We spotted the marker of the day’s purpose to the left of the giant stone gates, a sign inscribed in black Sharpie: “Cheese Festival SOLD OUT.”
We had decided some weeks before that a summer spent in Vermont called for a quintessential end. Attending the 10th Annual Vermont Cheesemaker’s Festival was our celebratory send-off. I had been studying French at one of the college’s language schools when I learned of the cheese event and immediately thought of my friend Griffin — a fellow French student, cheese lover, and a begrudging lactose intolerant. I sent him a text message with a picture of the poster, a quasi-ironic invitation that somehow evolved into our investing a New York-music-festival amount of money, all to indulge in a ritual well-suited to the state with the highest number of cheesemakers per capita.
The event was held at Shelburne Farms, which sits on 1,400 acres overlooking Lake Champlain. We quickly came to the realization that the ticket price wasn’t the only element of the Cheesemaker’s Festival that mimicked a music festival: with deft arm movements, volunteers directed vehicles to park in meticulous rows while colorful wristbands indicated the various tiers of prestige.
The leisurely hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. left many festival goers, like ourselves, rolling into the event about an hour late; sampling cheeses and ciders for six hours on a humid mid-August day seemed like overkill.
The shuttle bus rattled over the estate’s dirt paths, guiding us along the lake to the cavernous Coach Barn, a temporary temple of cheese. Dismounting the bus, we promptly received a branded tote bag and glasses for sampling wine and beer throughout the day.
Entering the first of two steamy tents and overtly overwhelmed, we were approached by an enthusiastic volunteer. “Not sure where to start?” he inquired. Nope, no idea. Hoping he would tell us there was some structure to the swarms of people flooding the nearly 200 vendors, we were told instead that there wasn’t a clear way to tackle the crowds or the cheese. “I’d suggest heading to a corner and just working your way through,” he offered.
We started at the far right with Jasper Hill Farm. The Northeast Kingdom producer is renowned for its on-site “cellars,” a 22,000-square-foot underground facility devoted to cheese maturation, also known as affinage. Its selection of a dozen cheeses ranged from the spoonable Harbison, a runny substance swaddled in strips of the innermost layer of tree bark to the nutty Haley Bazen Blue, which I deemed one of the day’s frontrunners.
Despite the volunteer’s advice, the crowd was no more penetrable at the far end of the tent. Fifteen minutes in, we had already brushed against a few too many sweaty shoulders for our liking. The aisles were congested and the cheese patrons overly excited. It was the dairy equivalent of a mosh pit.
But I was undeterred. My lifelong love affair with cheese dates to my earliest months. My first two-word combination, in fact, was “more cheese,” and by age four, I was attacking tubs of cream cheese with a spoon. In middle school, while other kids were stuck on Swiss and American, I was consuming ripe slabs of sheep’s milk cheese from the Hudson Valley and stinky rounds of aged goat from southern France.
Despite my amorous relationship with cheese, I was out of my league here. This event was filled with professional cheese purveyors who had come from across the country to sample potential candidates for their shelves. As we ducked out of the tent in search of fresh air, we made our way into the Coach Barn, which had workshops and seminars led by experts in the field. Intrigued, I leaned through the doorway during “The Future of Cheese with Rory Stamp,” only to hear him discussing something along the lines of “prime time cheddaring.” Other seminars included “Cheese Science 101” and “What is a Cheesemonger?”
The festival went well beyond cheese and beer to encompass other forms of dairy. In the courtyard of the Coach Barn, Griffin and I stumbled upon a homemade butter demonstration. Gripping clear, round basins, children churned handles round and round, turning cream into butter. A woman behind the stand offered us sweet-peppercorn and chive butter created moments earlier.
Of course, if anything can reinvigorate two overwhelmed cheese tourists, it is soft butter and fresh air. We were finally ready to head back into the tent. This time, we had a clear goal of finding the makings for a picnic. We spotted Red Hen Baking’s stand, a bakery located just outside of Montpelier, and were instantly allured by the bread’s offbeat ingredients. The company adds polenta or potatoes to bolster flavor and texture.
Adjacent to Red Hen Baking’s stand, family-owned Parish Hill Creamery handed out cheese samples while explaining the unique source of its milk. Co-owners Rachel Schall and Peter Dixon use cream produced at the Putney School’s farm. In keeping with the school’s philosophy, students not only study agriculture but also handle chores on the farm, which include milking cows. That leaves them with a surplus of fresh milk. Parish Hill transforms this raw milk into memorable cheeses, with whimsical names like Humble, Reverie and West-West Blue.
After sampling a dozen more cheeses, we were feeling more than a little sated as the crowds began to thin. At this pause in the action, Griffin remembered to take another lactaid pill. Then we walked past the V.I.P. area where we spied a man, semi-comatose, sprawled on a lawn chair sleeping with his mouth wide open. Hoping to avoid the same fate, we walked toward the lake. As the buzz of cheesemongers faded into the background, the lake’s surface mirrored the gathering clouds above. Griffin waded in up to his knees and, without saying a word, dunked his head in the water.