American Made: On The Vermont Cheese Trail
There he stood, tough looking but with kind eyes a striking amber color. With the name Thunder along with his long black goatee he resembled a character out of the show Portlandia – northwest urban hip. He was just missing the required piercings and tattoos. Oh yeah, and he is a goat.
Thunder was one of the many acquaintances we made while touring Vermont and striking out on the Cheese Trail. He is the main stud at Fat Toad Farm, that magical place where they make the goat milk caramel our students swoon over at our cheese classes. This small family farm, (they have about 100 goats just next to their red cottage), also makes phenomenal fresh goat cheese. I love the one with Maple – but they only sell those locally, out of a shed they’ve turned into a tiny shop.
A goat named Jupiter, who was over with the other females, stole my heart. She nuzzled and cuddled and made me want to move from my modest Hollywood home so I could have a few goats of my own.
Over on the Western edge of Vermont on the banks of Lake Champlain we had the good fortune to get a private tour of Shelburne Farms, a farm and educational center set on an old Vanderbilt Estate. Set amid acres of farmland and trails butting up against the lake there is a glorious hotel with huge porches in what was once a summer home for the Vanderbilts. There are also animals, a petting zoo, a farm, classrooms, an old milking barn that hosts performances, a world-class cheese making facility and some of the cutest brown cows I’ve ever met. Cute to the point of being distracting.
So cute that while talking to the herd manager I was oblivious to the fact that this little creature with the huge brown eyes had managed to consume the majority of my long gauze skirt. I looked down and there it was in her mouth! I slowly pulled it out, like a magician with the scarves coming out of his sleeve; it just kept coming and coming. A little slime here and there but no harm to the skirt. Alison, our tour guide, said a cow had once gotten most of her jacket. They’ll eat anything. Ah, the hazards of hanging with the animals.
The Vermont Cheese Trail had been on my to-do list for a long time. Yes, I am a nerd, as is my husband Wally. We spend many of our vacations talking to the producers of our products at Fancifull, meeting with winemakers, cheesemakers, chocolatiers and such. Traveling to the areas where our food is made gives us sense of place. We get to see the operation personally, talk to the people making the food, smell the air, pet the animals, and feel like we are part of a community.
We are very much a part of the community that celebrates American Craftsmen, while also supporting people around the world who grow food responsibly.
I feel very strongly that they are the stewards of the land. They are growing food that is healthy while also taking care of the health of the planet. They ask us almost as many questions as we ask them. What do our customers like? Is the organic label important? This is a big question because, as one farmer said, “to do that you have to let the government run part of your business.” It isn’t because these people don’t farm organically. But the cost and the rules, often inane, can make operating a small farm with limited resources difficult.
We were encouraged when a farmer in the Hudson Valley told us that more and more young people are coming back to the farm rather than going off to college and on to new careers elsewhere. And they are coming back armed with new knowledge and better practices that make farming viable again. So, whereas a decade or so ago many farms were abandoned, now you have some flourishing due to the renaissance of American food. Yes you may pay a little more for artisanal food, but when we meet these farmers and see all the work they put in, we are getting a bargain. For most of them it is a passion, not just a job. They deserve to live comfortable lives as do their animals. The food they are producing is also higher in nutrients, so this is of personal benefit to all of us.
I will try to stay off my soapbox, which I keep handy at all times, but I do think this celebration of American Food is vital to all of our survival. Organics and sustainability makes sense for our planet at large. I often get asked, “Is this fascination with food just a trend?” I hope not. I don’t think it is a trend at all. Fifty or sixty years ago this was not “artisan” food, it was just food. Big industry came in and took over and often went for the cheapest solution, not the best. I think producers will come and go and maybe our zeal will lessen as this becomes the new normal. With any new movement there is bound to be some overdoing. We all don’t necessarily need to know where every particle of food comes from and we certainly should never be pretentious or snobby about it. The people we meet aren’t. They are hard workers who want to create great food. My theory is that once you begin to eat real food it is hard to go back to industrialized food as your main diet. The stuff that is being created by Artisans the world over is just too darn good. And I intend to keep meeting them, one by one, so I can better understand the process and help bring their food to market. That is my passion.