• Publishers' Note Summer 2008

    Publishers' Note Summer 2008

    As the weather warms here in Vermont, we get to experience the promise of another growing season. But many people in our communities struggle with food security, unable to get access to Vermont’s amazing bounty. Summer is a good time to think of these community members. Here are some ways that we can make a difference.

    Continue Reading

  • Llama Beans for Your Beds

    Llama Beans for Your Beds

    At our small hilltop farm here in Craftsbury Common, the melting winter snow recently revealed piles of one of Vermont’s gardening treasures: llama manure. Also known as “llamanure” or “llama beans,” llama manure has become the fertilizer of choice for many friends and neighbors of llama farms. Thus, on a recent bright spring morning, our neighbors arrived in pick-ups, shovels in hand, ready for the spring ritual of scooping poop provided by our small herd here at Maple Leaf Llamas.

    Continue Reading

  • A Cheese for the Ages

    A Cheese for the Ages

    One can easily imagine the feelings of pride in the hamlet of Plymouth Notch when a cheese factory opened there in 1890. It was a cooperative community venture, founded by five local families, and it soon became a centerpiece in the town of Plymouth.

    Continue Reading

  • Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    As I downshift off the Putney exit of I-91, my husband, Jerry, is roused from his dozing by the hollow sound of several hundred jostling maple syrup jugs. It’s April, time to buy containers for our maple syrup at Bascom’s 10% container sale, and time to post Farm Camp flyers.

    Continue Reading

  • Set the Table with Hot Peppers

    Set the Table with Hot Peppers

    There’s an old adage that says, “You can’t grow peppers in Vermont.” But then there’s another expression: “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those doing it!” In the heart of dairy country in West Addison, Michael and Lisa Shannon are growing an extensive assortment of hot peppers on approximately one acre. They say these fairly tough plants, many of which originated in Central and South America, can thrive in Vermont’s climate.

    Continue Reading

  • Diary of a Farm Apprentice—Part 1: Spring

    Diary of a Farm Apprentice—Part 1: Spring

    I want to be a farmer. It is 5:30 in the morning, and the rooster, who lives very close to my window, is crowing before dawn. I find it useful to remind myself: I want to be a farmer.

    Continue Reading

  • Beyond Ben & Jerry’s

    Beyond Ben & Jerry’s

    Let’s face it. We’re spoiled by many artisan food producers in Vermont. Bread bakers Randy George and Liza Cain of Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex. Cheesemakers Willow Smart and David Phinney of Willow Hill Farm in Milton. Bob and Martha Pollak, makers of Snowflake Chocolates in Jericho. The list goes on. Vermont is a foodie’s paradise.

    Continue Reading

  • Three Square—Summer 2008

    Three Square—Summer 2008

    Growing up in Vermont I ate chokecherries, dandelions, venison, and tempura daylilies. I recently returned to live here full time. Since then, I’ve noticed that conversation often turns to food. What’s for dinner? In this series, I visit a variety of Vermonters in their homes, peer into their iceboxes, and share their thoughts about what they eat. Because of the often personal nature of their stories, I’ve chosen to omit their last names.

    I’m sitting with Ezra on a couch in the living room of his family’s apartment, upstairs from On the Rise bakery in Richmond. I ask him what he likes to eat for lunch. Ezra is six.

    Continue Reading

  • An Interview with Tom Stearns

    An Interview with Tom Stearns

    High Mowing Organic Seeds is a thriving Vermont company that sells to gardeners and farmers around the country. In January, High Mowing became one of four plaintiffs in a lawsuit that asks the federal government to postpone the release of genetically modified (GMO) sugar beets until a more rigorous environmental analysis is done. (Sugar beets are used to make sugar; table beets are the ones we eat.) Tom Stearns, founder and president of High Mowing Seeds, talked with Local Banquet about his company’s decision to join the lawsuit. – Caroline Abels

    Continue Reading

  • Build a Solar Food Dryer

    Build a Solar Food Dryer

    I built this solar food dryer about 15 years ago and I’ve been using it ever since to dry vegetables, herbs, and mushrooms. The design is similar to a suitcase. Each end has a simple screen–covered frame that allows warm air to circulate from the bottom, over the eight drying racks, and out the top, while preventing unwanted guests from getting to your food. This easy–to–build project is a great way to preserve food.

