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Exploring the Vermont Cheese Trail: Where to stay and eat

At Mad River Taste Place in Waitsfield, Vt.,

At Mad River Taste Place in Waitsfield, Vt., there's no shortage of cheese varieties.  Photo Credit: Mad River Taste Place

The Spoonwood Creamery, a cheese factory and gourmet shop inside a rustic red cabin in tiny Jacksonville, Vermont, sits two doors down and a world away from the Jacksonville General Store, where extra sharp white Cheddar is still the big wheel.

At Spoonwood, one of the newer stops on the growing and changing Vermont Cheese Trail, you won’t find even a scrap of cheddar. Instead, two-dozen soft, creamy French-style varieties are crafted in the onsite creamery by resident cheesemaker Nancy Bergman. Her husband, Kyle Frey, a former Manhattan restaurant sommelier-turned Vermont cheesemonger, hands out the samples from a bright refrigerator case with a view through a window into the factory.

“I’ll give you something nice and fresh, as fresh as cheese can be,” Frey said on a recent Saturday (the shop is open only on weekends), handing a visitor a sample of truffle fromage blanc, “right out of the cave,” or ripening room.

More tastings followed of velvety camembert (here called Cabinbert) and maple blanc whipped together with — what else? — dark amber Vermont maple syrup, all made with local organic cow's milk. “We sell everything we make every week,” said Frey, who also curates the wine list to go with baked camembert and cheese plates at the couple’s next door wine bar.

Vermont has long been the go-to-state for jugs of tree-tapped pancake syrup, maple leaf-shaped maple sugar candy in shiny packages, and white Cheddar so sharp it bites back. But the once cheddar-centric state is also churning out feta, mozzarella, bloomy rind, goat and sheep milk cheeses and more — all for the tasting on a scenic cheese trail spread from Brattleboro to the Canadian border.

“Cheddar is still king, but there are so many other great cheeses being made and so many are national award winners,” said Tom Bivins, executive director of the Vermont Cheese Council, a not-for-profit trade organization representing 66 cheese companies statewide. The Vermont Cheese Trail map pinpoints 48 farms and stores, from Southern Vermont to the Northeast Kingdom, which offer tours and tastings, either by walk-ins or appointment . (atvtcheese.com).

Gateway to the Cheese Trail

Brattleboro, a progressively greener and hillier four hour-drive from Long Island, is a place to pick up the trail. The former milltown and hippie mecca features a walkable downtown lined with boutiques, independent clothing stores and cozy eateries. Much of it is pet-friendly. At The Hermit Thrush Brewery, your pooch can hunker down on the floor while you sample the house ale and cheese snacks (29 High St., Brattleboro, 802-257-2337). There’s a more extensive pub grub menu but no pets allowed at the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery’s riverside bier garten (36 Bridge St., Brattleboro, 802-490-2354) Challenge Brattleboro’s rolling hills on a bike rented from Burrows Specialized Sports (105 Main St., Brattleboro, 802-254-9430) to local sights such as the Creamery covered bridge, and the Brattleboro Area Farmers Market’s 50 stalls (Open Saturdays, brattleboroareafarmersmarket.com). Sunday farm-to-table shoppers can browse the smaller Putney Farmers Market for local delicacies such as Maple cream. (putneyfarmersmarket.org)

The cheese trail begins just outside Brattleboro proper, at The Grafton Village Cheese Company, a big cheese shop with brimming display cases and a bustling tasting bar. Shoppers can sample 130 varieties, most of them churned out by state cheesemakers, on plastic spoons offered by chatty cheesemongers. Or you can help yourself to samples of Grafton’s white cheddar in garlic, sage, truffle and smoky chili variations cut into cubes and set out for DIY spearing (toothpicks provided). The shop also sells chocolates by the pound, bottles of wine and cans of beer and mead (honey wine). (400 Linden St. /Route 30, Brattleboro)

Outside Brattleboro, the GPS is often useless, but you can follow signs to roadside sugar houses for scoops of maple-candy crusted soft serve ice cream. Storekeepers can also be cheese trail guides, suggesting the mozzarella at North Bennington’s Maplebrook Farm and the Harbison cheese at Jasper Hill Farm in Greenboro, Vermont, named the best American cheese last year at the World Cheese Awards in Bergen, Norway.

One of those road signs led to Vermont Distillers in West Marlboro where free samples of housemade peach, raspberry, maple and pear liquors are poured in a bright-and-airy wood-paneled tasting room. A bottle can be purchased and enjoyed on the deck overlooking a breathtaking green mountains panorama. (802-464-2003, vermontdistillers.com)

A trio of revelers clinking their tulip glasses on a Hogback Mountain deck drew us to dinner and drinks at the Beer Naked Brewery. The brewery pizza came crusty and bubbling from a newly installed wood-fired oven, and a food truck served groaning plates of Polish specialties — spicy kielbasa, perogies and shredded cabbage. It all paired delectably with locally brewed stout, farmer’s ale, fresh air and a million dollar view of what looks like the whole Green Mountain State. It’s a dog- and kid-friendly, cash-only establishment with an onsite ATM. (7678 VT-Rte 9, Marlboro, 802-464-7702).

As often happens in Vermont, the cheese trail eventually led down one of those winding, dusty roads to what seemed at first like nowhere, but turned out to be a highlight of the trip. The Vermont Shepherd farm store — really a vine-covered shack – sits at the edge of a sheep meadow a world away from busy Brattleboro. No cheesemongers appeared, just a passing shepherd. A kitchen fridge is stocked with the farm’s Invierno and Verano Spanish-style mountain cheeses, ricotta and sheep’s milk gelato. It’s strictly old-style Vermont capitalism. Mark your cheese selection on a paper slip and stuff it with your payment into a cash box, then take your selection outside to munch with a view of the grazing sheep herd that’s leading the Vermont Cheese Trail to new horizons.  (281 Patch Farm Rd., Putney)

WHERE TO STAY

Brattleboro-area lodgings range from moderately priced chain motels to historic properties managed by the nonprofit Landmark Trust USA. The trust’s five historic lodgings include Naulakha, The Rudyard Kipling House in Dummerston ($450-$520/night), where the author lived while writing “The Jungle Book.” Kipling’s coachman resided in the adjacent Kipling’s Carriage House. ($255-$315/night, 802-254-6868, landmarkltrustusa.org) The Latchis Hotel in downtown Brattleboro is a 1930s Art Deco building with its own movie theater (50 Main St., 802-254-6300, latchis.com, $130-$240/night.) At the 45-room Grafton Inn (est. 1801), dining options include a pub/restaurant inside a historic tavern. (92 Main St., Grafton, 802-843-2248, $220-$274/night)

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