BRATTLEBORO—I’ve been working with cheese for just under 20 years now; September will be my Cheese Anniversary.
(Is that a real thing? Like a Silver Anniversary? Well, now it is.)
I’ve probably tasted well over 1,000 different cheeses in my life. While many were life-changing experiences, a few cheeses stand out so much, I can remember where I was when I tasted them.
The Cellars At Jasper Hill’s Bayley Hazen Blue, made in Greensboro, in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, is one of those cheeses.
I was working at Murray’s on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. It was in the mid-2000s (the cheese has been made since 2003).
My colleague at the time, Anne Saxelby (now of Saxelby Cheesemongers, an excellent, tiny cheese shop located in NYC’s Essex Market), was in charge of the inventory. She brought out a wheel of this cheese — Bayley Hazen Blue. I had never heard of it. But, knowing it was from Vermont, from whence I had moved two years earlier and missed terribly — I was interested.
Bayley Hazen Blue. Weird name, but Vermont is full of weird names. Rumor has it, the children of early Puritan settlers were given such names as “Increase” and “Preserved-From-Temptation."
The makers say Bayley Hazen Blue is “named for an old military road commissioned by George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Though no battle ever took place, the road brought Greensboro its first settlers and continues to be used today."
When I tasted it, I thought: “This is the blue cheese for people who don’t think they like blue cheese."
Bayley Hazen is fudgy, and has a distinct sweetness reminiscent of toasted nuts. There are nutty, grassy flavors, too; the latter found closer to the natural rind.
It almost reminds me of a goat- or sheep’s-milk blue because it’s so rich, but like all cheeses made by Jasper Hill, it’s made of the raw milk of Ayrshire cows. The quality and nuance of the milk is able to come through, unhindered by the intensity, acidity, or peppery notes found in nearly all blue cheeses on the market.
Twelve years after its inception, Bayley Hazen Blue chugs along, gathering adherents.
Dondi Ahern, head salesperson at Provisions, International, the White River Junction-based specialty food wholesale distributor serving New England and upstate New York, says of Bayley Hazen Blue: “It’s our best-selling Vermont blue, almost three-to-one."
Ahern shared some additional knowledge he gained about the cheese: “Each wheel is hand-pierced by Clarence [Wheeler],” the affineur in charge of the Cellars’ Vault 7. Ahern adds, “He checks the curd structure of each wheel before piercing” the wheels with a long, thin rod to provide strategic pathways in the cheese that allow oxygen into the body; without them, the beneficial Penicillium roqueforti mold couldn’t proliferate.
While cheesemongers hold it in high regard, fancy restaurants put it on their menus, and customers love it, the cheese hasn’t won the awards many cheese professionals feel it deserves.
Zoe Brickley, who performs sales and marketing for The Cellars at Jasper Hill, says that although “Bayley won second place in 2006 at ACS [the American Cheese Society’s annual conference and competition] for blue vein, and second place in 2007 in the open category,” it hasn’t taken any ACS awards since then.
She thinks the reason the cheese hasn’t placed as well at ACS is because “the judges don’t know how to categorize it,” or to which cheeses to compare it; she says, “it exists in a category of its own” among domestic blues, many of which are wrapped in foil and have no rind.
A few months ago, the international cheese scene lavished some well-deserved attention on Bayley Hazen Blue with a “Super Gold” medal and the title of “World’s Best Raw-Milk Cheese” at England’s 2014 World Cheese Awards [WCA].
Although Brickley says, “winning this WCA has been gratifying for us,” she notes “the ‘world’s best raw-milk cheese’ title is a little misleading."
She explains: “Bayley Hazen Blue wasn’t in the top three of all cheeses entered into the competition; it was in the top 14-16 final cheeses,” after having gone through a few rounds of judging. She adds, “Once the judges determined Bayley Hazen deserved an award, they came up with a title for it,” and Brickley presumes the judges thought “Best Raw-Milk Cheese” was the best fit for the cheese.
During the beginning rounds, Bayley Hazen Blue was judged in the same category as such beloved cheeses as Montgomery’s Cheddar, Quicke’s Farmhouse Cheddar, Appleby’s Cheshire, and Gorwydd Caerphilly, and it beat them all.
Although Brickley says Jasper Hill co-owner Mateo Kehler — who developed the recipe for Bayley Hazen Blue — interned at London’s Neal’s Yard Dairy, which ages and distributes all of those cheeses except Quicke’s, none of them influenced the recipe for their blue.
