Take a trip along the Vermont Cheese Trail
By Natalie Wise
Wisconsin might be known as the “dairy state,” but Vermont, which just so happens to be roughly shaped like a wedge of cheese, is also known for its exceptional dairy.
While Wisconsin and California top the list of cheese-producing states, with well over 2 billion pounds produced each year, Vermont’s 66 cheese producers craft 127 million pounds of cheese. Cheese from goats, sheep and cows, all roaming the rolling hills of Vermont. And there’s no shortage of variety: Gouda, mozzarella, soft goat cheeses, hard sheep’s milk cheeses, smoked cheeses and, of course, maple cheeses, nearly all of them farmstead-crafted.
Farmstead cheeses are the dairy backbone of Vermont; cheeses are made start to finish on a farm, with their own fresh milk and their own cheese caves. This is what makes Vermont cheese special: The farms have been in families for generations, the cows and sheep and goats have names and are given the utmost quality of life, the cheese is lovingly handcrafted, and it is all done with that characteristic Vermont charm. There’s a very familial aspect to the cheese-making community in Vermont.
The best way to experience all of this wonderful cheese-y charm? Tour through the state with the aid of the Vermont Cheese Council’s Vermont Cheese Trail Map. (Find the map online at: vtcheese.com/vermont-cheese-trail-map.)
“If you use the map, you can visit creameries and see cheese being made from one end of Vermont all the way up to our northern border with Canada or from east to west,” says Tom Bivins, executive director of the Vermont Cheese Council. “I always suggest combining the Vermont Cheese Trail Map with the cider, wine or beer trail map, and call ahead to make sure farms are open and accepting visitors.”
If this sounds like a delicious but daunting task, you’re in luck. We’ve pared the list for you. Here are some of our favorite stops along the way:
Grafton Village Cheese Co. in Brattleboro is a good place to start your journey. Here, you can watch cheesemakers through the large glass viewing area, then taste the variety on offer, including a clothbound cheddar.
“My kids adore that they can see the cheese being made. And I love that they are able to connect their experience of seeing it made with a product they eat at their house,” said NJ Rogner of Holyoke, Mass., who regularly visits Grafton Village with her children, ages 5 and 9.
After honeymooning in Wisconsin, Rogner and her husband were cheese lovers but didn’t think they could find anything in Massachusetts that compared. When they found Grafton, they were hooked, and the yearly trek to buy a wheel of 2-year-aged cheddar became an anniversary tradition, and, eventually, a family tradition. she said. The kids also love the petting farm next door, an added bonus at the end of a long cheese-trail journey.
In Putney, you’ll find Vermont Shepherd, run by David Major and his family. Vermont Shepherd is the oldest sheep dairy in the country and the largest in Vermont. You might have heard of it; the cheeses are served on flights around the world through SkyChef.
Vermont Shepherd’s cheese cave is a sight to behold … tucked underground and accessed by a rather elfish door, its 1,500-square-foot cheese cave keeps the cheese wheels in the mid- to upper-50 degrees with high humidity. This is the perfect environment for the natural rinds, stamped with the variety (either Verrano, meaning Summer, or Inferno, meaning winter), to cure as they are brushed and rotated twice a week.
Major said he loves to have “cheese pilgrims,” as he calls them, visit, and the honor-system farm stand sells other locally made products, including yarn spun with wool from its sheep.
If you’ve managed to arrive on a Sunday afternoon, pop over to Townshend, a stone’s throw from Putney, to visit the goats at Big Picture Farm. While goat milk caramels are the specialty of this farm, its small-batch raw goat’s milk cheeses, Sonnet and Haiku, are sought after by enthusiasts. You’ll be greeted by the farm dogs, Elvis and Josie, who protect the goats, which also have charming names, such as Winnie, Gertrude, Cicada and June.
If you’re up for a spur jaunt, about an hour each way (but you’ll pass Long Trail Brewery on the way), head down and over to Mount Holly to visit Crowley Cheese, the country’s oldest continuously operating cheese factory on the National Historic Register.
It’s worth the trip, according to Joyce and Mark Notarnicola, from the Hudson Valley in New York. The couple, who travel all over the world and spend weeks at a time in Italy, love Crowley Cheese.
