By JANET K. KEELER, Times Staff Writer
Add Artisan cheesemaking to covered bridges and falls leaves as another reason to visit Vermont.
Freddy, the gray-and-white barn cat, greets us energetically as we prowl around the milking parlor at Taylor Farm. He leans into our hands, eager for a scratch under the chin. The second our car door opens, he jumps inside and curls up on a Florida State University sweatshirt.
Sunshine peeps from dusky clouds, which make good every now and then on their threat of sprinkles. It has been an unusually cool, wet spring in New England, and the sweatshirt is needed as a warm wrap more than as a bed for Freddy. But he's so sweet and so obviously content. We think about driving off with him.
The incessant rain has painted the Green Mountain State even more emerald, if that's possible. Queen Anne's lace grows tall along the roads, and blooming yellow rocket dots every wide-open space. When you see Holsteins and Guernseys grazing on fields of green, you've got to believe that happy cows come from Vermont, not California.
We've come here to taste artisan cheese, and on our first day we understand why people give up city life to milk goats, cows, sheep and even water buffalo in this rural heaven. It's peaceful and pretty, and there are no billboards anywhere hollering about a morning radio show or promising to cure our aching backs. Of course, it is June, and the snow is gone.
There are about 35 small producing artisan cheesemakers in Vermont, double the number of just five years ago. Some, like those at Taylor Farm in Londonderry Freddy's home and Neighborly Farms in Randolph Center, produce farmstead cheese, which means that the milk comes from animals on the premises.
Cheesemakers are scattered around the state, from Alburg on the Grand Isle of northern Lake Champlain just
miles from Canada, down to Woodstock, where water buffalo graze near the weekend playground of tony New Yorkers. They are making cheese near the granite quarries of Barre and in the rugged Northeast Kingdom.
Many open their doors to visitors to sample cheeses with fanciful names such as Gore-Dawn-Zola, Magic Mountain and Bayley Hazen Blue. If you come at the right time, you can watch curds being separated from whey and then glimpse where the raw-milk cheese is brined and aged. It's like an old-school junior high film strip, come to life.
And in between nibble stops, you can prowl through antique stores or, perched in a wooden gazebo in a quaint town square, watch village life go by. Tracking down dairy farms and cheesemakers will get you off the roads most traveled for sure, and could even send you over Sunset Lake on the famous floating bridge in Brookfield, which is buoyed by 380 barrels. You hope.
Traveling the Vermont Cheese Trail - yes, there is a such a thing - today is much like tasting wine in Napa Valley 30 years ago. The public relations companies and tourism boards have yet to exploit the movement, and the experience is grass roots, which means your tour guide will be a farmer in rubber boots or a cheesemaker wearing a hair net.
Don't expect it to stay that way forever. The romance of artisan cheese will catch the fancy of slick ad agencies, the way winemaking has, and they will figure out a compelling way for us to add cheese to the list of reasons to visit Vermont. Fall foliage, covered bridges and steepled churches, skiing, maple syrup and now, handmade cheese.
Already, Vermont artisan cheeses are mainstays in renowned cheese shops such as Murray's in New York and Formaggio Kitchen in Boston and at natural foods mecca Whole Foods. Cheesemakers, professional and amateur, are using vacation time to take classes at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont in Burlington. The Vermont Cheese Council, a nonprofit consortium of the state's cheesemakers, publishes a Vermont Cheese Trail map and provides profiles of the artisans on its Web site (www.vtcheese.com). (Even with map in hand, directions from a helpful clerk at a country store will be necessary.)
Might artisan cheeses boost tourism the way they have the income of some farmers? Artisan cheeses, says UVM food safety and nutrition professor Catherine Donnelly, are a bright light in a dismal dairy economy. Farmers are getting $11 to $13 for 100 pounds of fluid milk, which it costs them about $18 to produce. When they make cheese from that milk, its price can hit as much as $40 for the same amount.
Donnelly, who is also co-director of the artisan cheese institute, says the interest in cheese is fueled, in part, by Americans who have been to Europe and eaten locally produced, full-flavored food. They want better cheeses, and those that come individually wrapped don't cut it.
Surprisingly, Vermont's restaurants seem slow to catch on to the bounty in their back yards. Vermont Cheddar, made really famous by Cabot, graces many menus, but we found few taking advantage of other local cheese, strong or subtle. Blue cheese goes unnamed on burgers even though the American Cheese Society has proclaimed several Vermont blues among the best in the land. The nation's oldest cheese producer, Crowley, produces award-winning Colby in a brown, clapboard 1880s factory in Healdville, but we never saw that screaming from a menu.
We found the best showcase for Vermont cheese at Smokejacks restaurant and bar in Burlington, which offers a well-rounded selection, including a creamy triple cream from Champlain Valley Creamery in Vergennes that will make you weep. For $10.95, we got the triple cream, plus a Jasper Hill blue and an aged Cheddar-gouda-like offering from La Fromagerie du Royaume. Dried apricots, candied pistachios and pecans, thin slices of green apple and toasted baguette slices accompanied them.
We were near the end of our five-day Vermont cheese tour when we stumbled on Smokejacks, which sits on a corner of a four-block pedestrian shopping mall downtown. The crowded restaurant was confirmation that good food, artisan food, does attract clientele. Especially those who have seen it at the source.
Imagine, the milking parlor where Freddy the cat hung out was the start of something great.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or by e-mail email@example.com.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Delta has a direct flight from Tampa to Hartford, Conn., which is convenient to southern and central Vermont. A number of carriers fly to Burlington from Tampa with one stop, providing easy access to the state's northern regions.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Vermont is awash with quaint B&Bs and inns but not many major hotel chains, unless you are in Burlington, Montpelier or Brattleboro. Some inns are good for children, others are not (especially those without TVs, and there are many). For suggestions, go to www.vtliving.com/lodging. The Shire Riverview Motel in Woodstock (46 Pleasant St.; (802) 457-2211 or www.shiremotel.com) combines some of the charms of a B&B with modern conveniences and a wonderful view of the Ottauquechee River. Rates are $150 to $200 a night.
WHEN TO GO: Fall is for foliage fans and winter is for snow sports enthusiasts. Late spring and summer is the best time to visit cheesemakers.
PLACES TO VISIT: The Vermont Cheese Council's cheese trail map can be downloaded free at www.vtcheese.com, or call Cabot Cheese at (802) 371-1265 to ask for one to be sent to you. Not all operations are open to the public, and it is a good idea to call ahead for those that are to ask about hours, directions and cheesemaking schedules.
Vermont Country Store, 1292 Rockingham Road, Rockingham, (802) 463-2224 or www.vermontcountrystore.com.
Brattleboro Food Coop, 2 Main St., Brattleboro, (802) 257-0236 or www.brattleborofoodcoop.com.
Smokejacks restaurant and bar, 156 Church St., Burlington, (802) 658-1119 or www.smokejacks.com.
Artisan: Cheese that is made by hand, usually in small quantities. Large-scale operations, such as Kraft and Land O'Lakes, produce cheese mostly by machine.
Farmstead: The milk comes from the farm where the cheese is made.
Organic: The animals producing the milk eat only organic feed that contains no pesticides.
Raw-milk: The USDA requires that all cheese made with raw, or unpasteurized milk, be aged for at least 60 days to kill any bacteria. Cheese made with pasteurized milk, such as Kraft singles, does not have to be aged, but its flavor will not change with time.