond and gather round. “Do you know how to say ‘Hi’ to a sheep?” she asks. “Nose to nose, hands on your knees, and they’ll come right up to you.”
Shethar has found her calling.
Fairy Tale Farm cheeses available at Central Bottle Wine + Provisions, 196 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-225-0040, www.centralbottle.com, and Formaggio Kitchen, 244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-4750, www.formaggiokitchen.comLorne Bell can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: Because of reporting errors, an earlier version of this story incorrectly described Fairy Tale’s Will o’ Wisp cheese. It is a semisoft cow’s milk cheese. The story also incorrectly stated Alissa Shethar’s hometowns. She was raised in Washington State and Connecticut.