Great cheese is always a collaboration. So I thought at the opening-night tasting at the annual conference of the American Cheese Society in Burlington, Vermont. In 1996, Allison Hooper, the society’s president, whose Vermont Butter & Cheese makes famous crème fraîche and marvelous butter, called Vermont the Napa Valley of cheese.” At the time, it was an outlandish claim: When she first set up shop, as she recounts in her introduction to the new Atlas of American Artisan Cheese, “if it wasn’t cheddar, it wasn’t a business.” Now it is hard to dispute.
The best cheeses and where to buy them
Ten years ago at an American Cheese Society conference in Madison, Wisconsin, the feeling was intimate, and many of the cheesemakers looked like the ex-hippies they proudly were. This year the sessions on making and marketing cheeses, held in ballrooms at a Sheraton conference center, were overflowing with people looking more like well-heeled retirees who thought cheese might be easier to get into than wine.
Conference attendees nearly filled the stupendously large and equally beautiful building where the opening-night tasting was held: the Shelburne Farms breeding barn, for nearly 50 years the largest open-span timber structure in America (it was built in 1891 with Vanderbilt money). The enlightened agricultural center created by the family in order to keep the estate whole produces a highly regarded cheddar. I was struck by the quality of most of the cheeses being sampled, all of them from Vermont, and was particularly taken with three aged goat cheeses from Twig Farm that I, a dedicated goat-avoider, couldn’t stop eating.
The story of the attractive young couple that makes them, Michael and Emily Lee, is par for the Vermont course. They met at Hampshire College as art students; after several years as a bike messenger, Michael got a job at Formaggio Kitchen, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Emily got one with an international publisher. Three years ago, they decided to buy a farm in Vermont and make cheese.
Ihsan and Valerie Gurdal, the owners, were among the first American cheesemongers to install a ripening cave (actually, a humidified room in the basement), and they encouraged and guided the Lees at every step. At Formaggio, Michael had come to understand the central role that thoughtful aging plays in bringing cheeses to their fullest expression; today Twig Farm’s aging makes the difference between a perfectly good cheese and an exceptional one.
The cheeses I tasted in the awe-inspiring barn crystallized my thoughts on what makes cheese become great: constant communication between cheesemaker and cheesemonger, and very careful attention to affinage, the art of tending cheese as it ages. I came to the conference with the taste of a lovely new English cheese fresh in my mind. It was the result of just that kind of collaboration.
Borough Market is the thriving heart of the food scene in London, a city that has taken to the buy-local mantra with an enthusiasm rivaled only by that of—well, Vermont. Cheese lovers board the Tube for London Bridge to visit the large headquarters of Neal’s Yard Dairy—a mecca, even if its cheeses have long been sold at other shops. Whole Foods, which sells them too, has begun building showplace cheese-aging rooms—some under the guidance of Neal’s Yard staff, notably at its long-anticipated first United Kingdom store, in Kensington.
Affinage was crucial to the cheese that captured my imagination: Ogleshield, made in Somerset by the Montgomery family, renowned for its cheddar. The milk for my new discovery came from Jersey cows, which the family keeps alongside its Friesians, the classic cheddar cow. They had never used it for cheese. Jersey milk is unequalled for clotted cream, a Somerset speciality, and the cows are an amiable breed. But the milk is much less suited to cheesemaking: The large fat globules, marvelous in cream, deter proper setting, and the excess fat can detract from the desired texture in a hard, matured cheese.
At first Jamie Montgomery, the re- nowned cheesemaker in the current generation, made a Jersey cheese that Randolph Hodgson, the owner of Neal’s Yard, nicknamed Montgomery’s Lite—a blander, fattier version of the cheddar, which is famous for keeping its tang and deep flavors in exquisite equipoise. (Montgomery called it “Shield,” for a shield found on the farm under a hill some believe to have been the original Camelot; he had the motif stamped at the bottom of wooden molds.) It struck Hodgson as too mild and too hard.
The Neal’s Yard cheese whizzes went to work. Hodgson and William Oglethorpe, the master affineur of Neal’s Yard, relentlessly think of ways to improve even already-great cheeses, like Montgomery cheddar. Hodgson regularly visits Somerset and selects his favorite wheels to bring back to the Arches, an aging cave he built under train tracks about a mile down the railway line from Borough Market.