|Vermont Cheesemakers Festival: Dreamland|
|Features - Farmers and Markets|
|Written by Jane Ward|
We made the trip to Shelburne Farms, on the banks of Lake Champlain, for the 2010 Vermont Cheesemakers Festival. Covering over 400 acres of land, this farm consists of a whole lot of green – lawns, woods, gardens, hills, grazing pastures – and not a lot of man-made structures outside of the inn, a working dairy and some barns. After a three and one-half hour drive, the last couple of miles on dirt road, this felt like the back of beyond; we hardly registered that Burlington, the state’s capital city, is not far away on the opposite shore of Lake Champlain.
Shelburne Farms, created in 1886 as an agricultural estate and summer home, became in 1972 a working conservation and environmental education estate, a not-for-profit enterprise. The Farm’s mission directs that they “cultivate a conservation ethic…practice rural land uses that are environmentally, economically and culturally sustainable…sustain healthy agricultural practices that maintain fertile soil into the future.”
Mission statement words become daily practice here: the wooded areas are Green Certified, the dairy cows are grass fed, and a large market garden yields produce for both an Inn kitchen focused on seasonal cuisine and the Farm’s educational programs. The programs themselves are also mission-specific: school field trips, a 4-H program, the Sustainable Schools Project, and Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day).
The backdrop for all these efforts is not a classroom but one sprawling, bucolic idyll, one gorgeous farm among the many that, strung together, make up the picture book beautiful state of Vermont. Picture book indeed. Once across the state line, the harsher, sharper landscapes of central New Hampshire left behind, gentler agriculture and dairy land prevails. Vermont’s hills and mountains are rounded, rolling, grassy, perfect for the cows that dot the sides of the gentle slopes, perfect for the sheep too. Its rock ledges attract surefooted goats. Its valleys suit the horses, the red barns, their silos, and field after field of fresh produce. The state is beautiful, beyond beautiful – scenic, pastoral, Oz, Shangri-la.
But behind the beauty lies a great deal of hard work.
Shelburne Farms is every bit the working farm. Between the herd of Brown Swiss cows, the dairy, and the cheese center, the Farm turns out quite a bit of award winning cheddar following the tenets of its own mission statement, in “environmentally, economically and culturally sustainable” ways.
The mission seems to extend beyond the boundaries of Shelburne Farms as well. Responsible dairy farming and artisanal cheesemaking have thrived in Vermont. The practices seem organic to Vermont’s land in the broadest sense of the word, respect paid back for the gift of rich earth.
“Vermont has evolved into the premium artisanal cheese state with the highest number of cheesemakers per capita,” Vermont Cheesemaker Festival organizers (Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery and the Vermont Cheese Council) are proud to point out. People who want to make cheese by hand in traditional ways have come to Vermont from many other places and many other life paths, looking for community, shared passion and commitment, looking for this good land and its milking animals.
A rich land makes for contented cows, goats, sheep, and contented animals produce great milk. Over and over, I heard this from the cheesemakers themselves as I stopped at their tables, sampled their cheeses, spoke with them. Their definition of a happy animal? Animals given respectful treatment, the freedom to roam pastures and rock ledges, good grass to eat, and lots and lots of fresh air.
Much of the cheese we tasted was indeed made from great milk, and delicious as a result. Many of the cheesemakers took care to point out the characteristics of their product, and their words always referenced the land. Dancing Cow’s Bourree boasted “the flavor of the pasture just eaten” and Cricket Creek Farm’s taleggio-style Tobasi was “very buttery and smooth with earthy, grassy notes.” Thistle Hill Farm’s Tarentaise was touted as capturing the “soil, geography, climate, and flora” of Pomfret, Vermont in its flavor profile.
With 45 cheesemakers and just as many brewers, vintners, and artisan food producers, the festival organizers might have chosen to house the many Open Market displays in capital city Burlington’s equivalent of a conference or convention center. These kinds of venues, after all, are equipped to accommodate the vendors and 1500 visitors alike. Instead, the cheesemakers festival landed on the expansive Shelburne Farms estate.
They chose to bring us to the land of origin to sample, a decision that made a great deal of sense.
With the synergy of land, animals, humans, and sustenance at work, this was local eating at its best.