A quest for tradition leads this notable cheesemaker down
multiple paths over the course of his career.
For some, it can take a big chunk of a lifetime to discover their purpose and passion. That has been the case for Peter Dixon, cheese industry veteran and owner of Westminster West, VT’s Parish Hill Creamery, whose path diverged constantly throughout his career. Yet, each venture was the means to the end, and that result was honoring traditional, centuries old cheesemaking practices.
The family business, which he runs with his wife Rachel and sister-in-law Alex, is described as ‘the full expression of raw milk from Elm Lea Farm in the hands of cheesemakers, with creamery propagated autochthonous cultures, traditional rennet and hand-harvested sea salt.’
When speaking with Dixon, it’s evident that cheesemaking is more than a job; it’s a way of life. And he is eager to not only share his experiences and knowledge, but also his love of the industry and the authenticity of his cheesemaking.
In his interview with Cheese Connoisseur, Dixon recalls his diverse and impressive background, from building on his education to becoming an educator himself, to working at many of the country’s prominent creameries to creating his own cheesemaking businesses. After almost four decades, Dixon’s dedication to his craft is undeniable, as is his knowledge of cheese.
Q. Tell me about your journey into cheese.
A. I never intended to be a cheesemaker. I thought I’d be a musician or a carpenter. In 1982, I was home for Christmas in Guilford, VT, where my family had a dairy farm, milking 20 Jersey cows and bottling milk. Over the holiday, my dad and stepmother proposed starting a cheese business, with me as cheesemaker and my brother managing the farm. Four months later, the Guilford Cheese Co. began making Fromage Blanc, a lactic French-style cheese. With no formal training, I developed a process of culturing the milk, waiting three hours and skimming off the cream, which would become crème fraiche, before adding rennet. The next year, I took a short course in Guelph where I learned to make several varieties, including Camembert.
Q. How did you decide on the cheeses you would focus on?
A. Based on our market study, we decided to make Brie and Camembert. In the mid-80s, Brie was gaining popularity in the U.S. These cheeses were good choices from both a marketing and a business standpoint — we didn’t have to age them for long. They were also a good follow up to the Fromage Blanc, which was lesser known to American consumers.
Q. You then expanded your operations. How did that occur?
A. The Guilford Cheese Co. operated for six years, and in the fifth year we formed a partnership with Renard-Gillard, a French company that had been making AOC raw milk Brie and Camembert for four generations. They were interested in expanding in the U.S. The challenge was to create these great cheeses but with pasteurized milk.
Q. Talk about the challenges you faced along the way.
A. It was difficult to sell the cheese — it wasn’t supermarket Brie. Ninety percent of our production was Brie and Camembert, and there just wasn’t enough market… yet. We went out of business in 1989, but it was a good lesson for me and fortunate that it happened in the beginning of my career. I had a year of introspection, picking apples and pruning trees.
Q. You had a revelation during this time?
A. I knew that I really liked cheesemaking, but I also knew that wasn’t enough; I needed to expand my scientific knowledge of the craft. I knew how to make cheese, but I didn’t know how to solve problems, so I went back to school. I earned my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in dairy science at the University of Vermont, and I became a cheese problem solver.
Q. You then went to work at Shelburne Farms during this time?
A. To pay for college I worked at Shelburne Farms as a cheesemaker. We made raw milk cheddar during pasture time. The milk was extraordinary.
Q. Then you changed course once again.
A. I needed to expand my horizons. In 1993, I took the plant manager job at Vermont Butter and Cheese, (now Vermont Creamery). It was a relatively small operation, grossing just over $1 million in sales. In four short years, gross sales were over $4 million. This was a profound time in my career, but I knew wanted something else. I was still too curious about the craft.
