Meet Allison Hooper, Co-Owner, Vermont Creamery – Marcella The Cheesemonger International Guilde des Fromagers
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Meet Allison Hooper, Co-Owner, Vermont Creamery

allison-hooperAllison Hooper is one of my favorite Cheese Swells; I suspect I am not in the minority… Allison is an amazing woman in general and even more amazing in her “role” as a Cheese Ambassador.

In 2008 as I began my cheese journey, Amy Pitzer invited me to my first Cheese 101 Class, hosted by DPI Specialty Foods, as part of their Western Food Show. The class was led by Allison, David Gremmels, Lionel Giraud and Andy Lax of Fresca Italia. I was in cheese heaven and more hooked into cheese… my first Cheese Geek moment. One of the cheese plates featured Allison’s cheeses.

A few months later while I was still slinging cheese in Portland, Anna McLain, Madison Lane‘s Corporate Account Manager, brought Allison to visit my cheese counter and sample a few more of her cheeses. (That visit made me feel special… thank you, Anna) At the time, I wasn’t a big goat cheese fan; it was the beginning of my love of goat cheese. (My thanks also to Rhonda Gothberg for furthering this part of my education…)

Allison’s and my paths kept crossing: Denver, where she taught the new Murray’s Cheesemongers about her cheeses, how to pair and demo them successfully; Bra Cheese Festival, where she and Bob introduced their Cremont to Italian Cheese Lovers who became excited that America was “finally learning to make good cheese” (also at the US Pavilion where I worked were more Cheese Swells: David, Cary and Tom from Rogue Creamery, Sue and Peggy from Cowgirl Creamery, Mateo and Andy from The Cellar at Jasper Hill, Mary Keehn from Cypress Grove and Uplands Cheese’s Andy Hatch); ACS Conferences; Oregon Cheese Festival and more Cheese 101 Classes. Everywhere I turned, Allison was sharing and spreading her love of cheese.

Vermont Creamery celebrated its Thirtieth Anniversary in 2014. Founded by Allison and Bob Reese, Vermont Creamery needs a trophy room to hold its awards, including the three Good Foods Awards received yesterday at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco.

Allison spent a college summer in France at a dairy farm in Brittany, earning her room and board by working in the dairy and learning the basics and essentials of cheesemaking. It was there that her passion began. While working at a dairy lab in Vermont, her friend Bob Reese called her, desperate to find a goat chevre for a chef’s lamb dish to be served at a Vermont Agriculture dinner. Allison created a chevre for the dish; the chevre was a success and that night, Vermont Creamery began.

In 2013, Allison and Bob expanded their business opening Ayers Brook Goat Dairy, a sustainable goat dairy farm where both present and future farmers can learn good animal management and acquire good genetics for their herds.

I could go on and on about Allison… she graciously agreed to answer a few questions for the website:

Briefly tell me about yourself. How did you come to cheese? Did you attend school or grow-up in the dairy business?

“I fell into cheese by accident.  As a college student studying abroad in Paris, I was in need of a place to live over the summer between semesters.  A teacher suggested that I work on a farm.  I wrote to the organic farmers’ association in France and heard from a family in Brittany who had cows, goats and sheep.  they were making various kinds of cheese and butter.”

Describe a “typical” day making cheese and caring for your cheese until it leaves you.

“I confess that I don’t make cheese every day at the creamery.  Back in the bad old days, it was very labor intensive and we had systems that were constantly breaking and in need of repair.  We simply didn’t have the resources so we boot-strapped through to modern times when we have a budget and the ability to invest each year to improve the operation and make the cheese better.  

A typical day of cheesemaking starts at about 3 am to pasteurize the milk and set the curd.  The milk gets checked for antibiotics and total plate count before it is unloaded from the bulk truck..The milk is “set” in a room with various fermentation tanks allowing us to make all goat cheese one day and perhaps cultured butter and creme fraiche the next.  The milk rests overnight.  If we are making the geo-rinded goat cheese, the milk goes to a different room where we add some yeast to the milk.  Here the milk rests in small tubs rather than a vat.  This allows us to control the ladling and draining of the curd.  

In both cases the curd is “dipped off” at the optimum ph and either sent to the filter press or hand ladled into forms.  This all takes several hours in the am. Once the cheese is now draining, we attend to unmoulding from the day prior, ashing and salting cheeses, forming Coupole or Bijou,  There is someone in the aging rooms turning the cheeses, inspecting the rinds, moving racks of cheese from drying to aging to cooling to packaging.  