    Continue Reading

  • Farmers' Kitchen—Baby Tastes

    Farmers' Kitchen—Baby Tastes

    There’s an old adage that says, “You can’t grow peppers in Vermont.” But then there’s another expression: “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those doing it!” In the heart of dairy country in West Addison, Michael and Lisa Shannon are growing an extensive assortment of hot peppers on approximately one acre. They say these fairly tough plants, many of which originated in Central and South America, can thrive in Vermont’s climate.

    Continue Reading

  • Last Morsel—Jr. Iron Chef

    Last Morsel—Jr. Iron Chef

    If you had walked into the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction on April 12, you would have seen dozens of teenagers from around Vermont having fun with... sprouts. And root vegetables. And wheat berries. And winter squash.

    Continue Reading

A Cheese for the Ages

Historic Plymouth Cheese Comfortable in the 21st Century

Plymouth Cheese building

Written By

Elizabeth Ferry

Written on

June 01 , 2008

One can easily imagine the feelings of pride in the hamlet of Plymouth Notch when a cheese factory opened there in 1890. It was a cooperative community venture, founded by five local families, and it soon became a centerpiece in the town of Plymouth.

Who would have guessed back then that the son of one of those founders would become a president of the United States, that the cheese produced in the factory would one day be shipped to all 50 states, or that, 120-plus years in the future, the cheesemakers would be experimenting with milk from a herd of local water buffalo? Welcome to the long history of continuity and change at the Plymouth Cheese Factory.

Tucked in the Hills

Today, Tom Gilbert and Jackie McCuin lease the Plymouth Cheese Factory from the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation. They operate their business, Frog City Cheese, in the historic facility. Gilbert is the head cheesemaker, carrying the tradition of making Plymouth Cheese into its third century. The cheese has always been made at the factory; in fact, Plymouth, VT, is the only place where this type of cheese is made.

But let’s go back a bit in history.

The settlement in Plymouth Notch dates back to colonial times. A man named Coolidge was its founder, and generations of that family played an important role in the town and in the creation of the cheese that bears its name.

Early white settlers in Plymouth were homesteaders; over time, though, Plymouth grew into a farming community. In the mid-1800s, the backbone of Vermont agriculture shifted from sheep’s wool to cow’s milk, and as dairy farming increased, a surplus of milk developed. This led to an interest in cheesemaking, which reduces milk volume, increases density, and transforms a highly perishable food into one that lasts for months or even years.

Meanwhile, changes were taking place in transportation. Railroads expanded into Vermont in 1850; four years later, cold-storage rail cars were introduced, allowing for the safe transport of farm products like cheese to growing urban centers such as Boston and New York.

The shift from subsistence to surplus farming affected how and where cheese was made. In earlier years, it was made on the farm (hence the term “farmstead cheese”). But by the second half of the 19th century, “virtually every farming community of significance would have a cheese factory, and many would have several,” according to the Vermont Cheese Council.

“By 1885, there were 58 cheese factories in Vermont,” the Council reports on its website. And amazingly, three factories from the 1890s—Crowley, Grafton Village, and Plymouth—are still actively producing cheese more than a century later.

Which brings us back to Plymouth Cheese. The Plymouth Cheese Factory was started by local townsmen, including Colonel John Coolidge, and it produced only one kind of cheese, named after the town. Food historians today call it an old-fashioned relative of cheddar. In fact, it could be cheddar’s country cousin. Made with raw Jersey cow milk and vegetable rennet, Plymouth Cheese is moister than cheddar and has a high degree of tanginess that increases with age. One of its most distinctive qualities is its slight granular texture, which you can see with your eyes and feel on your tongue.

You could even say this cheese has a personality akin to rural Vermont—and to the founder’s son Calvin, who became the 30th president of the United States—straightforward, honest, and direct.

