This Sunday was a big day for lovers of Vermont cheese: the 6th annual Vermont Cheesemaker’s Festival took place on the banks of Lake Champlain, a few miles south of Burlington. The event is located on the idyllic Shelburne Farms property, just down the road from Burlington; with its endless rolling green meadows dotted with cow and sheep, and sprawling, slate-shingled barns and buildings of wood and brick, Shelburne Farms could be mistaken for a British estate that had dropped from the sky and landed on this perfect patch of New England soil. To the west, Lake Champlain lapped the shore, and in between tastings, many people chose to stroll by the water or swim at the small beach down the path a bit from the main event tent. The weather cooperated splendidly for the second year in a row, giving us a pleasantly warm, sunny day perfect for strolling through tents and fields. 

The festival itself was divided between a a couple of tents in front of the main building, and the Coach Barn — a rambling, red brick structure with arched ceilings originally built in 1902 to house the carriages and riding horses of the Webb Family. The tent and barn were packed from corner to corner with cheesemakers, brewers and food artisans of many stripes and varieties, with the central courtyard serving as the space for cheese-related educational demonstrations; seminars occurred in a a back space of the Coach Barn, and Shelburne Farms had cheesemaking demos going throughout the day. 

Close to 40 cheesemakers were represented at the Festival; here’s the list (I’d hate to leave anyone out): Big Picture FarmBlue Ledge FarmBlythedale FarmBonnieview FarmBoston Post DairyBoucher Family FarmBridport CreameryCabot Creamery CooperativeCellars at Jasper HillChamplain Valley CreameryCobb Hill FarmConsider Bardwell FarmCrooked Mile FarmCrowley Cheese CompanyFairy Tale FarmFranklin Foods Grafton Village Cheese CompanyHi-Land FarmMaplebrook FarmMountain Home FarmMt. Mansfield CreameryNeighborly FarmsParish Hill CreameryPlymouth Artisan CheeseSage Farm Goat DairyScholten Family FarmShadagee FarmShelburne FarmsSpoonwood Cabin CreamerySpring Brook FarmSweet Rowen FarmsteadTaylor FarmThistle Hill FarmThree Shepherds CheeseTwig FarmVermont CreameryVermont Farmstead CheeseVermont Shepherdvon Trapp FarmsteadWest River CreameryWillow Hill FarmWillow Moon FarmWoodcock Farm Cheese CompanyRogue Creamery (Guest Cheese maker- Oregon), Cherry Grove Farm (Guest Cheese maker- New Jersey), Cricket Creek Farm (Guest Cheese maker- Massachusetts)

In addition, a long list of artisan producers — bringing all the foods, beverages and spirits that goes so well with cheese — were in the house, with some great breweries , distillers , wineries, and more preserves, chocolates, baked goods, pickled everything, smoked and cured meats and ice creams than you could shake a stick at.

There are too many great cheeses (over 200 in fact) to  list them all, but just a few notes: For Parish Hill Creamery, this was their first time at this festival. At last year’s festival, Peter Dixon was manning the Vermont Cheese Council booth, and spoke to me about their creamery being in the works, and their explorations of the possibility of working with a brooklyn-based affineur to age the cheeses. Parish Hill cheeses are now on the market, and that Brooklyn affineur, Crown Finish Caves, is open for business and aging the cheeses as we speak! (you can read about my visit to Crown Finish here). Cricket Creek, fresh off their successful Kickstarter, was in attendance with their Maggies Round, Maggie’s Reserve and other cheeses. Woodcock Farm (where I’ve spent time as a cheesemaker in the past) was serving up the Summer Snow, True Blue and Timberdoodle at their booth, and Von Trapp Farmstead’s Savage and Oma were in fine form (Oma won the “Best of the Fest” people’s choice award!). Twig Farm’s Crawford, a large, rustic goat’s milk tomme, was a new one for me, and Big Picture Farm, famous for their goat’s milk caramels, are now producing cheese as well, with the Sonnet, a goat’s milk tomme. Sage Farm Goat Dairy brought two delicate little wheels of lactic goat’s milk cheese, Sterling and Madonna. 

