A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a top creamery on the Vermont cheese scene: Von Trapp Farmstead, in Waitsfield VT, in the north-central area of the state. I was on my way to the Cellars At Jasper Hill, so Von Trapp was a timely stop, as they have worked closely with the Cellars for a few years now. Visiting both in one day gave me a unique opportunity to see both sides of the new model of cheese production in Vermont: the producers and the affineurs.
Von Trapp Farm has been in operation since 1959, when Werner and Erika Von Trapp purchased it. In 1979, their son Martin and his wife, Kelly, took over the farm with their three children. For most of that time, it has been a milk dairy only; it was not until the late 2000’s that Martin and Kelly’s sons, Sebastian and Dan, proposed the idea of building a creamery to make cheese from their high-quality milk. This followed on their going through the process of obtaining Organic certification for their milk, and came at a time when the Von Trapp’s, like many Vermont dairies, was struggling to remain profitable in the face of cripplingly low prices for milk. For Sebastian and Dan, cheesemaking held out promise as a “vehicle for sustainability”, a way to keep the farm in the family while generating a product they could be proud of.
In 2009, after Sebastian had spent time in England apprenticing with cheesemakers, as well as working with the Kehler brothers at the Cellars, they completed construction and opened the doors on the cheese house. Dan has since moved on, but Sebastian is still running the creamery, and is now working with cheesemaker Molly Gould. Molly was actually my connection to Von Trapp, as we had first met while we were both students in the Cheesemaker Certification program at UVM’s Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese (VIAC).
I arrived on an afternoon when they were making my favorite Von Trapp cheese, the Oma (you can see my previous post about Oma here. Named for their grandmother (“Oma”) Erica, this pudgy, pungent washed-rind is the first cheese that they began making and was their introduction to the cheese world. It’s gone through quite a bit of development and refinement over the years, and is now a prize-winning beauty with a rind of amber and pink, covered with a morning frost of white mold, a bit sticky, and an elastic, oozing paste when ripe, moderately eyed, and a well-balanced flavor profile; earthy, buttery, with notes of nuts, hay and cave. This cheese is actually aged at — and bears the label of — the Cellars at Jasper Hill, and is part of the Kehler brother’s much-vaunted affinage program, working to revitalize Vermont’s dairy economy by providing an outlet and state of the art aging facilities for locally produced cheeses (I’ll be speaking more about my visit to the Cellars in a future post).
The Von Trapp cheesemaking room, located near the milking parlors and cow barns, is a gleaming, state of the art facility, with the 1500-liter Dutch-made vat mounted on a catwalked platform about 4 feet off the ground. This allows the curds to be released through a large pipe at the bottom and flowed out onto the cheese multi-moulds in a highly efficient manner — ideally you want your curds into the forms as quickly and smoothly as possible, to minimize damaging them or allowing them to start knitting unevenly or sitting in the vat too long. I arrived just in time to see the curds being cut and stirred by Molly; Sebastian then manned the vat, controlling the flow as Molly rapidly piped the curds into the forms and portioned them out, topping off all the wheels before sending it down the line and pulling in a fresh multi-mould.
Once they were in the moulds and ready to move to the caves, a hatch in the floor with a pulley above it allowed the carts of fresh wheels to be lowered to the underground drying, brining and aging facilities. Molly took me down to the caves, where we saw bloomy rind’s being wrapped, and blue cheeses, freshly pierced, aging on racks, as well as Oma’s getting brief initial agings before being ready to ship up to the Cellars.
The Von Trapp cheeses are true farmstead cheeses, with the cow barn visible through the creamery window and the milk coming fresh every morning directly from the cows some 50 yards away. The herd is a mix of Jersey, Ayrshire and Normandie cows; This mix of milks — Jersey’s and Normandie’s are particularly prized for their butterfat content — combined with the high quality, organic feed, is an integral ingredient, Sebastian believes, in the quality of the final product.
In addition to the Oma, Von Trapp has three other cheeses in their lineup:
Mt Alice a buttery, mild, Camembert-style bloomy rind cheese, with a smooth texture, named for a peak not too far from the farm. Made with pasteurized cows milk and aged for a minimum of three weeks.
Savage A new alpine creation and named for Samuel S. Savage, who settled the von Trapp farm in the 1700’s. An alpine-style, hard-cooked and pressed cheese which is aged for 8-12 months. Savage is actually aged in the alpine vaults at the Cellars at Jasper Hill, but sold under the Von Trapp label, through an arrangement separate from that of the Oma. Savage brings buttery, nutty and sweet flavors, with a bit of B.Linen red and wonderful bacon and roasted leek notes on the rind. My favorite alpines are the ones with a bit of punch, like Challerhocker, Scharfe Maxx or Sternschnuppe, and Savage seems to be developing in that direction.
Mad River Blue Also a fairly new cheese, the Mad River is aged in the Von Trapp caves. A natural rinded raw milk blue aged for 3+ months. Buttery, salty and sweet, with vegetal notes and a bit of pepper.
It was great to see the cheesemaking in action at Von Trapp and to taste the new cheeses that they have in the works. Oma and Mt Alice are pretty widely available at cheese counters in NYC and elsewhere, and the Mad River Blue is showing up more frequently. At this point, the Savage is produced in very limited quantities and is currently only sold at farmers markets in Waterbury, Waitsfield & Stowe and Burlington.
(And yes, in case you were wondering: The Von Trapps are related to the Trapp Family Singers of Sound of Music fame. The Trapp Family Lodge is located down the road in Stowe, VT.)
Cracking open a Gowanus Couronne, during my trip west (I’m in Nevada visiting family currently, then on to the American Cheese Society conference in Sacramento).
This was the mixed-milk, cow and goat’s milk version. The milk was raw when I got it, but I thermalized it (basically a lower-temp pasteurization, helpful for dialing down the natural cultures a bit without wiping them out; thermalization is recognized in Europe but in the US this would be considered a raw milk cheese, legally speaking). The inside is super-creamy but stable (eg not running out), and flavors, are milky, mushroomy and a little grassy. Pretty happy with the salt balance on this wheel. I’ve also been working on getting the rinds thinner, and this was a step in the right direction, although it’s still a bit tougher than I’d like (my goal is the pillowy, velvety rind that one gets on a good robiola).