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The big cheese

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Mary Lou Strodel stares through the glass wall separating her from Shelburne Farms cheesemaker Jamie Yturriondobeitia, hard at work on the day's batch of cheddar.

"It's fascinating," says Strodel, 44, of Atlanta, as Yturriondobeitia stirs the hours-old milk from the farm's small herd of Brown Swiss cows, which are grazing in the grassy fields just outside. "I didn't realize there were so many steps."

Indeed, Strodel watches as Yturriondobeitia, working over a stainless steel vat, prepares to drain off the separating milk's liquidy whey, leaving a rich, clumpy curd. Later, she'll slice it into slabs, then stack and rotate it in an age-old solidifying process known as cheddaring. By morning, after more cutting, salting and pressing, she'll have solid 40-pound blocks, though it'll take six months, a year or even more of aging in Shelburne's cellars before the cheese is ready for the tasting table nearby.

Not that the wait isn't worth it. After devouring a small block of smoked cheddar from a row of samples -- a final reward after a 30-minute tour of Shelburne Farms that also includes a wagon ride through rolling pastures and a stop at the historic Victorian main house -- Strodel offers a summary judgment.

"Yummy," she says.

Watch out, Napa Valley. Foodie tourism has a new player: Vermont and its artisanal cheesemakers. Over the past two decades, in a gourmet cheesemaking revival that is gaining recognition nationwide, more than 30 of the state's small dairy farms have begun churning out high-end, handcrafted cheddars, goudas, chevre, blues and even buffalo mozzarella, and nearly two dozen have opened for tours, tastings and direct sales.

Like the wineries of California, Vermont's cheesemakers and the hard-to-find cheeses they sell straight off the farm are taking off as a destination in their own right, adding to the attractions of a state already famed for pastoral scenery, historic towns, charming inns and fall foliage.

There's even a name for the circuit of mostly mom-and-pop cheesemakers who welcome visitors: The Vermont Cheese Trail.

"It's like Napa Valley in the 1970s, in the early years of winery tourism," says Scott Buckingham, who oversees the cheesemaking operation at Shelburne Farms.

If you make it, they will come

Stunningly located overlooking Lake Champlain just south of Burlington, Shelburne is one of the state's oldest and biggest "farmstead" cheesemakers -- those based on farms that milk their own animals on site. A former Vanderbilt country estate with grounds designed by legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, it is a non-profit working farm dedicated to education and draws more than 100,000 people a year.

Others, such as hard-to-find sheep cheesemaker Woodcock Farm, near the cozy village of Weston, lure just a few people a week.

"The people who really want to find us seem to find us," owner Mark Fischer says with a shrug, standing in his farm's almost closet-size cheesemaking room. There, for eight years, he has crafted luscious, buttery-flavored, locally heralded cheeses that he sells at nearby farmers' markets and gourmet stores.

Fischer and his wife, Gari, do everything from milking the sheep daily to making the cheese and, yes, playing tour guide and offering samples when visitors arrive.

"It's hard sometimes when you're making the cheese and people show up, but I don't really mind," Fischer says. "I like to talk to people."

A rich tradition

Dairy-dominated Vermont has a long and storied history of cheesemaking. In the 19th century it harbored hundreds of small producers. But industrialization, and the growth of cheesemaking mega-factories, ended the small-farm, artisanal tradition a century ago.

Or so it seemed. As recently as a decade ago, there still were just a handful of small producers in the state. But slumping milk prices, rising fuel costs and, more recently, lousy weather has prompted farmers to return to gourmet cheesemaking as a way to stay in business, explains Mateo Kehler, 34, of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro. Over the past few years, milk prices have plunged to $11 for 100 pounds, below the $18 or so it costs to make, and this year alone as many as 30% of the state's dairy farmers are facing bankruptcy, he says.

"Cheesemaking is a vehicle for the renewal of our agricultural community," Kehler says as he stands next to rows of a mouth-watering, mold-ripened soft cheese he calls Constant Bliss.

Kehler, who has been making cheese for just three years with milk from 38 Ayrshire cows, just shared a "best of show" prize from a field of 941 cheeses at the American Cheese Society Competition in Portland, Ore., for a cloth-bound, cellar-aged cheddar made in a joint venture with the state's largest cheesemaker, Cabot Creamery.

Gazing at the Green Mountains in the distance, which the changing leaves have colored in spectacular reds and golds, Kehler explains that Vermont has an advantage because of its lush pasturelands, which offer the perfect meal for milk-producing cows, sheep and goats. Like other small producers, he only uses raw, unpasteurized milk, which he says retains the flavor of the land more than the pasteurized milk used by the big makers. And he ages his cheeses the old-fashioned way, in cool, damp cellars where they develop a nuanced, sophisticated flavor that draws on the local microflora of bacteria, yeast and molds.

"We're really selling people a taste of this particular landscape," he says in a cellar lined with giant, natural rind-covered wheels. "It's like winemaking, where the weather on a particular day, the season, what the cows are eating are (all) going to create a unique vintage. We're creating a new vintage every day."

Because of the workload, Kehler discourages visitors to his farm. But nearby Cabot, his partner in the award-winning Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, offers a 30-minute guided tour complete with movie.

Sights, sounds -- and taste

Other cheesemakers who are welcoming visitors include 2-year-old Frog City Cheese, next door to the Calvin Coolidge boyhood home in Plymouth Notch, where native Vermonters Tom Gilbert and Jackie McCuin are reviving a cheesemaking operation long run by Coolidge's son John; and Taylor Farm in Londonderry, where struggling dairy farmer-turned-cheesemaker Jon Wright hand-makes 1,200 pounds of gouda a week.

One of the charms of a cheese-tasting tour of Vermont is that many of the new cheesemakers are located in the loveliest, most rural parts of the state, often down small, unpaved country roads that wind through rolling, forested- and farm-covered hills. Visitors not only see cheesemaking but get an up-close view of farm life, complete with mooing cows, herding sheepdogs and tractors in the fields.

"It's so peaceful, driving from farm to farm," notes Eileen Trautwein, 43, of Huntington Beach, Calif. "I love the little stone fences between the farms, and the old homes are beautiful."

Trautwein is chatting during a tour at Neighborly Farms, a remote, all-organic farmstead in the rolling hills just east of Randolph. It's milking time, and Trautwein, her husband and two daughters ooh-and-ahh at the farm's black-and-white Holsteins through a glass wall as cheesemaker David Goldsworthy explains the cheese process.

Down the road a few miles, in the step-back-in-time village of Grafton, where the nationally known 205-year-old Old Tavern is overflowing with leaf-peepers, cheesemakers already are at work at the Grafton Village Cheese Co.

Run by the non-profit Windham Foundation, which has restored much of the tree-lined, steeple-churched hamlet since 1963, Grafton's operation has 20 employees, consumes the milk of 14 nearby farms and is increasingly known for cheddar nationwide. But vice president Peter Mohn says that vacationers who come to watch cheesemaking through the glass windows at the visitors center and taste the samples will see it's still done the old-fashioned way, by hand.

"A lot of cheddar cheese today is young, slippery and rubbery. It's really tasteless," he says, with samples of Grafton cheddar that's been aged four, five and even six years.

Until recently, that's the way Americans liked it. But they are traveling more and becoming more worldly about food, he says. "Americans' palates are changing," he notes, adding, "You haven't tasted cheddar until you've come up here and tasted Vermont cheddar."

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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