“State Plate” TV show looks at Shelburne Farms cheesemaking

Shelburne Farms cheese operation manager Kate Turcotte. Courtesy photo

Shelburne Farms cheesemaking will have a turn in the national spotlight Friday with “American Idol” winner Taylor Hicks and the INSP channel show “State Plate.”

For the second year, pop musician Hicks has traveled the country for “State Plate” in search of the most symbolic and popular foods in each state.

This Friday the series showcases Vermont with several segments, including one devoted to cheesemaking at Shelburne Farms.

Hicks, the 2006 American Idol winner, has shared the stage with artists as diverse as Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, Gladys Knight, Earth Wind and Fire, and the Allman Brothers. He has a foodie side, too, and is co-owner of Saw’s Juke Joint Restaurant in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala.

At Shelburne Farms, Hicks visited with cheese operations manager Kate Turcotte, who holds a degree from the University of Vermont in ecological agriculture.

Turcotte started as a cheesemaker at Shelburne Farms in June 2007. She moved to Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlet for two years before returning to Shelburne Farms as the head cheesemaker in December 2013. Two years later, she was promoted to cheese operations manager.

The Vermont Cheese Council steered “State Plate” to Shelburne Farms. The crew arrived in March and filmed for roughly three hours.

Turcotte is accustomed to having an audience while she works, including TV cameras. The cheese operation has been featured on the PBS “Weekends with Yankee” show and even an Australian food show. In addition, up to 100 visitors a day watch cheesemaking operations through viewing windows.

“Showing the process is an important part of what we do,” Turcotte said. “It provides added value and helps support a working dairy in Chittenden County.”

The segment of “State Plate” filmed at Shelburne Farms shows Hicks trying to help with the “hooping” process — filling metal buckets with cheese curds before they cool off. The pieces are called “cheddar fingers” and are designed to be salted evenly. The fingers are put into a mold, pressed overnight, and turned into 40-pound blocks. The blocks are later cut, waxed and shipped or sold on-site.

“Visually, hooping is something where you can see the cheese,” Turcotte said. “A lot of our day is milk churning in the vat, but this is something tangible that people can watch.”

Turcotte’s job involves managing the operations from milking to shipping. All the milk comes from 120 Brown Swiss cows on the farm that are milked twice a day. Turcotte has a crew of four women.

“The work is incredibly physically demanding,” she said. “It’s a nine-hour day from start to finish with a lot of dishwashing, lifting, and moving the 40-pound blocks. I’ve never had to purchase a gym membership since I became a cheesemaker.”

Cheese-making is an exercise in delayed gratification, with some cheese aging for six months and others as long as four years. “That’s one reason it’s good to be here for a while,” Turcotte said. “When I left for two years and came back, I could taste the cheese I’d made before I left.”

Shelburne Farms has a grading program to check on cheese quality during the aging process. “If you wait two years, it’s too late,” Turcotte said. “We taste really young cheese and look for defects.”

The work is hard, but Turcotte has no complaints. “I really love making cheddar and love how it’s a handmade product,” she said. “I really believe in the quality and like that it has a good price point and can be used for a lot of purposes.”

“State Plate” airs Friday at 8 p.m. on Comcast channel 264, DirecTV channel 364 and Dish channel 259.

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