A Food and Farming Legacy
the von Trapp Family in Vermont
Written onDecember 01 , 2010
The spine of Vermont is made up of green, craggy mountainsides whose tops disappear into the clouds, and whose valleys wake up to a cloak of low mist that dissipates with the morning sun. Most accounts of the musical von Trapp family’s arrival in Vermont mention how they were instantly attracted to these views, which reminded them of their Austrian home. A lesser-known tale, however, is that they also fell in love with the land itself: generations of von Trapps, including the youngest generation today, have been working to feed and nourish themselves and their neighbors ever since the family put down roots here.
When the von Trapps bought a farm on top of Stowe’s Luce Hill in the summer of 1942—more than two decades before The Sound of Music made them a household name—they raised pigs, chicken, sheep, and vegetable crops to feed the family. There was a dairy herd of 40–45 cows whose milk they sold to a creamery in Stowe. And when the family took a break from touring in the summer, all 10 children helped with the haying. But with high elevation, rocky soil, and a shorter growing season than what they had experienced in Austria, the family eventually realized that farming the land wouldn’t support a family of 12, so when they were away performing, they began renting out rooms in their house to skiers.
While Captain von Trapp didn’t sing with the family when they went on tour, he did accompany them on the road—except during sugaring season, when he remained on the family land making maple syrup. The Trapp Family Lodge, a breathtaking getaway where the von Trapps first formally welcomed guests in 1948, still maintains 1,200 taps and buckets on the property, only now guests are invited to help gather sap by horse-drawn sleigh and watch as it’s cooked down into syrup over wood-fired boilers in a new sugar shack built in the same spot as the original. The grade A amber syrup produced in the sugarhouse is sold in the lodge’s gift shop, while maple used in the kitchens is produced by another family member, Martin von Trapp, in Waitsfield.
Of beer and beef
While syrup remains a tradition on the von Trapp land, something new is flowing at the lodge. In the spring of 2010, the von Trapps converted part of their Austrian Tea Room into a brewery and began making beer using water from a natural spring on the property. The idea is one that Johannes von Trapp, the youngest of the 10 von Trapp children and now in his early 70s, had been formulating for years.
“I visit Austria every few years, and every time I go, I’m impressed by each town’s local beer,” Johannes says. “Some of the small breweries date back to the 1400s, and their beers are unique and flavorful—deep, complex lagers that you just don’t find here.”
Johannes and his son Sam—the humble and energetic pair that now run the Trapp Family Lodge—hired Allen Van Anda, an exuberant beer man originally from New Jersey who started his career as a brewer’s apprentice when he was only a senior in high school. This early post not only made Van Anda popular at parties, but also marked the beginning of a nearly 15-year brewing career that includes positions at the now-closed Kross Brewing Company and at Rock Art Brewery, both in Morrisville.
Van Anda held a blind tasting with Johannes and Sam to pinpoint the exact flavor and body notes they were hoping to achieve in their beers. Then, working closely with the von Trapps, he developed a collection of Austrian-style lagers beginning with the Golden Helles, a refreshing, bready, evenly malted and hopped lager, and the Vienna Amber, a medium-bodied, malty brew with a rich head and butterscotch notes. To the mix they added the Dunkel, a smokey, cola-colored beer with a toasty, light caramel finish, and a rotating cast of seasonal beers. The brewery’s winter offering is Black Lager, a dark beer with a surprisingly crisp finish in a new style that Van Anda has dubbed trosten bier, or comfort beer.
“It’s like a traditional schwarzbier with more oomph and a little Vermont mixed in,” says Van Anda. “Like all of our beers, this one is very balanced; no one ingredient shouts over another.”
All of the von Trapp lagers are made by hand, a process that takes up to six weeks for each variety. Most lagers in the United States are imported or mass produced; the von Trapps hope to fill Vermont beer enthusiasts’ craving for a locally made, micro-brewed lager that isn’t as heavy or highly hopped as most American lagers. And they’re well on their way—the brewery anticipates a yearly production of about 60,000 gallons of lager. The beers, simply called the Trapp Lagers, are served on tap at nearly 50 bars and restaurants around Vermont, including the dining room and lounge at the Trapp Family Lodge, which are both open to the public.
