To most people, October means the beginning of fall. To me, it means American Cheese Month. The weather’s turning chillier, the leaves are falling and it’s time to eat American Cheese. No, not that American Cheese. We’re talking cheeses made in America. Particularly artisan crafted or farmstead cheeses.
And why do we need an American Cheese Month? Because there is still an attitude in this country that ‘good’ cheese only comes from Europe. Even among those who are aware or vaguely aware that there are artisan cheeses being made in this country, many have no idea of the actual scope of America’s cheesemaking scene.
And that’s understandable. For many years, there were few artisan cheesemakers in this country. America was a wasteland of industrial cheese and processed cheese food.
People who knew that cheese could be so much more also knew that to get the ‘good stuff,’ they had to look to Europe. At that point, Europe had been making world class cheese for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Plus, America has always had a bit of an attitude when it comes to Europe: If it European its gotta be good – after all, they’re so sophisticated over there.
But in the seventies and eighties things slowly began to change. People like Laura Chenel on the west coast and Peter Dixon out on the east coast began traveling the world, tasting the amazing cheeses made in Europe, and returning home convinced that they could do the same thing here in the States.
Fast forward 30-or-so years and things are much different. But it didn’t happen quickly or even easily. It started when existing dairy farmers were looking to create a value-added product to make their farms financially viable. It started with the “back-to-the-landers” recreating what they had tasted overseas.
In the beginning, these cheesemakers had to create the market for their new products. They also had to convince dairymen to change their farming practices to produce astonishingly high quality milk that could be turned into high-quality cheese instead of selling high-volume, lower quality milk for pennies a pound to milk producers.
Fast forward to today where the artisan cheesemaking scene is a certified movement. I liken it to America’s craft brewing revolution. New people are getting into the business almost daily with high hopes and ideas of creating the next world-class cheese.
There are hundreds of artisan cheesemakers in this country right now, people like Brenda Jensen at Hidden Springs Creamery in Wisconsin, the folks at Consider Bardwell in Vermont, David Gremmels and Cary Bryant at Rogue River Creamery in Oregon, or Sue Conley and Peggy Smith at Cowgirl Creamery in California. The list could literally fill pages, but trust me when I tell you there are hundreds more artisans laboring (and it is labor!) in relative obscurity who are dedicated to making world-class cheese.
As we embrace the farm-to-table movement, as we try to eat local, as we worry about our carbon footprint, and as we embrace the efforts of artisans and craftspeople, it’s time we begin to look in our own back yard when it comes to artisan cheese.
That’s not to say we should leave Europe out of the mix. Europe has a long and illustrious history cheese-wise. It’s where we here in America originally learned our cheesemaking craft, after all.
And it’s not as if Europe is resting on its laurels – European cheesemakers continue to explore and develop amazing new cheese – witness the explosion of Challerhocker onto the cheese scene a few short years ago.
But European cheesemakers are often constrained by those same thousands of years of history and tradition, as well as their AOC and DOC systems. Their cheeses can often only be made one way, in one place, and are subject to intense government oversight, not just in the health parameters, but in the realm of creativity as well.
America has no such strictures. Our cheesemakers are subject to stringent health regulations, for sure. But once those rules are satisfied, our cheesemakers are free to experiment, create, rework and redesign as they see fit. This has resulted in amazing new riffs on old styles and wonderful new ‘unclassifiable’ cheeses that don’t really fit in any one category.
In a sense, it’s the wild wild west all over again, with respect to our cheese scene here in America. So when next you have a chance, pick up a chunk of Reading raclette or Wabash Cannonball this month, and help to ensure that the artisan cheese movement stays healthy and vibrant here on our shores.
You may just have a cheese-revelation as you say “I had no idea we were doing things like this here in America!”