Q. You were able to work for a time in the Balkans. Talk about that period.
A. I spent three years working in Macedonia and Albania, where Land O’ Lakes had projects to improve dairy farming and dairy products in order to compete with imports. Macedonia has a rich sheep farming heritage, grounded in transhumance and traditional cheesemaking. They were making mostly Feta with that summer milk, and my job was to help improve the cheese and milk quality, but at the same time I was learning all about the craft of traditional raw milk cheesemaking. Cheese was made directly after milking so no starters were needed, something I’d never seen in the U.S.
Q. Talk about your work with the USDA.
A. I was hired as a USDA staff consultant in Armenia. I spent three months working with traditional feta and Lori cheesemakers to improve quality in order to expand production and increase exports. The traditional techniques have been used around the world with excellent results, but it became clear that complications arise when traditional methods and techniques are combined with modern technical developments to increase production without careful consideration. The old elemental ways just aren’t scalable without concessions to efficiency; the unique character of the cheese is lost.
Q. How did your career take you back to Vermont?
A. After years on the road, I wanted to be nearer to home. Inspired by my travels, I wanted to know everything about the milk: how it is gathered, stored and cultured. Turns out, the key is feed and freshness. The very best cheese is made with pasture-based raw milk that is never stored more than 24 hours. With this guiding principle, I started Westminster Dairy in 2000, milking 20 Jerseys and making my own aged raw milk cheese — even making my own autochthonous starters.
Q. You diversified at that time, as well.
A. With almost 20 years of cheesemaking as well as my work overseas, I began teaching classes in farmstead and artisan cheesemaking in 2002. Since then, I’ve worked in nearly every state. I’d travel to do a class for six to eight farmers, then follow up with a road trip to do consulting. I spent many years on the road, riding two horses at the same time, so to speak.
Q. When did you get interested in Italian cheesemaking?
A. I read the Slow Food book on Italian cheese and realized that while there were plenty of French style cheeses being made in the U.S., the vast majority of Italian-style cheeses were industrial and exclusively pasteurized. I’d made Kashkaval in Macedonia, and was inspired to try my hand at Caciocavallo. From there, it was a short leap to making an Asiago-style called Vermont Herdsman and developing Livewater Toma.
Q. You then closed Westminster Dairy and began traveling again.
A. Four years in we realized our goals no longer aligned. We closed in 2004, and I fell back into teaching, consulting and traveling. I returned to Armenia, worked in Canada and the U.S. and even made two trips to China to consult with a company in Shanghai. Over the years, we have had students from India, Mexico, Africa, Chile, Azerbaijan and El Salvador. Cheese is truly a global food.
Q. How did your stint at Consider Bardwell come about?
A. The owners of Consider Bardwell were looking for a cheesemaker to help grow the business. I started as a consultant, eventually becoming a very minor partner. In the six years I was there, I developed new cheeses, implemented quality and food safety programs and grew the annual production from 7,000 to 90,000 pounds of cheese. It was a great arrangement. I had full rein as a cheesemaker, using their goat milk to create Manchester and Danby, and creating a local supply of cow milk. Working with pasture-based raw milk (milk suited to high quality cheesemaking), I was able to develop award winning cheeses including Pawlet, Dorset and Rupert—modeled on my Vermont Herdsman.
Q. But that wasn’t in your long-term plan.
A. I’d been mentoring Leslie Goff for four years. An exceptionally capable cheesemaker, Leslie was ready to manage the cheese production at CBF. My wife Rachel and I had plans of our own. I was ready to go all in and make natural cheese, and Rachel was willing to take a chance with me.
Q. How did Westminster Artisan Cheesemaking come about?
A. I started teaching cheesemaking classes in 1999, holding sessions at Westminster Dairy, Woodcock Farm and Consider Bardwell Farm as well as at creameries and farms around the U.S. In 2011 Rachel and I founded Westminster Artisan Cheesemaking, where we hold hands-on classes for anyone interested in starting or improving a cheese business. Classes are small, up to 10 students. Our school is unique, giving people the chance to make cheese in a licensed creamery with appropriately-sized equipment. For some, it’s their first opportunity to work with commercial equipment — a vat, draining tables and everything else. Our intro class covers everything from milk to marketing, and the advanced class delves deeply into specific styles, while affinage is an extensive discussion of the facilities and techniques necessary to successfully age naturally rinded cheese. Pasteurized cheeses and selected starters are covered, but the focus is on traditional, natural, raw milk cheesemaking. This is what we do at Parish Hill, so our students are able to see it in action. Currently, Westminster Artisan is the only place in the U.S. where one can learn how to use natural methods in commercial cheese production. There has been great disruption of tradition through the industrialization of cheesemaking. We encourage people to make the most of their resources — let the milk lead!
