Tucked deep into the green, rolling hills of Vermont’s northeast corner is America’s most groundbreaking cheesemaker—literally. A decade ago, the team at Jasper Hill Farm spent 10 weeks blasting into a hillside to build cheese aging cellars. Today some of the best cheeses made in America—including Bayley Hazen, Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, Harbison, Landaff, and more—spend months maturing in those cellars.
Cellars for quality, cellars for community.
Before brothers Andy and Mateo Kehler broke ground on their cellars, they were dairy farmers and cheesemakers. They started Jasper Hill Farm in 2003 with a herd of 15 Ayrshire cows. From the beginning, though, their goal wasn’t just to make a few locally-sold cheeses. They wanted to revitalize the Vermont dairy industry and put Vermont cheese on the national—and international—map. Today the farm has grown to include a herd of about 45 cows that spend their lives out on pasture as the seasons allow. Right next to the barn is the creamery, where every day they churn out a few cheeses using the milk of their own herd. And about a two-minute walk down a dirt lane, you find the cellars.
The cellars at Jasper Hill are a set of seven underground vaults filled with wooden shelves holding thousands of wheels of cheese. The cellars set Jasper Hill apart from other cheesemakers in the US for two reasons. First, they’re great for cheese. Being underground, the cellars naturally maintain consistently cool, humid conditions across the year, no matter what the weather is like outside. Those cool, humid spaces allow cheese to mature slowly and develop huge, complex flavors. It’s a system that’s not uncommon in Europe—notably at places like Fort St. Antoine in eastern France where our Comté matures. In America specialized underground cheese caves are pretty rare. Jasper Hill’s cellars even go a step further than Fort St. Antoine. At the fort, there’s only one cheese and the conditions in the entire space are roughly the same. At the Jasper Hill cellars, each of the seven vaults is calibrated slightly differently. Having slightly different conditions allows for maturing more different cheeses—at any given time, there are roughly a dozen or so different cheeses in the Jasper Hill cellars. The differing conditions allow the cellarmasters to rotate the cheeses from one vault to another as they age so that they’re always in the ideal environment.
The second, and even more remarkable, thing about the cellars is that Andy and Mateo don’t just age their own cheeses there. They also partner with local cheesemakers to mature their cheeses, too. In many cases, Jasper Hill then helps to market and sell those cheeses across the country. In a world that’s so torn these days by competition, the collaboration and community fostered at the Jasper Hill cellars is refreshing.
Bayley Hazen was one of the first cheeses made at Jasper Hill.
It’s a raw milk blue cheese with a natural rind. Bayley Hazen is made daily with unpasteurized milk from the Jasper Hill cows. From the milking parlor, the milk travels just a few hundred yards to get to the cheesemaking room. Jasper Hill might have the prettiest cheesemaking room I’ve ever visited. While the inside is all white and stainless steel much like most cheesemakers, the room is awash in natural light that pours in through a half dozen or so huge picture windows that look out over unbelievably picturesque grassy, sloping fields that give way to mountains on the horizon.
The baby wheels of Bayley Hazen spend two days at the creamery before they’re carted down the lane to the cellars. When the wheels are five days old, they’re pierced to help with mold development. The piercing doesn’t inject the cheese with mold. The Penicillium Roqueforti cultures are added to the milk while the cheese is being made. Piercing the wheels with long needles allows oxygen to get inside, which helps the mold spores develop into the blue-green veins that lace across the interior of the cheese. The wheels then age for about three months under the careful attention of the cellar masters who flip the wheels, pat them down, and move them from one vault to another to ensure they mature evenly.
Bayley Hazen is the most approachable blue cheese I know.
It has sweet, well-rounded flavors without the bitterness and pungency that some people find off-putting in blue cheese. The texture is rich, buttery, chocolatey. It’s a great choice on a burger or in a salad, either crumbled on top or whipped into a blue cheese dressing.
I think the best way to eat it, though, is drizzled with a bit of chestnut honey. Blue cheese haters, hear me out here. I’ll confess I’m not always too crazy about blue cheese, either. But when someone sets out a wedge of Bayley Hazen with a jar of silky, bittersweet chestnut honey, I go back for more, and more again. (Mom, I know you’re probably not going to believe me that I, with my distaste for blue cheese, am really the one who likes this pairing. But I swear it’s true. Put Bayley Hazen and chestnut honey together and I will eat it all day long.) The cheese and honey together add up to more than the sum of their parts, creating this huge, smoky, intense flavor. It’s an outrageously good pairing.