Our Tour of Vermont Cheese
Westfield, Vermont, Lazy Lady Farm
It was an honor to visit Laini Fondiller at Lazy Lady Farm, a farmstead dairy located in the northern reaches of Vermont.
Lazy Lady is the northernmost farm that we visited on a recent northeast farm tour — you can see the lights of Montreal from the top of her hill. The farm is solar and wind powered. There is no cell service. Essentially, it is totally off the grid. Laini is a pioneer in artisan cheese making, having started in 1987, well before the word artisanal was ever used in reference to food.
Laini is happy to see us. She's moving quickly. Her Airedale terrier keeps up and follows all the proceedings. Laini first takes us to see the barn that houses big beautiful and strong Alpine goats, all of whom come to the fence to say hello. The goats are definitely part of the family here. She takes us to her modest cheesemaking house, which has a small steam kettle pasteurizer and cheese vat that she built many years ago. Then we are off to the side of a hill which has a door built into it — Laini knocks on it twice at two different spots, the secret to cracking it open — so that she can walk into an underground cave filled with tiny wheels of cheese. We peek in and see over a dozen varieties. She returns with three samples: two goats (Seedy Goat, Fool’s Gold) and a cow’s milk cheese she produces in the goat off season that is aptly called Snow'd In.
Laini is charming, no nonsense and charismatic. Even the youngest amongst us are fascinated by Laini and hang onto every word she says. Her cheeses are renowned and respected by all other artisan cheesemakers in the region. She is also a master at breeding healthy goats, genetics she shares with other local farmers.
We were allowed on the farm thanks to the late Anne Saxelby, the famous NY cheesemonger, who started out 20 years ago determined to run a successful shop that only sells domestic artisan cheese. Back in the day, there wasn’t much artisan cheese around, but there was a lot of it at Lazy Lady Farm. Laini was a hero to Anne and they talked each and every week for decades to place orders — even when Anne was on vacation. Laini is the O.G. of O.G.s and so much followed her lead — from the artisan cheese movement to advice that led to the creation of Saxelby Cheesemongers and so much more.
In Anne’s own words…
Laini Fondiller has been making cheese at Lazy Lady Farm since 1987. A true pioneer, Laini began making goat cheese in the dark ages of artisan cheese making in the United States. There were no resources, no books, no equipment, no supplies, no anything to be had to help a young cheesemaker. But the things that Laini did have (and in no short supply) were gumption, tenacity, a love of goats, and a work ethic to beat all else. Together with her partner Barry, Laini built a small steam kettle pasteurizer and cheese vat and went to town. Today, she produces over 20 varieties of goat and cows' milk cheese on her remote, off-the-grid, solar and wind powered farm. Laini milks a small herd of goats — roughly 30 to 40 — from March through January, and sources cows' milk from neighboring Butterworks Farm when her goats are pregnant and 'on unemployment' during the winter months.
Laini's love of her goats is what sets her apart from other farmers. All farmers have a fondness for their animals, but to Laini, they're family. She knows all the best breeders in the country and seeks out the best genetic lines to introduce to her closed herd. The goats are the Lazy ones on the farm according to Laini, and she's absolutely right. While her goats luxuriate in lush pastures or listen to Vermont Public Radio in the barn, Laini flies about like a whirling dervish, doing chores, making cheese, aging it, packaging it up for farmers markets, and then selling it herself at those same markets. Laini Fondiller and Lazy Lady Farm are American cheesemaking icons.
Greensboro, Vermont, Jasper Hill Farm
Jasper Hill is the biggest of the artisan dairies we visited. They make an array of their own cheeses, but also age cheese for other dairies. The dairy has over 100 employees buzzing about making cheese at the new creamery which now features beautiful copper equipment imported from France. Their caves hold wheels upon wheels of cheese in high-ceilinged rooms carved into the hills on the farm. They make their own rennet, raise goats and cows (sheep are coming in the near future) and often attend numerous food events nationally to promote the cause of artisan dairies and the importance of preserving raw milk cheese culture! We consistently feature their cheeses at Heritage Foods and are big fans of their entrepreneur spirit.
Back in the early days, founders Andy Kehler milked the cows and his brother Mateo Kehler made the cheese. Their wives Victoria and Angie helped out to do much of the rest — from aging cheese to wrapping it for sale to keeping the books.
In 2003, Jasper Hill’s first batches of cheese were ready to take to market, and they were met with instant success. In the beginning, all of the cheeses were aged in a cellar located beneath the original creamery. But after their collaboration with Cabot Creamery, Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, took home 'Best in Show' accolades at the 2006 American Cheese Society conference, the Kehlers decided to build the Cellars at Jasper Hill to age their own cheeses as well as cheeses from other farms. The Cellars at Jasper Hill is the largest cheese aging facility in the United States.
The farm is a compound of positive and creative energy. Year-in-and-year-out we enjoy making the pilgrimage to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom to visit our friends, tour the country’s largest underground cheese caves, cross-country ski, dine at the famous Parker Pie pizza joint, and to collaborate. As Jasper Hill has expanded rapidly, they retain practices that have made it an artisan dairy, standards, ensuring it continues to be boutique and, in turn, continue to raise the bar for American cheeses on the global stage.
