For me, the standout cheese at last year’s American Cheese Society competition was a new hay-covered Vermont beauty named Calderwood. Entering for the first time, Calderwood placed second in a field of 1,800 entries. An auspicious debut, but frustrating for its new fans because almost nobody could get the cheese. One year later, distribution has improved; I have a big piece in my kitchen. (We’ll taste it in my upcoming cheese and beer class.) And I’m headed for this year’s ACS conference in Richmond, VA, where we’ll see if lightning strikes twice for Calderwood.
The idea for Calderwood originated with Anne Saxelby, a renowned New York City cheesemonger. Saxelby supplies cheese to a lot of high-end chefs and often advises them on what’s new and exciting. Dan Barber, the activist chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barn, is a customer.
“Dan and I would brainstorm about ideas for his cheese course, and he’s fanatical about grass-fed everything,” says Saxelby. She knew that Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm had just built the nation’s first hay dryer —a breakthrough in enabling the farm to produce suitable winter feed for its cows.
Most dairy farmers in Northern Vermont feed their cows silage (fermented grass) in winter because they can’t rely on their limited sunshine to make enough hay. But silage can be problematic. Big cheeses made from the raw milk of silage-fed cows can sometimes generate enough gas to crack them.
Jasper Hill’s innovative solar-powered facility dries the bales mechanically with warm forced air. Saxelby knew the creamery owners were proud of it. Maybe they would want to show it off by maturing a few wheels in hay, as some Swiss cheesemakers do.
Mateo Kehler, a Jasper Hill owner, liked the idea and began experimenting. The hay would need to be chopped small to coat the outside of the cheese, but how to do that? For a test batch, Kehler put some hay in his wife’s Cuisinart and promptly broke it. “Cows have rumens for a reason,” says Saxelby.
A chain saw does the job now, reducing the fibrous hay to short bits. The material is sterilized, then applied to six-month-old wheels of Alpha Tolman , Jasper Hill’s Alpine-style raw-milk cheese. The wheels spend another four months in sealed bags and then a final month exposed to air to encourage some mold bloom on the rind.
I have tasted Calderwood only twice so I wanted Saxelby’s take on what the hay treatment contributes. Is the cheese that much different from 10-month-old Alpha Tolman?
“When they put the hay in an autoclave to sanitize it, it toasts the hay a bit,” notes Saxelby. “The aromas and flavors I get are more tropical fruit-heavy than with Alpha Tolman. I get more savory, oniony flavors from Alpha. Something about that hay gives the cheese more of a passion fruit/pineapple quality, as well as that honeyed toastiness.”
I didn’t find the tropical-fruit scent, but this is definitely one intense cheese, with aromas of roasted onion, omelet, toasted nuts and beef broth. It’s more brittle than comparable French and Swiss mountain cheeses and, at the same time, more moist.
Currently Jasper Hill makes only 36 wheels of Calderwood a month, each 22 pounds. So it remains a rarity. “Right now, that’s a good number for us and Jasper Hill,” says Saxelby, the main distributor. “But I’ll be curious to see what happens at ACS. That could change our thought process.”
Saxelby sells Calderwood by the half-pound online. Philadelphia retailer Di Bruno Bros. has some. And Tomales Bay Foods has just begun distributing it on the West Coast. Look for it in the Los Angeles area at DTLA Cheese, Eataly LA, Joan’s on Third and Lady & Larder; in Sacramento at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op; in San Diego at Smallgoods Cheese & Provisions; in San Francisco at Other Avenues, Rainbow Grocery and Union Larder; and in the Santa Rosa area at all Oliver’s Markets