Monday, January 28, 2008

Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese


December 3-5, 2007

I want to move to Vermont. It is a very picturesque state. The attitude of the Vermonters is quite appealing, too. So what’s stopping me? Winter. One week of snow and icy conditions is enough of a reminder for me. I love being able to have some fun in the snow and then hop on a plane and returning to the temperate Bay Area. I don’t think I’d like to live with five months of Winter, three months of mud.

Vermont has it good. They have a lot of cheesemakers making some of the best cheese in the country. They also have great resources to tap into. On the campus of the University of Vermont, the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC) hosted three cheesemakers from Spain who generously shared their time and expertise with my group of 19 cheesemakers and cheese enthusiasts. I was eager to see this place. They recently moved into new facilities on the UVM campus. It is so new that most students have no idea where the building is. (It took me a while to find on my first day.) I love the fact that VIAC is bringing the cheese experts of the world to one place so we can tap into their knowledge.

Mateo Kehler, coverboy.

My favorite technical cheesemaking book is "American Farmstead Cheese" by Dr. Paul Kindstedt. Dr. Kindstedt is a professor at UVM and is a co-director of VIAC. It was great being able to personally thank him for writing such a useful book. He seemed very flattered by my praise. Like everyone I met in Vermont, I found him easy to talk to and a very nice person. He even signed my copy of his book. I've never had a professor sign a textbook before, but I couldn't let the opportunity slip by.

Back to business. Why am I here? Spanish cheese class! The class was an intense overview of three different techniques in cheesemaking. Each day we focused on a different Spanish cheese and cheese production.

The first day we looked at the European and Spanish systems of geographical food protection through the establishment of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO.) This is a way of setting guidelines for the manufacture of food like cheese and wine. The regulations stipulate how and where a cheese is produced and protects the name. For example, legally, as a PDO cheese, Mahón can only be produced on the island of Menorca.

In the afternoon we divided in two groups and split our time between making cheese and watching a film about Spanish Cheeses. We focused on the production of blue cheeses, Cabrales and Valdeón. The videos made me quite hungry. In the makeroom we worked with the set curd, cutting it, letting it heal and hooping blue cheese under the guidance of Dr. Alfonzo Zamora, Dr. Patxi Elortondo and Dr. Montse Alemena. This was a highlight of the course for me.

The second day was Basque cheese day with the focus on Idiazabal, a hard, ewe's milk cheese that is sometimes smoked. The morning was spent reviewing our results from yesterday and learning more about cheese production in the Basque region of Spain and France. We also spent part of the morning going over the production techinques for our second day of cheesemaking, producing Idiazabal. The afternoon was devoted to time in the cheeseroom, making a cow's milk version of Idiazabal.

Torta de oveja

Day three featured soft cheesemaking. We focused on a Spanish triple cream technique that was a bit different from other methods that I've learned. We spent some time talking about tortas de queso like Tortas del Cesar and how to produce them without a cardoon-based rennet. As depicted in this photo, when ripe, you can cut the top off of the cheese and eat it with a spoon. It is fantastic. I can't wait to have my own source of milk and my own vat. I want to experiment with these techniques and see what I can do!

The days were busy, enjoyable, and not just about making cheese, but about making new friends. We had time to do some good socializing during the breaks. I enjoyed meeting my fellow classmates. One student, Isai had been a nice customer at Cowgirl and he remembered me! I must have made quite the impression. I remembered him, too. I seem to recall him telling me that he was a cheesemaker and was very curious about lots of the European cheeses that Cowgirl sells. He had plenty of cheesemaking experience and enjoyed working with goats. Over the years, Isai has worked at Cypress Grove, Redwood Hill Farm, and is currently in New Mexico living and working at Coonridge Organic Goat Cheese. Like me, Isai is a big fan of Garrotxa, a goat cheese from Catalonia. We were both disappointed because the Spanish cheese experts didn't know how to make Garrotxa. I wonder if it like the Spanish Monterey Jack, a utilitarian cheese that's nothing special, and you can get it everywhere.

Occasionally the language barrier was a stumbling block. Dr. Francisco "Patxi" José Perez Elortondo, the professor from the Basque Country spoke English reasonably well. Dr. Alfonzo Zamora from Quesos Ibar spoke almost no English and relied on Montse Alemena, a Spanish native as well as a VIAC faculty member to translate. It worked but it slowed things down sometimes. Their knowledge of cheesmaking made up for the other difficulties. They were eager to share all they could with us.