Shelburne, Vermont, Shelburne Farms
We met Tom Perry, a director of cheese sales for Shelburne Farms, through Mary Tuthill of Mad River Taste Place. Tom kindly invited us for a tour and took us around the 1,400-acre farm. Heritage Foods had sold Shelburne aged cheddars for years, so it was fun to stop in and say hello!
In addition, we had real history with Shelburne even before we started buying cheddar around the time Slow Food USA had its second-ever Governor’s Convention in one of their spectacular expansive barns around 2003, a seminal meeting for the movement and one in which then-presidential candidate Howard Dean stopped by to make a speech!
Shelburne Farms is cutting edge and old school all at once! From 1886 to 1902, William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb consolidated 32 farms into a 3,800-acre agricultural estate. Its landscape design was inspired by Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Fast forward to today, and the property is somewhat smaller but unbelievably dynamic, producing some of the country’s best cheeses while also educating the public in various ways on sustainable practices.
We parked next to the lovely Shelburne Farms shop and rode a farm vehicle with Tom to various sites including the creamery. We visited the insides of the cheesemaking facility where the daily milk is taken in a building so majestic and sprawling it feels more like a castle! We have always loved their cheddars, aged to various ages, which anchors a robust mail order business for the community here.
We rode to the cow barn, played with baby cows, toured maple syrup groves, and admired the huge wood and stone event spaces across the property. Along the way, we witnessed happy visitors and tour groups walking the grounds and using the space as a jogging route. The farm is busy as family, youth and adult educational programs of all types happen throughout the day. Shelburne Farms takes education seriously and even offers a membership option for locals.
It is amazing to see modern generations turn opportunities into gifts for the next generation with ambitious projects that inspire and keep culture alive — and we’re not just talking cheese here!
We were also happy to discover our host Tom is one of the minds behind the Daphne Zepos Foundation, which provides scholarships to individuals wanting to research cheese. The spirit of the foundation is similar to that of the Anne Saxelby Legacy Fund, sponsoring work in agriculture. It was nice to make that connection, especially because Daphne and Anne were very close.
Waitsfield, Vermont, Von Trapp Farmstead and Ploughate Creamery
Terroir is land communicating with food. Têtoir reflects people and culture. It is, in part, the accumulated skill sets of creative people, but also the power of a locus, for whatever reason, to attract and breed artisans and artists. Têtoir is a word we made up, from the word tête, which is French for head. Têtoir is similar to terroir — what terroir is to the earth, têtoir is to the mind. Waitsfield, Vermont, nestled in the beautiful Mad River Valley, is high in artisan cheese and dairy têtoir.
Marisa Mauro is the inventor of Ploughgate Butter, which is now pretty much a household name among lovers of food and good ingredients. Before making butter, Marisa invented and produced different artisan cheeses, a few of which are still sold today. We have fond memories of her early visits to Brooklyn, almost a decade ago, while she was looking to fill a need in the artisan dairy industry of the Northeast. She came and talked with the great cheesemonger, Anne Saxelby, and together they incubated the idea of a quality artisan butter which was hard to find at the time.
Marisa grew up on Vermont farms. In her twenties she won a land grant competition to own the farm she does today, which she says is one of the most photographed barns in the state. Her house has views of distant mountains, and Marisa boasts an expansive vision to match it. Marisa is well connected in her industry. Always an entrepreneur, even on this trip she was formulating ideas for her next project including expanding her husband Sterling’s seasonal pheasant business.
One of Marisa’s best friends in cheese is Molly Jennings of the von Trapp fame, the storied family who moved from Austria to Vermont during World War II. Funny sidenote, earlier that day, before we met, the family had seen a school play about themselves! When the von Trapps were originally looking for a spot to settle years ago, they fell in love with the peaceful and idyllic mountains surrounding the Vermont farm they live on today as it reminded the family of their native Austria. The farm was always a dairy, but in 2009, the third generation Sebastian von Trapp, began making delicious cheese from their certified organic cow's milk. The von Trapp family is committed to making incredible cheese and also to environmental stewardship.
The von Trapps have a lovely tiny store at the top of a hill on a dirt road with cows, pigs, and sheep next to the parking lot. The shop sells wool hats and tote bags, cookies, bread, and of course maple syrup, which every shop in Vermont advertises and sells. They also have a butcher shop featuring their own lamb and pork, and best of all, they sell the famous cheeses produced on their farm as well! Mad River Blue for example has a smooth and buttery texture with bright blue-green veins. It offers a mild blue bite and complex flavors of anise, cocoa, dried fruits and minerals with a deep umami backbone.
A large family, the von Trapps are sadly losing a direct connection to their storied past. The original American pioneers are aging. Their hotel in Stowe, their many acres of farmland, and their farmstead dairy are now run by the generations that came after. As a farmstead dairy, the family works very hard. They joke about how crazy it is to raise the animals and make cheese too. Most other dairies bring in milk from the outside.
