Crack open a Vermont food sampler and you'll probably find a hunk of sharp cheddar next to the maple syrup. But farmstead alchemists in the Green Mountain state also create award-winning gorgonzola, gouda, feta, chèvre, and other artisanal varieties. In central and northern Vermont, you can drop in on a half dozen cheese wizards, all of whom offer cheesemaking tours and sell their products on-site.
This roughly 280-mile (450-kilometer) loop of the Cheese Trail begins in Plymouth Notch, accessible from I-89 via Route 4 and Route 100A, then follows Route 100 north to Lincoln Gap Road, which descends to Route 7 in the Champlain Valley. Route 7 links several cheesemakers and other attractions along with Burlington, Vermont's biggest city, and connects near the Canadian border with I-89. Vermont's varied terrain of steep wooded hills, broad dairylands, and meandering river valleys unfolds throughout the drive, which skeins together attractions as varied as the childhood home of a president, a superb museum of Americana, and one of the world's largest granite quarries.
Start in Plymouth Notch
The time-capsule hamlet of Plymouth Notch is where Calvin Coolidge was born in 1872. The entire village, just off Route 100A, is a state historic site (http://historicsites.vermont.gov/coolidge/) comprising not only the Coolidge birthplace but the house where John Coolidge administered the oath of office to his Vice President son, Calvin, when President Harding died. Penny candy and old-time toys are for sale in the Coolidge family's 1920s general store, and a visitor center interprets Silent Cal's era.
Frog City Cheese (3780 Route 100A; Plymouth; tel. 1 802 672 3650; www.frogcitycheese.com) is located in the old Coolidge family cheese factory. "We use the original Coolidge recipes for our moist, creamy Plymouth cheese, a cow's milk variety that isn't made anywhere else," says cheesemaker Tom Gilbert. Tom and his wife, Jackie McCuin, use half-century-old equipment to make what Tom calls "an old-fashioned, unsophisticated cheese" offered in ages ranging from four to 24 months.
Follow Route 100 north along the spine of the Green Mountains to East Warren, where Larry and Linda Faillace's Three Shepherds of the Mad River Valley (42 Roxbury Mountain Rd., Warren; tel. 1 802 496 4559) uses cow's and sheep's milk from valley farms. "Our sheep's milk feta is creamy, not crumbly—it's like the feta made in the Balkans," says Larry. The Faillaces also make sheep's milk "Montagne," a hard pecorino variety, and soft-ripened "Cosmos," flavored with herbes de Provence. From April to October, Three Shepherds offers three-day cheesemaking classes (a bonus is the panoramic view of the Mad River Valley). Another plus is the on-site Schoolhouse Market, where you can provision a picnic not only with cheese, but with locally made breads, pâtés, and fresh fruit.
Climb over Vermont's cordillera via the hairpin turns of Lincoln Gap, descending into the rich pastures of the Champlain Valley to reach Route 7. Head north on 7 through the college town of Middlebury, where the Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow (1 Mill St.; tel. 1 802 388 3177) exhibits and sells jewelry, glassware, furniture, textiles, pottery, and other work by Vermont artisans. A good lunch or dinner stop in Middlebury is the Storm Café (3 Mill St.; tel. 1 802 388 1063), located on the banks of Otter Creek.
The complex cheddars at Shelburne Farms (1611 Harbor Rd., Shelburne; tel. 1 802 985 8686; www.shelburnefarms.org) have a Gilded-Age pedigree. This was the Frederick Olmsted-landscaped family compound of railroader Dr. William Seward Webb, who ran it as a model farm more than a century ago. It's now an agricultural and environmental education center where you can watch cheesemaker Jaime Yturriondobeitia and her staff craft cheddar in one of the property's vast, turreted barns. The process includes the actual process of "cheddaring," stacking great slabs of freshly made cheese so its own weight presses out unwanted whey. Brown Swiss cows luxuriate on these privileged acres, which are accessible to visitors via 8 miles (13 kilometers) of footpaths winding toward the pristine Lake Champlain shoreline. There are guided tours that take in Dr. Webb's immense breeding barn; a Children's Farmyard; and the Inn at Shelburne Farms for dining and overnight stays.
Along with Shelburne Farms itself, the Webbs' great legacy is the Shelburne Museum (Route 7, Shelburne; tel. 1 802 985 3346; www.shelburnemuseum.org), whose collections range from folk art to Native American artifacts; from decoys to horse-drawn carriages; and from antique toys to hundreds of 19th- and 20th-century American paintings and European Impressionists. Vermont buildings spanning two centuries of vernacular architecture have been moved to the museum's 45 landscaped acres (18 hectares).
Just north of Shelburne, in Burlington, sidewalk cafés dot pedestrian-only Church Street. The views across Lake Champlain to the Adirondacks are sublime, especially from the park and boathouse adjoining ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain (1 College St.; tel. 1 802 864 1848), where the ecology and history of the 126-mile-long (200-kilometer-long) lake and its watershed are brought vividly to life via kid-friendly hands-on exhibits and an aquarium housing hundreds of fish representing all Champlain species. If you're in Burlington for an evening, check the schedule at the art deco Flynn Center for the Performing Arts (153 Main St.; www.flynncenter.org).
In Milton, 15 miles (24 kilometers) north of Burlington, Willow Hill Farm (313 Hardscrabble Rd.; tel. 1 802 893 2963; www.sheepcheese.com) is home to transplanted Hawaiian Willow Smart and the cows and sheep whose milk is used for nine varieties of award-winning cheese, from soft, bloomy-rind styles, to hard-aged types, to veined, creamy sheep's milk "Blue Moon." In summer, you can pick your own blueberries from their bushes.
Follow Route 7 north to Swanton, then take Route 78 east to Highgate and the rolling pastures that nestle along the Canadian border. The same French penicillin cultures used in Roquefort work their magic at Green Mountain Blue Cheese (2183 Gore Rd.; tel. 1 802 868 4193). "It's all very low-tech—we've even made most of our equipment," says Green Mountain's Dawn Morin-Boucher. Along with its "Boucher Blue" and a celebrated tangy gorgonzola, the farm turns out a sharp, Swiss-style tomme. Dawn will explain things if she's around; if not, just pick out your cheese and leave your money on top of the fridge.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
It's a straight shot down I-89 from Highgate to Barre, where Vermont's most famous nonagricultural product runs in veins 10 miles (16 kilometers) deep. Take the tour at Rock of Ages (558 Graniteville Rd.; www.rockofages.com), where you can see workers separate 25-ton (23-metric-ton) blocks of granite from sheer 600-foot (180-meter) walls with explosives and jet torches.
End at Websterville
Drive just a stone's throw to Vermont Butter and Cheese Co. (40 Pitman Rd., Websterville; tel. 1 802 479 9371; www.vermontcreamery.com) where goat's milk from 25 local farms is transformed into chèvre. "Very few people were eating goat cheese when we started making it in 1984," says French-born cheesemaker Adeline Folley. "We helped introduce it to the U.S." Using cow's milk, she also produces butter and mascarpone.
Summer and fall are ideal times to drive this scenic route. For a map of the Vermont Cheese Trail and additional information, visit www.vtcheese.com/cheesetrail.htm. For information about Vermont weather, visit www.vermont.gov/portal/agriculture/weather.php; for road conditions, visit 511.vermont.gov/main.jsf.
—Text by William Scheller, adapted from National Geographic Traveler