Stopping along Vermonts Cheese Trail
Vermont Shepherd owner David Major credits an American poet for his cheesemaking lifestyle.
A 20th-century poet gets a share of the credit for David Major's life today. The Vermont farmer, artisan sheep-cheese maker and Harvard grad grins from ear to ear as he explains, "I was inspired by the poet from Kentucky, Wendel Berry." He's wearing denim overalls and standing next to stacks of freshly mown bales of hay.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Berry supported sustainable agriculture, a cause that Mr. Major also came to embrace. So when he graduated in 1988, Major decided to maintain his connection to the land that had been in his family for decades.
Today he rises before dawn, seven days a week, to tend to his cheese dairy, Vermont Shepherd. He heads out through the crisp air of misty mornings among the gently rolling hills to see to the chore he enjoys the most: tending his sheep.
Major has traveled to the French Pyrenees to learn about artisan sheep-cheese making. He works to expand his business using the Internet and also by developing a lot of the equipment he uses on the farm.
Major's efforts over the past two decades have been crowned with success: He's recognized as one of the premier cheesemakers in a region of the state that's known for its fine cheeses. His cheeses have won many awards, including first place in the "Farmstead Cheeses – Sheep's Milk Category" from the American Cheese Society in August. (Members of the ACC make cheese from milk produced on their own farms.) Majors's farm is also a stop along the state's Cheese Trail, which is billed as a gourmet tourist attraction. Though the state's cheese output hardly compares with the mammoth production of, say, California, Vermont is renowned for its professional artisanal cheesemaking and gourmet cheese products.
Major's product is a dry cheese that is not milky; its almost crumbly consistency is juxtaposed with the chewy, edible mold rind that encapsulates each wheel. (The cheeses are ripened for two to six months in a man-made cave on the property.)
Sheep-cheese makers are the exception in the United States. Cow's and goat's milk cheese are much more common. – as are cows and goats. The niche market for sheep cheese is high-end restaurants in the Northeast.
"There is a sense of cooperation among the cheesemakers of Vermont; it is truly a sort of fellowship," says Jed Davis, director of marketing resources at Cabot Creamery Cooperative in Montpelier, Vt. "When new people are trying to come into the industry, we have people who have been in the business for a while mentor them, because we want to ensure the high quality of Vermont cheese is upheld and we can't have rogue cheesemakers ruining the name."
The market for cheese is growing every year, as Americans' appetite for cheese grows. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, average US cheese consumption nearly tripled between 1970 and 2003, from 11 pounds per person to 31 pounds. Mozzarella is Americans' favorite cheese, probably because it's a major ingredient in pizza, another popular food. Artisanal cheese in particular is becoming more popular, as consumers increasingly prefer foods that are made locally and without a lot of processing or additives.
The kind of work done at Vermont Shepherd farm depends on the weather and the season. The sheep are milked and cheese is made from April through November. The sheep spend hot summer days feasting on the lush hillsides. During the cold winter months, the sheep spend most of their time in the giant red barn, where the new lambs are born in the spring.
Cheese is made a few times a week.A starter culture of bacteria is added to fresh sheep's milk to begin the fermentation process. Rennet then coagulates the milk into curds (the byproduct whey can be used as a food additive or in animal feed). The curds are gathered, drained, and molded by hand into wheel shapes. No additives are used.