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Handmade cheese takes center stage

At Peaked Mountain Farm in Townshend, Vermont, owned by Ann and Bob Works, ewes and their lambs head for the milking barn. The state of Vermont has more cheesemakers per capita than any other in the nation.
At Peaked Mountain Farm in Townshend, Vermont, owned by Ann and Bob Works, ewes and their lambs head for the milking barn. The state of Vermont has more cheesemakers per capita than any other in the nation. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)

TOWNSHEND, Vt. -- The sun and clouds are jousting as Ann and Bob Works lead the way over muddy fields to a pasture full of ewes and lambs. ``The fence is electric," Ann warns as a visitor starts to reach a hand toward a woolly lamb. Peaked Mountain rises against the horizon, its trees still wearing pale spring green. A few ``baas" break the silence as mother lambs chomp on grass under the vigilant guard of a white llama.

The idyllic pastoral setting represents a new commercial reality for Vermont: Ann will craft the milk from these sheep into artisanal cheeses. With fanciful names like ``Vermont Dandy" and ``Ewe Jersey," the cheeses are headed for the nearby Brattleboro Farmers' Market and top restaurants in Boston and New York. Peaked Mountain Farm is part of a revolution in cheesemaking. In the last five years, the number of small artisanal operations in the state has doubled, according to the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont. The state now has 37 small cheesemaking farms, more per capita than any other state.

In a confluence of consumer demand and agricultural necessity, handmade cheeses have become the state's growth industry. ``Vermont is a natural place for this to occur," says Catherine Donnelly, a UVM professor of nutrition and food science and one of the institute's founders, along with Paul Kindstedt, also a nutrition and food science professor. And in a depressed dairy farming industry, says Donnelly, cheesemaking is ``a bright light in sustainable agriculture."

Some cheesemakers, like the Works, who retired from jobs in New York, are relative newcomers. The couple moved to Vermont and began making cheese in 1999. Others, like Jonathan Wright, who switched from selling milk to making cheese seven years ago, grew up on the farm. Some milk cows, others goats or sheep. One cheesemaker produces yogurt and mozzarella from water buffalo milk.

Milk prices are at an all-time low, says Wright, with fluid milk selling at $12 a hundredweight. That same amount brings Wright $85 to $90 from his Taylor Farm gouda, made from 44 Holsteins and Jerseys. Some farms sell everything they produce. At Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlet, cheesemaker Peggy Galloup has to convince the farm owner to keep aging their goat milk cheese because there's such a clamor for it in New York restaurants. ``They'll want them even more when they're even better," Galloup says.

Vermont is not new to this endeavor. The state has had cheesemaking operations for centuries. Cabot Creamery Cooperative based in Montpelier, which produces cheddars and other varieties, started in the early 20th century. Crowley Cheese in Healdville is the oldest cheesemaking operation in the country. Its Colby is made from an 1882 formula. But the craze for cheeses like those in Europe prompted this bloom of smaller operations. In 2004, with a US Department of Agriculture grant and some private grant money, the Institute for Artisan Cheese opened. Modeled after similar research bodies in Europe, the institute provides courses on milk chemistry to food safety. Cheesemaking, says Donnelly, ``is a lot of art and a lot of science."

That art is being recognized. The institute has been invited to be one of two American delegations to the prestigious Cheese Art 2006 in Sicily, an international symposium. Galloup of Consider Bardwell Farm is one of the Vermonters making the trip. In the midst of the birthing season -- 37 baby goats and counting -- she took a break to talk by phone. She fell into cheesemaking after years of raising goats with her son for 4-H projects. The 300-acre Consider Bardwell, on the New York line, was once operated as a cheese cooperative in the mid-19th century by a man of that name. The property is now owned by Angela Miller, a literary agent, and Russell Glover, an architect, who work in New York part of the week and labor on the farm on weekends. Galloup makes the cheese and tastes the milk of every doe to see which is giving the best. ``We pick and choose who stays in the milk line," she says.

Miller, reached by phone, praises Galloup's knack for knowing how to breed the best milkers. The herd is a Swiss breed called Oberhasli; they bought the goats five years ago. For the last two years they've been licensed to sell cheese; Murray's Cheese Shop in New York is a consistent customer.

A year-old operation at Twig Farm in West Cornwall is producing aged goat cheese. This is the domain of Michael Lee, who had been a cheese buyer for Formaggio Kitchen and South End Formaggio. With the help of his wife, Emily Sunderman, Lee raises 20 goats. ``We had a condo in Jamaica Plain that we bought low and sold high," he says. They bought 20 acres near Middlebury, Vt., built a house and barn, and leased 15 additional acres so that the goats would have enough pasture. Lee makes cheese when he's milking his Alpine goats (March to January). The cheeses age for 2 1/2 to 3 months. So far the endeavor isn't making money, but Lee hopes to be profitable within two years. His wife also works for a Web-based British media company, and the couple has a 9-month-old son, Carter. Even with 80-hour work weeks, he says, ``I couldn't be happier."

The work is completely unpredictable, says David Major, who milks more than 200 sheep for Vermont Shepherd cheese in Putney, Vt. ``Yesterday I was finishing cheesemaking, hoping to have lunch about 2:30," Major says. His day had begun at 5:30 a.m. An employee came running in to tell him: ``I can't find the yearlings [young sheep]." Major and several others spent three hours searching for the sheep, frantically combing the woods to find the sheep before predators did. By the time the sheep were rounded up and safe, Major finished milking after 9 p.m. and got around to a meal at about 10:30 p.m.

The farmer switched from meat and wool to cheesemaking 18 years ago and has had grants to train other cheesemakers, including the Works of Peaked Mountain Farm. Major grew up on this farm, and today he and his cousin, Lucy Georgeff, produce 20 to 30 wheels of cheese a week from April to November. A wheel of Vermont Shepherd, a semi-hard, full-flavored cheese, is usually about 8 pounds and retails for $150. It's a decent living if ``you work your tail off," he says.

In the Works' spacious kitchen, Ann is baking bread and Bob is cooking a pork shoulder on a grill. They'll take these, along with pates, full lunches, and cheeses, to the Brattleboro Farmers' Market. Their kitchen is inspected by the state, which offers advice. ``It's like having a consultant to help you," says Bob.

The couple's cheeses are kept under Nigerian wooden baskets on their granite countertop. Vermont Dandy is nutty and sweet; WoodPeckerino, aged longer, has a sharper flavor. Another, with a paler hue, made from both sheep and goat milk, has a distinctive goat cheese flavor. The Works are experimenting with soft, fresh cheeses and with something they're tentatively calling Triple Threat, a cow, goat, and sheep cheese similar to one they once tried in Barcelona.

Despite brisk sales at the farmers' market, they have no plans to go really big. ``We'd like to make more without changing," Ann says. ``This is what our farm can handle, what we can handle."

Her husband, offering another taste of cheese, this time the Ewe Jersey, made from both sheep and cow milk, says, ``The romance is in the eating, not the making."

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