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How A Business Is Born

Maria Trumpler Needed Raw Milk; Vermont Family Needed A Side Business

Bouncing from one teaching job to another left Maria Trumpler tired and discouraged. She perked up one night over a plate of gourmet cheese.

"I couldn't believe that in Massachusetts they made cheeses that delicious," she remembered.

With that, Trumpler would embark on a sideline career as artisan cheese maker, joined by a struggling farm in Vermont looking to diversify its business.

A search for a supply of raw milk led Trumpler from her farm in Vermont's Champlain Valley to a nearby dairy farm. It turned out that her neighbors, three siblings roughly her age, also had an interest in cheese-making. Trumpler taught them what she knew, and a partnership formed. A year later, their alpine-style cheese, Vermont Ayr, is sold throughout New England.

Originally, Trumpler envisioned raising sheep and making the cheese herself. But she soon discovered her limits, as an academic from the suburbs. For the Crawford siblings, the venture was a matter of survival. They needed a product to make up for falling milk prices. If they could divert some of their milk into a premium product, they figured they had a shot at becoming profitable. "If we were going to keep living off the land, we had to do something," said Jim Crawford, the farm's owner and manager, who is married to a schoolteacher.

On a frigid morning in February, the Crawford siblings took a break from their chores to talk in a barn protected by a sloping slate roof. Outside, the sky was a chalky white, and snow blanketed the fields. The Green Mountains could be seen in the distance.

"At least we can walk away and say we tried and gave it a valiant effort," said Cindy Crawford, the farm's herdswoman.

Their first year has been a challenge. Last fall, Trumpler returned to Yale University to take a job teaching in the women's-studies department and advising the dean on gay and lesbian matters. The Crawfords had to pick up the slack.

They milk the cows and muck the stalls daily, and three times a week spend several hours making cheese. If the venture succeeds, their goal is to cut the size of their herd. The three siblings work long, punishing days to keep 120 cows clean and fed.

From Connecticut, Trumpler, 46, handles marketing, giving talks at Yale and cheese tastings at specialty stores. At her home in Branford, she recently carved into a gray wheel of cheese the size of a pillbox hat. She nibbled on the creamy part first.

"This one is kind of buttery, citrusy, and I'd say it has a complex, slightly bitter finish," she said. The rind, she added, offers an "earthy contrast," taking on the taste of roasted mushrooms when used as a pizza topping.

Trumpler taught at Yale in the 1990s, on the history of science, after finishing her Ph.D. When she didn't make tenure, she bounced from one elite college to the next - Middlebury, Harvard, Wesleyan. On the side, she keptup a long-distance relationship with her civil-union partner, an anthropology professor at Yale.

One night at the Chester Restaurant in Provincetown, Trumpler had an epiphany. Inspired by her brush with artisan cheese, she returned to her farm in Vermont and began to collect cheeses at farmers' markets, as if they were stamps or vintage coins, learning all she could. Her first trip to a cheese cave, at Vermont Shepherd, left a vivid impression.

"I felt like I was with all these living, breathing beings," she said.

Her education continued, with classes at Formaggio Kitchen in Boston and New England Cheesemaking Supply in western Massachusetts. Two years ago, a search for unpasteurized milk, full of the bacteria that gives cheese its flavor, led her to the Crawford farm in Whiting, Vt.

Sherry Crawford was curious. She had worked for the Nature Conservancy, cutting back invasive plants, and owned several books on cheese making. She asked if Trumpler would share what she knew. An idea formed: What if they became partners?

Jim Crawford turned the barn's "sawdust room" into an office, and together they added rooms for making and aging the cheese. They salvaged a stainless-steel vat from Harvard for mixing the cheese during a kitchen renovation.

Their first batch turned out pasty and bland, but over time, their technique improved. Last spring, they wrapped their first wedges in butcher paper to sell at the Middlebury Natural Food Coop.

Vermont Ayr is called a "farmstead" cheese because it's made where the animals graze. The Crawfords' Ayrshires munch on pasture grasses of timothy, alfalfa and clover, giving their milk a distinctive taste. The cows have names like Piglet, Borena and Dorie and belong to a breed that's largely been replaced by Holsteins, which produce more milk.

"This is the highest quality of cheese-making in the U.S." said Tom Camm, owner of Artisan-Made Northeast in Southbury, which distributes Vermont Ayr and other specialty goods. "You can't duplicate these cheeses. They're one of a kind."

The Crawfords' grandparents moved here from Milford, Conn., in the 1950s to be closer to the mountains. A decade ago, the siblings returned home to help their parents, who are now retired and spend winters in Florida.

Every other day a tanker truck hauls away their milk to a co-op, where it's blended with milk from other farms. Falling prices have left them worried for the future. As small farmers, their options are limited.

"It's not like you can give your two weeks' notice," said Jim Crawford. "You can't just walk away from your home."

About a tenth of their milk goes toward cheese production, taken from the healthiest cows, whose legs are tagged with blue bands. The cows are milked just before Sherry Crawford makes the cheese, while it's still warm.

She tests the milk's acidity and an hour later adds rennet, an enzyme that coagulates the milk. As curds form, she runs a knife through the vat to separate the curds and whey. The curds, now the consistency of scrambled eggs, harden as the whey continues to drain. When the curds become firm and squeaky, she pours them into molds lined with cheese cloth. As the wheels of cheese solidify, she flips them repeatedly and lets them stand overnight. Later, the cheese will be soaked in brine, adding flavor, and placed in a room chilled to 55 degrees to slow bacteria growth. The cheese typically ages four to five months.

Variations in each batch are recorded, to track changes in texture and flavor. Machines have yet to improve on these age-old methods, to Trumpler's delight. The observational techniques favored by 18th-century scientists, it turns out, are not that different from 21st-century cheese makers. "We mix by hand; we stir by hand," she said. "It's quiet. You can hear the cows mooing."

A four-pound wheel of Vermont Ayr costs $80 and can be bought through Artisan-Made Northeast, a distributor in Southbury, or at specialty stores throughout the state.


Hartford Courant Staff Writer

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