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Research

Placing the Taste of Vermont Cheese

  • Heather Paxson

Corps de l’article

In a speech accepting the 1996 Vermont Small Business Persons of the Year award, Allison Hooper, co-owner of the Vermont Butter & Cheese Co., dubbed the state “the Napa Valley of cheese.” Although the moniker has since been repeated, at the time “it was a stretch,” Hooper has acknowledged; more wishful thinking than confident analogy. [1]

Hooper and her business partner Bob Reese founded the Vermont Butter and Cheese Co. in 1984, one year after political scientist Frank Bryan published Real Vermonters Don’t Milk Goats, a book of humour poking particular fun at “flatlanders,” the local term for newcomers to the state. If in the mid-1980s “real” Vermonters milked only cows, so too did they eat only cheese made from cow’s milk. At the 25th anniversary meeting of the American Cheese Society held in Chicago in 2008, I heard Hooper—who moved to Vermont from New Jersey in 1981—recount her early years making and marketing fresh, handmade goat cheese. “Twenty-five years ago we couldn’t sell goat cheese to our neighbours in Vermont,” she observed. “Americans didn’t eat goat cheese! If it wasn’t Cheddar, Vermonters weren’t going to eat it.”

Allison started out selling what she could at the Norwich farmers’ market, but because the few well-traveled area residents who appreciated the tang and texture of goat cheese—Dartmouth College professors—could only buy so much, Hooper and Reese soon drove Allison’s chèvre six hours away to New York City, where they convinced a few chefs to give it a try. “We sold on taste, not on place,” Hooper recalls. [2] Their competition came from French imports. “It simply was not trendy to speak about sourcing locally and telling the story.” [3]

Times have changed. Today the Vermont Cheese Council, which Hooper helped found in 1997 to link together the state’s producers for collective marketing, boasts 42 members. These range in size from Cabot Creamery, a processing plant renowned for its cheddar and owned by the Agri-Mark dairy co-op, [4] to Orb Weaver Farm, the modest enterprise of Marjorie Susman and Marian Pollack, both of whom arrived in Vermont the same year as Allison Hooper, intending to farm. They raise organic produce in summer and in the winter milk seven Jersey cows and make farmhouse cheese.

Approximately 30 of the current Vermont Cheese Council members are, like Orb Weaver, farmstead producers, making cheese on the same dairy farm that supplies the milk. Although California and Wisconsin eclipse Vermont in pounds of fluid milk and cheese produced, Vermont has burnished its identity as a dairy state by supporting more farmstead cheesemakers per capita than any other. [5] By now, these cheesemakers have diversified well beyond cheddar; six farmstead producers make goat’s milk cheese and the same number raise dairy sheep for ewe’s milk cheese.

At the 2008 American Cheese Society meeting, Hooper marveled that today some Vermont cheesemakers are able to sell all of their goods locally, at farm stores and farmers’ markets and through restaurants and retail outlets. As Vermont’s population rose steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s, newcomers from southern New England urban centres bolstered the ranks of the state’s consumers and producers of artisan cheese. At the same time, a few “real” Vermont dairy farmers have turned expectantly to cheese as a value-added product that might help them retain family farms. In 2007, to offer just one example, George and Linda Miller built a licensed dairy on Jericho Hill Farm, a fifth-generation dairy and maple farm that has been in Miller’s family since 1907, seeking to add value to the milk of a downsized herd by turning it by hand into flavoured Jack and Colby cheddar. Just as Vermont cheese is no longer restricted to cheddar, artisan cheese made in small batches is not all “boutique” cheese.

Taste of Place versus Taste of Proximity

As part of my ethnographic research on the American artisan cheese revival, I spent the summer of 2007 near Londonderry, Vermont (the following summer I divided fieldwork time between Wisconsin and northern California). Each Saturday after conducting participant-observation at the bustling West River farmers’ market I took home a half-wheel of Woodcock Farm’s Summer Snow, an unctuous bloomy-rind sheep’s milk cheese, aware that this market, just 10 miles from Mark and Gari Fischer’s sheep farm, was one of only a handful of places the seasonal cheese is sold. The Fischers exclusively market the young cheese locally because it is fragile and has a narrow window of edibility compared with hard-aged cheeses. Because they are able to sell all the Summer Snow they make at three farmers’ markets, where they command a higher profit than by wholesale, they have no financial incentive to offer the cheese elsewhere. Summer Snow offers a localized or proximate taste insofar as its availability is spatially limited.

