FAYSTON, Vt. — Double batch butter days at Ploughgate Creamery begin early.
At 6:15, the sun still hiding behind the century-old barn, Marisa Mauro trudges through the snow on her picturesque hillside farm flanked by Mount Ellen and Mad River Glen to the south and west. Inside her gleaming new addition to the barn, Mauro and Kelly Heslin — Ploughgate’s only employee — blend fresh cream with buckets full of cream that has been culturing for 24 hours with a custom blend of bacteria.
As cows graze outside, they pour the blend into a custom-built, stainless steel butter churn. They set timers and check temperatures: 50 degrees. Spot on. The machine spins to life. The cream sloshes away, tiny globules of fat colliding until they break down and begin to join together, slowly gathering into something solid.
Almost magically, butter begins to take shape.
For Mauro, the journey to artisanal butter, Ploughgate’s only product, also involved a fair amount of churning. She traced a path around the planet to get to this Vermont hilltop — Ploughgate’s second iteration, after fire forced a long hiatus — starting and stopping and spinning in place. Now Mauro is hoping to turn Ploughgate into something solid, too.
“There’s good butter out there, but there’s nothing that really compares to it,” said Kyle McClelland, executive chef at Boston’s Saltie Girl, who buys Ploughgate butter in giant balls and uses it on the homemade house bread. “When you spread it on bread, it’s like eating cheese.”
Even that comparison doesn’t quite do it justice. Ploughgate’s butter is aggressively dense — out of the refrigerator, it’s a challenge to slice. The salted variety is studded with thick crystals a notch below road grade. And the deep, earthy tang that Mauro’s beneficial bacteria impart creates an uncommonly complex flavor in something as simple as bread and butter. Keep your Kerrygold and your Plugra, and return those wax-papered sticks to the Land O’Lakes: In the United States, at least, Ploughgate Creamery’s butter is unrivaled.
It’s on shelves at specialty shops all around Greater Boston. You can find it in Vermont, naturally, but also as far away as Northern California.
Mauro, 32, got her start as a cheesemaker, and if you’ve had Willoughby, from the Northeast Kingdom cheesemonger and dairy Jasper Hill Farm, you know her work. Mauro developed the plump, soft, cow’s milk cheese at her original creamery and sold the recipe to Jasper Hill, which still makes and sells the popular washed rind wheels.
As a teenager on Woodcock Farm in Weston, Vt., the southern Vermont native worked on every aspect of cheesemaking. Mauro loved working with animals, she said, and imagined an agricultural life for herself. After high school, she worked on a cattle ranch on the Crow Reservation in Montana and at a goat dairy in Northern California before returning to Vermont.
In 2007, she heard about an abandoned creamery in the Albany/Irasburg area in the Northeast Kingdom. Ploughgate was born.
Cheese and butter aren’t so different, really. But cheese — most cheese, cheese with any kind of shelf life or market value — has to age. Opening a creamery isn’t quite as bad as launching a distillery and waiting two years for your bourbon to become marginally drinkable, but it’s closer than you’d think. Butter? “I can sell it the day after I make it,” Mauro said.
Cheese, of course, has its advantages. Its high-end market is established; connoisseurs expect to pay a lot for the best or the rare. But until very recently, the idea of spending something like $9 for two sticks’ worth of butter would have sounded like satire, and “artisanal butter maker” would have been totally unrecognizable as a career path.
“I think cheese was a vanguard or bellwether,” said Heather Paxson, a professor of anthropology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of “The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America.”
In the 1950s, Paxson said, “Standardization was a mark of progress.” Cheese was processed, pre-sliced Kraft loaf. It wasn’t until the 1970s, and the take-back-the-land movement, that anti-industrial notions began to take hold.
Hippies got into dairy, Paxson said, and gradually changed the game. “The people who started weren’t off to sell or make or even eat gourmet cheese,” she said. That took decades; only about 20 years ago did Americans begin to embrace the idea that world-class cheese could be made on a small scale wherever dairy cows were present.
So why not butter?
Mauro knows the butter is ready when she can see through the sight glass built into one end of her churn. After about 45 minutes, the butter and the buttermilk separate. Helin spins down the machine by pushing a few buttons on a control module, cranks open the hatch, and has a look.
Pungent steam bursts out. It smells of fresh biscuits and a mild funk. Heslin opens the drain on the churn and buttermilk begins to pour out. Left behind are the fats that collided and coalesced — butter, in its elemental form. Most of the year, Mauro feeds the buttermilk to the pigs she raises here, but the pigs were just slaughtered. Opaque, pungent, a shade lighter than canary, and not worth much on the market, it swirls down the floor drain.
Ploughgate almost went down, too. In 2011, Mauro was coming back from running errands when she noticed that the windows were black. Only when she opened the door did she realize that something terrible had happened: a mechanical fire that didn’t claim the building, but caused devastating smoke damage.
“I couldn’t come back from it,” Mauro said. She hadn’t had the right insurance, she later learned. Suddenly, the business she’d been trying to get off the ground had next to nothing to its name, and a mountain of debt. Within weeks, she’d taken a job bartending in Waterbury to pay back her business loans, and had given up on farming.
“I was pretty lost,” Mauro said.
As the months passed, she began to believe she would never go back to farming. But then she saw something that would change the course of her life.
A big part of Vermont’s identity is tied up in small- and medium-scale agriculture and forestry, and Vermonters value what’s come to be called the working landscape. Of course, plenty of flatlanders with plenty of money are pretty fond of it, too — drive through nearly any town around here and you’ll see palatial homes sprouting up on old farmland or cleared hillsides.
And so, like many other states, Vermont has programs aimed at boosting the odds for aspiring farmers who will keep at least some of its land in agricultural use.
One of those programs, the Vermont Land Trust, began advertising an opportunity to buy the historic Bragg Farm, an old dairy operation, at a steep discount. Mauro had to act quickly. Potential buyers had to submit business plans for the farm; Mauro quickly settled on butter.
She visited buttermakers in the Midwest, and tried to figure out how she might get a churn fabricated. She renewed connections with distributors she’d known since she was a teenager working on someone else’s farm. She put together a financial package, her ability to borrow buoyed by her diligence in paying back the loan from the original Ploughgate. The property was hers — and soon her glorious butter had gained renown.
Profitability has come harder. Three years in, even with orders for butter increasing, money is tight. Saltie Girl notwithstanding, restaurants are a tough sell, Mauro said, probably because of the price. Most orders are from specialty stores, like the one where I came across the butter one day, brought some home, and was blown away.
It’s nearing noon on the farm, and the butter is churned, drained, and rinsed, thudding over and over inside the churn now, the kneading action forcing just a bit more buttermilk out of the fat.
Once it’s finally ready, Mauro and Heslin set up their wrapping station. Heslin scoops out balls and weighs them.
Mauro folds the brown square of paper over the yellow, baseball-sized globe, then expertly folds the edges together, flattening the ball slightly. She plucks a Ploughgate sticker from the roll on the steel table, then a UPC sticker that she had specially made in the shape of an antique milk can.
This whole process — from buckets of cream to neatly wrapped balls piled 50 to a box — stretches hours before every last ounce of butter has left Mauro’s hands. Maybe we think of artisanal, handmade products as trendy and expensive and luxurious, but the truth is that they usually involve hard, honest work.
“This is what I’ve always wanted,” Mauro says.
Tomorrow is another double batch.