The 2nd annual Vermont Cheesemakers Festival takes place Sunday, July 25, back at the gorgeous lakeside grounds of Shelburne Farms near Burlington. (Read our recap of last year’s festival for a preview of the deliciousness involved.) Tickets sold out in advance last year, and are well on the way to doing so again, so order yours today if you plan to go.

The Vermont Cheese Council has a handy map you can consult to plan your own tour of Vermont’s 40+ dairy farms and cheesemakers over the weekend. Or, if you’re coming from New York or Boston, you can join a bus trip to travel in style.

From New York, the Murray’s coach will leave Saturday morning, tour Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery and then check you in to a three-star hotel overnight to rest up before the big day. (Last year, Murray’s led a red-eye bus trip that was reportedly quite the adventure, as there were heavy thunderstorms during the night — we experienced the same on our drive, and it was a rather harrowing trip through upstate New York.)

Formaggio Kitchen will conduct a day-trip from Boston, serving breakfast on the bus and hosting a private barbecue with their own grillmaster at Shelburne following the conclusion of the festival.

And if you’re looking for a more budget-conscious way to enjoy the festival, it’s not too late to sign up as a volunteer. Contact Hilary at VBC — HSchwoegler@vermontcreamery.com — for info or to sign up.

So tell us, have you bought your tickets yet? And if so, please report back — we’ll both be homebound with newborns and missing out on this year’s festivities.

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Last week, the Martha Stewart show aired an episode focused entirely on cheese — cheese from Vermont, to be precise. Emeril has been to Vermont recently as well. We’re tickled to see the celebrities discover what we discovered ages ago (you know, way back in August) … namely, that Vermont makes some damn good cheese. So much so that I wore myself out recapping my Vermont road trip and never got around to posting the final installment of my travelogue, our visit to Fat Toad Farm in Brookfield.

I discovered Fat Toad at the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival; their rich and creamy goats-milk caramel sauces, made in the tradition of Mexican cajeta, provided one of the sweeter complements to the many samples of cheese on display. Their fresh chevre was refreshingly pure and tangy. As I chatted with Fat Toad’s Josey Hastings, she mentioned that they were located not far off of I-89, our planned route back south to New York. Because of our rush to get to the festival on Sunday (after driving from Virginia to Albany, via Queens, on Saturday) we hadn’t built in much time to visit any farms but hoped to at least stop by one before leaving the state.

Judith Irving and her goat greeters

The next day, we decided to spend some time enjoying Lake Champlain and got a later start back on the road than anticipated. I called the farm and was cautioned that they were beginning evening chores, but would try to give us a quick tour. As we navigated the country roads to the farm, we passed rolling hillside meadows full of dairy cows, including those of Neighborly Farms. It was the sunniest day yet of our road trip and a perfect day to take in the Vermont countryside. When we arrived, Josey had extracted herself from putting up zucchini and graciously gave us the full tour. The quaint farm didn’t take long to navigate, as they are a small, family-run operation with about 40 Alpine and Saanen dairy goats. It was milking time, so we missed out on seeing the goats frolicking in the meadows but got to visit with them as they awaited their turn in the milking chamber.

kissing goats @ Fat Toad Farm

Josey and her family produce most of their own food on their property, including a few pigs (who are fed excess whey, naturally) and fresh produce. The maple for their maple chevre comes from a neighbor. They’ve been making cheese commercially for only about two years, and have clearly developed a winning formula for high quality fresh chevre. The mild cheese can be used as a dip or spread (try on bagels in place of cream cheese), or in recipes like their Fat Toaders’ Caramel Goat Cheese Swirl Brownies.

The caramel sauces come in several flavors, coffee bean, cinnamon, vanilla bean, and original — and if you’re like me and can’t pick just one, you can order a gift box of all four. I bought several for holiday gifts and already gave one away to our hosts in New York; the jury is still out on whether the others will actually be gifted or remain tucked away in my pantry. (Perhaps I’d better order another set to be safe.)

the self-serve farm store

Incidentally, my new secret to the best BLT sandwich you will ever have? A generous schmear of Fat Toad Farm maple chevre in place of mayonnaise.  Pure bliss.

Thank you to Josey and family for allowing us to poke around the farm. We hope to make it back again soon!

Fat Toad Farm
787 Kibbee Rd
Brookfield, VT
802.279.0098 — call now for holiday orders
www.fattoadfarm.com

Save the Date: The 2010 Vermont Cheesemakers Festival will be held in July, Sunday the 25th, back at Shelburne Farms.