In the lodge kitchen, Chef Brian Tomlinson’s menus not only feature Trapp Lagers on tap and in dishes like Helles-steamed mussels and cheddar-lager soup, they also include beef and produce raised on the von Trapps’ 2,400 acres surrounding the Stowe lodge. The family has been raising Highland cattle sporadically since 1964 (and steadily for the past 15 years), with Johannes and Sam routinely moving the herd from pasture to pasture and tending to the animals themselves. The grass-fed beef is featured on the lodge menu as “The Johannesburger,” and as tenderloin, ribeye, and osso buco specials. A market garden near the kitchen supplies the lodge with herbs, squash, tomatoes, greens, root vegetables, raspberries, and more; these are served during the peak of the harvest season as side vegetables and in featured dishes such as kale and sausage soup or heirloom tomato salad with fig-infused balsamic, mozzarella, and microgreens.
“The cooks all help harvest the vegetables,” Chef Tomlinson explains. “When they’re out in the garden, guests have the chance to talk to the people cooking the food, see how it’s grown, and ask questions. It’s a great opportunity for people who have never seen food growing in the ground.”
A gem of a greenhouse
More than three decades ago, that very same kitchen garden and the magnificent ornamental beds on the property were bolstered and tended by Johannes’s nephew Tobias and his wife, Sally. Tobi is the son of musician-turned-dairyman Werner von Trapp, the fourth oldest of the 10 von Trapp children. After founding a community music school in Pennsylvania, Werner bought a Waitsfield dairy farm in the late 1950s and tended to a herd of milking cows with his Austrian wife, Erika, and their six children.
Growing up on the dairy, Tobi knew from an early age that he wanted to do something with plants, maybe open a greenhouse one day. He started his first vegetable garden down the street at a neighbor’s house, and sold his produce to a local grocery store. Because his mother knew someone in Austria who ran several greenhouses, Tobi spent two months there in intensive, hands-on greenhouse management training. When he returned, he and Sally went to work with the family in Stowe, maintaining the kitchen garden, greenhouses, and ornamental gardens on the Trapp Family Lodge grounds for several years before starting their own operation.
For the past 30 years, Tobi and Sally have owned the von Trapp Greenhousein Waitsfield, just south on Route 100 from the lodge, over a covered bridge, and down tree-lined Common Road. This valley oasis started as an organic produce stand where Tobi and Sally sold annual seedlings on the side for an early season income. After a few years, several new produce stands and farmers’ markets cropped up in the area and the couple noticed that the plants sold faster than the vegetables. So they turned their efforts toward growing plants in the operation’s six greenhouses and network of cold frames.
The von Trapps grow a staggering variety of ornamental annuals from seeds, and cuttings, perennials, and vegetable starts that are well suited to Vermont’s tricky gardening climate. None of their plants are shipped in from elsewhere; instead, they’re all started in the greenhouses and grown using biological controls instead of pesticides. Aside from the greenhouses, Tobi also maintains his own vegetable garden and a massive ornamental display garden. The mixed annual and perennial spread not only provides a relaxing, creative planting outlet for Tobi, but also helps customers see plant varieties in context and get ideas for their own garden arrangements. And while the von Trapps and several staff endure workweeks that often exceed 70 hours during the nine-month season, Tobi still finds his physically and mentally demanding profession well worth every minute.
“One person can never know everything about plants and gardening; life’s not long enough,” Tobi explains. “Variations in microbes, light, plant care, nutrients, weather, varieties, soil… there’s always something to learn, and that amazes me.”
Cheese to the rescue
Across the street from the greenhouse is the 130-acre dairy where Tobi grew up, a sprawling, undulating landscape that was once owned by Tobi’s father, Werner. Tobi’s brother Martin and his family now run the dairy.
