As part of my diligent information-gathering tour of the cheesemaking community in Vermont, Luan of Foster & Dobbs insisted I must, if at all possible, visit Michael and Emily Lee of Twig Farm in West Cornwall, just outside Middlebury. So I called, hoping for the best, and they were more than happy to have me stop in for a tour and a chat.
They built their home and barn and graze their goats on combined acreage they bought from Emily's family and a neighbor, and designed the buildings specifically for their cheese production business. From their herd of 25 Alpine goats, they make three types of cheese, a Goat Tomme, a Square Cheese and a Soft Wheel. When I arrived, Michael ("He does everything," according to Emily) was just heading down to his cheese cellar to wash the rinds of the Soft Wheels and turn the others. As he sat on a large blue picnic cooler and methodically washed the rinds with a salt brine solution, we talked about how he got into making cheese and what's it's like raising goats and making cheese in Vermont.
A former cheese buyer for Formaggio Kitchen in the Boston area, Michael said that since he was young he had wanted to start a farm even though there was no history of farming in his family. As a young adult he worked as a pruner at an orchard, oddly enough, on Sauvie Island in Oregon, and had also done harvesting on a vegetable farm. Those experiences and his own inclinations convinced him he wanted to raise animals, so he went to work for Ann and Bob Works at Peaked Mountain Farm in Townshend, Vermont, where he learned to make cheese.
As for how he got started on his own cheeses, he says, "They had sheep [at Peaked Mountain] and I bought some goat milk from a farmer around here [West Cornwall], and brought it down there and mixed it with the sheep milk and made a couple of batches of the cheese that way. It worked out fine and I said, well, hey, I can make a cheese like that. I can do it consistently and well and have a salable product without a lot of loss. It makes it lot easier to get established."
As for the dual duty of having animals and making cheese, something many cheesemakers avoid by buying their milk from area farmers, Michaels says, "The only way I'm going to know if I've got the milk quality that I want is to have my own animals." He does supplement his herd's milk with milk from a neighboring farmer, but knows how the farmer treats his animals and what he feeds them.
And it's what they eat that makes all the difference at the end of the day. In the Soft Wheel "the variables are much more in play affecting what you can taste of the milk. With the Tomme there are variables but you can almost always see through them to see what the milk is all about. And that can make for a cheese that's sublime or a cheese that's boring. I like it from the summer but I love it from the fall. That's my favorite cheese from the tomme, starting about late summer, end of August until [the goats] come off pasture. You can taste the warmth of a September afternoon." And isn't that what artisan cheese is all about?
Read the rest of the posts in this series: Da Big Cheese!, Burlington and Environs, My First Time, Muddling Through Middlebury and Cheese and Community.