August 12th, 2007
When I started working at the Artisanal Cheese Center nearly four years ago, Ross Gagnon was the production manager. Ross had left his job as head cheesemaker at Shelburne Farms in Vermont, and moved to NYC to join the team at Artisanal. He was, and probably still is, a character. While listening to him critique cheeses was fascinating it was also completely frustrating because I had no idea what he was talking about. His technical knowledge of flavor and texture development in cheddars, the hallmark cheese of Shelburne Farms, was phenomenal. He had little patience for my newbie enthusiasm and lack of understanding of the cheesemaking process.
I was equally turned off by what I thought was snobbery on his part. One morning he was looking at a big wheel of cheddar and whining about how much he missed making cheese so I suggested that he make some cheese at home… He shook his head quietly and muttered something about not having access to milk. Being a pragmatist, I confidently informed him that there was plenty of milk- that he should just go buy some at the supermarket. My optimistic suggestion was met with silence.
Clearly I have made progress- I now understand that what he missed was a vat filled with pristine, high quality milk from Shelburne’s herd of 125 pure-bred registered Brown Swiss cows. Even with the stories that Ross and many others told about Shelburne- it never hit my radar as a place I urgently needed to visit. Seems strange now considering how many people have told me over the years that it is by far the most beautiful and one of the most impressive farms they’ve ever visited. During my week in Burlington- I made up for lost time and visited Shelburne twice.
The opening reception on the first night of hte ACS conference was held in the breeding barn at the farm- sounds rustic right? Think again- this is Shelburne Farms the former summer residence of Dr. William Seward and Victoria Vanderbilt Wells. In its heyday the farm was considered a center for agricultural innovation. The breeding barn was actually used for horses- specifically to create a sort of super-breed of workhorses for farmers. This fell apart with the invention of the internal combustion engine that lead to the use of tractors. The building is as long as a New York city block and is absolutely gorgeous inside and out. Turns out it was designed by Robert H. Robertson in the late 1800’s- he was considered one of the best of his time. The land is not privately owned any longer- it is now an environmental education non-profit. Check the Shelburne website for more history.
When we arrived most, if not all of Vermont’s cheesemakers were set up inside, sampling their cheeses at tables around the perimeter. Between the cheese and ice cold beer I didn’t stray too far from the barn and thus decided I would need to figure out a way to come back and check out the rest of the grounds before returning to NY.
Luckily I had met Shelburne’s current cheesemaker, Jaime Yturriondobeitia, at the Terra Madre conference put on by Slow Food last October. She is incredible- one because she is a female cheddar maker (there aren’t many) and two because she has a background in microbiology so her understanding of cheesemaking and aging is thorough and impressive. I bumped into her at breakfast on Friday morning and she told me that I was welcome to come out and spend some time with her on Saturday when she made cheese. Michael, Alyce Birchenough (the legendary cheesemaker from Sweet Home Farm in Alabama) and I played hooky from the conference on Saturday morning and drove out to the farm.
We found Jaime in the cheese room preparing to add rennet to the vat. Immediately I am impressed- I looked at the vat of milk like it was the biggest pot of dinner I could imagine making and thought about how nervous I would be to make a mistake with that volume of milk- Jaime moved so confidently around the make room. As it should be, she has been making cheese there for three years.
We hung around for the initial cutting of the curd- totally cool to see two women work a cheddar vat! Jaime took a little break to take us on a short tour of the buildings surrounding the dairy- talked to us about the educational programs- and then insisted that we take a drive around the grounds before heading back to the conference. So we swung by the bakery- just a hop skip away from the creamery to get a snack and then drove round to all the points Jaime had laid out on the map. A perfect excursion that unfortunately did not come close to sating my desire to spend time at Shelburne Farms- hoping to head back in September…
p.s. There is a great step-by-step visual of the cheddar process on Shelburne’s site right here (that’s Ross in the photos).