The past few days in Vermont had been great but I was growing impatient for the main attraction: The Vermont Cheesemakers Festival. The morning had finally come and the boyfriend and I made the 15-minute drive from Burlington to Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, VT. The property of the farm itself was beautiful and fit for the event. The Coach Barn where the Festival was to be held was located at the back of the property along Lake Champlain. To reach it by car we drove along a dusty dirt road that twisted through the farm passing groups of grazing Brown Swiss Cows, the beautiful Farm Barn (pictured below) and outstretched tree branches. It felt idyllic, like being in a cheese or tourism advertisement. We followed a caravan of other cheese lovers from Vermont, Massachusetts, Michigan and points beyond, all eager for great Vermont cheeses and wines. The fact that people had come even further than we had is a testiment to the growing desire for artfully created, slow food.
Once inside we immediately began sampling some of the cheeses, artisan food products, wines, ciders, and beers. Not a bad way to start a Sunday morning. (Yes, it was 10 am.) Almost everything we tried hit the spot but the most memorable products were those that used traditional ingredients in surprising ways.
The first of these great products was a Dark Chocolate Chevre brownie from Vermont Brownie Company. This delectable brownie was a twist on the classic cream cheese brownie only with Vermont Butter and Cheese Company chevre. The tangy goat cheese was a perfect foil for the rich chocolate. Amazingly the chocolate and cheese were very well balanced and you got lovely hits of both ingredients. Lets just say that many samples were nibbled. You can bet I’ll be working on my own homemade version of these goodies at home.
Laughing Moon Chocolate took it one step further with their Chocolate Covered Ploughgate Creamery Willoughby and Chocolate Covered Constant Bliss. Yes, you heard me right, that’s chocolate covered cheese. For a slightly subtler kick of cheese with your chocolate they also offered Vermont Butter & Cheese Chevre Lavender Truffles and Jasper Hill Farm Bailey Hazen Blue Cheese Truffles. All of these creations were pretty sinful. I preferred the chocolate-dipped cheeses to the truffles because it made the components of cheese and chocolate all the more distinctive.
Once we contained our excitement over the chocolate & cheese pairings we discovered another new treasure: ice cider. Ice cider is essentially a sweet dessert wine made from apples. It’s been developed in Southern Quebec over the past 10 years and is just now emerging in the US. The concept is similar to ice wine but Eden’s process is a little different since few apples stay on the trees until frozen. Basically the apples are harvested when at peak ripeness and kept in storage until cold winter temperatures arrive. The apples are then pressed and the juice is set outside to freeze for six to eight weeks. The freezing and melting-off process is important because it yields a cider that is high in sugar and flavor. It is then fermented and filtered before becoming ready to drink. We tried the Calville Blend from Eden Ice Cider Company out of West Charleston, VT and immediately fell in love. Made from a blend of MacIntosh, Empire, and cider apples it provided a distinct apple flavor with an addictive sweetness and a hint of caramel. It tasted like a grown up version of hard apple cider. I bought a bottle and thought it would be great to enjoy once fall comes with a nice aged cheddar, a bowl of good nuts and some shortbread.
Beyond the more surprising creations we ate a lot of excellent cheese. It’s a bit hard to pick favorites since many cheeses were good in different ways but we were especially enjoyed the Grafton Village Cheese Company Clothbound Cheddar, which is actually aged in sandstone caves in my home state of Minnesota; Rogue Creamery Cheddar flavored with Rogue Ale’s Chocolate Stout Ale, which had a nice bitter tinge and lacy pattern from the beer; and Willow Hill Vaquero Blue, a silky blue cheese made from a blend of sheep and cow milk.
As if walking around tasting cheeses, wines and other goodies wasn’t perfect enough the boyfriend and I had a chance to participate in a seminar entitled ‘Cheese Pairing Beyond Beverages.’ The seminar was led by Liz Thorpe, GM of Murray’s Cheese Shop in NYC and Robin Schempp, a culinary consultant and president of Right Stuff Enterprises. I’ve read lots of books and articles about cheese pairing, but nothing comes close to just doing it and tasting the results. Because of this I find seminars and classes to be a great way to expand your knowledge, especially if you are a hands-on learner.
