hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Reviving a cheese-making culture

Farmstead producers restore a tradition that faded a century ago


Contributing writer


In 1864, as the Civil War was nearing its end, Consider Stebbins Bardwell set up a cheese-making co-op at his farm along the New York border.

The co-op collected cows’ milk from area farms and made it into cheese at one central location, reducing the labor required by individual farm families.

“Its purpose was to save farm women the trouble of having to make the cheese,” explained Angela Miller, who now owns the farm. “The cheese was all made in one place and distributed back to the farms and sold.”

Soon the farmers who ran the co-op began shipping some cheese out of the region for sale. A railroad line – its right of way, now a hiking and biking trail, still cuts through Miller’s property – carried cheese to markets in New York City and Boston, benefitting farmers on both sides of the state line.

“The co-op was called the West Pawlet Dairy Association,” Miller said. “But the borders of New York and Vermont are very porous, so it included farmers from Washington County,” on the New York side of the line.

Those porous borders will be in evidence again next month, when Miller’s Consider Bardwell Farm will be one of five farmstead cheese producers featured in the self-guided Washington County Cheese Tour. The annual tour, now in its fifth year, also includes farms in the New York communities of Argyle and Shushan.

And the tour, scheduled for the weekend of Sept. 10 and 11, will show how the local food movement has rekindled interest in cheese-making activities that were common in the region more than a century ago.

Back in 1875, in addition to the West Pawlet co-op and other facilities farther into Vermont, there were 11 cheese factories in Washington County, N.Y., that produced a combined total of 750,000 pounds of cheese annually. By the turn of the 20th century, the number of cheese factories in the county had grown to 17.

But by the 1920s, advances in refrigeration allowed milk to be transported for longer distances, which in turn allowed the development of larger, consolidated cheese-making plants at locations far outside the area.

The hard times of the Depression brought an end to the West Pawlet Dairy Association in 1932, and for the next 70 years, cheese making essentially disappeared from the region’s agricultural scene.

As recently as 10 years ago, there were no locally produced cheeses in Washington County. But by 2008, the county had emerged as a something of a center for farmstead cheese making in upstate New York, with a half-dozen producers.

Miller and her husband, Rust Glover, bought Consider Bardwell Farm in 2001 and were making and selling goat cheese within three years. They now make six cow and goat milk cheeses named for area towns, including Manchester, a goat cheese that won gold in its class last year at the World Cheese Awards in Birmingham, England.

An appetite for local cheeses

Strong turnout for the annual cheese tour seems to show that consumers’ passion for locally made cheeses is continuing – and that interest in local cheddars and chevres is more than a passing fancy.

Miller said the tour gives people a chance to taste a wide range of locally produced cheeses – and to see the cheese-making process up close.

Karen Weinberg of 3-Corner Field Farm in Shushan said she likes to add a new element every year to keep the tour intriguing for repeat visitors.

“We always have the 4-H kids here doing spinning and knitting demonstrations,” she said. “This year, we’re having a friend who is a chef come in for ricotta cheese-making demonstrations and samplings, and another friend who makes sheep’s milk soap. We like to make it a community event.”

Jeff Bowers of Sweet Spring Farm in Argyle will also have fellow goat-keeper Chrissey Eberhardt on hand selling body-care products made from goat’s milk.

“I think the cheese tour is a great idea, because it helps people expand their horizons beyond blocks of cheddar at supermarket,” Bowers said. “And it helps reinforce the connection to local agriculture.”

For small-scale cheese makers, it takes some serious preparation to meet the demand from the people who are expected to take the tour.

“Every year, the tour gets more participants,” Bowers said. “It takes us two weeks of solid cheese-making to gear up. Last year brought about 2,000 people.”

Weinberg said she’s been surprised to see the number of repeat visitors as well as the growing numbers of new ones.

“I thought that if people had seen the tour once, they wouldn’t necessarily come back every year,” she said. “But many do. So we try to make it interesting for them if they’re going to be doing all that driving to get to us.”

