Great Cheese at Vermont Shepherd


Vermont Shepherd

It was mid-day and gorgeous as we pulled into Vermont Shepherd. Barn swallows were swooping overhead; a few friendly dogs were yapping a friendly greeting. David Major, Cheese Hero and the guiding force of Vermont Shepherd was in the field making hay. His niece Marian was in the cheese house kneading square slabs of curd into 5 pound wheels of cheese. In the near distance we saw flocks of puffy sheep grazing in small fenced sections of green sloping meadow. I, of course, immediately wanted to trade in my urban life and become a farmer.

David Major

David has been farming this land – which is also where he was born – since 1988, and successfully making cheese since 1993. The pathway to becoming Vermont’s first modern-day sheeps’ milk cheese maker led through French Basque country, where he learned technique, to a few years of trial and error before he achieved perfection. Caring for and twice a day milking 200 sheep, shepherding them to fresh pasture every 12 hours, and producing 30,000 pounds of cheese yearly (only 10% of which stays in Vermont) sets the rhythm of David’s life. His is a family enterprise. As David led us around the farm, a pasteurizer full of whey was coming up to critical temperature, and David’s wife Yesenia was about to oversee the day’s production of ricotta.

In the Cheese House: kneading fresh curd into wheels of Verano

Vermont Shepherd produces two cheeses, as well as a fragile, eat-it-quick ricotta. Verano, a Summer cheese, is in production now, and after a 60 day aging, the first wheels will be ready in mid June. A masterpiece of cheese making, it is firm and dense, sweet, buttery, and a tad earthy/gamy. Since the flavors in the milk change as sheep move from pasture to pasture (David says the biggest differences are between full sun and shady meadows), and since the microbial life in the aging cave varies with the weather, each wheel is its own little micro-system with subtle differences in flavor and look.
Invierno, the farm’s Winter Cheese, is made from mixing supper-rich fall sheep’s milk with cow’s milk from a neighboring farm. Similar in appearance to Verano, it is spicier and maybe a bit crazier. I tried a two year wheel that was crumbly/moist, gamy/sweet/salty, and impossible to ignore.

Verano aging in the underground cave

These cheeses are available at the small store at the entrance to the farm (which also sells yarn made from Vermont Shepherd sheep), local Farmers’ Markets, and at any cheese shop worth its salt (seasonally, of course.)
If you visit:
Vermont Shepherd is on Patch Road in Westminster West, just north of Putney and easily accessible from Brattleboro on Route 91. The store seems to always be open, but in deference to their busy work schedule, the Majors ask that you confine your visit to the area around the store, where you can see some sheep, Instagram the great view, and breathe that clean Vermont air.

Sheep are moved to fresh pasture every 12 hours

The Madeira Meal Ender

This week, I had the great pleasure of dining at Veritas in New York. Considering that we were a table of oenophiles (full disclosure: I pretty much only hang out with wine people), we couldn’t help but mine their extensive list for gems and old favorites. The Veritas crew graciously poured us a glass of grower Champagne from Agrapart to begin. From there, we went to a 1er cru 2010 Chablis from Daniel-Etienne Defaix, then Bernard Moreau’s Volnay Santenots 2008. Each was a wine of distinction, and I was glad that I was not paying!

The highlight, however, arrived with cheese: the Madeira.  Why don’t I drink more of this stuff?!  Richly textured, yet incredibly refreshing, Madeira is the perfect completion of a great meal.  For us, it was the D’Oliveras Sercial 1969 and the D’Oliveras Boal 1968.  Toffee, salted nuts, candied citrus peel, ginger… there is a lot going on in these wines!  The Sercial was the showstopper for me.  The driest style of Madeira, it’s a knockout with cheese.
Lucky for us all, we have the 1969 D’Oliveras Sercial at L’Espalier.  Grab a friend, take a seat in the Salon, and select a mouthwatering assortment of cheese from Louis’s cart.  Add two glasses of Madeira, and I bet that you’ll float back out onto Boylston Street with the same glow that I had in New York that evening.

