TOWNSHEND, Vt. -- Fresh milk from a cow is warm, sweet, salty, buttery, and alive. I'm drinking it as eagerly as a barn cat; add an 8-cylinder cup of farmhouse coffee, and I could pull the plow myself. Distilled from sunshine and sweet grass on the cow-studded hills of Vermont, this milk is slow-cooked to a perfect curdle, pressed into molds, and aged into some of the finest cheeses in the country.
Vermont produces 70 million pounds of cheese each year, much of it "artisanal," or handmade, from cows, sheep, and goats raised by the cheese makers themselves.
A barn-hopping tour of the cheese makers of Vermont unveils a lifestyle that's alive and well and hundreds of years old. Many makers welcome visitors into their cheese rooms and barnyards, offering a rare window into the old family farm that once reigned here.
Arm yourself with a good map (DeLorme's Vermont Atlas & Gazetteer is one of the best), leave the main roads to the masses, and find your own back way along the capillary network of dirt roads that leads you through tunnels of trees and hugs the banks of squiggling rivers.
Peaked Mountain Farm is a bucolic dream high on a hill in Townshend. A flock of sheep rests in the shadow of a 100-year-old barn. A pond exhales morning mist beside the farmhouse. Three donkeys named Dis, Dat, and D'other offer a warm welcome.
Owner Ann Works hands us plastic booties, hairnets, and aprons to wear into her sterilized cheese room, which gleams with stainless steel -- a hermetically sealed anomaly built right into the barn. She coaxes a 75-gallon vat of buttery-smelling milk to a yogurt-like consistency with a mixture of heat, friendly bacteria, and rennet, the way cheese has been made for centuries.
According to ancient cheese lore, it all started when a nomad used a sheep's stomach as a canteen to carry milk. High desert heat, rhythmic sloshing, and the presence of rennet in the lining of the sheep's stomach processed the milk into a crude form of cheese.
Now some cheese makers make their own rennet, concoct their own bacteria cultures, and eschew pasteurization, opting for a product that's organic in every way. And every variation in ingredients and methods finds its way into the flavor of the cheese.
"You could give the same recipe to six different people, and you'll end up with six different cheeses," Works says as she hooks her finger into the curdled milk to determine when to cut it into small chunks, or curds.
Once the watery byproduct, or whey, has been coaxed out, she packs the curds into molds and weighs them down for several hours.
Later, they will wind up in the cave, a small, cool room where cheese begins the aging process. Rounds of Tomme glow softly on the shelves.
A little Peaked Mountain Camembert, smeared on a baguette, provides great fuel for dodging in and out of the antique shops that line Route 30 in Newfane. Soon we swap the rolling hills of the Connecticut River Valley for the foothills of the Green Mountains.
Route 100 is one of the most beautiful drives this side of the Atlantic. It rolls across mountains, threads through valleys, and pours through rich farmland.
We veer off at Route 100A, which passes through Calvin Coolidge's old stomping grounds. We then head east on Route 4, go through the Lincoln covered bridge, and venture onto skinny dirt roads that will lead us to Star Hill Dairy in South Woodstock.
There, if you coo patiently enough, a water buffalo might timidly approach for a scratch under its chin.
"They're like big puppy dogs," owner Dave Muller says, caressing an enormous nose that presses through the gate. One of the animals licks my leg with a surprisingly warm, soft tongue -- not what I would expect from a big, bristly beast.
I also would not expect to taste some of the finest yogurts I've set a spoon to, made from the milk of those same buffalo. Soon, Star Hill will produce mozzarella and ricotta the Italian way: with water buffalo milk.
Compared with cow's milk, Muller says, buffalo milk has less cholesterol and more protein, calcium, phosphorous, and probiotic cultures.
"Lactose-intolerant people tell me they can eat this with no problems," he says. "We think it's because of the probiotic culture and the slightly different lactose."
Across the White River in Bethel, Karen Bixler milks her herd of one. She rests her head on the soft belly of her Jersey cow, Carmella, and flashes a welcoming grin. Carmella's calf, Violet, tiptoes out of sight at my approach.
Milk sloshes in the bucket as we head for the back porch, where Bixler makes her cheese the old-world way, right down to the wood stove. Twice a week she makes hard, Alpine-style cheese in her tiny old farmhouse from the milk that Carmella and a handful of goats provide.
She ages the cheese in her stone basement until it becomes almost like a parmesan and develops a flavor that leaves you no choice but to close your eyes and savor it.
After a day or two of watching cheese being made, eating cheese, and talking about cheese, even the clouds start to look like freshly cut curds as the sun melts its way toward the hilltops.
While the day winds down at Taylor Farm in Londonderry, two spindly calves are yoked together to be taught to pull. They look more like wobbly wooden stools than draft animals, but everyone has to start somewhere.
Owner Jon Wright shows off the barn, where low-tech machinery lets him be more involved with the cows.
"I love being with the cows and working in the fields," he says dreamily. His wife, Kate, began making cheese in 1998, and they have won awards for three years running. Their Farmstead Gouda slowly dawns in your mouth, and you can't help but reach for more.
Attached to the main farmhouse is a miniature version where you can stay the night and opt for a rooster rather than an alarm clock to rouse you in time for the morning milking -- when, if you're lucky, the barn cats will let you join them for a warm mug of fresh milk to start the day.
Clare Innes is a freelance writer who lives in Belmont.