Skills Shared by the Community

The Plymouth Cheese Factory closed in 1934, but another John Coolidge—this one, the president’s son—reopened it in 1960. In 1998, he sold it to the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation. The Division worked closely with other Vermont state agencies and the Vermont Cheese Council to bring the facility up to current standards. Gilbert and McCuin opened their business, Frog City Cheese, in 2004 and brought cheesemaking in Plymouth Notch back to life.

The couple soon discovered what an asset their neighbors were to their venture. “It’s pretty fair to say that, at one time or another, most residents of Plymouth have worked here,” Gilbert told me.

I found it difficult to imagine such practical experience shared by most members of a single community, even a very small one (population: 555). But to people who live in Plymouth, there’s nothing extraordinary about it. Kimberly Yale and her sister worked at the factory in the 1970s, as teenagers. And Kimberly worked at the factory again last summer to round out her hours as the relief post mistress at the tiny Plymouth Notch post office.

“Where else are you going to work and stay close to home?” she told me. “There’s the cheese factory and the post office and that’s about it.”

Jean Hoskison’s family lived at the Coolidge Farm when she was a child. Jean later moved away, but when she returned to Plymouth Notch in 1981, she worked as the head cheesemaker for John Coolidge. She got her training in cheesemaking from the factory, a course at the University of Vermont, and “kind of picked it up,” she says modestly, “from Arnold Butler.” Butler was a cheesemaker all his life; John Coolidge recruited him from the Crowley Cheese Factory in neighboring Healdville.

(That revelation may explain a bit about the relationship between Plymouth and Healdville. “There’s always been a good-natured rivalry between the two towns,” Gilbert said,”—not so much between the factory owners as between the people.”)

Hoskison was a valuable resource to McCuin and Gilbert when they reopened the factory and were trying to perfect the original recipe. Gilbert, already an experienced cheesemaker, recalls some fine points that Hoskison taught him. “She said, ‘You’ll need two things: a tea strainer and a church key,’” he recounts. “The tea strainer is for skimming any floaters from the surface of the milk; the church key [bottle opener] is for prying the lid off the cheese mould.”

New Possibilities

The days of local farmers bringing milk to the factory in 20-gallon cans are past. In fact, there are no active dairy farms in Plymouth anymore.

But a new possibility presented itself this spring. Local newspapers reported that the nearby Woodstock Water Buffalo, makers of yogurt and fresh mozzarella from water buffalo milk, had closed. Farmers, community members, and consumers lamented its demise. What, they wondered, would the farmers do with all that milk?

An answer came within six weeks: the South Woodstock operation had a new owner, and he contracted with Gilbert, a former cheesemaker for Woodstock Water Buffalo, to experiment with a Parmesan-style and Asiago-style cheese made with water buffalo milk at the Plymouth facility. After an initial sampling following two months of aging, Gilbert concluded, “It’s still too soon to know what we’ve got, but we are very excited.” Patience is the key with aged cheese; he’ll continue periodic sampling and adjusting of the recipe, if needed, to arrive at the perfect product.

In the meantime, production of Plymouth Cheese continues. And Gilbert is experimenting with a version of the Plymouth Cheese recipe using water buffalo milk.

It makes a person marvel at the possibilities that crop up when our vision for the future incorporates a knowledge of the rich resources of our past.

The Plymouth Cheese Factory’s gift shop is open from 9 am to 5 pm every day of the year except December 25. Plymouth Cheese is available in stores around Vermont and is sold over the Internet at plymouthartisancheese.com

Photo of Tom Gilbert by Elizabeth Ferry © 2008

About the Author

Elizabeth Ferry

Elizabeth Ferry

Elizabeth Ferry is a writer and photographer in South Royalton who values local and sustainable agriculture. Her photographs and articles can be viewed on her website. The Food Works root cellar is named in honor of her parents, Ronald and the late Sylvia Ferry, for their support of the organization over many years.

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest. Optional login below.

What we do

A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

Connect

Sign up for quarterly notifications and issue highlights.
Please wait