The State of Small Cheese

By Lawrence Biemiller

Burlington, Vt. -- The soft-ripened tomme is made from the raw milk of East Friesian sheep in a flock on Woodcock Farm, down in Weston. Ayrshire cows on Jasper Hill Farm, over in Greensboro, gave the milk that went into the Bartlett Blue. The goat cheese, Lazy Lady Marbarella, is also from Vermont. It is bisected by a fine layer of vegetable ash that separates the morning's milk from the evening's -- a centuries-old cheesemaking practice, Catherine W. Donnelly says between tastes.

The cheese course comes first when Ms. Donnelly is doing the ordering -- or at least it does when she's devoting lunch to talking about the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, a new program at the University of Vermont. Ms. Donnelly, a professor of nutrition and food sciences who is a co-director of the institute, says its mission is to educate and assist the state's small-scale cheesemakers, as well as to teach the eating public about such treats as bandaged raw-milk cheddar, from Shelburne Farms, and Thistle Hill Farm's Tarentaise, a cheese made up in North Pomfret with French cultures and a copper vat from Switzerland.

Vermont has 30 to 35 artisan cheesemakers, Ms. Donnelly estimates. Cabot Creamery, an 85-year-old dairy farmers' cooperative, is by far the largest, selling cheddar and other products nationwide while still tending some of its cheeses by hand. A growing number of Vermont's cheeses, however, are made in small batches by dairy farmers who have taken up high-end cheesemaking in the past few years to bolster their incomes. And many of these new cheesemakers call the university's College of Agriculture when they need help, whether in finding cheese recipes or in solving problems that have made their products inconsistent.

Ms. Donnelly, whose specialty is the microbiological safety of food, has fielded many of the calls. Others have gone to Paul S. Kindstedt, a professor of nutrition and food sciences who got interested in small-scale cheesemaking soon after coming to the university, in 1986, and who is the author of American Farmstead Cheese, due out in April from Chelsea Green Publishing. Ms. Donnelly and Mr. Kindstedt eventually decided that, as she puts it after savoring the Bartlett Blue, "The phone's going to ring anyway -- we might as well have an institute."

One of the cheesemakers who has relied on the university's expertise is Dawn Morin-Boucher. About five years ago, she started making raw-milk cheeses by hand with her husband, Dan Boucher, on their farm in Highgate Center. They use milk piped warm from the dairy barn to the cheese house next door. "We're marketing a product based on it being the closest thing to what you would get 100 years ago," she says while turning out the morning's production of a mountain-style cheese she calls Tomme Collins.

Ms. Morin-Boucher's cheeses have won praise and awards, but she and Mr. Boucher have had their share of difficulties. "The biggest problem was troubleshooting so many variables," he says. The flavor of a good cheese is related to what the cows have been eating, the cultures the cheesemaker adds, the processes the cheesemaker chooses, the natural molds that are found in the region's atmosphere, and the conditions under which the cheese is aged. Identifying what has gone wrong when a problem develops isn't always easy. Mr. Boucher credits Mr. Kindstedt with helping to solve problems with mold and product inconsistency.

"We've had two really good years," says Ms. Morin-Boucher. She makes cheese once a week, but she tends the cheeses aging in the cellar daily -- turning them, salting the rinds, or brushing them to keep mites away. She offers some of what she makes to local chefs and at farmers' markets, and several Web sites sell her cheese nationally. It retails for over $20 a pound.

Cheesemaking came early to Vermont, says Mr. Kindstedt, but it had a long and rich history before crossing the Atlantic. Mountain-style cheeses, such as Swiss, were made near the high pastures to which farmers sent their herds in the summer. The cheeses had to be easy to carry down to the valleys, so they were made in large, fairly elastic rounds. Peasant cheeses made on farms in Normandy, by contrast, could be smaller and more delicate.

