Last week, the Brighton cheesemongers got their hands dirty and made cheddar with the experts at Grafton Village Cheese in Vermont.
It was part of what we refer to as a “Team Build”– a chance to spend time together outside of the store, invest some energy into a worthwhile activity, and have a whole lot of fun. As a proud member of the Brighton Specialty Department Team, I was lucky enough to participate. It was a true highlight of my culinary life thus far. I would brag that I can now cross a pretty big item off my bucket list, but that’s not entirely true. I want to do it again!
Grafton Village has typical roots but took an unusual turn in the 1960s. Founded in 1892 as the Grafton Cooperative Cheese Company, it is now owned by a nonprofit group called the Windham Foundation. The organization’s mission is simple: promoting the vitality of Vermont’s rural communities. As such, the entire cheesemaking operation is deeply invested in philanthropic and educational profits. This means that when you buy Grafton cheese, you directly support these missions.
As a seasoned cheesemonger, I already had an intimate relationship with their product. I’ve lugged 40-pound blocks of cheddar around the department; cut, wrapped, and priced it by hand; and eaten more than my share of scraps. When I got to the cheesemaking facility, I realized that I’d only experienced the tail end of a very long process.
During our visit, we saw every step– starting with a 1300-gallon vat of fresh Vermont milk and ending with an assembly line of wax-dipped 8-ounce blocks– and were able to help with some of the work. And let me tell you, it is hard work.
The cheesemaking room has a series of huge tanks that are used at various stages of the process. After the milk reaches the ideal temperature of 88-100 degrees, we added rennet and watched as the curds and whey separated almost before our eyes. We funneled it into a second tank, where we raked the curds into long rectangles about 12 feet long and 3 feet high. (Literally: we used enormous stainless steel rakes.) Our next task was slicing the rectangles into smaller rectangles that were 18 inches long, 8 inches high, and 8 inches wide. At this point, the actual cheddaring began. At regular intervals, we flipped the patties by hand– leaning into the tanks and rotating them end-to-end and top-to-bottom. After the initial flip, we began stacking them. First in stacks of two, and then stacks of three and eventually four. The weight of the curds presses out the whey, which yields a fine-textured, dry cheese. This flipping is the actual definition of a cheddar.
After a short period of time, we sliced those rectangles into a shape that very closely resembles french fries and tossed them with a healthy dose of salt. In the picture to the left, Jeff and I are breaking up clumps of curds and pretty much having the time of our lives. The final step was packing all of those salty curds into rectangular molds (visible behind us) that will eventually become 40-pound blocks of cheddar.
In a few months, cheesemakers will taste samples of our cheese and identify the emerging flavor profile. Depending on their determination, our cheddars will be aged for 1 to 11 years. The cheesemakers were right when they told us that cheese is a long process.
If you’re interested in checking out the process for yourself, I encourage you to contact the folks at Grafton. They were nice as can be and so obviously excited to share their passion with all of us. And if you can’t make the trek out to Vermont, come on by the Brighton store and sample their cheddars with us. We will be delighted to tell you all about our visit.