Consonant with the local foods or “locavore” movement that has gained recent attention in North America and elsewhere, a “taste of proximity” emerges when food consumption occurs near to the site of production. But does Summer Snow taste “like” the township of Weston? Or the Green Mountains region? Or Vermont? Is the artisan product instead uniquely indicative of Mark and Gari’s craft skill and the well-being of their East Friesian sheep? Such questions cannot be answered by the length of a commodity chain.

Employed to speak of zones of agricultural production, the French notion of terroir is a more substantive frame than “local.” In France, goût duterroir—an agriculturally realized, phenomenological expression of the material “givens of a place”—is understood to come as much from transgenerational traditions of agrarian practice as from such geophysical conditions as terrain and climate. [6] How might it be possible to create “the taste of place” in North America, where agriculture has been dominated by the homogenizing effects of industrialization and populations have been relatively mobile? Is a recognizable goût duterroir emerging for Vermont cheese?

Derived from the French for “earth” or “soil”, terroir has a strong material component but, like “culture,” it is not a priori a thing in the world. As Amy Trubek has argued, terroir is above all a conceptual category or folk concept that frames how people understand their connections to the land. [7] There is no reason why the term cannot come to signify different sorts of connections between people and places in different contexts. The taste of place need not come in one flavour.

As an anthropologist, I am not out to define or defend any one notion of terroir as particularly suitable to New World landscapes. Rather, I am interested to trace how American cheesemakers are translating terroir to convey the instrumental as well as gustatory values of their products. In what follows, I describe two dominant categories by which taste of place is being articulated for artisan cheese in Vermont. In the first, terroir is called on to describe how handcrafted cheese might express material qualities inherent to a locale; this is the taste of place imagined as cultured nature. The second model is more prescriptive than descriptive. Offering the taste of a “working landscape,” American terroir talk in this idiom invites consumers to join producers in creating place by fostering rural economic revitalization.

The Taste of Cultured Nature

The first view—that elements of place can be expressed in an artisan cheese—is familiar from Europe. As one Wisconsin cheesemaker put it to me, terroir speaks to “everything that goes into the cheese”: the whole materiality of its production, from the species and breed of animals and subsequent chemical composition of the milk used to what lactating animals eat and drink; to the recipe and know-how of the cheesemaker; to the environmental contributions of microflora, humidity, and temperature that can impact how a cheese matures. While such parameters may be controlled by state bureaucracies in establishing European geographic indications through AOC/PDO regulations, [8] American cheesemakers have free reign to play with mixed-species milk or novel combinations of freeze-dried bacterial cultures. As a result, claims to terroir taste in the US tend to scale to the level of the privately-owned farm rather than geographical region. Vermont offers a telling example.

In North Pomfret, Vermont, John and Janine Putnam wanted to expand their cheesemaking business but lacked the land to increase their Jersey herd. In a novel arrangement, they partnered with Spring Brook Farm in Reading, 17 miles away, essentially licensing Jeremy Stephenson to make the Putnams’ Tarentaise cheese under the Spring Brook Farm label. Spring Brook Farm was amenable to the arrangement because it was looking for a reliable and proven source of income to support the Farms for City Kids educational program it hosts. [9] Although the Putnams gave Tarentaise its name, they adapted its recipe and the procedure for its preparation from those of alpine-style cheeses traditional to the Savoie region of France (including the Tarentaise valley), which they learned from a French cheesemaker they brought to Vermont as a consultant. If Thistle Hill Tarentaise is clearly not French Beaufort d’Alpage, is Spring Brook Farm Tarentaise just as clearly not Thistle Hill Tarentaise?

I visited Thistle Hill Farm in 2007, just as the Spring Brook “expansion” was getting underway; as John Putnam explained it to me, “[e]verything will be the same, but different. It’ll be their cows, not ours; their pastures, not ours; their wind—the elevation is probably the same—but their milking style.” Both herds are 100 percent Jersey; in a test, the milk components of the two herds showed similar profiles. On the culture side of things, Putnam taught Stephenson how to make a mother culture from leftover whey to seed the next day’s batch of cheese with bacterial cultures and renneting enzymes, something he had in turn learned from the French cheesemaker. When we spoke, Putnam was excited to see how the “experiment,” as he called it, would play out: “I’m really looking forward to it—the analogy I use is to champagne. If we’re neighbours and you make good champagne and I make good champagne, it’s not the same champagne. Terroir makes an incredible difference.” [10] Since the cheesemakers were following the same protocol and milking the same breed, any dramatic difference in the cheese’s flavour profile would seem to emerge from and call attention to “natural” conditions relating to pasturage, climate, and the microflora endemic to the aging facilities.

