Passion entices me. Watching Vermont cheesemakers at work—and seeing how much they love what they do—thrilled me and made me wish for the same level of enthusiasm in my own life.
I wonder if that’s even possible.
Ron and I left for our Vermont cheese tour on a Monday morning. After three hours of driving through gray and drizzle, we arrived at our first creamery: Vermont Shepherd. As we pulled up the dirt drive, the clouds parted and the grass and trees took on a surreal glow.
It was a cheese miracle.
And then I spotted them: the sheep. Lots of sheep. An entire hill dotted with them.
I waded through brush and high grass to the edge of the electric fence with my camera. I stared wide-eyed like a toddler on her first farm visit. “Look here,” I commanded the flock. One awkward ewe—who looked to be all elbows and nearing the end of her milking years—glanced my way for a second. She then returned to grazing in what I can only describe as a definitely unladylike manner. Ewes, it turns out, are not very cooperative.
Our next stop was the lamb pen to visit the just-weaned youth. In comparison to their gangly and worn moms, these guys were fluffy and friendly and huggable.
The ewes watched us as we walked up to the fence.“Bahh,” said Ron. All of the lambs stopped eating and looked up. At once. Together. I giggled and made Ron bahh again. This time I was ready when the lambs looked; I shot a picture.
We joined cheesemaker David Major in his cheesehouse. From the outside, the building looked like a shingled shed. On the inside, it was a science lab—white walls, stainless steel surfaces and tools, and pairs of green rubber gloves. Even in an operation this small, food safety and purity are taken very seriously.
David and his wife, Yesenia, milk their 300 ewes every morning and every evening. They store the milk in old fashioned canisters, then deliver it to their cheese house. Talk about fresh—just like the other small farms that use their own animals’ milk—the raw milk sits less than 14 hours before becoming cheese.
David showed us the roughly 4’x4’x4’ stainless steel tub where he heats the milk and adds microbiological cultures that start fermentation and rennet, an enzyme that causes the milk to separate into solid curds and liquid—which is incidentally called whey. (Aha! moment relating to Little Miss Muffet.) When the curds start to form, David, or whichever farmhand is making the cheese that day, runs what looks like a giant wire cheese slicer—with multiple parallel vertical—wires through the cheese to break up the curds and to release more whey. After more heating, the whey is drained and a layer of cheese, which looks like a giant slab of tofu, is left at the bottom of the tub.
I watched David cut the curds into 28 eight-pound rectangles. I couldn’t believe that it had taken 2,240 pounds of sheep’s milk to get to this 224 pounds of cheese. (Leftover whey is usually either fed to the pigs or returned to the fields as fertilizer.)
Each rectangle went into a plastic bowl with holes, sort of a homemade colander, to drain. David pushed and pressed the rectangles, pressing out more moisture, until the curds conformed to the wheel shape of the bowl. Then he flipped the cheeses over, pushed and pressed some more.
David told us that he grew up nearby. He chose this valley, sheep, and a farmer’s life as his own. “Growing up, we always had sheep,” he said with a smile. Cheese was not part of the original plan. It came later when the U.S. wool market tanked and David had to figure out another way to make a living from his flock.
I wondered if I could be that resourceful if I had to—to hold on to a lifestyle or to stay in a place I loved.
(And so much for my assumption that becoming a cheesemaker was all about the cheese.)
David continued flipping the wheels of cheese and pressing out more whey, his practiced movements streamlined into almost a dance. He wrapped each cheese in cheesecloth and placed a homemade weight—pvc pipe filled with salt—on top. The cheeses were then left to set for a few hours. Next they would bathe in brine for two days. After that, they would age in the cave—an onsite underground temperature-controlled room David has built—for another three to eight months until the desired flavor characteristics had developed.
I asked about David’s schedule (he gets up at 4:40 am) and how he decides which lambs to keep (the daughters of the best milkers). David answered each question with animation and pride. Amazing, really, considering he’s probably told the same story to visitors hundreds of times before.
The one question I didn’t have to ask was whether or not David was happy with his life. The skip in his step and the smile lines etched around his eyes made it very clear that he is.
Before we left, Ron and I bought samples of Invierno, the winter cheese David makes from late summer and fall milk. (The summer cheese is sold out and won’t be available until this fall.) We tried two samples—one a year old and the other two years old. Both were amazing, but had very different moisture levels (the longer a cheese ages wrapped in cloth, the drier it gets). The one-year Inverno begged to be snacked on in chunks while the two-year Inverno was more parmesan-like—a perfect texture and slight bite that would have been excellent grated over pasta.
We didn’t have a knife, so we bit directly into both of them, the way you would eat a sandwich or an apple. They made a great lunch—even if it wasn’t exactly what you call a balanced meal.
As we drove away eating Invierno, I realized that I was just a little bit jealous. It must be amazing to do a job you love that much. I can certainly write and take pictures every day. But making a living off of it so that I could make writing and photography my primary focus—that is something I will probably never experience. And even if I could, would I ever be as happy as David?
I suspect that I’ve been programmed since birth to always want more, and to never believe I’m doing enough—or doing it well enough. I’m not sure if it comes from nature or nurture, but it’s the way I am.
I don’t think people like me are capable of reaching David’s level of contentment. We just aren’t wired that way. We want it. And then we don’t recognize when we get it. Because we’ve already raised the bar higher.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Why do I do this to myself?