All hail the cows who gave us cheese from Sugarbush

HAPPY EATER

March 24, 1993|By ROB KASPER

I like cheese but didn't think I would go out of my way to ea it. But I surprised myself recently when, in the middle of a family trip through New England, I steered the station wagon off the highway toward Sugarbush Farm, a cheese maker tucked several muddy miles back in the Vermont countryside.

This venture proceeded the way most explorations do. First we got lost, then we ate lunch. We did both in Woodstock, a small town about half-way between Burlington and Boston.

How small? It had two police cars, a Ford and a Chevy. I found this out by reading the inventory of the Police Department in the minutes of the annual town meeting. I read the minutes at the Pizza Chef, the eatery we ended up in after we missed the turnoff for the cheesemaker.

After a dairy-friendly lunch -- pizza, a pastrami sandwich covered with cheese, and a Long Trail Ale, an ideal cheese-eater's beer -- we resumed our search for the road to the yellow bricks of cheese.

It was tricky, but this time we found it. The trick was getting over the covered bridge. Back in Maryland, bridges tend to be wide open, easy-to-understand operations. You know your place. This covered bridge was a puzzle to me.

I didn't know whether to drive in the ruts or the ridges of the wooden floor. The ridges offered the high road, a polished and daring way to travel. The ruts were the low, comfortable, and seemingly secure road. I took the low road.

About halfway across the bridge I realized there were only three ruts on the road. If a car came from the opposite direction, the left front wheels of our cars would be in same rut. It would be a nasty crash, horrible to look at.

Maybe that, I told myself, is why New Englanders put a cover over their bridges -- to hide the traffic accidents.

After the bridge, we drove along the country "lane," which was aptly named since the road was often only one lane wide. At times it was hard to tell if we were headed in the right direction. But just when doubt waded in, small signs directing us toward the farm appeared.

L The views of Vermont's snow-covered hillsides were gorgeous.

I tried to look at the remarkable vistas and avoid looking at the roadbed. The snow, which was about as high as Calvin Coolidge's eye, was melting. This meant the dirt road was becoming mud. As the mud thickened, I thought of the possibility of getting stuck in the quagmire and of being trapped in the car with my kids until help arrived, sometime in May. This thought frightened me so much, I looked at the scenery.

We arrived at Sugarbush Farm about 2 p.m., which is late in the day for a cheese-making outfit. The day begins when the cows, from nearby Bridge Overlook Dairy, give milk at 5 o'clock in the morning.

Vermonters are proud of their cows. Natives read the labels of milk cartons the way folks from other states read the label on a wine bottle. Milk from out-of-state cows is scoffed at. T-shirts adorned with images of cows are common, and at one Vermont ski resort, Bolton Valley, I saw a skier clad in a cow costume, complete with udders hanging from his midsection.

Sugarbush Farm is a small, family-owned operation. We saw blocks of cheese dipped in wax. We voted on which series of photographs hung on the wall would make the best postcard for the farm. And we ate cheese samples. Lots of them.

We tasted cheese flavored with sage, cheese smoked over hickory wood, cheese flavored with pepper, Cheddar aged two years, and Cheddar aged five years.

It was all remarkable tasting cheese. The cows could be proud of their work, and in Vermont, that is saying something. My favorite was the hickory-smoked. We bought three 8-ounce bars of it, at about $4.50 a bar, and two bars of almost everything else.

The farm also makes maple syrup, collecting the sap with a sled drawn by a team of Belgian horses. The sap wasn't running that day, so the horses weren't working. We bought two jugs of maple syrup, which I learned comes in grades or weights, like motor oil. We bought a jug of the heavy duty, extra dark amber syrup, and the grade A, medium syrup.

The ride back to the main road was exciting. Besides being narrow and muddy, the lanes were laid out by an engineer who liked roller coasters. It was difficult to remain calm as the car climbed a muddy hill so steep that the steering wheel seemed to be at my forehead. But in the spirit of Yankee determination, I forged ahead. I closed my eyes and said, "Cheese."

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