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 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.
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.
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.