During the month of May, in celebration of American Cheese Month, we’re spotlighting a few of our local cheesemakers. These small producers keep our cheese case well-stocked with their unique, handcrafted cheeses. Each one has a unique story and a true passion for the craft of cheesemaking.
Thank you to Ruth Anne Flore, president of Grafton Village Cheese, for taking the time to chat with us. We hope you’ll find the history of this local creamery as fascinating as we do. A great example of the amazing (and delicious!) things a community can do when they come together to support a cause.
Q. When was Grafton Village Cheese founded and how has the company evolved over the years?
A. The Grafton Cooperative Cheese Company was founded in 1892 by dairy farmers who gathered together in a cooperative to make their surplus raw milk into cheese. In the days before refrigeration, there were many such cooperatives in the rural agricultural communities and an abundance of fresh, creamy milk was turned into a food that could be stored for a longer period of time.
In 1912, a fire destroyed the original factory. Several decades later, the nonprofit Windham Foundation restored the company in the mid 1960s, and a new era for the town was born. Today, quality and taste are the hallmarks of our company’s award-winning cheeses. Our traditions have stayed over the years: we make our cheese by hand using premium raw/unpasteurized milk from small, local family farms.
Q. What is the role of the Windham Foundation in Grafton Village Cheese today?
A. The Windham Foundation works to preserve and enhance the social, economic, and cultural vitality of Vermont’s smaller communities and their rural way of life, especially within and around the town of Grafton, Vermont. The Foundation focuses on Vermont’s history, natural resources, and agrarian traditions.
The Windham Foundation is an operating foundation. It operates the Grafton Inn, which has been open for over 200 years; the Grafton Village Cheese Company, which has made award-winning artisanal cheddar for over 55 years; and the Grafton Trails and Outdoor Center. The Foundation operates these social enterprises to ensure that the region’s and the state’s rural economy remain viable.
In addition to these activities, the Foundation offers philanthropic, charitable, and educational programs and supports the village of Grafton through its preservation of historic buildings, open land stewardship, and financial support in the form of taxes and grants.
Q. What makes your product unique or special?
A. As one of Vermont’s legacy cheese producers, we continue to make our traditional New England style cheddar cheeses by hand and in small batches.
Q. Who is your head cheesemaker and where did that person learn their craft?
A. Mariano Gonzalez, Grafton’s head cheesemaker, began developing his cheesemaking skills as a young child in Paraguay. In 1987, Mariano moved to the US and learned to make traditional cheddar at Shelburne Farms. During his tenure at Shelburne Farms, his cheddar was recognized by the American Cheese Society with the coveted Best of Show award. It was at Shelburne Farms that Mariano began developing a traditional clothbound English style cheddar, his dream cheese. In 2001, Mariano became head cheesemaker at Fiscalini Farms in California’s Central Valley. His clothbound cheddar was recognized internationally at the World Cheese Awards “Best Cheddar” in 2007, 2011, and 2014.
Q. What are the most important things to you in the cheesemaking process?
A. As all of our cheeses are unpasteurized, the quality of the milk is paramount. For more than a century, Grafton Village Cheese captures the old-style cheddaring process that has long been forgotten by many of today’s larger cheddar companies. The result of the Grafton Village Cheddar, whether it is aged from one to three years (or longer), is a line of award-winning cheddars that have unique flavor profiles that imbue the pace and life of our family farms.
Q. How did the Covid-19 crisis impact your business?
A. Grafton made the difficult decision to downsize, moving all of our block cheddar production from our Brattleboro facility back to our original Grafton facility with the emphasis on becoming a smaller, nimbler, and more focused producer of exceptional specialty cheeses. With demand consistently outpacing supply, lower annual production has been challenging as we continue to work on balancing our 1yr and 2yr block cheddar aging inventory. About the same time the pandemic hit, we completed our new caves and committed to increasing production of our sheep’s milk cheeses: Shepsog (50% cow, 50% sheep) and Bear Hill (sheep) and have expanded our inventory of Clothbound Cheddar.
Q. Anything new or exciting coming up at Grafton Village Cheese?
A. We expect to introduce a new cave-aged cheese to the market in the coming months. Stay tuned. You won’t be disappointed!
Q. Do you have a desert island cheese?
A. I am hard-pressed to choose…any one of our cave-aged cheeses. I love them all!