The Puritans brought cheesemaking to New England -- initially cheddar, Mr. Kindstedt says. As Vermont became settled, farmers began making cheese to sell in Boston and Montreal. But in the mid-1800s the first cheese factories were built, and "the efficiencies were so great that farmstead cheesemaking just about disappeared." Recent years have seen a new interest in cheesemaking here, he says, partly because "people are anxious to know where their food comes from, to talk to a farmer."

For small Vermont producers like Ms. Morin-Boucher, a big threat now is the possibility that the federal government may require them to use pasteurized milk rather than raw milk. U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules currently permit cheesemakers to use unpasteurized milk as long as the cheese is aged at least 60 days at 35 degrees Fahrenheit or below, to kill any pathogens. But the FDA is reviewing the safety of raw-milk cheeses after several studies cast doubt on the 60-day rule's effectiveness.

Ms. Donnelly, a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods since 1998, is not a fan of requiring pasteurized milk for cheeses. The institute's approach is "Let's give the cheesemakers the knowledge to manufacture cheeses that are safe," she says, noting that many well-known imported cheeses, including Parmesan and Swiss, are made with raw milk. The European milk-safety model depends on strict monitoring of milk production on farms, she says, while the U.S. model puts less emphasis on farmers' practices and more on pasteurization at processing plants.

That's fine for industrial-scale cheese manufacturers, but not for producers who make cheese with milk direct from their own cows, goats, or sheep. "There's an economic cost to installing and operating pasteurization equipment" that would be beyond the reach of many small cheesemakers, Ms. Donnelly says. "If there's not the need, why create the burden?" Flavor is also an issue, she says. "I think the raw-milk cheeses are much more complex in their notes."

One aim of the artisan-cheese institute, which was established just this past summer, is to provide safety lessons and other training for new cheesemakers, who will be able to earn cheesemaking certificates by taking short courses. Established cheesemakers, meanwhile, will be able to earn "master artisan" certificates. The institute will also offer courses for cheese lovers and for chefs.

Not everyone in Vermont is entirely comfortable with the institute's goals, which some people worry might lead to licensing of cheesemakers by the state. Jamie Miller is the cheesemaker at Shelburne Farms and the president of the Vermont Cheese Council, which represents cheesemakers large and small. "The cheese council has a pretty mixed opinion" of the institute, he says. "People wonder about the whole master-artisan certificate -- do they need it?"

But Allison Hooper, president of the Vermont Butter & Cheese Company, is enthusiastic about the institute. "It's our 20th year this year. We've been muddling along by the seat of our pants without any real training," she says of her company, which nevertheless has grown to be the state's second-largest cheesemaker. Ms. Hooper hopes the institute "will be there to help with product problem-solving down the road" -- for her company and others. "Creating a school that is the artisan-cheese go-to place can only help Vermonters."

Ms. Hooper is partly responsible for bringing to Burlington a young French cheesemaker named Marc Druart, who worked for Vermont Butter & Cheese before enrolling as an undergraduate at the university. Now he works part time for the institute, helping cheesemakers with technical problems. Monserrat Almena-Aliste, a research associate in the department of nutrition and food sciences who is from Spain, also spends much of her time on institute projects. She recently studied whether chefs and home cooks in Vermont preferred an Italian water-buffalo mozzarella or one produced by a new water-buffalo herd in -- of all places -- Woodstock, Vt. Home cooks, she found, liked the Woodstock product, while some chefs wanted the stronger Italian version.

"More and more people are interested in where food comes from," says Jeffrey P. Roberts, a food-policy expert who is a consultant for the institute. He thinks it could be cheese's answer to the wine program at the University of California at Davis, which has a worldwide reputation among winemakers.

But the cheese institute intends to make its mark among ordinary eaters as well, and Mr. Roberts says the time is as ripe as a summer tomme. "Food is one of the simplest and most powerful ways of connecting to place and to each other," he says. When you taste a farmstead cheese, "you taste the place."

Copyright © 2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published January 7, 2005.