The closest cheese to Bayley Hazen Blue is Devon Blue, made near the banks of England’s River Dart by Ticklemore Cheese’s Robin Congdon.
“Bayley Hazen has evolved a lot over the years,” Brickley says. Kehler used to produce all of the blue on his own, by hand, but as demand increased, so did production, and it became clear that one man couldn’t do it alone, so the farm hired assistant cheesemakers.
But, it’s still not enough.
Brickley says the farm plans to build “multiple production facilities” for Bayley Hazen Blue, but all will be within 15 miles of the Cellars’ Greensboro headquarters.
Currently, Bayley Hazen Blue is produced at Jasper Hill, and at the Food Venture Center in Hardwick. While Brickley says there are “three versions of Bayley Hazen out there right now,” most customers won’t notice a difference, but experienced cheesemongers and some of Jasper Hill’s cheesemakers and staff can detect “subtle differences in character” between the three versions.
Soon, Bayley Hazen Blue will have an additional source. Brickley reports, “We just closed on a new farm. We used to get milk from them, and now we own it. We’re in the process of incorporating more Ayrshires into the herd, and we’re working on making the production facility safe for making raw-milk cheeses."
“The recipe used to be more intuitive,” Brickley says, “but the process had to be adapted to create a recipe that’s teachable. This meant we had to go back to the drawing board. The recipe is now back to what we consider ‘classic Bayley,’ quality and soul-wise, but it took a lot of work to retool this cheese."
Bayley Hazen Blue wasn’t The Cellars’s only cheese to bring home ribbons from the recent WCA. The Cellars and other Vermont cheesemakers, notably Grafton Village Cheese, which took two “Super Gold” awards at the WCA, have also placed well at a variety of cheese competitions in the last few years.
When I asked Brickley why she believes Vermont cheese has been on the rise among competition judges in the last few years, she noted the momentum created by the efforts of state government and nonprofit trade organizations, specifically the Vermont Department of Agriculture and the Vermont Cheese Council.
She also attributes Vermont’s reputation as a place producing high quality cheese to the state’s long history of dairying, which has allowed farmers time and experience to develop good practices in caring for animals, and developing high-quality herds.
The excellent milk that results, combined with strong cheese-making traditions, and plenty of opportunities for skill-sharing from cheese-makers such as Parish Hill’s Peter Dixon, Vermont Shepherd’s David Major, the University of Vermont’s Paul Kindstedt, and the former Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, provide a sturdy foundation for an excellent culture of cheese-making in the state.
The small scale of Vermont’s dairy agriculture is another factor, Brickley says.
She contributes this statistic: the average herd size for a Vermont dairy farm is 100 cows, compared to an average of 900 cows for the average California dairy farm.
Brickley says, “because Vermont dairy farmers and cheesemakers can’t take advantage of things like the economy of scale — there aren’t as many 40-pound blocks of cheddar made by an average Vermont cheesemaker” as would be found coming from California farms — Brickley says Vermont cheesemakers have “had to be creative in adding value” to their cheeses.
Making smaller-format, fussy cheeses, instead of monolithic cheddar blocks, is one way to achieve that.
If you can’t go big, go special.
Brickley says, “We make the fussiest, highest-end cheeses because that gets the most value from the milk for the labor. The mold [on the rind], the cheesecloth we wrap our cheeses in, that adds at least three times the value of block cheddar."
The novelty of domestic-made specialty cheeses also contributes to their ranking in competitions and among customers.
Europe has a long history of cheesemaking, Brickley notes, adding they’ve had time to figure out how to “scale up their natural-rind cheeses” and develop efficiencies in production “we haven’t yet figured out” she adds.
During my conversation with Ahern about this cheese, his colleague, salesperson Robert Feinberg, chimed in and excitedly reported “Bayley Hazen Blue is the first blue cheese in space!"
In July, 2012, the Kehler brothers (Mateo and Jasper Hill’s co-owner Andy) and a group of friends launched three pounds of their cheese into the upper atmosphere in a balloon, and recorded the entire journey on film. The cheese ascended from Greensboro, traveled to an altitude of 103,000 feet, reportedly entered the jet stream, then landed twenty-five nautical miles away, just outside of St. Johnsbury.
Since then, all Bayley Hazen Blue that The Cellars At Jasper Hill has produced has reportedly remained much closer to the Earth’s surface.