Dear Family and Friends,
My passion for cheese began as a passion for home. For this reason, I am particularly honored to share the following article from my local newspaper, The Valley News. Many thanks to Alex Hanson, for pulling my story together into a beautiful narrative, and to John Happel (http://johnjhappel.com) for the stunning photo shoot. You guys rock.
Thetford Resident Travels the Globe to Study Cheesemaking
By Alex Hanson
Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Not long before she was to graduate from Middlebury College with a degree in history and French, Linnea Burnham went to the college’s career office with an unusual request.
“I walked into the guidance office and said ‘Look, all I want to do is learn more about artisanal cheesemaking,’” Burnham said in a recent interview at her family’s home in Thetford.
As it turned out, the career counselor Burnham spoke with had just the thing: the Watson Fellowship, which pays college graduates a $30,000 stipend for a year of travel to study anything they want. Burnham applied, her proposal was accepted and she returned in August from 14 months studying cheesemaking around the world. She traveled to Norway, Italy, England, South Africa, Brazil, Mongolia and Switzerland, seeking out cheesemaking practices and traditions close to the ground.
Although her career plans aren’t entirely settled, Burnham hopes to help small cheese producers and small farmers, and thereby help the environment. In turn, this work would help people who like to eat cheese that has local character.
“I think cheese is the most beautiful expression of place and of home,” she said. “At its roots, cheese is made from land.”
Cheese has been at the center of Burnham’s education since she spent her junior year of high school in the Franche-Comte region of France, along the Swiss border. It was the first place she’d lived where cheese was part of the way of life.
“I remember my host father would take a piece of camembert and dip it in his coffee,” she said.
While there, she witnessed cheesemaking by hand for the first time, and found the process of turning milk into cheese “magical.”
That sense of magic has stayed with her, as cheese is almost infinitely variable. At Middlebury, she designed her own course in the chemistry of cheese and set up an independent internship tour of Vermont cheesemakers. She hosted cheese tastings with friends. She wrote her thesis on Comte, which is made only in the Franche-Comte.
The Watson Fellowship turned out to be the perfect way for her to continue learning about cheese on both a local and a global scale after graduation.
So she traveled from farm to farm in Norway, where her trip started and her itinerary was the most heavily plotted. She helped to make brunost (Norwegian for “brown cheese), which is made from milk that has had much of its fat skimmed off. To bring the milk to the consistency of cheese, it’s cooked over a wood fire and stirred constantly for 10 hours. The milk caramelizes and it is molded into a dark, creamy-tasting cheese.
Above the Arctic Circle, she hunted for anyone still making cheese from reindeer milk, or as she put it, “I flew to Lapland and started knocking on reindeer herders’ doors.” She visited the parliament of the Sami people of northern Scandinavia and asked about people who milk reindeer, a question that drew quizzical looks. Burnham’s earnestness about her field of study might lead someone with a more mundane conception of cheese to question whether she is pulling his or her leg.
“I met a lot of older Sami women who could describe their mothers making cheese,” she said. The Sami are now less nomadic, and so have less need for reindeer milk or cheese. She eventually found “probably the last person on Earth who’s milking reindeer and making cheese with it.” The woman foraged for wild botanicals to curdle the milk, but was making cheese only for cultural reasons, not to make a product.
This research gets at a fundamental aspect of cheese that is often forgotten. Making cheese — which depending on which source you look at dates back as far as 7,500 years — was a way to preserve milk for the long haul. Traditional Mongolian cheese is made by nomadic tribes for that purpose. The cow milk is cultured with soured mare’s milk. The resulting cheese is hung up inside a family’s yurt to dry. It’s hard and not very tasty, but it’s an essential source of protein.
After Scandinavia, Burnham went to Italy, where she attended the annual Cheese Festival, an event hosted by Slow Food, a global movement founded in Italy that supports artisanal food.
“It’s like the whole world of cheese descends on this tiny village,” Burnham said. “I remember going to sleep at night and I could smell cheese just kind of wafting in through the window.”
In England, Burnham participated in Gloucester cheese rolling, which entails racing other participants down a very steep hill in pursuit of a wheel of double Gloucester cheese. She also helped judge at the World Cheese Awards in Birmingham, England. With more than 2,700 cheeses entered, she said, “you have to picture a football stadium that’s filled with cheese.” She helped to judge competitions at every stop.
With so many cheeses to sample, Burnham didn’t bother to keep a running list of them on her trip. “I would think on the scale of hundreds,” she said.
Burnham spent about two months in each country. She researched each destination beforehand, but didn’t always have an itinerary. She flew in on a one-way ticket, and always brought a cheese from the country she was leaving to share with the next country’s cheesemakers.
“Everywhere I went I kind of had to put my heart in my hand,” she said.
She went to South Africa and Brazil in part to understand how traditional European cheesemaking practices had been translated to other climates. In South Africa, cheddar- and gouda-style cheeses predominate.
Talking with Burnham makes clear that she’s still collecting her thoughts after her months living out of a backpack, which included talks with chefs, agriculture officials and cheesemongers, in addition to dairy farmers, cheesemakers, affineurs (who oversee the aging of cheeses) and the people who run cooperatives that market artisanal cheese.
One of her conclusions pertains to Vermont cheesemakers. They generally have to handle all the jobs above — milking, making, aging and marketing. Vermont hasn’t yet built up the infrastructure of a cheese region like Franche-Comte, where a big cooperative markets cheeses made by small farms.
“I’m curious to see how that model can play out in other places,” she said.
She also cast doubt on a word much spoken in artisanal food circles: terroir, or the idea that place makes taste. Everywhere she went, cheesemakers were using the same industrial cheese cultures — the ingredient that acidifies the milk to help the rennet form curds.
“It made me question how unique cheese is to place if we’re finding the same culture in all these countries,” she said. Using an industrial culture helps cheesemakers maintain a consistent product, but an element that would make the cheese more strictly local – such as the soured mare’s milk in Mongolia or acidic whey used in Brazil – is lost. Most cultures come from France, while most rennet, an enzyme from inside a cow’s stomach, comes from Italy.
“I think it’s hard to do that and run a successful business,” she said, adding that “there’s a lot to learn in order to have your own culture and have your own rennet.”
Artisanal cheese is often seen as an elitist delicacy in the United States, which makes sense when something costs $18 a pound. It doesn’t work that way elsewhere, Burnham said. In the countries she visited, many of the cheeses she sampled would be considered artisanal, but they were staples, not treats. “It’s just a product of everyday life,” she said.
In a way, this is where Burnham would like to see cheese go, a product that’s at once local and global and that can support the kind of small farms that care for the land.
“I think cheesemaking can be a solution to this, because it would enable more farms to stay small and stay sustainable,” she said.
Support for small farms brings Burnham full circle, too. An early ancestor, William Burnham, first settled in Thetford in 1775, and her grandfather, who used to raise Holstein heifers to sell to other farms, still lives in the ancestral home.
Burnham isn’t sure where her career is going to take her. She’s looking into jobs in importing and exporting cheese, but doesn’t yet have firm plans, except, of course, for her field of endeavor. She has a lot more to learn about cheese, she said.
“I feel really lucky to have found something that I care about so much at a young age.”
For more information about Linnea Burnham and her journey, find her blog at journeysofacheesegirl.wordpress.com.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3207.
(©Valley News – Alex Hanson)
(©Valley News – Feature photo – John Happel)