Talking Cheese with Parish Hill Creamery

Talking Cheese with Parish Hill Creamery

Jan 12, 2022Sadie Williams

We value products — whether it’s wine or cheese or charcuterie — that come from real people, most of them farmers. Products that have a strong connection to the land they come from. At our cheese counters, you’ll find traditional and novel cheeses from around the U.S. and Europe, every one of them with a unique story.  

Among those, you’ll find small producers focused on farmstead, raw milk cheeses made with traditional cheesemaking and aging practices, and among those, an even smaller number who use native cultures and make what is considered ‘natural cheese.’ While the natural cheese movement isn’t nearly as large as the natural wine movement, it shares its primary characteristic of a return to preindustrial methods of production.

Natural cheeses are made with raw (unpasteurized) milk and without industrial starters, or cultures. It’s worth noting that there is no set definition of “natural cheese,” just as there is no set definition of natural wine.

Among the natural cheeses we carry are a handful by Parish Hill Creamery, the Westminster West, Vermont-based cheesemaking operation run by Peter Dixon and Rachel Fritz Schaal,  partners in life and business. In addition to making cheese, they are educators and consultants. Their aim is to help other cheesemakers return to preindustrial methods of making cheeses.

Their work isn’t easy. There are strong narratives around the safety of raw milk, and raw milk cheeses made with native cultures. But as Peter noted in our interview, one of the most exported cheeses in the world is made with raw milk and native cultures: Parmigiano Reggiano.

But most people don’t know that. As big industry revolutionized the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, everything changed. Particularly agriculture. Traditional methods of making cheeses were set aside as various cultural and regulatory forces shifted practices. Native microbes felt out of favor while pasteurized milk and industrialized cultures came into favor. 

It’s only in the last forty years, Rachel estimates, that raw milk and natural cheesemaking have begun to see renewed interest from cheesemakers and consumers. And while there is interest, it is by no means a mainstream practice at this point. But who knows. As Tom Perry of Shelburne Farms says, “I think the appreciation of natural cheese is coming, I think it’s something that people need to go out and seek more than that it’s something that will be brought to them.” 

I gave Parish Hill a ring to talk about their operation, how they got started, and their thoughts on natural cheese.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sadie: Can you tell me a little bit, in your words, about what you do and why you do it?

Rachel: Part of what we do as cheesemakers is make cheese. But Peter is also a consultant, and I've done a little bit of consulting. 

We also have a school where we teach cheesemaking. And a part of the mission there is to go beyond what you can get in the land grant colleges, which is where a lot of American cheesemakers learn to make cheese. And there, it’s very much geared toward pasteurized milk. You’re looking at cheesemaking from a more, “break it down build it up” perspective. 

Whereas the Westminster Artisan, which is our school, is very much about making sure that either for what you’re purchasing (if you're purchasing milk), or making (if you're the actual dairy farmer), you are making the choices you need to make in order to make the kind of cheese you need to make, with a highlight on making raw milk cheeses and traditional natural rind cheeses.

Instead of starting with “I want to make a thing that looks like this and taste like this,” we really start from, “What do you have, what are you making, what can you make,” and then we look at “What do you want to make, and how close can you get.” [Because] if you have confined fermented feed Holstein milk, you’re probably not going to be able to make a raw milk Alpine cheese. It's not going to work.

Sadie: So it sounds like you're doing what you're doing because you want to be starting from that position of “What do you have, what's in front of you,” rather than “Let's try to do what everyone else is doing.” But would you add anything to why you do what you do?

Rachel: Absolutely. Peter started making cheese in 1983. His father and stepmother had a dairy farm, and they had to shift lanes because they could no longer bottle raw milk. Because in 1983 something happened and nobody could. Nothing happened on their farm, but it was just a situation where the regulators put the kibosh on raw milk sales, so they had to figure out what to do with it, and Peter’s brother Sam Dixon was up at UVM you know getting his degree in...what's his degree? 

Peter: Dairy science, and I'm dairy food science.

Rachel. Peter got a dairy food science. Sam was just finishing up his undergraduate degree and his dad and stepmother said “Hey Sam, do you want to come and be our herdsman,” and “Peter, hey, do you want to be our cheesemaker?” And so they started this family business.

Peter: The Gilford Cheese Company. 

Sadie: So it started as kind of almost an emergency response to what was happening and turned into a family operation. 

Rachel: Yes. And that has been a huge influence both on the way he makes cheese and doesn't make cheese over the years. And it's also been a huge influence on how he works with other farmers and cheesemakers in terms of really, taking a cold hard look at what is and isn't possible. Because these are big decisions. Deciding to become a cheesemaker, it's a big deal.

