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Cheeses age in Vermont Shepherd’s cheese cave in Westminster West.

Food and Drink

Locavore cheeses win national acclaim

Windham County producers take home ribbons at American Cheese Society competition

BRATTLEBORO—At the 2015 American Cheese Society (ACS) competition, 20 Vermont companies took home 46 ribbons for their cheese, butter, and yogurt.

The big winner was Harbison, a soft-ripened cows’ milk cheese made by the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greensboro, which earned a third place Best In Show award.

While a number of other northern Vermont dairies won big, Windham County was well represented.

The Vermont Cheese Council lists seven Windham County cheesemakers as members; three of them won awards at this year’s ACS competition, held at the end of July. It is worth noting that not all cheesemakers submitted their wares to the competition.

Grafton Village Cheese Company’s Clothbound Cheddar won second place in the “Cheddar Wrapped In Cloth or Linen, Aged Up To 12 Months” category. This cheese has brought home a number of awards from other competitions, and is the second time it earned an ACS ribbon.

Peter Dixon of Parish Hill Creamery has made many ACS award-winning cheeses in the last 20 years for a variety of cheesemakers. Dixon is well-known in the specialty cheese world for consulting with cheesemakers, including developing recipes for some highly-acclaimed cheeses.

“It probably started with Shelburne Farms cheddar,” he said.

But, because he developed recipes for other cheesemakers, “I never got to go onstage and get a ribbon,” Dixon said.

This year is different... sort of.

Vermont Herdsman, Parish Hill’s firm, Alpine-style cheese, won first place for cows’ milk washed-rind cheese, but in the list of ACS winners, the award is attributed to Crown Finish Caves.

Because Crown Finish performed the affinage, or aging, in their Brooklyn caves, Dixon explained, ACS rules dictate they receive the award, even though Parish Hill made the cheese.

He seemed unbothered by this series of events, and instead expressed excitement to The Commons that this cheese finally got its due.

It also represents a sort of homecoming for Dixon.

He created the recipe for what now is called Vermont Herdsman in 2000, when he was making cheese under the name Westminster Dairy at Putney’s Livewater Farm.

Now, he collects cows’ milk from the Putney School’s herd six days a week for Parish Hill cheeses, he said, noting David Major takes their milk on the seventh day for Vermont Shepherd’s cheeses.

“We stopped aging at Crown Finish” recently, Dixon said, noting, “we’re aging all the cheeses ourselves” at Livewater Farm.

“It’s the same cave I was aging at 15 years ago with Westminster Dairy,” Dixon said. That cellar cave was abandoned for about 11 years, he said, but he recently cleaned it up, “and now Vermont Herdsman is aged where it started."

The ACS award Parish Hill won, allowing Peter Dixon to collect his own ribbon, is for Suffolk Punch.

“It was exciting for me,” walking up and receiving the award, he said.

Suffolk Punch took third place in the “Italian-Type Pasta Filata Type All Milks” category. Dixon said he sent the ACS a “bigger one.” Most of the gourd-shaped, Caciocavallo-style cheeses Parish Hill makes are in the 1½- to 2½-pound range, but the ACS winner weighed in at four pounds.

And it all happens in Putney and Westminster West.

“It’s aged here, in an old root cellar,” Dixon said. He explained Vermont Shepherd’s David Major “opened it up” about 20 years ago to age cheese.

Vermont Shepherd’s cheeses took home two awards this year. The Westminster West-based cheesemaking company is owned by David and Yesenia Major.

Verano, the cheese which until about seven years ago was known as Vermont Shepherd, won first place in the aged farmstead sheep’s milk category. In the cheese world, “farmstead” refers to a cheese made with milk from herds on the farm where the cheeses are produced.

The wheel David Major told The Commons he submitted to the ACS came from the first half of that cheese’s relatively short season; those wheels are farmstead-made.

During the second half of Verano’s season, Vermont Shepherd sources milk from Wild Shepherd. “We buy all of their sheep’s milk,” Major said, pointing out to a visitor the trail that leads through the woods from his Westminster West farm to Wild Shepherd’s in Athens.

The last time this cheese won an ACS award was in 2007, when it also won first place in the farmstead category.

In 2000, it took the prestigious “Best In Show” ribbon.

Major said every year his farm submitted cheese to the ACS, they won a ribbon — with one notable exception.

“In 1992, we were making a mix of cheeses,” Major said, of the fledgeling cheesemaking operation he started with his former spouse, Cynthia Major. He said they tried making feta, gouda, and blue, among other types.

It did not go so well.

“We got the lowest score possible” from the ACS judges. So, the couple went back to the proverbial drawing board and developed the cheese then known as Vermont Shepherd.

Their efforts paid off.

Just one year after their disastrous debut, and the first year the Majors introduced Vermont Shepherd to the ACS, judges awarded it first place in the farmstead-made division.

Vermont Shepherd’s 2-year-aged Invierno tied for third place in the “American Made/International Style Cheeses” made of sheep’s, mixed, or other milks.

Invierno — Spanish for “winter” — Vermont Shepherd’s newer cheese, solved the problem of what to do with late-season sheep’s milk, said Major. As the weather cools down, the milk gets too rich to make Verano, but when mixed with cows’ milk sourced from the Putney School’s herd, six miles away, it makes a deliciously rich cheese.

Major said “it’s more common” to find the 6-month aged version of Invierno. The prize-winning 2-year Invierno was “an accident,” he said. “We had some we kept in the caves,” and when he discovered how “super-yummy” it was, he sent a wheel to the ACS.

The “accident” paid off — this is the first ACS ribbon Vermont Shepherd took home for Invierno.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #321 (Wednesday, September 2, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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