Discoveries: On the Cheese Trail

By Donna Garlough | |

"MOINK." IT WAS A SOUND I’D never heard before. Standing in a barn in Woodstock, I was surrounded by 260 hulking, horned water buffalo—the source of that foodie obsession, buffalo mozzarella. "They’re extremely social animals," explained Bufala di Vermont owner Vince Abballe. "They just love visitors." On cue, a cow sidled up and rubbed her nose on my scarf, leaving behind a streak of hay-strewn goo. "Moink."

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"Isn’t this what you came here for?" asked my husband, Dave, eyeing my soiled cashmere. Most people go to Vermont to ski, leaf-peep, or canoodle at quaint B&Bs. I was in search of an edible experience—namely, a chance to taste the state’s artisanal cheeses. I knew I’d find cheddar, but I wanted more.

Most people (the smart ones, anyway) don’t go cheese touring in December. Peak season is spring through fall, when the cows, sheep, and goats are grazing, and the milk really flows. We drove up—armed with a Vermont Cheese Council map, a set of cheese knives, a bottle of Italian Brunello, and a packet of Lactaid—just when Mother Nature decided to deliver a pre-holiday nor’easter wallop.

Our first stop was Grafton Village Cheese, right over the state’s southern border. Checking into our room at the affiliated Old Tavern at Grafton, we were greeted by a block of extra-aged cheese so malodorous it sent us searching for a sealed container. (I settled for the ice bucket.) Come morning, we indulged in a cheese-laden breakfast: omelets, poached eggs with Mornay sauce, and apple pie with—what else?—local cheddar. In the nearby gift shop, we popped bite after bite of aged and flavored samples… at least until Dave caught me ogling a $10 pack of misshapen cheddar scraps. "Out!" he said.

With that, it was on to Woodstock. Bufala di Vermont has the largest herd in the U.S. and produces 600 pounds of mozzarella per day. In addition to the females, we spotted two formidable bulls and two newborn calves. With Abballe’s permission, we slogged through the barn for a closer look. "Good thing you wore your muck boots," Dave snickered, watching grime coat my Marc Jacobs wellingtons. When we pushed our hands through the criblike pen, the babies began to suckle, tickling our fingertips.

Later that day, we headed north to sample cheese from Cabot, the state’s biggest producer. Our decision to visit its Quechee store was motivated by its proximity to the Farmer’s Diner, a retro-cool eatery I’d been dying to try. By this time, the slush was piling up, and after stuffing ourselves with Reubens heaped with Boggy Meadow Swiss, we hustled up to Waitsfield’s Inn at the Round Barn Farm. Blanketed with a thick layer of snow, the inn’s white lights twinkled welcome.

After a quick warmup by our in-room fireplace, we were off to Hen of the Wood in nearby Waterbury, where star chef Eric Warnstedt’s 14-variety cheese board awaited. We tackled the chalky, creamy Twig Farm Tomme (from West Cornwall), Champlain Creamery‘s Triple Crème (Vergennes), Green Mountain Blue Cheese‘s Boucher Blue (Highgate), and Thistle Hill Farm‘s nutty Tarentaise (North Pomfret). We polished off every one but the blue, which we took home—and that was before dinner. (Enter the Lactaid.)

Ultimately, the blizzard kept us from our final destination, cheddar-making Shelburne Farms. And we never made it to Greensboro, where Jasper Hill Farm makes my favorite New England cheese, the tangy Constant Bliss. We did stop at Grafton Village Cheese‘s new megastore in Brattleboro on our way south, however, and filled our cart with cheeses from Twig Farm, Lazy Lady Farm, and Vermont Shepherd. Pulling out of the parking lot, our Volvo carving tracks in the foot-high snow, we knew we were in for a tasty (and smelly) ride home.