The Dream— Six years ago, Peter Dixon and his wife Rachel Fritz Schaal unrolled a giant piece of paper on the big farmhouse table in their kitchen in Westminster West. They started writing out their dreams for the future, and Rachel said, “Okay, this is it, your last best cheese business. What is your heart’s desire?”
Peter’s dream, after what was then 30 years of making, studying, crafting, teaching, and tasting cheese all over the world, was to make great big wheels of cheese, as traditionally and as close to nature as possible, using raw milk from cows grazing on hillside pastures. Out of this dream came Parish Hill Creamery.
The cheeses are all made using handmade, creamery-propagated cultures (basically a yogurt that starts the fermentation process in the milk), traditional rennet, Maine sea salt, and the best quality raw milk from what must be some of the happiest cows around. And after spending even just a bit of time with Peter and Rachel, it becomes clear that for them it’s not just about making amazing cheese, but also about what lies underneath: in order to have this great cheese, you need small farms, green pastures, healthy animals, healthy people, and an economy that supports and nourishes stewardship of the land. It’s a big circle, and, lucky for us, one point in that circle is Parish Hill.
Rachel & Peter— Rachel preaches, and her gospel is all about small farms, quality of milk, and the quality of education that is necessary to support artisanal cheese-making in Vermont. Her plan was to become a teacher, but soon she realized that wasn’t her path. “A winemaker friend in Sonoma said, ‘Quit your job and do crush. It will change your life’,” says Rachel. It did, and her education in the chemistry of fermentation began in earnest. Family pulled her back from California, and she met Peter at an Advanced Cheese Class she ran while working as the Education Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. A few months later, Rachel moved to Vermont and started working for the Vermont Cheese Council, where she still serves on the board.
In 1982 Peter Dixon had dropped out of college and landed in Portland, ME, scraping by as a musician. His father and stepmother had been bottling raw milk, but legislative changes put an end to that, and they took the opportunity to start the Guilford Cheese Company, with brothers Peter and Sam as cheesemaker and herdsman. (Sam has been the dairy farm manager at Shelburne Farms for over 20 years). Six years later the Guilford Cheese Company went out of business, but Peter wasn’t done with cheese. He earned both Bachelor’s and Masters degrees in Dairy Science from the University of Vermont. Peter could have chosen to work in a more commercial vein, but he chose another path: for his Master’s thesis he studied the “effect of seasonal milking on production and quality of cheddar cheese,” pursuing his research at school and simultaneously working at Shelburne Farms and then Vermont Butter and Cheese Company (now known as Vermont Creamery). He continued there after graduating for three or four years, creating new recipes and rising in the ranks. Eventually, though, in Rachel’s words, “he realized he hated being the boss, wanted to have his hands in the vat.” This led to his working with Land O’ Lakes (a cooperative, incidentally). They’d partnered with the USDA to do rural development work in Eastern Europe, aiding and assisting the small dairy industries in places like Macedonia and Armenia. Peter no doubt provided them with much help and expertise, but in talking with him it’s apparent the learning went both ways. Rachel: “One of the things I love the most about my husband, every single time he works with a cheese maker, he always comes home having learned something.” Peter was able to learn first-hand from people who were making cheese in the old world tradition. Much of what he learned there informs what he does at Parish Hill.
After the intense amount of travel involved in this job became unsustainable, he continued consulting here in the States, and over the last couple of decades he’s cofounded Westminster Dairy, with Bill Aquaviva and Paul Harlow, and he later worked with Consider Bardwell Farm (the first cheese cooperative in Vermont, formed in 1864) for seven years, as a consultant then head cheese maker. While working there, to get milk that was of acceptable quality, he hauled 400 gallons of milk there from Jersey Girls Farm. Peter is a man of stubbornly high standards.
The Logistics of Cheese— The milk is everything. Peter and Rachel come back to this repeatedly when talking about their craft. And even in small dairy farming operations, there are differences in quality that largely depend on whether the milk is made for drinking or for making cheese. “Traditional fluid milk farmers are all about production,” says Rachel. Milk produced to make great cheese, on the other hand, is about quality first. Peter and Rachel pay a premium for their milk. Pete Stickney and Phil Ranney, both 7th generation Vermont dairy farmers, graze the herd on the hillsides of Elm Lea Farm at the Putney School. Cheese is made Maythrough September, when the cows are outside in the sunshine and the rain, ruminating, just like cows are supposed to. All Parish Hill cheese is made with the hand-cultured milk of Sonya, Abigail (Phil’s favorite Jerseys), Helga and Clothilde (Pete’s favorite Holsteins). As Peter wrote on the Parish Hill blog: “This is old world cheese making, not necessarily what most of us do, but it is very rewarding to be making cheese this way…By using this method of culture propagation we are transporting Parish Hill Creamery back in time to when commercial starters were not available and cheesemakers had to make their own.”