The make room of UVM was unexpectedly small. There were two, small vats that we used for cheesemaking. Marc Druart, a master cheesemaker, ran the cheese room. He did all of the prep work, adding the culture and getting the curd ready for the class. The figure 8 vats made cutting curds tricky. I loved being in the make room, but one of the real highlights was sharing stories with my fellow students. I had some good conversations with Eran Wajswol, the owner of Valley Shepherd Creamery in New Jersey. He produces a sheep's milk cheese that I adore: Oldwick Tome. I also met Willow Smart, a Vermont cheesemaker with a flock of sheep and a neat stone-faced cheese cave in Milton, Vermont. I also enjoyed meeting Mark and Geri Fischer from Woodcock Farm in Weston, Vermont as well as Marisa who is starting her own creamery with Princess, one of Mateo's employees at Jasper Hill Farm. Barbara, a student from Michgan was fun to talk to. She's produces goat cheese and can barely keep up with the demand. Her friend Sally, also from Michigan, has sheep and wants to milk them and produce cheese, too. I sat next to Pam, a fellow student in the Cal Poly cheese class I took in 2005. Pam is an R&D cheesemaker for Sartori Foods in Wisconsin.

After the first day of class, we braved the cold and snow and seven of us went a restaurant in downtown Burlington called Smokejacks. Several people recommended the place, including Mateo Kehler, describing it as a good restaurant that promotes local products and has a very cheese oriented menu. It was a good call. The portions were generous and there was lots of cheese throughout the menu. I had the green salad with shaved Tarentaise cheese on it. Nice, tart dressing on a good salad. My burger was well prepared served with melted cheese from another Vermont cheesemaker (I forget which one, sorry!) We were all happy with the dishes and we finished the meal with a large cheese plate. Unfortunately, I didn't write down what cheeses were on the plate, but it was a nice assortment of cheeses from New England as well as Canada.

The second evening was devoted to a guided tasting of seven Spanish cheeses with three Spanish wines. The cheeses were mostly ones I am familiar with during my time behind the cheese counter. We started with 1. -Nevat, a soft-ripened goat cheese. It looks like a snowy mountain, with a delicate flavor. 2.- Pata cabra - a washed rinde goat cheese shaped like a flat brick. This one was young and fairly mild. 3. -Idiazabal, a Basque ewe's milk cheese smoked over beechwood and hawthorn. It is smoky and nutty and fairly hard. 4.-Garrotxa, my favorite goat cheese on the planet, comes from Catalonia. It has hints of macadamia nuts and slightly acidic. I can devour a lot of this cheese. Next up was 5.-San Simon, a teardrop shaped cow's milk cheese from Galicia. This was fairly rubbery and not too impressive. It is smoked over birch bark and that pretty much dominates the flavor. 6.-Zamorano is a hard ewe's milk cheese. It is similar to manchego, but has more nutty punch and depth of flavor. It comes from Castille-Leon. We finished the tasting with 7.-Valdeón, a spicy blue cheese from Castille-Leon. It is wrapped in the leaves of sycamore, plane, chestnut, and/or maple leaves. It can be fairly strong and peppery. The wines served were Don Olagario Albarino (Rias Baixas), Scala Die Negre (Priorato), and Bodegas Roda Roda 2. I wasn't to fond of any of the pairings, so my notes are sparse.

The next day we ate more cheese. We had a session devoted to a Vermont Cheese Tasting. It was lead by Jeffrey Roberts, who recently published the book: The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese. We started with fresh chevre from Vermont Butter and Cheese. 2. Blue Ledge Farm Crottin. 3. Taylor Farm's Farmstead Gouda. 4. Green Mountain Blue Cheese Farm's Tomme Collins. 4. Shelburne Farms Farmhouse two year cheddar. 6. Vermont Shepherd Sheep 7. Twig Farm square wheel. 8. Jasper Hill Farm's Bayley Hazen Blue.
Of all of the cheese that we tried, I think Jasper Hill Farm and Twig Farm were my favorites, hands down. They had the most developed flavors and character. Some of the cheese we tried were not in the best of shape. Some were bitter, one was ammoniated, some had no flavor. It was a good exercise in sensory evaluation.

I feel lucky to have met so many wonderful people in this class. I am eager to see them again, hopefully at this year's American Cheese Society Conference in Chicago.

When class wrapped up ,Pam, one of my fellow students and I made plans to go visit Willow Hill Farm outside of Milton, VT. Willow, the cheesemaker, attended the first day of class as well as the Spanish Cheese Tasting. She makes cheese from ewe's milk as well as cow's milk. Her farm is about 40 minutes from Burlington and we spent part of Thursday afternoon visiting with Willow.

Coming up next: A very snowy visit with Willow Smart of Willow Hill Farm.

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