In a recent trip to Paris, my heart was broken. Same old story, you think, but no: I had been walking around the Left Bank on a perfectly sunny day and decided to forgo a bistro lunch for culinary cliché—a picnic in the Jardin du Luxembourg, with a baguette and a ripe Camembert from Barthélemy, the famous fromagerie.
Barthélemy was closed: a sign on the door said the owners were on holiday.
I found a rebound Camembert, but the sting lingered; I love cheese that much. Proust can have his childish madeleines. I'll never forget that first, rich taste of French Muenster, or Prima Donna, a sharp Dutch Gouda that many people, thankfully, haven't heard about. I tear out mentions of cheese markets in magazines, so I know where to get a fix around the world (if not the shopkeepers' vacation schedules). In my job as a magazine editor, I assigned an article, purely out of passion, that investigated the Food & Drug Administration's refusal to back down from its baseless charges that raw-milk cheeses are dangerous. I smuggle oozy raw-milk Époisses and Livarots through customs, though the FDA has threatened a crackdown. On more than one occasion, I've ordered the cheese course as an entrée at restaurants where I knew it would outshine the food. Honestly, I could survive eating nothing but salty pecorino. Well, maybe not survive—but I'd die happy.
The best cheeses have real personality. My equally turophilic friend Rebecca hammered this point home when we went to Manhattan's premier cheese restaurant, Artisanal—the week it opened—and ordered a flight of 12 varieties, extra stinky. After sampling each, she made a pronouncement: "This one you sleep with and never call." Or "This one I might go out with again, if he were paying." Or even "I would consider cheating on my husband with this one." When we were done, we called the "cheese sommelier" back. Surely he had to have something stinkier....
We are not alone. In the past decade, American palates have become more sophisticated about all sorts of things: mesclun greens, microbrewed beers, fine wines, and, more recently, cheese. Gourmet markets have brought unheard-of varieties to places that knew only big blocks of waxy orange (what my friends call government cheese, and, yes, I realize how terrible that sounds). More people than ever, myself among them, are snootily bragging about how they've found a cheesemonger who hides the raw-milk contraband behind the counter, for customers who know to ask for it. With this comes a certain one-upmanship, a need to show that you are, in fact, the more dedicated connoisseur.
And that need—to prove my love—is what brought me to Warren, Vermont, for a three-day cheese-making class taught by Larry Faillace, who owns Three Shepherds of the Mad River Valley (named after his three children). A reproductive physiologist with a passion for cooking, Larry decided to make cheese in 1993. He did some research and imported a flock of sheep from Belgium; not long after, he began offering classes.
Joining me for the course were Wanda, who wanted to "save the dairy farm"; Mickey, who has an old greenhouse she'd like to put to use, with her son, Chris, a baker looking to expand his skill set; Sarah, a young foodie; and Rigdon and Gigi (Rigdon recently bought a farm in Maine). We started out with some classroom learning above the Schoolhouse Market, which is run by Larry's preternaturally nice wife, Linda. Larry, who resembles an elfin Rob Reiner, explained how cheese was discovered: ancient nomads stored milk in pouches made from animal stomachs, and one day, no doubt, someone left the milk in too long and the natural rennet in the stomach turned the milk to cheese. That's basically how you make it now. You combine a culture with warm milk, add rennet, remove the whey, and allow the curd to ripen. (People who love cheese but hate the idea of veal won't want to read this next bit: rennet, which looks like Pine-Sol, comes from calves' stomachs). Variations in the formula—the type of milk and culture, the amount of rennet, the duration of ripening—are what account for differences in cheeses.
On the way to Vermont, driving through green valleys and past rolling hills, I had daydreamed about my next life as an artisanal cheese maker. I'd live in a small town, perhaps even in Vermont, where the laid-back, hippie-chic people have always appealed to me. I'd have a simple white farmhouse with a tasteful white barn, and would spend the occasional afternoon whipping up fantastic batches of cheeses that chefs from Napa and New York would beg me to sell them—"I learned it all from Larry Faillace," I'd say. I was already creating memories of being elbow-deep in curds, stamping my personality onto the cheese, lending my essence to the art.
My romantic notions ended at the door to the facility. What quickly became clear was that the class isn't for hopelessly yuppie food snobs like me. It's for people who seriously want to make cheese, which is no small endeavor. We were given white aprons, white rubber boots, and white hairnets. (I shudder at the memory.) The metal structure, built by the Faillaces, is sheathed in a white, breathable plastic fabric—an opaque plastic greenhouse. The sun shines through and makes the room glow: with all the rigorous hand-washing and stainless-steel equipment, it appeared that we weren't going to make cheese so much as perform an autopsy on it.