Q. When did you establish your current company, Parish Hill?
A. We made our first cheeses at Parish Hill in August, 2013, but it had been in the works for years, really since I started making cheese! We were committed to making cheese as naturally as possible, using raw milk, animal rennet, local salt and our own autochthonous cultures. Our mission was to deliver the taste of this place.
Q. How did you go about this?
A. We are not dairy farmers, so we had to find the right farm to make great milk for cheese.
Traditional cheesemaking developed with milk from animals on pasture. Keeping cows in barns and giving them silage is efficient and inexpensive, but does not produce the quality of milk necessary to make great cheese. Grazing season in Vermont is about six months, and the quality of the forage determines the beginning and end of our make season. Storing milk cold is important for fluid milk production, but has deleterious effects in cheese. At Parish Hill, cheesemaking begins within 20 hours of milking to avoid these unfavorable microbiological changes. Harvesting autochthonous cultures from that milk is another way to leverage the microbial richness of the milk. We developed mother cultures, both mesophilic and thermophilic, from seven cows in the herd. By propagating them continuously, we have the bacterial kickstart necessary to dependably make high quality cheese, year in and out. We use animal rennet from a small company in Quebec, but would love to have a source closer to home. Our salt comes from the coast of Maine. These choices are considered and intentional, drawing on our experience and resources, trying to make authentic cheese that could only be made this way in this place.
Q. Talk about the Cornerstone project.
A. Cornerstone is a collaborative effort that we started with Cato Corner Farm and Birchrun Hills, in order to demonstrate the unique nature of raw milk cheese. Variables are limited: we all start with the same recipe and the same techniques, but use our own raw milk, animal rennet, local salt, and of course, our own cultures. Breed, feed, geography, maker and aging affect the subtle differences and striking similarities evident in our Cornerstones. The intention is to expand the project across the continent in order to encourage makers to explore the opportunities inherent in natural cheesemaking.
Q. What is your next chapter?
A. Prior to COVID-19, we were looking at succession strategies. I’m in my 6o’s and just can’t see myself at the vat for too many more years. We want to see Parish Hill stay viable, but that will require a careful and considered transition. In our original business plan we expected to be making 30,000 pounds in our third year; in our eighth year we have yet to reach 15,000 pounds. In large part, we haven’t wanted to stop teaching and consulting — education is vital. We’ll have to pass it on eventually, and we hope to find excellent cheesemakers to make natural cheese so we can slow down gracefully. We went to the Slow Food Cheese event in Italy last year, and it was a confirmation of what we’ve been doing and an inspiration to continue. Natural cheese is possible, even inevitable, as we look to the future. In the meantime, I’m working on a book that weaves stories of my life in cheese with practical cheesemaking tips. I love writing.
Q. What would you say is the industry conundrum?
A. How to preserve diversity? From cows to creameries, methods to microbes, and who can make cheese and cheese milk; monoliths and monoculture threaten our future. There is little chance that industrial production will disappear, but there is a real danger of losing important traditions, techniques and microbial communities. We risk of losing so much: the cows that can still graze marginal lands, the grazing that preserves diverse meadow, the farmers whose practices keep pastureland viable, the knowledge of cheesemakers who coax the best from their milk, the cheeses that depend on the milk of grazing cows, and so much more. We believe in what we’re doing and want to help others navigate the choices inherent in making cheese. The model you choose dictates the cheese you’re making. Now is the time to consider how the system is set up and how we can help be the change.