Anthropogenic influences, however, should not be underestimated. Following the same recipe, as any home baker or cook will recognize, does not ensure identical results. Thermometers and pH meters may not be equivalently calibrated. And the embodied practice of cheesemaking, like cooking, is often modified as it is transferred from one artisan to another. It would be a tricky task to disentangle the component parts and vectors of causality that materially distinguish Spring Brook and Thistle Hill Tarentaise. More readily apparent is the consistent quality of the two farms’ milk and of the cheesemakers’ skills: at the 2009 American Cheese Society competition, in the prestigious Farmstead Cheese Category, Thistle Hill Tarentaise took Second Place, with First Place going to Spring Brook Farm Tarentaise.

Making Place through Taste for the “Working Landscape”

A second way in which terroir is being articulated to draw connections between people and place in Vermont has less to do with the material qualities of milk and organoleptic aspects of cheese than with the politics and ethics of supporting small farmers. In the remote Northeast Kingdom, a place of struggling farmland south of the Canadian border, farmstead cheesemaker Mateo Kehler prefers to buy manure-fertilized hay from his “old school Vermont dairy farmer” neighbour rather than certified organic hay from further afield: “[w]e’re working here with the concept of terroir, and that’s local grass.”  [11]Terroir means local grass not only because the resulting cheese will showcase milk flavoured by local pastures, but also, as Mateo told me when I visited Jasper Hill Farm in 2004, because buying local grass “keeps the money in town.” Keen to contribute to the local community and economy, at the general store down the road from their farm Mateo and his brother Andy retail their cheeses at their usual wholesale prices.

The Kehlers share a broad vision to develop the economy of Northeastern Vermont in an environmentally sustainable way. As they have calculated it, a family here can make a good living with 25 or 30 cows if it makes high-end cheese—and can sell it at a high-end price. When I first met him, Mateo articulated his goal to “reverse engineer” a kind of appellation for Northeastern Vermont through which numerous producers could collectively benefit from regional branding without conforming to a unified product, as with European systems of geographical indication. Mateo envisioned making terroir meaningful in a way that is respectful of local values like independence, entrepreneurialism, and making-do. A flatlander himself, he sought to encourage more “real Vermonter” dairy farmers to take up artisan cheese as a value-added product.

In 2008, the Kehlers launched an ambitious project to operationalize their vision: “22,000 square feet, seven underground vaults and a dream as big as the American cheese movement,” The Cellars at Jasper Hill are intended to relieve regional farmstead producers of the labour of aging, packaging, and distributing their cheeses. [12] The vast space is designed to accommodate separate climate-controlled rooms for unlimited cheese varieties. If in France, “terroir can ... designate a rural or provincial region that is considered to have a marked influence on its inhabitants,” the Kehlers imagine the inverse: terroir in which a region’s inhabitants can have a marked influence on the landscape and sense of place by providing an ecologically suitable means of rural economic revitalization. [13] “If we appreciate what makes Vermont special and unique, it’s working landscape,” Mateo is quoted as explaining. “Conserving Vermont's working landscape is part of our mission as a company. Cheese is the vehicle to meet our mission.” [14]

That phrase—the “working landscape”—is one I heard frequently in my interviews with Vermont cheesemakers but, notably, not at all in Wisconsin or California. Used to convey the aesthetic and instrumental values of farmland, pasture, and forests made productive through the state’s dairy and maple syrup industries, the working landscape and Vermonters’ desire to preserve it crop up in gubernatorial campaign rhetoric as well as in artisan foods advertising. Articulating a version of terroir, the taste of a working landscape finds substantiation in agritourism mappings of the Vermont Cheese Trail produced by the Vermont Cheese Council to encourage visitors to stop for in situ samples of farmstead and artisan products. Highways, gas stations, restaurants, motels and inns become part of the “working landscape” productive of a taste of place—of place, that is, created from the commercialization of available tastes: the Napa Valley of cheese.

