Monday, March 12, 2012

Lessons in Cheesemaking, Part 1

A confession: I’m crazy about cheese. I’m one of those people who pack a smelly cheese in my lunch and don’t hesitate to open it on a train or in a small office. I eat it nearly every day, sometimes for breakfast. Fortunately, I also eat a lot of vegetables (roughage) and enjoy my share of red wine (resveratrol) to counteract the possible negative effects.

Since I’m so passionate about cheese, and am also a naturally curious person, a few years ago I volunteered at an artisan cheesemaker’s farm, Crawford Family Farm in Whiting, to learn how cheese is made. The Crawfords produce Vermont Ayr, a semi-hard Alpine tomme style cheese with a natural rind, which happens to be one of my favorite local cheeses. I wrote about that experience here in an article for Culture, a magazine devoted to, you guessed it, cheese. In addition to being fascinating, the experience got me thinking about cheese on a deeper level.
Before my forays into cheesemaking, I had never used the length of my arms to stir anything before, anything edible at least. The process felt both primitive and completely new. 

Photo by Linda Hampton Smith

A sweet, tangy aroma enveloped me as bits of curds slipped around my skin like tiny minnows. As the heat in the warm milk bath increased, the curds sank to the bottom and slowly thickened. Julie, one of the cheesemakers, demonstrated how to break up the soft clumps with my fingers. Reaching gingerly to the bottom of the vat for a handful, I wondered, what exactly was I doing up to my armpits in a vat of curdled milk? Was I simply satisfying my curiosity, indulging my fascination with my favorite food? Perhaps I was also indulging a repressed fantasy of being a farmstead cheesemaker myself? Or was it something more?

Having grown up in suburbia on cheese bought at the grocery store, plastic-wrapped and bland, I first tasted real cheese, cheese that was made on a small farm the old-fashioned way, when I traveled to France with my high school French class. While most of the other students turned their noses up at the runny substance, making adolescent jokes about the smell, I couldn’t get enough of it. As my friends were discovering the wonders of European chocolate or the delights of patisseries, I was hooked on the complex, earthy flavors, the unusual textures, and the pungent aromas of cheese—I had fallen in love.

But it wasn’t just the cheeses I had fallen in love with; it was the whole way of life that produced such cheese. In the 1970s, France was the polar opposite of American suburban culture in many more ways than simply Époisses versus Kraft. I was captivated by its traditions, its complex history, the way the human hand was evident in daily life and the physical environs. The pace was slower and things were created with care. I could taste these qualities in the cheese. 

A similar lifestyle exists in Vermont.  Sure, we have suburban communities that look like Anywhere, USA, and some urban problems have drifted across state lines, but the pace of life is different here. Wherever you are in Vermont, you’re aware of the landscape, and often the weather. Both can present challenges (sometimes immense challenges, like the flooding last summer from Hurricane Irene), but mostly they present connections—to the land and to each other. These connections run deep. Family, friends, community, and the land—with its rich but rocky soil, its sweet grass, its peaks and fertile valleys—all this can be tasted in its cheeses.

The Crawfords’ Vermont Ayr, to me, tastes subtly of mushrooms. Its buttery yellow interior is smooth and tangy, with just the right amount of salt. The hint of mushrooms comes from its mottled rind and lends an earthiness to the overall flavor. 

It reminds me of a good Gruyere, possessing the same texture and nutty quality. I like eating it on its own, or sliced into thick matchsticks on a salad. It’s also great melted and makes a luxurious grilled cheese sandwich.

In general, I happen to favor smellier cheeses, sometimes to my family’s dismay. My husband Chris tolerates my indulgence, although he doesn’t appreciate its appeal himself. My daughters Isabel and Faye, on the other hand, love it nearly as much as I do. Their enthusiasm for its rich, ripe pungency more than makes up for the fact that there’s less of it for me.

Although the French are the masters of smelly cheese, I realize that I’m exceedingly fortunate to be surrounded, increasingly, by Vermont artisan cheesemakers like the Crawfords who are producing an impressive array of cheeses. Be they family farms who are reinventing themselves or people who are getting into farming and cheesemaking for the first time, the end product often rivals many French fromages. Through the opportunity to participate in the process myself, arms deep in the curds and whey, I gained a greater appreciation and respect for the dedicated individuals, like the Crawfords, who make them.

Crawford Family Farm is a fourth generation dairy farm run by siblings Sherry, Cindy, and Jim. They all left for a while to pursue other careers but, when they inherited the 330-acre farm from their parents, they returned with their families. In 2005, when decreasing milk prices and increasing energy prices caused them to worry about the farm’s survival, they decided to follow the lead of other innovative Vermont farmers and try making small batches of artisan cheese. The value-added high end cheese has enabled them to save their family farm.

For this reason alone, Vermont artisanal cheeses are more than worth the high price tag.  Not only do they taste incredibly good, but they are helping to preserve a way of life that in most other parts of the country is now extinct. With many Vermont dairy farms struggling to survive, I plan to do my small part in contributing to their success: “Eat More Cheese.”


  1. What a wonderful blog! Not only do I get to peek at a mindful, sensitive mother loving and appreciating her charming adolescent girls that one more time, before life takes them onto grander adventures, but I also get to see, for the first time, the solid connections between the earthy life in small town Vermont and the massive epicurian soul of la belle Francais! Bravo!!!!!

  2. "I had never used the length of my arms to stir anything before..." I love this image of you! What an adventure!

    1. One of the cheesemakers said she was often tempted to climb into it like it was a giant warm milk soaking tub, and I can understand the appeal.

  3. katie raycroft-meyerApril 3, 2012 at 3:57 PM

    What a great blend of topics! And very nice photos!.
    If I didn't know you I would still think this is a really good blog!

    1. Thank you, Katie. You may very well find yourself featured in an upcoming post...!