The reason for our Vermont Cheese Tour, an afternoon spent at the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, organized by the Vermont Cheese Council and Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. and hosted at Shelburne Farms. Read on for my most notable picks.

the barn at Shelburne

the barn at Shelburne (photo (c) Allison Wolf/Vermont Cheesemakers Festival)

The Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, as mentioned previously, took place on the stunningly beautiful lakefront estate of Shelburne Farms. The event organizers sold out all 1,000 available tickets several days before the event, and from reports of those who arrived earlier than I, nearly all 1,000 hungry cheese hounds tried to pack themselves into the barn during the opening hour. By the time we arrived in mid-afternoon (road-tripping with a toddler, I’ve discovered, involves exponentially more time than you would otherwise presume), the crowds had thinned somewhat and while the cheesemakers and vendors seemed exhausted, there were plenty of samples remaining. Some people reported sampling other types of food, but with limited time remaining before closing, I had to focus on the matter at hand: tasting every last morsel of cheese. It was a treat to meet some of the cheesemakers whose handiwork I have recently become acquainted with, like Crawford Family Farms (Vermont Ayr) and Thistle Farm (Tarantaise).  I even coaxed Steve Getz of Dancing Cow into being the first victim participant in our newest occasional feature here at Cheese + Champagne, “Cheesemaker Chats.” (Stay tuned.)

With the exception of those cheeses I’ve already noted, the cheeses that were most memorable (I could hardly name a favorite) were those on the two ends of the spectrum, beefy washed rinds or creamy, fresh cheeses. If I hadn’t already believed that terroir plays a key role in the flavor development of farmstead cheese, I would be even more convinced now after tasting cheeses that were redolent with complex, grassy, sweet and sometimes floral flavors that reflected the mountain meadows we drove through on our way to Shelburne.

Dorset by Consider Bardwell

Dorset by Consider Bardwell

Washed rinds I loved included Dorset by Consider Bardwell, Willoughby by Ploughgate Creamery (washed in local mead), the alluring Sarabande by Dancing Cow, and of course, Oma from  von Trapp Farmstead/Cellars at Jasper Hill. Oh Oma, that lusty, barnyardy, silky smooth wonder.

coastal ricotta from Rhode Island

And on the fresh side, Vermont Shepherd ricotta lama, creamy chevre from Fat Toad Farm, and the incredible Narragansett Creamery ricotta (despite being an interloper from Rhode Island) are also worth seeking out. A Murray’s staff member and I chatted over the ricotta, where he wondered aloud whether the ricotta stood out on its own merits alone or because it was such a palate refresher after tasting more than a hundred rich cheeses. Either way, it was divine. The boy enjoyed the berry-topped samples and we savored it again back in New York, drizzled with honey. Delish.

One non-cheese item I did take time to taste was the summer sausage from VT Smoke and Cure — my beagle later enjoyed it too, sniffing it out in my cooler bag when we arrived back home and devouring the entire stick. (So much for my husband’s souvenir.)

There were seminars and book signings, as well as food vendors outside the barn. I missed my cheddar and beer pairing seminar, but Boston foodie Kelly of The Pink Apron gives a review of the cheese pairing seminar by Murray’s VP Liz Thorpe. I did sample North Branch Vineyards wines, on the advice of Steve from Dancing Cow. The boy enjoyed the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream truck, naturally, and my final sampling was of a delightful horchata from one of the food vendors.

Vermont is studded with small family dairy farms, and the festival felt like a big, happy family reunion. I hope to continue visiting for years to come and watching the state’s farmstead cheese revolution continue to grow.

P.S. See the Whrrl slideshow for a few more pictures, though unfortunately due to an improperly charged camera battery (doh!) I was left relying on my iphone for pics.

The Cheese + Champagne Vermont Cheese Week Tour continues with another Vermont cheddar on the Wine Spectator list.

The third of the Wine Spectator 100 cheeses* I was able to sample in Vermont was Grafton Village’s clothbound cheddar. I’ve sampled their younger cheddars previously, but had been unable to find their clothbound version locally. (In fact, when I called one cheese shop to inquire they thought I must be referring to the Cabot/Jasper Hill clothbound and encouraged me to try that instead.)

photo courtesty of Allison Wolf/Vermont Cheesemakers Festival 

photo courtesty of Allison Wolf/Vermont Cheesemakers Festival

Clothbound cheddars are common in the U.K., but a fairly new phenomenon here in the States. We’ve written before about the Cabot/Jasper Hill joint venture, and the Grafton Village clothbound is a team project as well. As we learned at the June Fancy Food Show, Grafton is now sending their wheels of clothbound cheddar to be aged in the sandstone caves of Faribault Dairy in Minnesota.

