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From Vermont to Vino e Vivo

A Visit with the Cheesemaker at Parish Hill Creamery

Cheese from Parish Hill Creamery in southern Vermont has made its way onto the regular lineup of the cheese plate here at Vino e Vivo. We’ve served several of these cheeses including Cornerstone, Hermit and Herdsman.

"These cheeses really shine with the right beverages,” explains our owner and wine director, Tony Callendrello. “We have paired the Hermit, a cider-washed rind cheese with a dry cider or it would work equally well with an "orange wine" like a skin-contact Pinot Grigio; the Herdsman with an Alsatian Gewurtztraminer to accent the pineapple overtones in the cheese and the complexly flavored Cornerstone with a rich Australian Merlot from Mollydooker.”

Last summer, we hosted the husband-and-wife cheesemakers behind this award-winning raw milk cheese for the second time, at a wine and cheese pairing event at the restaurant, which we hope to offer again later this year.

Following that event, some of our wine club members decided to visit the cheesemakers at their home base in Westminster West, Vermont, where they found Peter Dixon and his lovely wife, Rachel, in full spring cheesemaking mode.

The couple source milk from Elm Lea Farm at The Putney School, which is just down the road.

Once the cows go out on grass in the spring, it’s cheese season, which means Peter goes to the farm daily to get milk. “Because we don't want the milk to be older than 24 hours,” he explained. “The bacteria can start to ferment the milk sugars, so we want to keep it to just two milkings at a time.”

The afternoon milk is cooled to 54 degrees and is held until 7 a.m. when Peter goes to pick it up along with the morning milk, which isn’t cooled, when it’s mixed with the prior afternoon’s milk.

“And when I bring it here, it's about 65 degrees, which is great because we don't have to heat the milk as much,” he said.

Because of the nature of using unpasteurized milk, the cheesemaking process is on a specific timeline. “We’re really under the gun to just go, go, go every day. We can’t store up milk in a big tank,” he explained.

Peter points to lessons learned from the Europeans in making this style of natural cheese and modifications he’s made in his process over the past eight years such as shifting from cooling the milk to 38 degrees at the farm, and picking it up every few days, to the daily pickup. They make all of their own cultures, using animal rennet and salt from Maine.

“We started taking cues more through being associated with slow food and learning from the Italians and also the French who are involved, in slow food cheese, what their methods are,” he said.

The reality of making raw milk cheese means that Peter and Rachel will work seven days a week for the next six months. And then, they will shift gears into doing some events, and regrouping for the next season.

Cheesemaking has been Peter’s calling for over four decades, though he spent time as a struggling musician after high school, when he left Vermont briefly for Portland, Maine. He played in two bands, Smoking Grass and Little Jake, spanning the genres of American folk to rock and roll.

“But in my third year in the band, it was kind of breaking up, and I was trying to figure out what I what I was going to do,” he said.

At that same time, his father and stepmother had started a small dairy farm, though the family also had what Peter describes as a hobby farm during his childhood. “That’s what we did, after school in the summer. So as far as we knew, we were farmers, but it wasn’t really a farm. But we ate incredibly well, and we always had work to do,” Peter recalled.

His father expanded his foray into farming with his second wife, through their small dairy where they bottled milk, and then contemplated making cheese. When Peter and his brother were home for Christmas one year, the idea of starting a cheese business took shape. The timing was right for Peter, who had begun to realize the life of a musician wasn’t for him.

“You have to work in the bars, and you have to travel, and I just began to think, yeah, I don't know about this,” he said. “And, you know, I'm a country boy and so I grabbed the opportunity.”

That was 1983 and Peter has been making cheese ever since, though he took a break when he went back to college to pursue a forestry degree. But he had to walk past the Dairy Science and Food Science building to get to his classes, where he’d already met the lead professor, and realized his calling wasn’t forestry.

“It finally just started sinking in, like, what are you doing? You actually like cheesemaking. And so, after that semester, I switched majors,” he said.

Peter and Rachel connected immediately when they met at a cheese workshop in Pennsylvania where they were co-teaching a course. She heard his voice for the first time and simply knew he was the one. Peter had the same feelings, but the two went their separate ways until he sat down to write e a lengthy letter to Rachel about his feelings as he sat in an airport. From there, there was no turning back. She packed up her pets, survived a rather hairy drive to his home during a snowstorm, and has been by his side ever since. The two each make cheese, she specializes in the smaller cheeses, while he crafts the larger wheels.

If you’re in southern Vermont, swing by their facility and shop to pick up some cheese. Or try a taste the next time you’re in Vino e Vivo!

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