First Liz and Robin educated us on the effects of fat, salt and sugar on flavor. What made the lesson all the more helpful was that we were able to experience it firsthand. We were each given a dish of Vermont Butter & Cheese’s Fromage Blanc. Since it’s made from fat free milk and has a relatively mild, yogurt-like flavor it was the perfect base for our experiment. We tried it plain first and then with sunflower oil, sea salt, and honey (first individually and then all together). It’s one thing to be told what each of these things does for flavor and it’s quite another to taste them in your mouth. The fat mellowed the flavor, the salt brought the flavors to the forefront, and the sugar balanced the tangy flavors of the cheese.
We were then given six cheeses to taste and for each Liz and Robin had chosen an accompaniment they thought would pair best. After we had gone through the pairings we were free to experiment on our own and discuss what did and didn’t work. Pairings included:
- Vermont Butter & Cheese Company Coupole paired with Claire’s Garden Pickled Beets and Vermont Cranberry Company Cranberry Compote
- Twig Farm Square Wheel paired with Vermont heirloom tomatoes and Maple Farms Maple Crunch kettle corn
- Woodcock Farm Weston Wheel paired with Vermont Dilly Beans and Willis Woods Cider Jelly
- Von Trapp Farmstead Oma paired with Castleton Rye Crackers and Cold Hollow Cider Mill Cider Mustard
- Cabot/Jasper Hill Cloth Bound Cheddar paired with Vermont Harvest Pumpkin Butter
- Green Mountain Blue Boucher Blue paired with Laughing Moon Big Barn Truffles and Vermont Smoke & Cure Pralined Bacon
First we would taste the pairings on our own. Then Liz and Robin would tell us why they chose the pairing and have the room vote on which pairing we liked best. I enjoyed seeing how their intentions compared with my own tasting experience. Sometimes their sentiments would echo what I liked most about the pairings, while other times it would highlight something that I hadn’t picked up until prompted. Most interesting was the fact that with almost each cheese the room would be split on which pairing we preferred. If anything, it shows how varied individual palates can be and that pairing is more a matter of personal preference than strict right and wrongs. Of all the pairings the Green Mountain Blue Boucher Blue with the Pralined Bacon was my absolute favorite. The sweet and savory balanced each other out perfectly and the slight crunch of the bacon was a welcome textural contrast against the milky blue.
Like any good teachers, Liz and Robin peppered our seminar with good tips on how to approach cheese pairing:
- When describing what to look for when tasting a pairing Liz instructed that you want the two items to come together and make a “third flavor.” You want something that is more than the sum of its parts and is a mix of sensations. I’ve never heard it described this way before but it made a lot of sense, especially since this is essentially what one does when cooking as well.
- When in doubt fruits and nuts (and anything with fruity or nutty flavors) make good pairings with cheese.
- If you’re looking for inspiration for your cheeseboard, restaurant menus are a good place to start. Look at how a chef has composed dishes that include cheese for ideas on what might go together.
- Everyone tastes differently so there is should be no pressure to find the “right” pairing. It’s all about finding what tastes good to you.
- Don’t forget texture, it’s a fun element to play with, especially for softer cheeses.
- Try your pairings with and without the cheese rind as it can affect how the final pairing will taste. (It makes sense when you consider that many rinds have an assertive flavor.)
And lastly, my reminder… pairing should be fun. I think the main reason people get intimidated by things like cheese pairing is that it seems like something “serious,” like you have to know everything about cheese and flavor before you can possibly be good at it. But everything about this seminar indicated it doesn’t have to be this way. I mean, what is more playful than including kettle corn on your cheeseboard? It’s okay if not everyone tastes things the same way, or if someone picks up a flavor you don’t. That’s what makes the experimenting interesting. I was amazed between the boyfriend and I just how much our preferences varied and it taught me a lot more than if I only had my preferences go to on.
Overall the day was fantastic and I’m still a little impressed that my boyfriend and I spent 6 hours eating and drinking (with occasional breaks to take in a cooking demonstration or rest on a ledge overlooking the lake). In an era when as a country we’ve never been more disconnected from where our food comes from and when demands for cheaper, faster food often trump quality and craft the Festival was a nice breath of fresh air. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the chops to be a fulltime cheesemaker myself, but the event convinced me that if I were there would never be a nicer, more welcoming community to be a part of.