14 Amazing Vermont Cheeses
I’m compelled to take the back roads home these days, despite the five to ten minutes added to my drive. The land brighter on the eyes, the air brighter on the nose—fragrance from new foliage and mellowing manure has me believing, albeit foolishly, that all is well with the world, if only from my vicinity. Spring is a balm on my spirit worn raw after winter.
With windows down, I cruise past pastures dotted with the beasts of this kingdom—cows, goat, sheep—grazing placidly, and I imagine within the walls of the farmsteads to which those beasts belong folks cooking milk, into small batches of cheddar, chèvre or unnamed stinky delicacies to stock their larders.
Pretty pictures on Instagram aside, the rich sensory experience of this landscape isn’t something that can be experienced outside of existing in it. And yet there is cheese, which if done well, has the potential to take the essence of the working landscape—the symbiotic give-and-take between animal and terrain, the potency and timing of that process—and distill it down to a sensuous morsel. Cheese is a portal to this place, and it’s no wonder why it’s become Vermont’s most successful commodity.
The surge in the number of Vermont cheesemakers in recent decades is a beacon of hope for local dairy culture. While the state’s milk industry has taken a devastating nosedive since the 1950s, pioneering farmers and cheesemakers have set out to run economically viable operations, made possible by the high demand for not just the classic white cheddar but also a host of artisanal cheeses.
When we asked Vermont cheese expert Cherie Cyr of Healthy Living Market to help us put together a list of 14 amazing Vermont cheeses, her response was, “Boy, I sure do love so many more than 14!” We feel Cherie’s pain. Some of the finest artisan and farmhouse cheeses in the world are coming out of the Green Mountain State. A bite of any of these 14 will transport you to the rolling pastures of Vermont and for a moment you just might have the feeling that all is right in the world... and in the world of Vermont cheese, this is true.
Here is just a taste of Vermont's amazing cheeses:
1. Orb Weaver Farmhouse Cheese - Back in 1982, Marjorie Susman and Marian Pollack became the first commercial farmstead cheesemakers in Vermont. Before there were artisanal-cheese-making courses galore, these pioneers took the limited knowledge they’d acquired from one cheese class and set out to learn the art of cheesemaking essentially on their own. Orb Weaver Farmhouse is a two-woman show and the batches are small, handcrafted and consistently exceptional. Their farmhouse cheese—which means a cheese made exclusively from the milk produced on the farm—is pungent and moist with a buttery-smooth texture.
2. Vermont Creamery, Bonne Bouche - Perhaps the most widely known producer of Vermont artisanal cheese worldwide, Vermont Creamery has a range of dairy products from butter and cream to fresh and aged cow and goat cheeses. Bonne Bouche is considered the crown jewel of the Creamery’s coffers—an ash-ripened, aged “geo” goat cheese that is creamy and piquant.
3. Blue Ledge Farm, Lakes Edge - If you’ve ever walked along Lake Champlain and taken note of the shapes of stones on the water’s edge, you’ll understand why Blue Ledge Farm named this beauty Lakes Edge. This bloomy-rind, soft-ripened pasteurized goat cheese, coated in veined-ash, is poetry for the palate as well as the eye. Wine Spectator Magazine voted it one of the best 100 cheeses in the world. Dense center, creamy mid-layer, tangy and luscious. “Our goats live a life of luxury,” says farmer Greg Bernhardt. Eating this cheese certainly feels like a luxury.
4. Shelburne Farms, Smoked Cheddar - Vermont is most widely known for its cheddar cheese and Shelburne Farms has some of the best. From their offerings, the smoked cheddar is our favorite—a sweet, smoky, nuanced cheddar that is positively addicting.
5. Grafton, 2-Year-Aged Cheddar - Here we go with the cheddar, again. Grafton has taken home the blue ribbon for the best 2-year-aged cheddar cheese more than a dozen times over. Vermont’s crowned classic.
6. Vermont Shepherds, Invierno - Winter may be behind us but in the form of the cheese, Invierno—winter in Spanish—we want it all year long. Farmers Yesenia and David Major both grew up on dairy farms: Yesenia milked her father’s cows in the Dominican Republic, while David grew up on a sheep farm in Vermont. Today these cheesemakers blend the protein-rich milk from their ewes with the milk from cows grazing a mile away. After aging the cheese 4 to 5 months, the result is Invierno—a soft to semihard nutty, buttery, earthy cheese that has won accolades worldwide.
