Northeast Cheese

Inasmuch as America’s history begins in the northeastern colonies, so does its cheese history. As 17th century English cheesemaking technologies and transportation systems evolved, a Westward migration of Cheddar-type cheeses continued across the Atlantic to the American colonies. The settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony came from the dairying regions of East Anglia, which was the original supplier of cheese and butter to London’s growing urban market and with them came a deep knowledge of, and interest in, dairying and cheesemaking. The Puritans kept careful tabs on advancements in English cheesemaking and adopted these for their own recipes. It was not until the mid nineteenth century that other immigrating populations, arriving with cheesemaking traditions of their own, began to influence the production of cheese in America. To this day, more than 3 billion pounds of cheddar is produced in the United States.

So cheese in the U.S. began with firm, aged cows’ milk types that we would now call Cheddar-like, but which also bore similarities to English territorial cheeses like Cheshire. As the colonies expanded northward and eventually westward, cheesemaking followed. In addition to its seat as the originator of American cheddar, the Northeast boasts another critical advancement in cheesemaking: the origins of the first factory operation, founded by Jesse Eilliams in Rome, NY in 1851. Prior to the mid nineteenth century cheesemaking was a personal enterprise; by acquiring milk on a regional scale Williams was able to produce more than 100,000 pounds of cheese in his first year, more than five times the average creamery yield. The Civil War further cemented the necessity of factory cheesemaking as women, left in charge of families, farms, and sustenance found that selling their milk to a local factory lessened their agricultural burdens while providing a consistent revenue stream (and often cheese provisions to boot). 

All this is to say that cheddar, and factory-made cheese, are as much an essential and historical facet of Northeastern cheese as innovation and variety have become hallmarks of its future. It’s hard to talk about cheese in the Northeast without beginning and ending the conversation in Vermont. With the highest number of artisan cheesemakers per capita (40!) of any state in the Union, Vermont’s got it going on. It also boasts a remarkable diversity of cheeses: all milk types are represented, as are all styles of cheese, from Brie-like to blue to Alpine. 

Branching out from Vermont, however, what impresses me about the Northeast is that it offers cheese produced on all scales, from the nationally distributed to the super-micro, typically sold only at farmers’ markets and perhaps a few local specialty shops. The upshot of this is that there is always something new to discover. To aid and abet your exploration, the Northeast offers several chances to cheese journey: the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival is held every August; the Washington County (NY) Cheese Tour opens doors in September at five farms across that region for tasting and farmy fun. 

Because the region has such a rich and layered history it also has examples from what I think of as the 4 major eras of American cheesemaking:

  1. The Bedrock: Early to mid 20th C., often cooperative, what most think of as “factory” cheeses
  2. The disrupters: (I talked about this briefly in my last piece on West Coast cheesemaking): makers inspired by Europe who started making French-style cheeses in the 1980s and early ‘90s
  3. The second wave: artisanal cheesemakers: makers who saw the trail forged by the upstarts, often trained in Europe and then started making farmhouse or artisanal cheeses of all kinds
  4. The newbies: makers who are often micro-creameries or sole proprietors. Tiny, mad-scientist-y and collaborating with various aging facilities

Finally, before I get to The List: There are HUNDREDS of great cheesemakers in the Northeast. I can’t include them all. These are some of my favorites, and the most influential/representative of their various eras.

Also, a shout out to Saxelby Cheesemongers, founded by Anne Saxelby, and the first retail store dedicated exclusively to the cheese of the Northeast. She still has the best selection of the region’s offerings:

The Bedrock

  1. Cabot Creamery: A farmer-owned cooperative based in Cabot, VT, making cheese since 1919. Known for their block cheddars Cabot had the foresight to develop a clothbound cheddar in partnership with Jasper Hill Farm, which ages the award-winner in its Cellars.

  1. Crowley Cheese: Healdville, VT boasts the oldest continually operating cheese factory in America (built in 1882 though the cheese has been made since 1824), Crowley Cheese is much like Colby or mild cheddar, though it’s available flavored or in “sharp” profiles.

  1. Grafton Village Cheese Co.: In Grafton, VT the original factory burned down in 1912 and was brought back by the non-profit Windham Foundation in the 1960s. Makers of unpasteurized, Jersey cow milk cheddars known for their intense bite (especially when aged 3 years+).

The Upstarts

Note: all these folks work with goat or sheep milk. That’s what made them disrupters!

  1. Vermont Creamery: In Websterville, VT, making to-die-for cultured butter and Loire Valley/Poitou-style aged goat cheeses like Bonne Bouche and Coupole. Wrinkly rinded, moist, herbaceous and consistently excellent.

  1. Coach Farm: The Cahns made their money selling Coach handbags and bought a farm and goats in Pine Plains, NY. The first suppliers of fresh goat cheese to NY restaurants, they paved the way for “weird” milk cheeses. In 2007 the Cahns sold the brand so the Coach Farm of today is a very different beast. But important to know what they did.

  1. Westfield Farm: 1971, Hubbardston, MA: Started by the Kilmoyers and taken over by the Stetsons in the mid-1990s. Makers of exquisite fresh goat cheese (Capri) and inventors of exterior blued cheeses (not pierced, so the blue mold is only on the outside). 

  1. Old Chatham Sheepherding Company: The Clarks’ signature “Camembert” is in fact a blend of cow and sheep milk, harkening back to a time with American cheese was relegated to the realm of deli slices. Theirs is buttery rich, and sheep milk Ewe’s Blue has been added to the line.

The Second Wave

  1. Cato Corner Farm: Best known for sales in Connecticut and at NYC farmers’ markets, Mark Gilman makes upwards of 20 cheeses of every style. My favorites are the funky Drunk Monk and Hooligan.

  1. Jasper Hill Farm: The Northeast Kingdom of VT brings both cheeses from the farm (raw cow, including the recently awarded World’s Best Unpasteurized Cheese, Bayley Hazen Blue) and now a selection of cheeses aged at the Cellars at Jasper Hill.

  1. Consider Bardwell Farm: Straddling the NY/VT border, the farm is Vermont’s first established cheese cooop, founded in 1864. Today, it makes farmstead goat cheeses and aged Jersey cows’ milk cheeses, all raw.

  1. Spring Brook Farm: Their raw, Jersey cow milk Tarentaise won Best Cheese in America, intense and pineapply and wonderful. Their line has expanded to include a Raclette type and new Tommes coming soon.

The Newbies

  1. Parish Hill Creamery/Crown Finish Caves: Vermont cheesemaker extraordinaire Peter Dixon has his own creamery and is collaborating with Crown Heights, Brooklyn subterranean aging cellar Crown Finish Caves.