Together, Marisa and Molly co-host Anne Saxelby Legacy Fund apprentices, along with Mary Tuthill, who in this closely connected web of artisans in the state of Vermont, is partnered with Tom Perry, who does sales for Shelburne Farms. (More about Shelburne later.)
Mary runs Mad River Taste Place, a store that specializes in beer, wine, meats, and cheese from the region. Vermont is famous for lack of fast food and national chains, and has many small mom and pop shops throughout the state. This is one of the most special.
Talking with Mary, we asked when charcuterie would appear on her menu, and she answered in a lovely Vermont way: only when her partner farms are ready, not before. Mad River Taste Place expands slowly, according to the pace of its extended team!
Goshen, Vermont, Ice House Farm
Even though we are not supposed to admit it, it’s okay to have a favorite! Ice House Farm, a tiny property in Goshen, was our favorite spot on our farm tour. Driving up to it, you feel as if you are going through a time wrap, back to the Middle Ages maybe, or even before to a world shrouded in the mystery of legend and myth.
Approaching the farm, one is greeted by two shepherd dogs and four very rare Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs. Farmers Chad and Morgan are there, too! You walk through their lovely house and just beyond the kitchen and the life and charisma of the farm begins.
Small pens on their plot are populated with goats. They obtained some of their goat stock from neighboring Lazy Lady Farm — more on them later. One pen is for new babies, as our April tour coincided with the birthing season.
The milk the mothers produce is harvested to make the most delicious spreadable chevre, which we saw hanging from bags in the cheesemaking room. The cheese is perfect for spreading on bread, on a cracker, or even just by the spoonful. Our favorite was the herbed and spiced version which leaves a perfectly salty delicious aftertaste that satiates and leaves you wanting more. Everyone should have some of this cheese in their fridge.
Each goat pen has its own child safety locks — goats are masters of escape! In the back of the tiny farm is a modern hoop barn, the base of which is surrounded with a strong wood that cannot be eaten through by the goats. Goats will chew through anything!
Ice House is a perfect sized farm. It sustains a family. It’s busy and teeming with life. Chad and Morgan focus on one product in particular — fresh chevre. Gummy cream cheese, industrial butter, and even the beloved hummus producing chickpea should look over their shoulders — Ice House produces a superior goaty spreadable cheese! Leaving the farm, we wished a million other farms would pop up around the nation just like it.
Reading, Vermont, Spring Brook Farm
Spring Brook is a place dedicated to education as much as it is to making cheese. They do a great job at both. Farms for City Kids Foundation is a non-profit outdoor agrarian classroom for schoolchildren from urban backgrounds. Starting in 1994, the 1,000-acre farm hosts five-day immersive experiences where students learn about the biology, chemistry, nutrition, labor, and daily rhythms of farm life.
Cheese sales support the farm operations as well as the youth program, anchored by Tarentaise, Reading, and Ashbrook, foundational cheeses in the artisan community of Vermont.
Depending on the season, the flavor profile on Tarentaise can range from bright red berries and floral undertones to nutty, browned butter to wonderfully savory and brothy.
Tarentaise Reserve follows the same make process as Tarentaise, but is allowed to age for a minimum of 12 months to produce a cheese that is even more complex in flavor.
Reading is a wash-rind cheese and aged an average of three months. It offers a unique, creamy texture balanced by nutty, grassy undertones. It matures into a versatile semi-soft cheese ideally suited to melting, but it exhibits a subtle, yet complex flavor profile that allows it to stand alone on any cheese plate.
As with Reading, this cheese is made from the fresh raw Jersey cow milk from Spring Brook Farm and their two partner dairies. Ashbrook exhibits a distinctive layer of vegetal ash running through the center of the paste. It is a semi-soft, washed-rind cheese that is aged for approximately three months. Ashbrook has savory aromas on the rind that give way to a mushroomy, sour cream-like flavors.
Dogs, cows, friendly cheesemakers, city students and delicious cheese make Spring Brook a must visit site for those touring landmarks in the dairy industry!
West Pawlet, Vermont, Consider Bardwell Farm and Levy Grassfed Lamb and Sheepskins
Consider Bardwell Farm is owned and operated by Angela Miller. A mainstay of the Vermont cheese scene for years, her farm produces Pawlet, Rupert, and Dorset Hidden Star. The Reserve versions of these cheese have won many awards. Now that the farm produces less cheese and focuses on aging, Consider Bardwell has partnered with Mara Hearst and Levy Lamb by leasing property to them.
The Levy flock is shepherded to new paddocks on a daily basis, with the use of electro netting, solar chargers, and two fabulous guard donkeys. The lambs are raised primarily for grass fed meat, sold locally through direct retail and wholesale markets. Additionally, the tanned lambskins are available seasonally. As Mara writes, “We believe strongly in grazing animals in a way that improves soil and pastures, and protects waterways, and we are constantly working to improve our management systems so that we can be better stewards of the land that we farm.”