May 8th, 2006
|08:43 am - East Coast cheese tour: Vermont Butter and Cheese Company|
Next stop on the Cheese Tour was the Vermont Butter and Cheese Company. In some ways this my seem like it would be an odd stop for us. The only cheese Allison Hooper has available right now are fresh ones. Her chevre is fabulous, but I don’t generally carry it because of the myriad local options. I do carry her quark, fromage blanc, and mascarpone* but I’ll be the first to admit that those aren’t stunning to watch being made.
I still mourn the loss of the Vermont Butter and Cheese Goat Milk Fontina that Allison hasn’t made for years. Even if it used and identical recipe, I always felt calling it a Fontina was a mistake. For one, because "Fontina" is a hopelessly mixed-up title in this country. Real Fontina is the name-controlled Fontina Val D’aosta from Italy. But sell that to someone who has fontina listed as an ingredient in their internet recipe or Moosewood Cookbook and they are likely to be unhappy. In much the same way that US-made deli provolone bears little relation to real Italian provolone, US-made Fontina (or even Italian and French versions like "Fontal" "Fontinella" etc.) is buttery, mild, a tad sour and melty while Fontina Val D’aosta is pungent, grassy, and strong. Fontina Val D’aosta is also too much cheese for a lot of customers.
Anyways, my point is that her "fontina" was an amazing goat cheese, aged 3-6 months. Sweet, rich, grassy and a touch sharp. It was the victim not of bad naming, but of a short supply of goat milk and the lack of creative retailers and chefs. Honestly, I think it was just ahead of its time. If she could get the milk, and had the desire to do that type of cheese today, it would be counted among this country’s best goat cheeses.
It hasn’t been available for oh, about 6-7 years now but I can still almost taste it. And luckily, I can remember it at its best. I was incredibly excited about five years ago when a distributor asked me if I wanted to buy some. Of course I said yes, overjoyed at its return. I went on-and-on as I tend to do with distributors when I’m cheese-excited, even though my sales rep had no idea what I was talking about. Ignoring the obvious warning signs, I proclaimed in detail about what a great cheese it was and the rep promised to get back to me with info about how big a production run Allison was doing, whether it would be available all year round, whether I could buy in volume etc.
I should have realized when she kept saying, "Well, we only have one wheel right now" what was really going on. Sure enough, when it got to me, it turned out to be ancient. Many of you folks probably haven’t seem really bad cheese. I’m not talking about little ammonia, or browning or some bad mold. I mean cheese that is too old by a year or two. Brown and yellow pustules erupted then passed their oozing stage, re-solidifying in a tacky glaze. The cheese was hard as a rock and when I cut it there was only a pencil thin line of potentially edible cheese in the four inch tall wheel.
I tasted it, cuz, you know, it’s a crapshoot whether it would be the best cheese I ever tasted or make me violently ill. The tiny bit of sharpness was now intense and biting but not in a good way. Biting like the rats in the original "Willard" and like the quality of the Crispin Glover re-make. The sweetness was now bitterness that overwhelmed everything else. Nasty, nasty, nasty. Spit, spit, spit. Mine is a dangerous job. Allison stopped dealing with that company soon afterwards.
But damn I still miss that cheese.
Allison is working on new things however. They’re not out to the public yet, but soon there will be three new Vermont Butter and Cheese Company ripened goat cheeses. Bonne Bouche (means "good taste" in French) which is a copy of the French Selles sur Cher, covered in mold and ash and super creamy will return from a two year hiatus now that VBC has built new aging rooms. Coupole which has a thinner rind than the Bonne Buche, is also mold and ash-covered. They look like snowballs you’d make out of end of the winter urban snow but they taste a lot better.. And Bijou which is a tiny, thin-rinded goat disc perfect for broiling. The recipes aren’t quite perfected yet, but as we tasted a bunch of different ages and batches, I would say they are already better than a lot of ripened goat cheese out on the market. I do love cheese perfectionism though so I’m fine with waiting a little longer., All are on the mild side of soft-ripened cheese, but I can’t wait to sell ‘em. Allison gave us a case of each for the road.
From left to right in the wooden boxes: Bonne Buche, Coupole, and Bijou. A wheel of Peluso’s Teleme is in the cardboard box on the far left and some Hubbardston Blue is loose in front. We had become a rolling cheese distribution unit to the delight of our friends and acquaintances.
I have always liked Allison, but we’ve never had a going-out-for-beer after the cheese conference kinda relationship.. I certainly respect her work, she is the current president of my trade organization, and I never would have gone to Vermont without visiting her, but one of the nicest parts of the entire trip was just sitting around in her office after the tour of her new facility chatting about cheese and conferences past. Allison is a remarkable cheesemaker and all-around good people.
I had forgotten until I wrote this that she was the cheesemaker mentioned in this entry I made forever-ago about crazy customers, but you know what really broke the ice I think? While walking through the plant, things were pretty normal as far as cheese facilities go. Dampness, high humidity, cheese vats, sweet and sour fresh milk smell in the air, people in hairnets draining fresh cheese etc. Sheana and I were interested but we’d seen it all before. Then she brought us into the butter room. Vermont Butter and Cheese is Butter and cheese for a reason. Her butter is possibly the best produced in this country, especially the one sold in little baskets with coarsely ground salt on top. Anyways, we walked into the room and saw her old industrial butter churn.
OMG, It was like dairy fetish porn to me. I felt like Stalin inspecting a new tractor factory. Stainless steel but weathered like a statue of something you actually care about. World-weary but dependable. Big enough to hurt you but you could tell it was really sweet and gentle beneath its imposing exterior. Sheana and I both guiltily asked if we could get our pictures taken in front of it. I might be projecting here, but I think Allison was happy to see someone who truly appreciated a fine piece of machinery. She told us how she found it years ago outside an old farmhouse and how she tried to replace it once but that the butter just wasn’t as good.
How could it be? Just look at this baby!
Allison and me with the hott butter churn.
Sheana and Allison with our new friend.
*The Quark and Mascarpone are probably the best domestically produced ones available which is why I buy them from 3000 miles away. Bellwether and Cowgirl Creamery give Allison a run for her money Fromage Blanc-wise. And the Beecher’s Fromage Blanc, (which he has renamed "Blank Slate") with honey is like a cheesecake without a crust. Sweet cheesy awesomeness! So Good!
Current Music: The Gits -- "Frenching the Bully"
Hurry! My neck is going to stick this way! Not good ...
There ya go! I have no idea why it won't stay vertical on my Flickr page. I had to get sneaky.