My family doctor didn't bat an eye last year when, in a fit of "too-much-sharing" that pervades my personality, I candidly responded to his casual inquiry of "What's new?" with "Oh, abandoning my current professional career path and starting up a cheese business. I'm headed to Vermont for some cheesemaking classes." No, in fact like most people I meet, he was supportive and insisted that I go visit Shelburne Farms. Shelburne Farms is a non-profit and historical landmark just south of Burlington, Vermont, that focuses on teaching and practicing sustainabile farming. In addition to producing organic fruits and vegetables, pasture-raised meats, eggs, and maple syrups -- farmstead cheddar cheese is made onsite daily.
My schedule wouldn't allow for it last fall, but this year (out of curiosity and proximity, sure, but mostly out of fear of having to report at my next check-up that I had skipped out a second time) I carved out an extra day to visit Shelburne's 1,400 acre working farm. While the property includes a dairy, garden market, trails, woodlands, and an inn and restaurant with breathtaking views of Lake Champlain, the Farm Barn is the main attraction.
A short walk or tractor shuttle from the admissions booth, the Farm Barn is nestled in a green valley, just like almost everything in Vermont. Reminescent of a bustling medieval village, the Farm Barn houses the cheesemaking operations, as well as a bread making company, woodworking shop, alternative elementary school, farm lunch cart, and an interactive children's farmyard where kids can meet animals and experience farm chores like milking a cow or goat.
Skipping the guided tours, I made a bee-line to the cheesemaking observation room where visitors can observe the operational steps involved in the process of making cheddar and sample several vintages of the cheese. A knowledgeable staff member is available to answer questions about the stages of production being observed, as well as the overall cheesemaking process. Cheese Operations Manager, Tom Gardner, was gracious enough to speak with me for a few minutes in between cheese duties. Although a long process from start to finish, the timing of various steps is critical in the cheesemaking process. The cheese never waits.
Shelburne cheeesemakers labor 7 days a week, from mid-May to mid-October, producing roughly 170,000 pounds of cheese using raw milk from their pastured Brown Swiss cow. Cheesemakers add starter culture to the warmed milk early in the morning which awakens these bacteria instrumental in the lacto-fermentation process necessary for most kinds of cheese. After a sufficient "ripening" time, an enzymatic coagulant (rennet) is used to turn the liquid milk into a gel. After this gel has firmed, the curd is cut into uniformly sized pieces and stirred. Cutting and stirring releases whey and allows the curds to continue to contract and firm. After stirring, the whey is drained off and the warm curds are allowed to fuse back together into one big mat.
Cheddar is unique in that it undergoes a distinctive process called cheddaring. The big mat of fused curd is cut into blocks, stacked, and periodically flipped. This gentle pressing allows for the whey to continue to drain, maintaining a warm temperature in the curds that allows for acidification by the bacterial culture to continue.
When the proper acid level is reached, the blocks are broken up into small pieces by a process called milling. Salt is added and thoroughly mixed into the curds. The salted curds are then placed into molds, or hoops, and once again start to fuse together. The cheddar curds are then placed under pressure to squeeze out additional whey. The cheeses are periodically flipped to promote even drainage and a uniform shape. After sufficient drainage has been achieved, most of the cheeses are vacuum sealed and aged from 6 months, up to 3 years before sale. The one exception is the Shelburne clothbound cheddar, which is aged at the Cellars at Jasper Hill, and allowed to develop a natural rind.
The Shelburne Cheddars, including a smoked variety and the clothbound cheddar, are available for sampling and purchase at the Farm Barn cheesemaking observation room and the Welcome Center. Each vintage -- 6 months, 1 year, 2 year, and 3 year -- is unique, as the length of aging has a great impact on the flavor, even when vacuum sealed.
Up next: I'll be bringing you more cheese-insider posts about my experience in an intensive blue cheese course with French cheesemaster Ivan Larcher at Sterling College's Artisan Cheese Institute, cheese reviews from a few Vermont cheeses, and a look at Jasper Hill Farms.
Left: Cheese curds draining after the cutting stage.
Above: Fused curds are cut into blocks and prepared for the cheddaring stage.
Shelburne Farms General Admission (Fall 2015): $8 adults; $6 seniors; $5 children aged 3-17; free to members of the farm, Shelburne residents, and children age 2 & under