Grafton clothbound begins with hormone-free raw milk from their Jersey cows, produced by their co-op of Vermont dairy farmers, and is aged up to 10 months to develop a smooth, creamy yet earthy flavor and the familiar crumbly texture of good cheddar.

My taste buds were too taxed to try a Grafton/Cabot head-to-head taste off after making my rounds at the festival, but if you have the opportunity to try both at the same time I encourage you to do so and report back. And if you can’t find it at your local cheese shop, Grafton offers it for sale online.

* editor’s note/musings: At the time of the Wine Spectator selection, Grafton’s clothbound was also aged at Jasper Hill. Since we were unable to taste it until now, we have no idea how the taste might have changed with the move to a new aging facility. But wouldn’t that be a fun tasting experiment to taste identical cheeses aged in caves more than 1,000 miles apart?

 

Vermont Cheese Week resumes here on Cheese + Champagne, now that yours truly has reluctantly returned back south. Stay tuned for more virtual postcards from Vermont and a taste of Brooklyn’s cheese world as well.

The vast estate of Shelburne Farms served as host of the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, and perhaps my biggest regret of the weekend was not spending more time touring the 1,400-acre non-profit farm. The farm is located just a few miles south of Burlington, and after driving up from Albany, NY, through the Champlain Valley we turned onto the dirt road into the farm expecting to see your usual grassy fields and dairy cows milling about. Sure enough, we were greeted by some meandering Brown Swiss cows, but we were surprised by the lush, FSC-certified forest, gorgeous 19th-century architecture, and most of all, to come around a bend and see this view of the lake.

Stunning, even on the dreary grey afternoon.

The festival was hosted in one of the barns, and the Shelburne Farms table was one of the first we visited. I was eager to try the 2-year-aged cheddar, another Vermont cheese on our Wine Spectator list; my sister-in-law and son were smitten with the smoked cheddar. (They’re not alone; Shelburne’s smoked cheddar won best of its kind at the American Cheese Society awards, one of the farm’s four blue ribbons this year.)

The farm was created as a model agricultural estate by William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb (yes, those Vanderbilts) in 1886, and became a non-profit in 1972. The cheese is just one part of the farm’s environmentally and economically sustainable programs; the green-certified timber is sold to local furniture-makers, and they lease land that houses the vineyards and winery for Shelburne Vineyards, organically cultivating climate-appropriate grapes to make high quality Vermont wines.  The herd of 200 purebred Brown Swiss dairy cows are grazed rotationally, meadows maintained without the use of chemical inputs and minimizing run-off; the cheese is even Humane Certified, making them just the third cheesemaker in the US to obtain the designation.

Okay, that’s all wonderful you say, but how does it taste? The cheddars are creamy, sharp and flavorful. The smoked cheddar had just enough smoke to lend flavor without overwhelming the sweet creamy cheddar base. The 2-year-cheddar was sharper, but again not overwhelmingly so; just enough bite to balance the creamy, nutty flavors. The cheeses are clearly a favorite of the locals, we spotted this display (above center) at Burlington’s Cheese Traders shop. It was a little early for apple season that far north — the u-pick blueberry patches were still open on our drive up — but if you have a chance to pick up Shelburne’s cheddar, I feel comfortable guaranteeing you’ll enjoy it on a grilled-cheese-and-apple sandwich this fall. It certainly went well with the Harpoon hard cider we sampled at the festival.

As you might expect, it’s Vermont Cheese Week here on Cheese + Champagne, and the first virtual postcard from Vermont comes from Blue Ledge Farm in Salisbury, in the southern end of the Champlain Valley. We drove through the valley en route to the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, and it was breathtakingly beautiful even with the on-and-off rain showers.

This was one of the last cheeses I sampled at the festival, and I was delighted to find Hannah Sessions of Blue Ledge Farm tucked into the back corner as their Lake’s Edge is on our Wine Spectator list and had proven hard to find further south. This cheese is similar to Humboldt Fog, in that it is an aged goats-milk cheese with an ash layer and bloomy rind, but its taste is markedly distinct. It is fresher, with that sweet, clean taste of fresh chevre; the jet-black line of ash adds an earthy tang that awakens the palate. The pure milk taste distinguishes Lake’s Edge from more sour goats-milk cheeses, making this cheese approachable without compromising on flavor.

Blue Ledge Farm has a mixed herd of Alpine, Nubian and Lamancha goats, milked in season (February through November) and rotationally grazed on organically-maintained farmland. In keeping with the cheese’s name, we ate this cheese for lunch on the shores of Lake Champlain — by hand, improvising with dried banana chips as knives. My sister-in-law and I literally had to fight my 3-year-old for the last bites.

Just a teaser. More to come when (if) I get back from Vermont. (Click for slideshow.)