Our Sunday focused Tea Tasting: Assam

On Sunday, February 24th was our monthly tasting, and this month we had the pleasure of exploring the northern Indian tea growing region of Assam.  Along the banks of the Brahmaputra River can be found the beautiful tea gardens that produce the distinctive, full bodied, bold, malty flavors with a touch of fruitiness that we have come to associate with Assam teas.  The classic Assams follow this flavor profile, but we also enjoyed some rare atypical examples of this region.  A highlight of the afternoon was a slow-cooked Masala style Chai, made of course with Assam.  Wherever you go in India, you will find marvelous examples of hand-made, slow simmered Masala tea.  Everywhere you turn, there will be a slightly different recipe for Masala tea (the word chai simply means tea, but in the US it has come to be commonly used for Masala style tea) each one a masterpiece.  Many versions are made by first simmering water, tea, and spices for a period before the milk gets added, others by simmering the milk for an extended period as well.  This second approach is my preference, and the one we served.  Most of the spices commonly found in Masala blends are fat soluble.  Slow simmering in milk allows a wonderful depth of flavor to develop.

Assam teas are grown at a relatively low elevation, roughly 500 feet above sea level.  This explains the bold, full-bodied Assams that go so well with the addition of milk and sweetener.  Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica is native to this region, observed growing wild in Assam by Scottish Botanist Robert Bruce in 1823 after attempts to grow the China bush, Camellia Sinensis Sinensis were meeting less than ideal results.  In India, and elsewhere, it can often be found hybridized with the more common Camellia Sinensis Sinensis.

Assam leaves may be finished as either Orthodox or CTC (Cut, Tear, Curl), with Orthodox style typically offering more complexity and CTC offering more assertiveness.  The teas that we enjoyed during the February tasting were all Orthodox style, but those of you who enjoy your tea particularly strong, to stand up to a LOT of milk, such as in Irish Breakfast blends, may enjoy exploring CTC styles of Assam teas as well.  Speaking of Irish Breakfast teas, that is the topic of our St. Patrick’s Day tasting on March 17!

As promised to our guests during the tasting, below you will find the recipe for our Assam based welcoming tea cocktail:

L’Espalier 24

1 1/2 ounces Assam Infused Beefeater 24
1/2 ounce Grand Marnier
1/4 ounce Absinthe (for rinse)
1/2 ounce ginger oolong simple syrup
3 dashes orange bitters

Pour Absinthe into chilled cocktail glass and turn to coat interior, pouring out any extra. Shake remaining ingredients with ice for 10 to 15 seconds. Strain into the Absinthe rinsed cocktail glass.

Assam Infused Beefeater 24

1 liter Beefeater 24
2 tablespoons Assam tea leaves, or other full bodied black tea

Place 1 liter of gin in non-reactive container. Add tea leaves. Taste periodically until desired strength is achieved. Probably around 2 to 3 hours. Strain multiple times through cheesecloth or coffee filters until no visible tea remains. Store at room temperature or chilled.

Oolong Tea and Ginger Simple Syrup

2 cups white sugar
2 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup chopped fresh sliced ginger
1 wedge lime
1 tablespoon Oolong tea leaves, preferably a smoky high oxidation Oolong

Place sugar and water into a saucepan. Stir sugar up from the bottom, squeeze in lime and add ginger. Place over medium-high flame and bring to a boil. Turn down to low and let simmer until a clear syrup is formed, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, add tea leaves, stir and let sit until cool. May be left overnight at this stage. Strain.


A Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

Last Sunday we said a fond farewell to our Holiday tea events with a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party for children of all ages.  It was quite well attended and as much fun for us as it was for our guests!  At the entryway, our White Rabbit guarded an assortment of rare first edition Alice and Wonderland books and other Alice items that added to the building excitement.

With Alice in Wonderland touches and ‘un-birthday celebrations’ throughout the room, it was not the typical Afternoon Tea experience.

For the adults, in honor of the occasion, the kitchen added a marvelous foie gras tea sandwich to the mix, but where things really notched up in excitement was on the pastry side!  The L’Espalier pastry department created lovely lingonberry frangipane ‘Eat Me’ cakes to accompany the ‘Drink Me’ bottles of our signature iced tea and fresh house made ginger-ale on each table.

Another highlight of the sweet delights were the handmade edible Bergamot tea cups filled with a delicate Nepalese Black Tea Chantilly cream.  The Mad Hatter would be proud.

Now as we all relax after the busy holiday season and get our breath, tea can still be a part of that relaxation.  For those of you who may have caught that nasty cold/flu that is making it’s way around, what better comfort than a classic, or not so classic Hot Toddy.  To aid us all on the road to recovery, or perhaps just to help us relax on these cold, cold days, we are looking forward to the theme for our next ‘Sunday Tasting’ on January 27th at 2PM which features an assortment of Hot Toddies sure to please every palate and chase away that cold.  In the meantime, I hope you all have the time to relax over a good cup of tea.