BRATTLEBORO—People who like cheese are happy when a new cheese comes on to the market. But the truly cheese-obsessed (like me) flip their wigs when we try a new, local cheese, especially one with an impressive pedigree.
Parish Hill Creamery in Westminster West recently began its first full season of cheesemaking, and for cheese enthusiasts, it hits many marks.
The head cheesemaker is Peter Dixon, who has been making cheese and other dairy foods commercially since 1983. Locals of a certain age might fondly remember the old Guilford Cheese Company — that was the Dixon family’s business.
Since then, Dixon has gone on to consult with a variety of cheesemakers in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Some of my favorite domestic, artisan-made cheeses have his name attached to them.
And anyone proud of Vermont’s status as the state with the most artisanal cheesemakers per capita can partly thank Peter Dixon.
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Dixon and his wife, Rachel Schaal, and her sister, Alex, are making small-batch, handmade, Italian-style cheeses using the unpasteurized milk from one single herd. These cows graze on the Putney School’s Elm Lea Farm’s hillside pastures five miles south of the creamery.
Parish Hill’s cheeses sold in this region are aged in the former aging cave of Major Farm, a nearby 250-acre farm in Westminster West where Vermont Shepherd creates its own artisanal cheeses. The cave is in an annex of an old root cellar.
Parish Hill’s cheeses are made using traditional calf rennet from Europe. The salt is made from naturally evaporated salt water by the Maine Sea Salt Company in Marshfield.
Parish Hill’s cheeses are highly seasonal, and the current year’s operations began only a few weeks ago. (Their cheeses at market now have been aging since they were made last August.)
In a video clip on Parish Hill’s Website, Dixon says: “A good cheesemaker is very interested in what the milk is being made from, because that is really the main thing that characterizes your cheese [...] what the feed was that made the milk.”
Rachel Schaal added: “We started [making cheese] as soon as the cows were out to pasture.”
The farm uses no milk from fermented feed because it wants its cheese made of “milk from cows who are eating what they are supposed to be eating. It’s the best milk and it makes the best cheese,” Schaal continued.
Using raw milk from grazing cows provides the most nuanced flavor profile in a cheese, but it limits production, especially in a region -- such as in Vermont -- with a short grazing season. If profits were the only consideration, this would be a hazard, but when quality takes priority, it makes sense.
Schaal explained that from a technical perspective, fermented feed presents an increased risk of ruining the cheese. Microbes “hang around” in the feed, and can cause “bad gas” in the cheese, she said, especially in Alpine-style cheeses (such as Vermont Herdsman), where it can make the cheese “blow up like a football.”
Plus, the seasonal nature of cheesemaking provides the trio with a little break.
“Our cheeses are very labor-intensive,” Schaal continued. “We make our cheeses by hand, and we make as much as we can. We don’t plan on any expansion. The size we are now is the size we plan to be.”
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I recently had the chance to try most (all but one) of Parish Hill Creamery’s cheeses, in order of how they should be served (mildest to strongest).
The first one, a semi-aged provolone cheese, is part of the pasta filata family. Translated as “spun paste,” the cheese is so named for the action of pulling and stretching the hot curds during production.
Buttery and nutty with a sweet finish, the pasta filatas come in three distinct shapes. Kashar is Parish Hill’s Turkish-inspired basket shape, and the hanging-gourd-style Italians call Caciocavallo, which Parish Hill calls Suffolk Punch. (The third, a log shape, is mostly reserved for commercial or kitchen use and is available by special order only.)
The second of my tasting, Reverie, is made in the style of Bra Duro, a DOP (Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta, or name-protected) cows’ milk cheese from Cuneo and Turin.
Similar to the Italian cheese, Reverie ranges in texture from semi-soft to almost fully firm, because the amount of time it’s aged ranges from five to 10 months, which can make quite a difference in a cheese’s flavor and texture.
The 14-to-16-pound wheel has the appearance of gray stone from the natural rind covered in indigenous molds that flourish in Parish Hill’s aging cave.
Upon tasting, I detected earthy, sweet, milky flavors, far less salty than some Italian cheeses; it started gentle but gained a horseradish note (common to some natural-rind cheeses) toward the finish. As this cheese ages further, it will become more piquant and robust.
Vermont Herdsman was next, made in the style of Asiago grasso monte, or full-fat, aged Asiago. Aged between nine and 12 months, the sample I had was on the younger side and tasted delightfully sweet, with almost caramel-like notes, and it had a gentle piquancy. The quality of the milk really stood out.
While this would make a fine table cheese, its texture and flavor lend itself toward melting, too.
As Vermont Herdsman reaches 12 months, expect more piquant flavor and a texture that becomes more granular, better for grating than melting.
In my opinion, no cheese selection is complete without a washed-rind, as it may be my favorite family. Parish Hill Creamery’s contribution to this category, Humble Herdsman, is a 3.5-pound tomme washed with hard cider made from Green Mountain Orchard’s apples. Schaal describes it as “not a super stinker,” tasting earthy and musty, but not too pungent. Its semi-soft texture offers a creamy, almost melting mouthfeel.
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Next, West West Blue is their “two-curd” gorgonzola-style cheese, aged three to six months.
I had never heard the term “two-curd” to describe a cheese before, so Schaal described the two-day process.
On the first day, the cheesemakers make curds and set them overnight to drain and acidify naturally. On the second day, they do the same, then run all of the curds by hand through a small cheddar mill. They press the warm, fresher curds into the bottom and sides of the mold “like a pie crust,” she said.
Then, they fill the center with the previous day’s cold curds, finally topping the mold off with more warm ones.
This results in a smoother rind; in addition, the cooler center allows for more space between the curds, promoting better veining (distribution of the blue mold) throughout the center of the paste.
The two-curd process also gives West West Blue variation in flavor. The edges taste milder; the middle, more piquant.
West West Blue might be my favorite of Parish Hill’s cheeses. It had a velvety mouthfeel and slight spiciness, tempered by sweet, nutty notes and just a hint of earth, with perfectly balanced salinity, giving Italian Gorgonzola Dolcelatte quite a run for its money. I’m a sucker for a well-made blue.
Their only cheese I did not try was Chapman’s Pasture, a grana-style cheese. (Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano are in this category.) Made of part-skim milk, its rind rubbed with a mixture of olive oil and vegetable ash, Chapman’s Pasture has to age for at least 12 months. It’s not ready yet, and we can expect its release in the fall. I know I’m looking forward to it.
You can find Parish Hill Creamery’s cheeses — and meet the cheesemakers — at Vermont Shepherd’s Farm Store at 264 Patch Farm Rd. in Putney. The store is open Thursdays and Fridays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Parish Hill also sells its cheeses at farmers’ markets in Brattleboro and Putney; in Greenfield, Mass.; and in Keene and Lebanon, N.H.