Hello?" We call as we step out of the car at the end of the long dirt road at Peaked Mountain Farm in Townshend, Vt. It's 3 p.m. -- milking time -- and Bob Works is heading to the barn to round up his 80 sheep grazing in a nearby pasture. My sister and I, both cheese aficionados, walk past the llama and two mini-donkeys that guard the flock, then watch the sheep parade inside, where Works's wife, Ann, hooks up eight at a time to the milking machines.
While we stand there, Bob sets up a tasting where we sample (and later buy) the farm's three cheeses: Vermont Dandy, a smooth 100% sheep's-milk cheese; Ewe-Jersey, half sheep's milk and half cow's milk; and a Bulgarian-style feta available only at the farm. "People think making cheese is romantic, but you should see us kicking up manure," says Ann. "The romance is in the eating" the cheese.
You can decide for yourself on a tour through Vermont's cheese country. Some 30 makers turning out traditional cheddars, nutty Alpine-style cheeses, and maple-smoked Goudas dot the map between Brattleboro and Burlington. Artisinal cheesemaking took off in the Green Mountain State about six years ago. Some makers arrived after successful city careers. (The Works left New York after the 1999 initial public offering of real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle, where Bob was managing director.) Others are longtime dairy farmers who see gourmet cheese -- and cheesemaking classes -- as a way to help make ends meet. Either way, most open their farms for tours by appointment or, as at Peaked Mountain, by chance.
AN AFTERNOON, OR TWO OR THREE
True cheeseheads can sign up for a weekend cheesemaking course. One of the best is run by Jon Wright of picturesque Taylor Farm in Londonderry, known for its traditional and flavored Goudas. Every month through summer and fall, Wright, along with Mark and Gari Fischer of neighboring Woodcock Farm, invite a dozen guests for pasture walks and lessons on how to care for farm animals and make cheese (taylorfarmvermont.com).
Wearing hair nets and plastic booties, students troop into the cheese room, where they learn about rennet, the coagulant that separates the curds and whey. Next they help cut the curds into small pieces, which makes it easier to extract moisture, then they move the curds into molds to be pressed into cheese. At dinner at a nearby inn, guests taste local foods and learn to pair wine and beer with cheeses.
Cheddar lovers can sign up for a similar class at Shelburne Farms, an education center and working farm on Lake Champlain, about 10 miles south of Burlington. The three-day course, offered in September and again next spring, engages you in the entire process -- from managing a herd of Brown Swiss cows to "cheddaring" -- in which curd slabs are stacked and restacked to encourage bacteria growth and extract moisture. Six months later you receive a block of cheddar that you made. The course is $450 per person, with meals. Rooms are $110 to $380 a night (802 985-8498).
Or you can simply hop from farm to farm, watching and tasting as you go. Back in southern Vermont is the Grafton Village Cheese Co., founded in 1890 and producing cheddar since the 1960s. Or head about 50 miles north, to Woodstock Water Buffalo. The farm -- the only water buffalo creamery in the U.S. -- milks 180 head a day to produce fresh mozzarella and yogurt, both of which are far richer than their cow's-milk counterparts. One taste here -- or at any of Vermont's dairies -- is guaranteed to spur your romance with cheese.
By Jane Black