Friday, May 18, 2007

Rock Stars of the Cheese World

"If cheese-making was rock'n'roll, these guys would be REM."
- Tim Wilson, Foster & Dobbs

Not only are the young Turks of Jasper Hill Farm shaking the tradition-bound world of cheese-making with their rock-em-sock-em cheeses ranging from Constant Bliss, a creamy-in-the-middle, gooey-at-the-rind little package of deliciousness, to Bayley Hazen blue, a tangy, sweet, velvety cheese that gives our own Rogue Creamery a run for its money, but they're out to do nothing less than revolutionize the practice of cheese-making in Vermont (if not the country).

Oh, and just to throw something else in the mix, they're breaking ground this week on a $1.6 million dollar, 8,000 square foot climate-controlled series of five aging caves built into the hillside of their 230-acre property that will be a state-of-the-art facility for other cheesemakers in the region. This from a pair of brothers, Mateo and Andy Kehler (that's Mateo in the photo), who originally bought the property in 1998 having no idea what they'd do with it. Maybe farmstead beer, or baked tofu from their own soybeans. Or, because it's popular at the moment in Vermont, cheese made from sheep's milk.

But, thankfully for the rest of us, they settled on cow's milk and a sustainable model that they're intent on sharing with the rest of the state's small family farms, taking the grass that each farms grows, feeding it to their milk cows and, from that milk, making cheese. All right there on the farm. Then, as in the French model, the cheese from that farm is taken to a central aging cellar where a professional affineur shepherds it to the ultimate expression of that farm's terroir, which Kehler defines as not only "the taste of the place," but also the expression of an economy, that is, what grows on the land is how the people living on that land make their living.

And, lest we forget, the cheeses that Mateo brought with him to Foster & Dobbs were stunning illustrations of this philosophy. We were able to taste not only the products that they provide to their vendors, but he also brought samples of cheeses that are in the process of maturing. So, for example, we were able to sample a piece of Constant Bliss that had been made just two weeks ago and was almost cheesecake-like in consistency with a fresh, yeasty taste and only a film of rind developing. Then a sample of it at about four weeks of age that had a thicker rind and was getting that gooey character at the edge, as well as a much saltier flavor, and finally a market-ready 60-day-old mature sample that was meltingly delicious with a spicy, acidic character.

I can only wish these guys the best, though at this point, as the awards and accolades pile up (they even made it on the Today show), it looks like they've got a success, if not a budding revolution, on their hands.

Photo on right: Jasper Farms cheeses, clockwise from top: Constant Bliss at 60 days, 30 days and 14 days; Cabot Clothbound Cheddar; Aspenhurst, a Leicester-style clothbound cheese; Winnemere, a soft, aromatic cheese wrapped in spruce lathe and brushed with lambic beer brewed with Jasper Hill's own wild yeasts; Bartlett Blue, a variant of Stilton; Bayley Hazen Blue at 30 days (practically too bitter to eat) and 60 days (balanced and dry).