Real American Cheese

There’s a renaissance in cheese making in this country, and fans of fromage enjoy the benefits.

By Diana Pittet


Thistle Hill’s Jersey cows headed home for milking.The Northeast: Thistle Hill Farm

In Europe, climate and environment have shaped the type of cheese consumed in a region over the centuries (think of feta in sunny Greece and triple-cream cheeses in verdant northwestern France). Likewise, today’s American cheese makers craft their cheese to reflect their location—an approach that differs from that of the earliest New England cheese makers, who employed the Cheddar and Cheshire technology from homeland England.

With this in mind, John and Janine Putnam started making cheese in 2002 at Thistle Hill, their home farm of 83 acres in North Pomfret, Vermont. They wanted to create a product that suited their land, and for the Putnams and their dairy farm, this meant an Alpine cheese, like Gruyère.

“We’re not exactly the Alps, but we’re as high as you get in Vermont,” claims John about the grassy and wooded slopes of his farm, about 10 miles from White River Junction. A family trip to the French, Swiss, and Italian Alps resulted in Tarentaise, the only cheese that Thistle Hill makes. Similar to Beaufort, a French mountain cheese, and named for the Savoie valley where Beaufort is produced, Tarentaise is a 20-pound, firm wheel with concave sides, butterscotch in color and taste, with a long, nutty finish. The intense yellow color is the result of making Tarentaise only when the Putnams’ own Jersey cows are on pasture, an indication of the couple’s commitment to sustainable agriculture. The nutritious beta-carotene from the grass, which is fertilized by the cows’ manure (a responsible closed agricultural loop), comes through in Thistle Hill’s organic and unpasteurized milk.

Janine pours fresh milk into calf bottles to feed young heifers.Our industrialized eating habits can make us forget that cows are built for eating only grass, and that what the cows eat—and what breed they are—affects the flavor of their milk. Weather, soil, and terrain determine what grows in this corner of Vermont. This means that if Thistle Hill were transplanted to, say, Connecticut, Tarentaise would taste very different.

Countless other factors besides grass determine its ultimate flavor profile (e.g., a Swiss copper cheese vat and John’s handiwork). But there is one very small thing that has a big impact: the farm’s unique microflora—its bacteria and other microorganisms. Whereas large-scale factories attempt to eliminate their effect, John promotes it when making and aging his cheeses. The result is a cheese that could be found nowhere else.

Photos: Cory Hendrickson