BRATTLEBORO—In case anyone doubted Vermont’s talents for making high-quality cheese, recent events ought to convince them.
For the second year in a row, a cheesemaker from the state won the best in show ribbon at the annual American Cheese Society (ACS) conference and competition.
The winning cheese was Tarentaise Reserve, made in Reading by Farms For City Kids Foundation’s Spring Brook Farm. The cheese beat 1,684 others from 247 other North American producers.
Vermont’s winning streak continues. Last year, Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro took top honors for its Winnimere. And Grafton Village Cheese’s Bear Hill, made here in Windham County, took second place.
Earlier this year, Vermont cheesemakers also received multiple awards from the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, Wis., including four best-of-class awards and five awards in the second- and third-place categories.
Why is the ACS win such a big deal? This is a big deal because Vermont is such a small state, and because the American Cheese Society, in itself, is a big deal.
The society exists to promote and support American cheeses, and they offer the professional and the layperson enthusiast educational resources, networking opportunities, and support, especially in the areas of cheesemaking safety and sustainability.
The competition is judged by a panel of industry professionals, so an ACS win is an award from one’s peers. The contest is judged blindly, so if any bias exists, it’s simply from a professional demanding the best cheese in each category.
As this year’s awards brochure states: “Unlike other cheese competitions, where cheeses are graded down for technical defects, the goal of the ACS Judging & Competition is to give positive recognition to those cheeses that are of the highest quality in their aesthetic and technical evaluation.”
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Tarentaise Reserve won the most positive recognition this year, above all other cheesemakers in Vermont, some of whom can be counted on to win multiple ACS awards pretty much every year.
This win is well-deserved. While “regular” Tarentaise, an Alpine-inspired, raw, Jersey cows’ milk cheese, is wonderful, with nutty, smooth, and complex notes, the award winner takes the experience a step further. The cheese is aged for 12 months, three months longer than the “regular” version, and the extra aging brings out extra fruity and spicy flavors.
Making a cheese exclusively from the milk of Jersey cows means it will be richer than if it had been made with the milk of more typical breeds of cow, such as Holstein-Friesian, Guernsey, or Brown Swiss. Not to disparage those milks, but Jerseys produce milk higher in fat and protein than any other cow breed, and that quality of milk results in a cheese having a fuller, richer flavor. (Jerseys also have a lower yield compared to other breeds, which is why many cheesemakers eschew the milk completely or mix it with other breeds’ milks.)
Jeremy Stephenson, head cheesemaker at Spring Brook Farm, developed the recipe for Tarentaise after receiving extensive training from a master cheesemaker in France. The influence is obvious. Folks who love Alpine cheeses made in France and Switzerland, such as Vacherin Fribourgeois, Hoch-Ybrig, or extra-aged Comté will adore Tarentaise Reserve. And, when you buy this cheese, you can support a Vermont cheesemaker in the process.
Along with the pride that Vermont and Spring Brook Farm can take in this win, another perk is the attention the award brings to the Farms For City Kids Foundation.
Urban children between the ages of 8 and 12 come to Spring Brook Farm, at no cost to the children’s families, where they participate in chores typical to a farmstead cheesemaking operation, from caring for the animals to raising a vegetable garden to making cheese.
The curriculum stresses team-building, hands-on learning, decision-making and critical-reasoning skills, and it all happens outside of a classroom.
Thus, this award not only goes to the state of Vermont, and Stephenson and his fellow farm- and cheese-workers, but it also goes to every city kid who came to Vermont for the program (see farmsforcitykids.org/our-program).
Tarentaise Reserve was not alone in earning the Green Mountain State an ACS award this year. 23 producers submitted cheeses to the contest, a record for the state, and 16 of them brought home 36 ribbons. The increase in participating cheesemakers may be attributed to The Vermont Cheese Council’s new subsidization program, where they cover the entry fee for Vermont cheesemakers.
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Five of the Windham County awards went to Grafton Village Cheese Company, which makes cheese in Brattleboro and Grafton. The sixth went to Big Picture Farm, with offices in Brattleboro and cheesemaking facilities in Townshend.
Since bringing on microbiologist and head-cheesemaker Dane Huebner, Grafton has expanded its oeuvre to include a robust and interesting cave-aged line, which earned four of the awards.
One of my favorite cave-aged cheeses from Grafton is their Queen of Quality Clothbound Cheddar, made solely of Jersey milk — unusual in a cheddar, but certainly worth it for the extra flavor and richness brought to a delicious experience. The judging panel agreed and awarded the cheese first in “Cheddar Wrapped In Cloth, Linen -- Aged Over 12 Months -- All Milks.” (Yes, the ACS gets very specific in its categories.)
In another, more dramatic departure, Huebner has also brought in sheep’s milk, to great acclaim. Among other awards the sheep cheeses have won at various competitions, this year Grafton took home three ACS awards for cheeses made all, or in part, of sheep’s milk. Two of them are almost exclusive in their categories: washed-rind sheep’s milk cheeses.
When I learned of these cheeses about three years ago, after having worked with cheese for 17 years at that point, I said to Huebner, “Washed-rind sheep cheeses? I can’t think of any off the top of my head.”
His reply was brief and accompanied with a sly smile: “Exactly.”
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Big Picture Farm’s win — for its aged goat cheese, Sonnet — is a first for its cheesemakers, Louisa Conrad and Lucas Farrell. Better known for their sublime, award-winning goat’s milk caramels, the Townsend-based couple, learned cheesemaking from the folks from whom they bought the farm, Bob and Ann Works, formerly of Peaked Mountain Farm.
In neighboring Bennington County, Maplebrook Farm took two awards: one for its semi-aged Ricotta Alta, and another for feta.
The remaining awards earned by Vermont producers mostly went to our state’s cheesemaking heavyweights, which tend to take home armfuls of well-deserved ribbons — Cabot Cooperative Creamery, the Cellars at Jasper Hill, and Vermont Creamery (formerly known as Vermont Butter & Cheese) — but a few new contenders helped make the state proud.
The one that gave me that pleasant, warm feeling, such as I get when I eat their cheese, is Boston Post Dairy’s first-place win for Très Bonne. This semi-aged goat cheese, loosely based on the recipe for gouda, took the gold for “Farmstead Category Aged 60 Days or More — Made from Goat’s Milk.”
I love this Enosburg Falls–based cheesemaker’s wares for flavor and for value. In particular, Très Bonne has the sweet, milky, gentle character that will convert anyone (mistakenly) convinced they don’t like goat cheese; it is also priced almost oddly low for a goat cheese.
The milking and cheesemaking processes that result in this cheese are very labor-intensive, and someone has to pay for all that effort. Somehow, though, Boston Post Dairy manages to keep its gorgeous cheeses affordable.
Next time you are shopping for cheese, wish Vermont a hearty “congratulations” with your dollar by purchasing our state’s creations. Even if the cheese did not win an ACS award — possibly because the cheesemaker did not enter a cheese into the competition — chances are the cheese will be beautiful and delicious.
Remember: although Wisconsin and California are known in the United States as being cheese heavyweights — and add to that Quèbec’s tradition of gorgeous, French-inspired cheeses — Vermont bested them all.
We did that with our status: we have the most artisan (small-scale) cheesemakers per capita, and our cheesemakers pay attention to the detail of their craft.
Sometimes quality trumps quantity.