There is always equipment to clean and get ready for the next batch so the cleaning room is busy as we stash used rack into a washing cabinet and then storing in a dry place.  The packaging rooms are always busy filming crates of Bonne Bouche or crumbling fresh chevre, or rolling logs in herbs.  It is all done by hand so people are busy to keep up and the line never stops.  Every day of the week is a little different depending on what we are making and how the orders are looking.  The cheese is made fresh to order so we allocate the milk accordingly. ” 

How do you “create” a new cheese? I’d like to understand both the creative and practical process.

“We have made significant investments in being “expert” at lactic cheese technology with a deep dive in geo-rinded cheeses.  Our r and d  and business strategy are to leverage this capability with variations on the lactic theme.  This narrows our focus for new product development.  

We won’t even think about making a blue cheese with geo.  And we don’t have the equipment and aging rooms to make large format, long hold cheeses.  That said, we have lots of options for shapes, sizes, garnish, milk type in the geo category.  

We like to imagine a new cheese that is unique to our company so that we can maintain our brand identity which assures the sustainability of our company .  We also look for holes in the market and try to develop products that are marketable in all regions and not displacing local cheeses that are the darlings of the case.”  

Do you have a favorite cheese or type? What would be your perfect pairing with this cheese?

“I love geo-rinded cheeses: anything from St Maure to Bonne Bouche to La Tur.  They pair well with white wines that have some minerality like Sauvignon Blanc or sparkling wine.”  

Raw vs. Pasteurized? Your thoughts, both philosophically and in practice. Does it matter? What difference does it make in the final product?

“I learned to love cheese in France where we ate and made raw milk cheese.  I have a huge respect for those who are making traditional raw milk cheeses in Europe and of course the farmstead producers who have a deep understanding of their milk and health of the animals.  I also have a great deal of humility for the inherent risk in making, selling and guaranteeing the safety of raw milk cheeses that travel 3,000 miles and are subject to the rigors of distribution.  

For us it is not practical or safe frankly to collect milk from many producers and make a raw milk cheese.  There are too many points of risk in doing this.  And since our cheese are all fresh we don’t have a choice.  I think that given the set of parameters that we have to make a great tasting pasteurized cheese, we have succeeded in developing cheese with great character that rival their raw milk counterparts in France.  In fact, when we bring our cheese to France, the French are quick to correct us that our cheeses must be made with raw milk. ” 

Should the US create a system similar the European scheme of protecting, controlling and/or regulating specific cheeses?

“I think it is too late for this in the US.  American cheesemakers have found success by not having constraints on their creativity.  No we should not be calling our pyramids Valencay.  I also think that makers of sheep and goat specifically are faced with such a scarcity of milk that we buy our milk from various regions.  If we want to emphasize the terroir of our county or farm we are free to do so in marketing our cheeses.  If this adds value for the customer, that is great.” 

Tell me about one of your “cheese journeys”. Was it traveling for pleasure or maybe “on the hunt” for an obscure cheese you just had to taste?

“I recall a specific cheese journey that I made to Europe with my husband in the mid- 90’s.  We rented a car and set out from Neal’s Yard Dairy at the recommendation of Randolph Hodgedon searching for cheesemakers in Wales who were doing washed rinds.  I had a notion to be doing that.  We skipped over to France and visited Pascal Jacquin and loved his cheeses.  We drove to the Poitou Charentes to find La Bonde de Gatine and learned some things there too.  These were the visits that jolted me to fuss around with the geo .  Today we make some great trips to France to visit creameries in awe of their ability to make beautiful cheeses and control absolutely everything.  Two years ago, Bob, Adeline and I made a quick tour of creameries in France to get ideas for our new creamery.  Adeline took ideas from each to create our new space.

And one my most cherished cheese journeys was to Metsovo, Greece with the ACS back in 1996 where we all met Daphne Zepos and got totally jazzed about Greece, tradition and the Mediterranean diet. ” 

Please share with me one fun, non-cheesy fact about you.

“I rode my first century bike ride this past summer.” 

If you could do one thing, anything, all day long, what would it be?

“Putter around our 62 acre farm working in the gardens, working on projects to improve or keep the place from crumbling, and keeping the land open and the woods well managed”. 

You can “Like” Vermont Creamery’s Facebook Page; Follow them on Twitter and learn all about the creamery at their website. You can also purchase her book, In a Cheesemaker’s Kitchen.

Interviews will continue throughout 2015… sometimes, they will be “stand-alone” and sometimes round-table discussions with several Cheese Professionals answering the same question. Those participating include Cheesemakers, ACS CCPs™, Cheesemongers and Cheese Professionals and Experts who contribute to this Wonderful World we call “Cheese”.

Please “Like” MarcellaTheCheesemonger Page on FaceBook.

You can read Allison’s full bio here. 

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