Life on The Wire: A Visit To Shelburne Farm
Life On The Wire consists of dispatches from our ever resourceful "curdologist" and cheese wiz, Emilie.
The scene is, in a word, bucolic. Pretty Brown Swiss cows wander over green fields munching on green grass and wildflowers while Lake Champlain laps at the shore line, the wind smelling like water and pine whipping around you. It's hard to believe that you’re just outside a bustling city but there’s 1,400 acres of farm and woodland that is open to the public from May to October, its a education center, a historic national landmark, it boasts a fabulous inn, and they make award winning cheddar that is sold all over the United States.
Now most people, if you ask them to name a New England cheddarmaker, would probably name Cabot Co-op, a Vermont powerhouse who make millions of pounds curd; but this blog post isn’t about them. It's about Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, Vermont. Here, they make an average of 175,000 pounds of cheese a year on a 1,400 acre non-profit farm, a taste of historic Vermont.
I was lucky enough to tour Shelburne just before it opened for the season, zipping around the historic property with Tom Perry the Cheese Sales Manager as we talked about the history of the Farms and cheddar in general.
The Farms were created by a Vanderbilt descendant on the shores of Lake Champlain in the 1890’s; buying up seven different farms to combine them into a model agricultural estate, which the focus being on animal husbandry and crop management. They also had a thing for collecting coaches and buggies (think Jay Leno and his cars but powered by horses instead of dead dinosaurs) with a whole mansion/barn built to house them.
By the 1970 the family was trying to find a way to keep the Farms active and alive and thus a non-profit was formed focused on conservation education. They also helped found the Burlington farmer’s market where they sold organic veggies and raw milk. Cheesemaking didn’t come into the picture until the 80’s though, with fluid milk prices in the basement and the farmer’s market not providing enough revenue to renovate the property and educate in the manner they wanted. And since they already had a herd of pedigreed Brown Swiss cows, they took the step that so many cheesemakers took, converting from fluid milk production to value added cheesemaking. After studying with the cheesemakers at Grafton and Crowley Cheese, splendid cheesemakers in their own right, Shelburne Farms started making their award winning cheese.
Our first stop was the Farm Barn, a sprawling building originally intended to house offices, stables, store rooms, and house farm machinery. Just to give you an idea of the scope, the courtyard alone is 2 acres. This is where the magic (aka the cheesemaking room) lies. Tom told me that from the herd of about 120 Brown Swiss cows they got 1.5 million pounds of liquid raw milk (liquid milk is sold and counted by poundage; but that’s another blog post for another day) into about 170-180k pounds of 5-6 different cheeses that are sold all over the US.
We got there just after the salting stage of the cheddar making process, which comes just after the cheddaring, an actual verb in which the cheese is pressed to expel moisture usually by stacking slabs of cheese curd atop each other rotationally, and the pressing. The cheesemaking process, from milking the cows to when the blocks are put up for aging, takes about 40 hours. I asked Tom about this process in an email:
“The first bit of milk comes from the prior afternoon around 3 or 4 PM. It is held in the bulk tank overnight and chilled. The next mornings milking starts around 5am and that milk is comingled with the previous evenings milk, but no cooling is applied to this fresh milk so that when our cheese team picks it up from the dairy at about 8 am the temperature is about 60 degrees. It is pumped into the vat from the haul truck at about 830 am and slowly warmed to about 86F. We will then add the cultures to ripen the milk. From there the cheesemaking process goes on with the addition of rennet, the cutting of the curd, stirring, draining, cheddaring, salting, and hooping and that goes til about 3 PM. It will be put on the press overnight and taken out of the molds and put into cryovac bags at about 6:30 or 7 am the following morning. So all told from PM milking to cryo it takes about 40 hours.”
And after production those blocks of cheese are evaluated on day one for things like salt, ph and moisture; and after more than 30 years of experience they can make an educated guess on how that cheese will age. Following that, the blocks are penciled in for release at certain ages. If they think a batch has the potential to age out to two years it gets re-tested/tasted at five months old; at this point it can continue on its path to extra-sharpness or be released at six months or one year. It is again re-tested/tasted at 23 months and most of the time gets put in the queue for cutting and sale, but a lucky few batches are allowed to age out to the three year mark.
The Clothbound is another story though; it starts with the same amazing raw milk but these wheel tend to be made in the summertime and early fall when the cheesemakers are dialed into the properties of the milk and their flavor potential. The process for the Clothbound follows the same steps as the vintage cheddars but, instead of being put in a square form, the clothbound is put into round form for pressing and like all the others spends the couple of months at the Farms. After those first months the wheels of Clothbound go on a roadtrip to the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greensboro where they are wrapped in cheesecloth (hence the name Clothbound) and larded to protect the wheel from mold and cheesemites. There they stay for an average of twenty months, being cleaned and turned over every other week by Robbie the Cheese Turning Robot to help them age evenly. And after one final tasting it goes on another road trip, this time to us.
After Tom and I waved goodbye to the cheesemakers we went and met some of the ladies, who were waiting to be milked as well as some of the newest calves. The Farms have about 150 milkers at the moment, 50 heifers that are dry (aka not producing milk) and 80 calves. They also have a small beef herd of 50 crossbred Brown Swiss and Red Angus, nicknamed Swangus, for the farm-to-table restaurant at the Inn. Brown Swiss cows are a breed that are well suited for New England cheesemakers; they’re a very hardy breed that is resistant to disease and can survive the cold winters and hot summer, they’re easy to handle though they can be curious, and their milk has a high protein to fat ratio. They’re also adorable with big fuzzy ears, long eyelashes and a pretty brown-gray coat.
Cheesemaking isn’t the only thing that goes on at Shelburne Farms; they also raise sheep, chickens and hogs, they have an organic garden and make maple syrup. But the biggest thing that they do is educate; from school groups to adults and everyone in between on conservation and environmental issues, from animals to cheese, from trees to bats. There's the aforementioned fabulous Inn, the converted home from the Farms’ original owners, where they have an award winning farm-to-table restaurant. They also play host to the Vermont Cheesemaker’s Festival, which happens every August.
Shelburne produces five to six different cheddars, these are the ones that we currently carry:
A hickory smoked cheddar that is a mild cheddar that is only bit sharp with a smokey bacony flavor. $14.99/8oz block
A 2 year, aka Extra Sharp which to us classic New England cheddar; sharp and flinty (it reminds us of granite and slate and wet rocks) with a butteriness and a pliable texture. $24.99/lb cut-to-order
The Clothbound; only 150 wheels are made a year. Sharp and earthy with hints of potato skins, cooked cream, chicken broth and a sneaky sharpness. We just got a new wheel this past Wednesday, and it is amazing. $39.99/lb cut-to-order