New creamery builds cheese business from the curd up
BRIDPORT — Cheese curds? Really? Isn’t that what’s left after you make cheese?
Julie Danyew gets that question all the time. She’s the cheesemaker at one of the newest Addison County cheese producers, Bridport Creamery, which started selling the delicious cheese curds last September.
No, she tells her inquisitor with patience and good humor, the whey is the leftover byproduct. The curds are the solids that can be eaten on their own as snacks or combined with other foods into tasty dishes like grilled cheese or quesadillas. They have a slightly salty flavor and a springy texture and unlike aged cheeses like cheddar you can eat them as soon as they are made.
“The fresher the better,” said Nicole Foster, Danyew’s partner at Bridport Creamery.
“Curds are so versatile,” she added. “My mother cuts them up in a food processor and then puts them on pizza.”
Bridport Creamery is filling a unique niche in the local food market. Foster said there is a clientele among the older generation of transplants from French-speaking Canada who culturally identify with cheese curd — a popular style of cheese in Quebec that is most well-known here as the melted goodness that shares the plate with French fries and gravy in the Quebec dish poutine.
Foster, who is part of the Ouellette family, knows a thing or two about French-Canadian transplants.
“The older people love cheese curds,” she said. “Some people say they haven’t seen it in years and they are so excited to try it.”
But as yummy as the curds are, Danyew and Foster say they are just a first chapter in the Bridport Creamery story.
“We started with curds to get some cash flow,” Foster explained on Monday while waiting for a 1,400-gallon vat of milk to heat up during the first step of the day’s cheesemaking.
The creamery also produces a slightly aged cheese called Swisserella. It is made in a traditional wheel and Danyew flavors it with chives, fenugreek, caraway or dill. Another variety, called Champlain Valley Tomme, is also aging in the company’s “cave,” a cooler with tightly controlled temperature and humidity.
The Bridport Creamery founders both have longstanding interest in dairy. Foster, 37, grew up on the farm on Lake Street in Bridport where the creamery is located. Her parents, Steven and Sherry Ouellette, raise about 400 cows on Iroquois Acres. Nicole raised and showed Brown Swiss cows as a child, and she managed the young stock and herd at the farm as an adult. She lives in Middlebury on the Foster Brothers Farm with her husband, Mark Foster, and their two children, ages 14 and 10.
Danyew, 64, a native of Virginia who fell in love with Vermont while at UVM, owns the Danz Ahn Farm in Orwell, where she has made a goat’s milk feta for nine years. She fed her interest in agriculture by apprenticing as a cheesemaker at the Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlet, and then continued in that role at the Crawford Family Farm in Whiting.
The women shared an interest in starting a farm-based business. Danyew says that her chiropractor connected the two.
After considering their options, basing the business on the Iroquois Acres farm made a lot of sense. The Ouellettes produce the milk used to make the cheese. Because the creamery is based on the farm — steps from the milking parlor — it needed fewer state inspections than it would have as a freestanding business in a village; but it does have inspectors from the Agency of Agriculture pay visits.
Originally, Danyew and Foster had three others planning to join in the enterprise, and the idea was to build the cheese factory and share it cooperatively. There was talk of opening a storefront in downtown Brandon to sell the wares. While that business never really gelled, Foster still likes the business model.
“Coming up with the idea is not the hard part; it’s making it happen,” Danyew said.
The duo helped get the business off the ground with the help of a $35,000 loan from the Vermont Community Loan Fund, which they came to through the Carrot Project, an organization that helps finance small agriculture and food-based businesses in New England.
NICOLE FOSTER, LEFT and Julie Danyew own the Bridport Creamery. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Although they share in the work, Foster and Danyew each have their strong points. Danyew is in charge of making the cheese, hewing to a tight attention to detail that includes recording such particulars as the temperature of the room at the time a batch is coming out of the vat.
“She does everything by the book,” Foster noted. “I’m more of a big-picture person.”
Danyew agrees that their strengths complement each other.
“Nicki’s good at planning — what we’re going to get done tomorrow,” she said.
Bridport Creamery has been slowly but steadily expanding its footprint. It cheese is available at stores and restaurants across a growing footprint of Vermont. The St. Albans Co-op, where Iroquois ships the rest of its milk, sells it in the company store. The Skinny Pancake restaurant in Burlington is a regular customer now that sometimes does promotions with Bridport’s cheese curds.
A big step forward came when the creamery signed on two big local milk distributors — Monument Farms Dairy of Weybridge and Thomas Dairy of Rutland — to deliver Bridport cheese on their regular milk runs. It means that the cheesemaker can get its product in front of consumers in a big slate of retail and restaurant outlets, and the dairies can keep their customers supplied with a new type of product that complements their milk.
“It was good for us and it was good for them,” Danyew said. “They were looking for another product.”
The duo has taken advice and assistance from many sources. Early on, before they had a name for one of their cheeses (they simply referred to it by the color of the wax on the outside), Foster and Danyew had a visitor who was very curious as to what he should call it. He tasted it and said it was a little like Swiss cheese and a little like mozzarella; and suggested the name “Swisserella” and it stuck.
“I saved myself $500 in marketing costs,” Foster said.
A year from now Danyew hopes to have some aged cheeses to sell, a bigger cheese cave and possibly an employee to share in the labor. The business also will expand its distribution little by little, eventually reaching into bigger, metropolitan markets like New York and Boston. But the proprietors aren’t looking to use the services of a third party like the Cellars at Jasper Hill, which ages and markets cheese for Vermont cheesemakers.
“We want to do it all ourselves here,” Foster said.
THE BRIDPORT CREAMERY specializes in cheese curds, the fresh bits left after cheese cultures and rennet are added to pasteurized milk and they whey is strained out. Independent photo/Trent Campbell.
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