In Hands on the Land, Jan Albers traces the history of the Vermont landscape, transformed by the hooves and teeth of grazing livestock as well as by the hands of loggers and developers. [15] Merino sheep were introduced in the 1820s. Prized for wool and able to graze atop rocky hills, by 1840 sheep outnumbered people in Vermont six to one. In the 1840s, wool sold for as much as a dollar a pound, but the wool market crashed mid-century as the domestic textile industry declined and new railroads brought cheap wool from the West that flooded the market. Hilltop farms, carved by loggers’ axes and preserved by sheep’s incessant nibbling, were abandoned to tree regrowth. Property values plummeted. In the late 19th century, 30 percent of Vermont’s land was forested, 70 percent cleared; today, we see the inverse: 70 percent forested and only 30 percent cleared. [16]

It’s that 30 percent that many of us imagine as Vermont — gently rolling valleys dotted with farmhouses set against forested hills that turn red-orange in autumn. This is a dairy landscape, created for and by cows that are not as agile as sheep and prefer valleys. Today, in so far as cheese provides new jobs for working sheep, these inhabit former cow dairies rather than the hilltop farms of the wool days. This “working landscape” sells postcards and attracts tourists. In a telephone poll conducted recently for the Council on the Future of Vermont, “the working landscape and its heritage” beat out Vermont’s “spirit of independence” and opportunity for privacy as Vermonters’ most valued value. [17] While residents may agree that the “working landscape” is important to the Vermont-ness of Vermont, that image takes various forms. As I realized when I attended a 2004 Farm Summit Meeting entitled “The True Value of Vermont Dairy Farms: ‘It’s more than the milk!’” with sheep dairy farmer and cheesemaker David Major, agritourism catering to travelers eager to learn where their food comes from and curious about “the story” of farm families is not the only form of tourism that traverses the “working landscape” of Vermont pastures. The keynote speaker, Agri-Mark’s Senior Vice President, Robert Wellington, asked the audience, “what would Vermont lose if there were no dairy farms?” First on his list: the 2,600 miles of snowmobile tracks that criss-cross Vermont agricultural land. Without dairy farms, all that snowmobile tourism would be lost! [18] A state legislator elaborated, “Southern New Englanders who come here, they own a piece of the rock and they don’t want hunters shooting Bambi, and they don’t want snowmobilers zooming around all hours of the night”—but, he continued, quoting Bryan’s title, “[r]eal Vermonters don’t milk goats and real Vermonters don’t post signs [prohibiting hunting or snowmobiling]!” Up-and-coming cheesemakers may be surprised to hear noisy snowmobiling named one of the “true values” of dairy farms, integral to the working landscape they may desire to sustain through revenue generated by the taste of cave-aged cheese.

Place, like taste, is a relative, relational category. “Vermont” cheese stops where New Hampshire and New York and Massachusetts and Quebec begin, although the vast majority of Vermont cheesemakers moved to the state as adults from elsewhere, often intending to farm or make cheese. What crosses borders are not only residents but also ideas about place and place-making — as well as tastes cultivated in other foodscapes.

Conclusion

Terroir is an intriguing classificatory concept because it “places” an agricultural product in terms of the conditions of its production, in contrast to “local” foods defined in terms of proximity to consumption (farmers’ market vendors are often circumscribed by the market’s location, measured in miles or by county lines). Goût du terroir can be meaningfully experienced regardless of where a food is consumed. As Allison Hooper observes in Rebecca Gray’s American Artisanal, “I know I can’t truck Vermont to people, but I can truck cheese to them and bring them the character of Vermont.” [19]

“Vermont cheeses,” however, take various forms. Jasper Hill’s soft-ripened Constant Bliss or washed-rind Winnemere demand the attention of a special-occasion cheese board, whereas Jericho Hill’s Jack and Colby cheddar are more at home between slices of sandwich bread or melted into a casserole. Trucked to Cambridge, Massachusetts or Manhattan, these cheeses carry with them different sorts of Vermont “character.” At the same time, “place” may “taste” differently in situ and elsewhere (what the taste of any given “Vermont cheese” might evoke in Manhattan or Boston is not the same as it will in the Northeast Kingdom) just as the place of Vermont may mean something different to leaf-season tourists, snowmobilers, and residents whose family roots reach back to the American Revolution.

In Vermont, what we might view through the lens of terroir is a palimpsest of the sui generis and the cosmopolitan, of “old school” and “flatlander,” European and American. It tastes of an alpine-style cheese made from Jersey milk, or a sheep’s milk Camembert, or an organic farmstead jalapeño pepper Jack—novel blends of artisan and agricultural know-how remixed from culturally diverse, class-inflected sources. What coalesces as the taste of place reflects, above all else, farmstead cheesemakers’ entrepreneurial creativity and deep-seated commitment to making an independent living by working the land. What gives Vermont cheese terroir may be conscious recognition of a relationship—any relationship—to its place of production.

Parties annexes