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.
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.