Vermont maker takes home national honor at Sacramento cheese event

Back in 2008, Jeremy Stephenson and his team of cheese-makers and cow herders at Farm for City Kids Foundation were feeling experimental.

The Vermont artisan cheese company had a good wheel of Tarentaise, inspired by cheese makes and production methods originating in the French Alps. But Stephenson, the foundation’s program director, said he wanted to “try and get an older age cheese out of that wheel,” which was typically aged for nine months.

After three years of aging, they developed a recipe that won Best of Show at this week’s American Cheese Society’s 31st Annual Cheese Conference and Competition, held at the Sacramento Convention Center.

“This year, we entered it knowing we had a really beautifully balanced cheese … that was also complex in flavor,” Stephenson said of the winning Tarentaise Reserve, which was one of 89 cheeses that earned recognition at the convention’s awards ceremony Thursday.

The Tarentaise Reserve is a semi-hard washed rind, made from the raw milk of the foundation’s affiliated Spring Brook Farm’s Jersey cows in Reading, Vt. Though it isn’t technically a farmstead cheese, whose definition strictly refers to cheese made from a milk source from one farm, Stephenson said that his cheese company maintains the same small-scale control over the livestock of two partner farms that make the cheese artisan.

The winning cheese will be available for purchase, along with most of the 1,684 other dairy entries, including yogurt and butter, during the Festival of Cheese at 7-9:30 tonight and at a sale 11 a.m.-2 p.m. today Saturday at the Sacramento Convention Center, 1400 J St., Sacramento.

The Tarentaises generally are priced at $20-$30 a pound. Experts say that the winner matches well with any fruity red wine.

“We’re part of this really great continuum,” said Tom Kooiman, chairman of the 38-member judging committee. “The way things that were done in this country 80 years ago, 100 years ago, 200 years ago, traditions that were brought from Europe and other parts of the world that really started dying off, are becoming alive again.”