In Pursuit of Cheezus – Shelburne Farms

Chef Matt Jennings - The Prophet of Passion , inside Jasper Hill Cellars

There are at least a quarter of a million distinct English words according the Oxford English Dictionary online, and many of them are quite loaded, evoking a guttural feeling when used.  Cheezus isn’t in the OED, more on that later, but one that is, and for me smacks of an intense over the top emotion is the word passion.  The noun passion is defined by the OED as follows:
  • strong and barely controllable emotion: a man of impetuous passion
  • a state or outburst of strong emotion: oratory in which he gradually works himself up into a passion
  • intense sexual love: their all-consuming passion for each other; she nurses a passion for Thomas
  • an intense desire or enthusiasm for something: the English have a passion for gardens
  • a thing arousing enthusiasm: modern furniture is a particular passion of Bill’s
Passion within a person is hard to define and quantify specifically, and I don’t think you find it equally among all people.  Much like a sense of humor, some people have more passion than others. Although difficult to describe, to steal an analogy often used, passion is a lot like porn … you know it when you see it.

I heart cheese

This past weekend the amount of  passion I witnessed in Vermont was almost biblical.  I spent the weekend with a large group of people from different walks of life who displayed a sense of wonder and were filled with strong emotion, intense desire, enthusiasm, and most certainly, a passion that was barely controllable.  Knowing this, it is worth noting that Passion is also defined as (the Passion) the suffering and death of Jesus, as in The Passion of Christ.   No, not that bad Mel Gibson movie, though he has displayed some passion as well, but the actual religious meaning The Passion, which is the Christian term used for the events and suffering of Jesus in the hours before and including his trial and execution by crucifixion.

Shelburn Farms was our first stop on the pilgrimage

Our passion filled journey, in Pursuit of Cheezus, though not ending in crucifixion, began Saturday evening when I read on twitter that Chef Matt Jennings of  La Laiterie at Farmstead of Providence, just named a finalist for a James Beard Award for best chef of the Northeast, was “Bringing 12 staff on sourcing & buying trip to VT tomorrow.”   The trip was an effort on his part to inspire, educate and connect with the food he and his staff are eating, selling and serving at Farmstead.  Now that is passion and therefore I’ve since named him “The Prophet of Passion.”
One glance at my wife, who knows my own particular passions, and a positive nod from her, had me packing my gear for an early departure to the Northeast Kingdom the following morning.  This would be a foodie inspired field trip with, quoting Chef on Twitter, a “Motley crew of Mongers, servers, managers & 1 hostess” from Farmstead to ”hit (the) road in (the) fermented milk ministry van, in pursuit of Cheezus.”

Making Cheddar Cheese at Shelburne Farms

The pilgrimage began as I left Boston early on a bright sunny morning, and drove until the car radio started squawking more French than English.  When I arrived at Shelburn Farms, on the door step of Canada, Chef Matt, who left with his 12 apostles at 6 AM from Providence, confirmed that the “fermented milk ministry van” had indeed been pulled over along the way by a New Hampshire State Trooper.  The Trooper, who apparently was able to sense the passion for cheese emanating from the milk white van, or had a soft spot for aged artisan cheese, agreed to let the interlopers go on their way with just a warning as long as they swore to “learn to make cheese better.”  Talk about a God send.

Curds

At Shelburne Farms we were met by Nat Bacon – no pig jokes please – who was in the middle of making cheddar along with his colleague Kate Turcotte, a seasonal Cheesemaker.  Shelburne Farms is a membership-supported, nonprofit environmental education center and a 1,400-acre working farm.  It was established as a model agricultural estate in 1886 by William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb, and in 1972, it became an educational nonprofit with the mission to cultivate a conservation ethic for a sustainable future.  Nat is one of three full time cheesemakers on the farm, and considers himself an “intermediate beginner.”  It’s that kind of a profession.

Kate Turcotte, a part-time Cheesemaker, waiting

The enlightening fact we soon discovered about cheese making is that if you don’t have passion, or patience for that matter, there is no way you are going to successfully make cheese.  For most of us, the closest we ever come to cheese production is at the deli counter when we ask the person on the other side to slice our Land O’ Lakes thin for us.  And the majority of folks, to0 rushed or simply not interested enough, get their cheese from the case across from the deli counter individually wrapped in a petroleum sleeve because they don’t want to take the time to get a number, stand in line and wait.

Nat stacking curd

Cheese making is all about time, timing and above all, cleanliness.  Cheesemaker Kate joked that cheesemakers were 80% of the time actually dishwashers, because so much of the time was spent cleaning. In between stints of cleaning, cheese curd is stacked, turned, stacked higher and finally milled, or cut into smaller pieces.  All of these procedures are done on a very specific schedule, based on time and the pH level found in the whey as it drains out of the curd, and each part of the puzzle is critical to the success of the cheese at the end of the day.  Again, without a passion for cheese, mortals would last half a day in the “make room” at best.

Farmstead folks watching the process

Since 1980, Shelburne Farms has made a Vermont “farmhouse” cheddar according to traditional methods, using only raw milk from a purebred herd of Brown Swiss cows, which are also on the property.  The process is labor intensive but immensely rewarding, according to Nat and Kate, and the finished product has been recognized with Awards of Excellence by the American Cheese Society since 1990.

Kate turning the curd to cool it, and mix in salt

The pursuit for Cheezus continued after a brief stop at the sugar house at Shelburne Farms, and an equally strong lesson about passion at Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro Bend, just a few muddy and rutted roads from Jasper Hill Farm.   Tomorrow our visit to Hill Farmstead Brewery for one of the best beers I’ve ever tasted, and then on to Jasper Hill Farms.

Remember, Food is Love!

Cheers,

Justin

3 Responses to “In Pursuit of Cheezus – Shelburne Farms”

  1. Nice work! Great photo of Matt up top. Thanks.

  2. Mary says:

    That was quick!
    Looking forward to seeing shots from day two of the trip!

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