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.
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.
The wheels of fresh cheese are then salted and set to ripen on wooden boards in a special cave that Major dug four feet underground.
One enters the cave by ducking under grape vines and passing through a bright red door. The air is damp and cool – perfect conditions for ripening cheeses to their full flavor. Wheels of cheese rest on wooden shelves, each wheel resembling a circular loaf of bread. The wheels are turned every other day and a brine wash is applied every week by an affineur ("cheese ripener," in French). This is so the cheeses will develop a natural, edible rind. The cave can hold up to 20,000 pounds of aging cheese.
Major gingerly picks up cheese wheels to explain the brine process, but only after he has washed his hands thoroughly. Extremely clean conditions are essential to the production of cheese, he says. Any slight contamination will be evident once the cheese has been sitting in the cave for a few days.
Major has help – farm hands and additional workers during the busy summer season. He also gets assistance from his family: Wife Yesenia and their children work as well.
Additional "staff" include the shaggy salt-and-pepper border collies that corral the sheep for their morning and afternoon milking. The border collies stay with the flock during the day to protect it from marauding coyotes in the area. The dogs greet Major enthusiastically, bounding up and down at the sight of him.
The sheep are rotated among pastures every day, and Major stresses the importance of what the sheep eat to the quality of the milk they produce.
"Each pasture is different; most have thyme, bluegrass, and alfalfa," Major says as he plucks blades of grass from a pasture. "The taste of the cheese will definitely differ depending what the sheep have eaten."
As is their privilege, the Majors get to enjoy adding fresh sheep's milk to their blackberry tea in the morning, right after the sheep have been milked. But on the whole, Major and his family don't eat a lot of the cheese they make. For one thing, the cheeses are pricey, costing from $100 to $150 apiece. But they do enjoy an occasional treat, eating cheese with freshly baked bread or incorporating cheese into pesto for their favorite pasta dish. The cheese can also be made into salad dressing or used as an ingredient in salads.
While Vermont's Cheese Trail may be an attempt to model the vineyard tours of California's Napa Valley, the similarities are few. Not many of these artisanal cheese operations could accommodate tour groups, and the farms are so widely spread that it would be difficult to visit more than one in a day. So even though the artisanal cheese movement in Vermont continues to flourish, the best option for most may be to sample the cheeses at cheese stores or farmers' markets, rather than trying to pay a visit to the farms.
Blue cheese dressing
6 ounces cream cheese
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
3/4 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons minced garlic
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons milk
1-1/2 ounces blue cheese
In a medium bowl, stir together cream cheese, mayonnaise, sour cream, garlic, and salt and pepper. Mix in lemon juice and milk, stirring until smooth.
Crumble blue cheese into mixture, and fold into mix, without breaking up chunks. Place the dressing in a storage container and refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.
Note: True Roquefort cheese comes from the village of Roquefort, in southwestern France. A creamy, pungent, strong-flavored sheep's milk cheese, it is aged in Roquefort's limestone caves to develop its flavor.