Cult brewer The Alchemist was in attendance, sampling their brews, and that wasn’t the only place their much sought after Heady Topper showed up: Marsh Hollow, makers of artisan jelly and preserves, had beer jellies made from the Heady, as well as other craft brewers like Wolavers. Last year I discovered Caledonia Spirits’ honey and juniper infused Gin, and this year they had a new product, the Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat, an oak-barrel aged version of their original gin. Vermont Salumi is a new company with a delicious red wine and garlic Salumi. Switchel is a traditional Vermont “energy drink”, made with ginger, maple syrup and herbs, and VT Switchel now makes it in bottled and concentrate form (one ounce mixed with 8 ounces water makes a serving). There was a heavy Cider presence this year, with Shacksbury’s The Basque and Citizen Cider’s Wit’s Up standing out for me. 

The seminar I attended was a comparison of Vermont cheeses and the European cheeses that inspired them. leading the event were Peter Dixon, from Parish Hill Creamery, who brought his Caciocavallo-style Suffolk Punch, and tasted it alongside an Italian Caciocavallo; Jeremy Stephenson from Spring Brook Farm, presenting his Reading Raclette, alongside a French AOC Raclette; and  Mary from Grafton Village Cheese Co., who presented their Leyden with cumin seeds, which is based on a traditional Dutch cheese called Leidse Kaas. It was a great opportunity to experience the differences that terroir and milk-type can have on a cheese. We were able to observe the differences that the feed and the season can make on the color and flavor of the paste, and observe how cow breeds — Jersey’s, with their high-fat milk, being quite popular in the US but very rare in Europe — affected the texture, buttery character and aging of the wheels. 

There were other cheese-related shindigs occurring in conjunction with the festival as well. On Saturday evening, a special event was held at Ayers Brook Goat Dairy, in Randolph, VT, to celebrate Vermont Creamery’s 30th Anniversary. As one of the groundbreaking goat dairies in Vermont (founded in 1984 as an 80-goat dairy at a time when Vermont was all about cows and cheesemakers were few and far between), Vermont Creamery has since grown into one of the leaders of the Vermont cheesemaking scene, particularly renowned for their mastery of the geotrichum-rinded French Loire Valley style cheeses, like Coupole and Bonne Bouche. Their “educational farm” at Ayers Brook, opened in the past year, is a key part of their strategy for the future; this state of the art goat farm and creamery is an “open book” operation, which means that anybody can come visit, view all the facilities and operations, and even pop open the books and accounting for the farm, to see how they make it work! Allison Hooper and Bob Reese, the founders and owners of Vermont Creamery, hope to expand the number of goat dairies in Vermont (with the idea that the milk will be used in their own cheese production; but that’s not a requirement for participating in the open book process). The event included a BBQ, music, ample opportunities to taste Vermont Creamery’s fine products, visit the goat barns and view the milking parlors in action. Cheesemakers, mongers, and neighbors alike showed up to help the Vermont Creamery team celebrate their considerable accomplishments, while baby goats in red neckerchiefs scampered underfoot.  

This is the second of the festival’s I’ve attended, and I will definitely be coming back, not just because of the cheese, but because the event is remarkably well-organized and smooth running for a festival of this size and variety. Food festivals can often be a nightmare of overpacked venues, people throwing elbows and supplies running out, but I’ve never experienced that here. This festival is fast becoming a cheese world annual don’t-miss event, and for good reason. 

One of the values of events like the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival is their ability to gather a region’s best producers under one roof, and introduce them to a public that might not be aware of them, especially of the smaller producers. Every year brings new producers, and new styles and experiments from established cheesemakers, so it’s always inspiring to see how the industry is evolving. It’s a wonderful way to get a snapshot of the state of Vermont cheese. 

Note: check out the Cutting The Curd podcast Episode 184, where Greg Blais talks to Lisa Battilana of the Woodstock Farmers Market, and Perry Soulos, of Arrowine, about their experiences at the Festival (this was also Soulos’ first time in New England!).

Home sweet home!

We brought the baby to my childhood home on Shelburne Farms. My parents lived there for 25 years, and I will always consider this my home. Friends would swear it was haunted {the ghosts must have liked our family}, and boy was it cold during the winter {my mother was known to wear two pairs of snowpants INDOORS.}. The woods and garden was where we grew up; building tree forts, picking veggies, chasing the cats and dogs, learning how to ride a bike, and trying to use a pogo stick on the gravel road {not successful}.

It was very bittersweet, and my nose got that tingly feeling like I might cry! We’ll definitely visit every summer, and walk through the garden while I tell stories to Drew of growing up there.