“We love the quaintness of it,” Joyce Notarnicola said. “They are always very friendly! The extra-sharp cheddar is our favorite, but we also love the Muffaletta and the sage.”
Next, you’ll want to visit Neighborly Farms in Randolph because, well, it’s neighborly and loves having visitors. Just a few miles off Exit 4 from Interstate 89, this small family-run farm creates award-winning organic, raw cheddar, colby jack, locally grown green-onion cheddar, as well as a Vermont Feta.
For those ambitious enough to continue the trek north on I-89, be sure to stop at the Cabot Cheese store in Waterbury (also home to Ben & Jerry’s, if you can stomach more dairy, or Cold Hollow Cider Mill if you need something different), or if you pass the town of Cabot on your journeys, visit the store there or the one in Quechee. Cabot can be found just about everywhere in Vermont, since it is a farmer-owned co-op the state takes pride in. The Cabot stores are famous for their samples, but the Waterbury store is a favorite because it also happens to be next to the Lake Champlain Chocolates sample-heavy store (and you can purchase chocolate “seconds” in bulk, so be warned!).
Next, head over to Shelburne Farms just outside Burlington. The historic farms, set on the late-19th-century mansion of Lila Vanderbilt, boast an inn and farm-to-table restaurant for you to enjoy before resuming your cheese trail adventure. The picturesque Shelburne Farms is also a working and educational farm that hosts a herd of 110 purebred Brown Swiss cows.
Visitors can watch cheese making from mid-May to mid-October, though the farm produces cheese every day of the week for 10 months of the year. An $8 admission fee (mid-May to mid-October) not only allows you to watch the cheese being made, but you can walk the property, see the animals and visit the farm store. (You can visit the Welcome Center and Farm Store, and use the 10 miles of walking trails throughout the year.)
End your journey in the Northeast Kingdom at Barn First Creamery in Westfield. Rebecca Velazquez’s farm is a micro-dairy with only 32 alpine goats. But Velazquez’s passion is creating cheese that isn’t generally associated with “goat cheese.”
“People tend to think it’s just chevre, but I didn’t know any better when I started, so I just made what I wanted to eat,” she said.
Alongside traditional chevres, you’ll find her three bloomy-rind varieties, a goat blue cheese, and alpine-style cheeses … everything you’d need to create a complete cheese plate, just as she intended.
“We are the most predictable potluck guests,” Velazquez says, jokingly.
Although Barn First doesn’t have open hours, it welcomes visitors, and recommends contacting it ahead of time will ensure that folks aren’t out haying when you visit.
While this is only a small sampling of the wonderful farms and delicious cheeses across Vermont, it offers a glimpse into the simultaneously burgeoning yet historic tradition of Vermont-made farmstead cheeses.
The new micro-dairies bring fresh ideas and flavors while some of the oldest cheese-making in the country began, and still is, in the heart of Vermont. Or, as Bivins puts it, “People take cheese making seriously here.”
A few stops along the trail…
Grafton Village Cheese Co.
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
400 Linden St. (Route 30)
802-246-2221, ext. 101
Farmstand open daily,
9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
281 Patch Farm Road
Big Picture Farm
Sunday afternoon tours by appointment
1600 Peaked Mountain Road
8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cheese making takes place Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday
14 Crowley Lane
Mount Holly, Vt.
Store open Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
1362 Curtis Road
Randolph Center, Vt.
Cabot Annex Store
Open daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
2657 Waterbury Stowe Road
Walking trails, welcome center and farm store open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (A general seasonal admission fee of $8 is charged mid-May to mid-October.)
A cheese-making tour, which last two hours and includes a block of Shelburne Falls cheddar, is available on Fridays, from mid-May to mid-October. Admission is $20.
1611 Harbor Road
Barn First Creamery
Visits by appointment only. Call or Facebook message to arrange.
1248 North Hill Road
Natalie Wise has a masters degree in poetry from Dartmouth and is the author of four books. When she isn’t writing, she is likely baking or spending time exploring this beautiful area with her husband and their chocolate lab.