In 2006, as milk prices plummeted and the cost of production rose, the von Trapps began to wonder (as many Vermont dairy farmers do) how long they could continue running the dairy without making some changes. While they began the transition to organic milk production to bring in better wages, and continued producing maple syrup on the property for use at the Trapp Family Lodge, Martin’s sons Sebastian and Daniel— both in their mid-20s at the time—hatched another plan: they would buy some milk from their parents and use it to make cheese on the farm.
“Like most farmers, it’s in our family to be creative and figure out how to do things on our own,” says Sebastian. “It’s a necessity. To think about this farm not being here was a scary thought.”
In the spring of 2007, Sebastian quit his job in software and began learning how to make cheese from another pair of young brothers, Mateo and Andy Kehler, who run the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greensboro. Daniel, a timber-framer by trade, began harvesting trees from his family’s 40-acre woodlot and constructed a timber-frame creamery next to the dairy’s milking barn. Then the brothers von Trapp traveled to Europe to visit with small family cheese makers and to study the nuances of different varieties, how to set up an efficient facility, and which breeds of cows produced milk that was best suited for cheese.
Sebastian and Daniel’s parents initially harbored a healthy skepticism about the idea. While they were confident that their boys had the intelligence and drive to make it work, it’s not every day that someone launches a business doing something they’ve never done. The boys’ grandmother, Erika, was also hesitant at first but quickly warmed up to the idea and encouraged her grandsons to go for it. At age 88, Erika now lives down the street and walks to the farm she once ran to get her milk every week. (Werner passed away in 2007.)
With their family’s blessing, part-time jobs to cover expenses, and plenty of guts, in January 2009 the von Trapp boys began experimenting with different recipes and methods until they hit on something wonderful. By June of that year, they unveiled a washed-rind, raw cow’s milk cheese that was unlike any other cheese they had tasted in Vermont—an extremely rich, slightly pungent cheese whose firm-but-spreadable, butter-yellow interior is wrapped in a beautifully tender, coppery rind. Sebastian and Daniel named this strong, unique cheese “Oma”—the German word for “grandmother.”
The organic cheese is made by hand in the von Trapp brothers’ new cheese-making facility, aged for 60 days at the Cellars at Jasper Hill and distributed by the Cellars as well. Oma became a quick success; after selling their entire first small batch to local cheese aficionados in just one day, the von Trapps now make 500 to 700 pounds of cheese each week for hundreds of artisan cheese shops, co-ops, and restaurants throughout Vermont and around the country.
Sebastian and Daniel’s parents, Martin and Kelly, still run the dairy and manage a mixed herd of about 40 cows that are primarily Jerseys with some European cheese breeds like Ayrshires, Milking Shorthorns, and Normans. About half of the dairy’s milk goes into the cheese, while the rest is sold to Organic Valley. Now that the boys are back on the farm full time, their presence and the cheese-making operation have changed the land on which they grew up.
“This has reinvigorated the farm,” Sebastian says. “Now we’ve been able to hire a full-time employee, and we’ve set up milking shifts. My parents used to be solely responsible for the herd 24/7, but now everyone gets a day off and my parents took their first vacation in almost 15 years. The farm has the option to try even more new things, like raising whey-fed pigs. We’ve got a really bright outlook.”
Despite their legendary family name, the Vermont von Trapps are a humble bunch. Each family member is admirably full of energy, endless curiosity that borders on scholarly pursuit, and a contagious earnestness for sharing their culinary and agricultural experiments with others. Their warm blend of Austrian and Vermont hospitality, paired with a kind appreciation for how the land provides for us is what truly makes today’s von Trapps local legends.
Learn more about the Trapp Family Lodge at trappfamily.com. The von Trapp Greenhouse website is vontrappgreenhouse.com. And for more information on von Trapp Farmstead cheese, go to cellarsatjasperhill.com.
Photo courtesy of the Trapp Family Lodge:Sam von Trapp collecting maple sap at the Trapp Family Lodge