The big wheels of Italian-inspired cheeses that define Parish Hill are unusual in our area, and they take much longer to age. With the incredibly high quality of their milk, Peter’s 35 years of experience and Rachel’s expertise in cheese and fermentation, not to mention the traditional rennet, hand-harvested Maine sea salt (sold at our Co-op), and hand-crafted cultures from the milk of those most excellent cows, there’s no need to wield absolute control over the flavors and textures that result from their work. They take simple recipes, apply their own techniques, combine these with their highest quality ingredients, and then, in Peter’s words, “We have to follow along with what the milk and the cultures will do.” Even the weather plays a role: cheese made on a wet and stormy day is going to be different than cheese made amid a dry spell. The milk holds the qualities of the world from which it springs, from the pasture to the cellar.
To illustrate: they originally sought to include in their roster a Grana-style cheese – like a Parmesan. They followed a recipe geared towards this, which was no small investment: the heavy wheels required longer salting (a daily chore of sprinkling, rubbing, and flipping), and a full year to age. And then, “when we opened it up, it was an Emmentaler,” said Rachel. Swiss-y, fruity and full of holes, it was not what they were expecting. “I cried,” she says. But, lo and behold, from this supposed failure, they got Idyll, which is now part of their regular lineup. The milk did what it wanted to do, and they obliged. Usually, variations fall within acceptable parameters, not wholly changing the identity of the cheese as in the case of the rogue Emmentaler, but there is a subtle wildness that results from the traditional methods: if you buy their Kashar in May, it will taste different than the Kashar you buy in September.
Parish Hill now occupies a cheese house and a root cellar converted into a cheese cellar by its previous owners, the Majors, of Vermont Shepherd (it looks like a hobbit house, built into the side of a small hill in the woods with a little red door leading the way inside), which sits on a property just a couple miles down the road from the house Peter built for his then young family (his son, Gus, is now 20). Also on the former VT Shepherd property are a 3-bedroom house now used to put up the steady stream of apprentices and visitors, and “The Mobile:” a 48-foot tractor trailer converted into an additional aging space. They make about a dozen types of cheese, aged 60 days to 2+ years. They produce 20,000 pounds per year, much less than many of their competitors. Of this, about a third gets shipped to Los Angeles; a third goes to New York City (some of which gets distributed to other cities); and a third is distributed around our area via Provisions, Black River, and, as in our case, directly by Rachel or Peter. If you see a tall guy with a beard or a woman with striking white hair and fuchsia lips with a cooler at Cheese Island, you are probably in the company of greatness.
Rational Superlatives— Parish Hill Creamery is one of three businesses run by Rachel and Peter. Through Westminster Artisan Cheesemaking they offer workshops for licensed and aspiring cheesemakers on all aspects of the craft, while Dairy Foods Consulting offers professional assistance for cheese businesses on every subject, from quality control to cash flow – one of Peter’s roles is a sort of cheese doctor, diagnosing problems based on tasting the cheeses that makers bring to him for help. Folks from as far as India and China have traveled to Westminster West to learn from Peter. He’s helped guide countless cheese makers through his work as a consultant and educator and through his publications on food safety and artisanal cheese craft. He’s done a tremendous amount to enrich the soil in which our state’s cheesemakers grow and thrive.
As Rachel says, “On the one hand we’re making fancy-pants cheese, but I believe that in making this specialty product, we’re able to show that when small-scale cheese producers pay farmers a reasonable price to make excellent
milk, those farmers can stay in business, taking care of their animals and the land. And in the ecosystem that supports this, there isn’t just one farm farming all the land; there are lots of people, maybe not getting rich, but making a living.” Parish Hill Creamery makes truly great cheese, and where there is truly great cheese, there is a truly wonderful world.
Try Parish Hill cheeses at our monthly Wine & Cheese Tasting October 12 • 4-6pm, and again at Cheese Island October 17 • 11am-1pm
by Ruth Garbus