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Aging Cheese the New-Fashioned Way

Aging Cheese the New-Fashioned Way

Rick Nichols | The Philadelphia Inquirer

At a glance, coming off the dirt road not far from Willey’s Store here, past dairy farms on the edge (again) of oblivion, you come upon a braver, newer – actually, futuristic wouldn’t be a bad fit – world called Cellars at Jasper Hill.

They are tunneled deep into a hillside that runs down into pasture, blasted out of ledge rock, 26 feet deep at their deepest excavation, the better to keep it cool for aging wheels (and blue-splotched turbans) of cheese.

The facade is jarring given the signature rusticity of Vermont’s so-called Northeast Kingdom: The entry is faced in tall glass panels as unblinking and stony-faced as, well, a rest-stop lobby on the New Jersey Turnpike.

“I thought they’d be, you know, caves,” said a flatlander, bootied and hair-netted for a brief tour a few weeks ago.

They are – functionally, at least. Though there’s no denying that they are charmless, far-removed cousins – faced in reinforced concrete, and lit well – of the natural caves in French mountainsides that gave birth to the art of aging.

There is no question, either, about the quality of the cheeses that emerge – a magnificent, not-found-at-your-local-supermarket Cabot clothbound cheddar, for one, richly caramel-y and moister than its English forebears, that sells after a year down under for about $28 a pound at Philadelphia’s DiBruno Bros.

Also a prized, turban-sized blue cheese called Bayley-Hazen, after an early-American military road nearby, produced from the milk of the brown-and-white Ayrshire cows that wander the grassy knoll at the Jasper Hill Creamery next door; also sold in city cheeseries.

But the mammoth cellars – spawned in an ambitious drive to take Vermont cheese to the next level – are a new wrinkle in a countryside alive with artisanal cheese-makers and maple sugarers, grass-fed-beef farmers and Vermont craft brewers.

And if their function is to replicate conditions – clean, humid and 54-or-so degrees – that made French cheese-aging the toast of fromage, their form is still unsettled (and even unsettling) business.

For now, locals decked out in tall rubber boots and white lab jackets tend the cheeses like babes in a nursery, lifting them onto long, wooden shelves, bathing them in salty brine, scrubbing, trimming, draining, turning them gently day after day to help them mature properly.