Peter: [When my family got started] back then, we were told to just keep the cows in the barn and feed them dry hay, keep the milk consistent, pasteurize the milk, keep everything consistent, and then build your cheese from that. So as time went on through my career, I kept getting farther and farther afield from that, to where now we are totally reacting to what the milk does every day when we bring it over. That's what makes us unique.

Rachel: When we started this business almost ten years ago, Peter at that point had been making cheese for 30 years, and was a cheesemaker at Consider Bardwell Farm. He really wanted to get back to a much smaller scale. So when we started this business, Peter and I had gotten together, my background wasn’t dairy at all, I had actually been in California for 20 years working in wine. And when I moved back to Pennsylvania in 2006 and got a job working for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, I did farmer education primarily, a lot of programming for helping farmers make more money, staying viable, and I specifically wrote a couple of grants for small ruminant production and for value-added dairy. And that's how Peter and I met. 

Peter: I worked for you. For your organization.

Rachel: We were married a year later. It stuck. We’re still married. So my background wasn’t that, and when I moved up I got a job as a coordinator for the Vermont Cheese Council, so I got a big education real quick. I got to meet all the cheesemakers and then we started Parish Hill. The business was established in 2012 and we started making cheese in 2013. 

But part of that was, so I said to him, “This is the last one. If you could do anything, what would you do?” And he said “We would make cheese with the milk from one dairy herd very close to where we're making cheese, from exclusively grazing animals, and no fermented feed,” and he wanted to use some of the recipes that he had developed over the years, and cheeses he's made before, not again with that [goal] of “This is what I want it to taste like,” but rather “I know that this is a recipe that I can work well with, let's see what this milk does.”

Peter: What will it taste like this time? 

Rachel: What will we get? [He said] “I’m going to use traditional rennet,” so animal rennet, “I will use salt that is gathered or harvested as near to us as possible,” so we use salt from the Maine Sea Salt Company. “And of course, we will make our own cultures.” And I said “that all sounds great except for the cultures, ‘cause that's stupid. Because if that were a thing I would know about it. Somebody would be doing it.” And eventually, I came to realize that in fact there's a lot of cheese that's made that way, but nobody talks about it. Nobody talks about the fact that Comté is made using autochthonous starters. 

Peter: Or Parmigiano Reggiano. The most exported cheese in the world. 

Rachel. The most exported cheese in the world is made this way but nobody talks about it. And in the U.S. in particular, when you are in cheese circles…we attended a Zoom thing during the cataclysm of 2021 and this very knowledgeable, intelligent woman who works for a cheese importer was sitting there and said “That’s not a good idea to [use native cultures] because there’s too much variability and you don't have control and you just don't know what's going to happen.” And I was sitting there thinking A lot of the cheese that you import is actually made that way. But anyway.

Peter: Well, people don't know.

Rachel: I feel like there’s also — with no malice intended — I think there are a lot of experts and cheesemakers and consultants and people in the industry who are suspicious and think that it’s just better for cheesemakers to just go with what we know, go with the starters from the packet. A lot of them will even dismiss raw milk cheesemaking, saying “You don't have enough control, you want to make sure that you can produce the cheese that people are expecting.” You know?

Peter. And imitate. 

Rachel. Yes. There really is the sense that if you make cheeses that don’t fit into these neat categories, if you can't explain easily — “Oh it's a brie” — people act as if the consumer is incapable of getting their head around that. and It turns out that’s not true. It’s totally traversable.

Peter: A lot of consumers love that. 

Rachel: Yeah. 

Sadie: So what would you say the main difference is between the cheeses you produce and those of more industrial, large-scale producers?

Peter: The difference is that rather than building a cheese into what you want it to be — because even after using raw milk if you’re using a heavy hand with adding selected starters into the milk to try to make it into something, you're producing flavors more from the selected strains you add to the milk rather than letting the milk sing its song so to speak — you’re letting the milk express itself. Whereas the traditional approach is whether you choose to not use any starter, or you're using small amounts of your own starters that you make [in-house]. Even with Parmigiano Reggiano, that's all made with homemade in-house starter. Which is what we do. We chose to make milk starters because we produce a variety of cheeses. We produce both starters like what an English cheddar maker would use, to make cheddar in Sommerset, like Montgomery and Westcomb and those people, but we also produce starters that are like what Italians would use to make Asiago or Provolone or you know some cooked curd type cheeses.

Sadie: But there wasn’t always this resistance to doing things “naturally,” with autochthonous starters, was there?

Peter: When you think about our country, everybody was eating [cheese made naturally] 100 years ago, there was no pasteurized milk cheese yet, yet we lost it all. We lost all the raw milk cheese production eventually by the 1970s. There was none really left anywhere. Shelburne Farms in Vermont would have been one of the first places in Vermont to start turning milk from their herd of grazing cows to raw milk cheddar. So there really wasn't even raw milk cheddar around, which is weird. But that was our culture.

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