7. Woodcock Farm, Summer Snow - What do you get when you take the milk from a flock of East Friesian sheep grazed on organic diversified pasture and age it for a stint with a bloomy rind? Cheesemakers Mark and Gari Fischer call it Summer Snow, their handcrafted farmstead cheese with a complex, sweet lemony flavor. We can’t think of a better way to pass a lazy day in summer than with this seasonal semisoft cheese and a glass of sauvignon blanc.
8. Thistle Hill, Tarentaise - Farmers John and Janine Putnam of North Pomfret, VT, graze their herd of Jersey cows on their pristine 85-acre hillside farm of organic nutrient-rich grasses. Using traditional methods they make a single cheese, Tarentaise—an award-winning Alpine-style semihard cheese that's a delightful balance of nutty and sweet.
9. Cellars at Jasper Hill, Harbison - Unwrap the tree bark from your Jasper Hill Harbison for a taste of the Vermont landscape. In its relatively short history, the folks at Jasper Hill Farm have established themselves worldwide not only as producers and educators of artisanal cheesemaking but also as experts in the “taste of place”. The woods and pasture of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont come to the palate with Harbison, a fascinating supersoft-ripened cow cheese with a bloomy rind, wrapped in the cambium of spruce trees. Dollop the goopy center of this rustic cheese onto crusty bread and be glad.
10. Cobb Hill, Ascutney Mountain - Cobb Hill Cheese is not the first Vermont producer to model a recipe on an Alpine cheese—the Swiss Alps and Vermont’s Green Mountains do have similarly fertile landscapes. But Cobb Hill’s Ascutney Mountain has earned a rightful place among the best Alpine-style cheeses worldwide. This farmstead is made with raw Jersey milk from happy cows that live next door to Cobb Hill. After aging for 7 to 8 months, the result is this semifirm variety that’s bright and sweet.
11. Consider Bardwell Farm, Pawlet - Consider Stebbins Bardwell (yes, that was his name) started Vermont’s first cheese-making co-op from his 300-acre West Pawlet farm in 1864. The tradition of great cheese continues to this day with the farm’s offerings of six distinct cheeses. The Pawlet is a well-rounded cheese aptly named after the town it comes from, which is known for its slate, syrup and timber. In the tradition of an Italian toma, this cheese made from raw Jersey milk is aged 4–6 months, yielding a tangy, creamy-textured champion.
12. Green Mountain Blue Cheese, Gore-Dawn-Zola - Anyone in Vermont knows that to be considered a real Vermonter requires a family lineage going back multiple generations—how many, exactly, is not quite clear. The Boucher Family meets the requirement with a legacy in the region going back 400 years—that’s an average of 15 generations. French farmers originally came to work the land of the Champlain and St. Lawrence Valley in order to supply tradesmen and soldiers with provisions. To this day, a line of Bouchers has continued with the family’s agricultural past, operating a 90-cow dairy on 1,200 acres in Highgate Center, VT. Green Mountain Dairy produces some remarkable European-style cheeses. Their tangy Gore-Dawn-Zola (named after Gore Road where the dairy is situated, cheesemaker Dawn Morin-Boucher and the Italian cheese that inspires it) is a longtime favorite among locals. This raw-cow’s-milk blue is crumbly with a punchy flavor that pairs well with a dollop of honey or other sweet accompaniments.
13. Von Trapp, Mt. Alice - Since 2009, the von Trapp family (yes, the von Trapps, famous for so many good things) has been producing artisanal organic cheeses from its dairy farm in Waitsfield, VT. With fifty cows and a cheesemaking facility on the premises, all of their cheeses are farmsteads made with old-world methods in small batches. Mt. Alice is a bloomy-rind camembert-style cheese that’s sumptuous and smooth.
14. Doe's Leap, Chèvre - Doe’s Leap is a diversified organic farm in the northern reaches of Vermont by Lake Champlain. What makes their fresh and aged goats cheeses so special is the fact that their goats primarily harvest their own food directly from pasture and browse (twigs, shoots, etc.). This unusual yet harmonious method of farming yields extremely high-quality meat and dairy products. Doe’s Leap chèvre is a silky-soft revelation that wants for nothing but a cracker.
* All of these cheese can be purchased at Healthy Living Market and Café. And if you see Cherie tell her hello, from us!