Cheeses available on the tour will range from soft, pungent chevres to mellow hard cheeses such as cheddar and Gouda. There will also be some offbeat flavors and lesser-known cheese varieties, such as the nutty depth of a hard goat cheese from Consider Bardwell Farm, the creamy Camembert-style sheep’s milk cheese from 3-Corner Field Farm, and the mellow cheddar-like flavor of Argyle Cheese Farmer’s Caerphilly.


From chevre to Gouda, a chance to savor

The fifth annual Washington County Cheese Tour will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 10 and 11, with five farmstead cheese makers open to the public for self-guided tours and the opportunity to sample and buy cheeses. (Participants may want to take along an empty cooler.) This year the tour has a cycling option that includes a choice of three mapped routes as well as GPS files posted online. For more information, visit www.washingtoncountycheese.com.

The following farms will be participating:

* Argyle Cheese Farmer, 990 Coach Road, Argyle, N.Y.; (518) 638-8966; www.cheesefarmer.com. Marge Randles of Randles Fairview Farm makes cheese from the cows raised by her husband, David, and his brother, Will, who are fifth-generation dairy farmers. Randles started production in 2007 with yogurts and has since expanded her line of products to include hard cheeses (cheddar, Caerphilly, aged Gouda and havarti), cheese curds, mozzarella, feta, cream cheese, gelato and sorbet.

* 3-Corner Field Farm, 1311 County Route 64, Shushan, N.Y.; (518) 854-9695; www.dairysheepfarm.com. Karen Weinberg and Paul Borghard operate what was the first sheep dairy in Washington County (and one of only four in New York). They’ve been making traditional cheeses with traditional methods and recipes for six years, drawing on ideas from other cultures. French-inspired offerings include a soft, spreadable cheese called Brebis Blanche and the camembert-style Shushan Snow. There’s also an Italian-style sheep's milk ricotta, a feta and Frere Fumant (Smoking Brother), named for Brother David, who smokes the cheese at the nearby Monks of New Skete monastery.

* Consider Bardwell Farm, 1333 Route 153, West Pawlet, Vt.; (802) 645-9928; www.considerbardwellfarm.com. Angela Miller and Rust Glover enlisted two partners, cheese maker Peter Dixon and master marketer Chris Gray, to help them reinvent and revitalize a property that included the first cheese making co-op in Vermont, founded by Consider Bardwell in 1864. Miller and Glover, who got started in 2004, make hard and soft goat cheeses and hard cow cheeses, all named for nearby Vermont towns. Flavors and textures range from mild chevre spreads to sturdy raw, hard cheeses from goats’ milk. The 300-acre farm straddles the border of Vermont and Hebron, N.Y., and has a café open weekends year-round. Consider Bardwell its own goats; the cows’ milk comes from Jersey Girls Farm in Chester, Vt.

* Longview Farm, 177 County Route 43, Argyle, N.Y.; (518) 638-8530. Liza and David Porter moved from suburban Saratoga County to Argyle in 2005 so they could expand Liza’s cheese-making operation; they also added a herd of French Alpine goats. They produce goat cheeses as well as cow’s milk cheese, the latter with milk from a neighbor’s herd of Jerseys and Brown Swiss. Offerings include five fresh and four aged cow’s milk cheeses as well as three fresh and two aged goat cheeses. The farm’s best seller is Saratoga Sunflower, a cheddar-style cheese made from whole cow’s milk, but it also offers a feta and Parmesan from goats’ milk as well as the Camembert-like White Cloud and the cooked-curd High Rock Cheese, which has characteristics of both Gruyere and Emmenthaler.

* Sweet Spring Farm, 240 Saunders Road, Argyle, N.Y.; (518) 692-7445; www.sweetspringfarm.com. Jeff Bowers and Milton Ilario bought their 105-acre farm in 2002, and it only took a year before two Nubian does came to live on the farm. The farm is part of a homestead dating back to the 18th century, with a carriage house that’s been transformed into a cheese parlor. Bowers gradually grew the herd and started making cheeses from the milk of his purebred “Cossayuna” Nubian goats five years ago. The farm produces seasonal fresh chevres in plain, black pepper, and Herbs de Province, as well as a Brie-like White Lily, feta and Sacre Bleu. The cheeses all bear the distinct flavor and texture of Nubian milk, known for its high butterfat content.

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