A Cheese for the Ages
Historic Plymouth Cheese Comfortable in the 21st Century
Written onJune 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.”
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