n this blog series our intrepid intern Molly will find and interview American cheesemakers attempting to re-create traditional European cheeses. Learn about the difficulties as well as the benefits of this type of cheese making, as well as how terroir and the idea of a cheese tied to a location so distant changes when that cheese is made in a new location. Also, each week you’ll have a chance to win an issue of culture: the word on cheese. The winner of last week’s prize was Patrick Farrington!
I started this blog a few months ago with some questions about the identity of American cheeses. If so many of them are modeled after European originals, including those protected by law, can they ever be truly ‘local’? Are the deep traditions and protected statuses of cheeses in Europe a hinderance to the creation of amazing cheeses in America, or, on the contrary, do they push our cheesemakers to be more inventive?
As it happens, this cheese identity crisis I’ve been having is personal. A few months ago I moved back to the U.S. from a tiny village in Switzerland where I’d been making Raclette with a guy who had done it his whole life, in much the same way as it had been done in the same tiny village for eons. At the local cheese festival I sold plates of local Raclette alongside ancient villagers who explained to me, over bottomless plastic cups of local wine, that this was their cheese. It could never be made anywhere else, with cows grazed on any other pastures. Somewhat different than the locavores I meet in America—who believe in supporting a local economy—this connection between a product and the land seems to me to run deeper in Europe. This is a place where the belief that a cheese is inextricably tied to the tiny village it comes from is protected not only culturally, but often legally.
Fast forward several months, and I’m outside of Boston on a dairy farm that’s being slowly consumed by the suburban mansions that have been creeping towards it for a century. And I’m trying to make Raclette. Our Jersey milk is delicious, our cheesemaking facility is brand new and sparkling clean, but starting up is more difficult than I could have imagined. I’m drilling holes into 5-gallon buckets from Home Depot to try and recreate the moulds we used in Switzerland, and the plastic is cracking, and we’re filling buckets with water to weigh down the curd because we don’t have a press, and I’m wondering if anyone will even buy our cheese anyway, because at the farmers’ market it seems like everyone is on a diet. I’m experiencing firsthand the difficulties of starting to make cheese in America, where small startups often suffer from a lack of tradition, resources, and legal and economic support.
But if I’ve learned anything from the past few months, it’s that making great cheese in America is possible, whether it’s a boerenkaas Gouda that is completely modeled after its Dutch predecessor, goat cheeses that live up to the Loire Valley versions, or a cheddar that borrows small-scale Old World traditions to boost quality and combines it with the sweet flavors Americans love. Week after week, cheesemakers I talked to said similar things: yes, they’re inspired by the cheeses of Europe, particularly by small-scale agriculture and by handmade production. But no two cheeses are the same, because no two pastures are the same. It starts with the milk—and the cows who graze in Central Massachusetts, or the sheep who graze in Wisconsin, or the goats who graze in Greenville, Indiana—and ends with a final product that is unique to its place, regardless of what inspired it.
Some American cheesemakers take this concept to another level, going out of their way to make their products reflect the local terroir. Take Paula Lambert of Mozarella Co. in Dallas, Texas. She makes a goat cheese that borrows from a French tradition, originating in the small Provencal village of Banon, of wrapping a small round of chèvre in chestnut leaves. But in place of chestnut leaves, Paula wraps her chèvres in Hoja Santa, a deciduous leaf that’s indigenous to Mexico and South Texas. It’s usually used for wrapping fish and chicken that’s then steamed inside banana leaves, imparting its sassafras and anise flavor. ” Banon was my inspiration”, Paula told me, “but what I wanted to do was make a cheese that had a wonderful, classic influence, but make it mine and make it reflective of the part of the country where I am, and the culinary trends that are here.” She sources her Hoja Santa leaves from people all around Dallas who are growing it in their household flower beds, furthering the connection she’s fostered between the community, the land and the cheese.
Or there’s Angela Miller of Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlet, Vermont, whose Manchester cheese, a goat’s milk tomme, takes the idea of terroir even further. While most cheesemakers around the world today inoculate their milk with bacterial cultures that have been isolated and manufactured in a lab, Miller and her team have created their own cultures that consist of bacteria indigenous to the farm’s immediate surroundings. By taking fresh, raw milk from a single doe, incubating it and analyzing its pH, the cheesemakers know when natural lactic acid bacteria develops. Taking some of this ‘prototypical’ culture, transferring it into sterilized goat’s milk, and beginning the monitoring process again yields a ‘mother culture’, which can be passed on from batch to batch. As a result, the cultures used to ripen Manchester are completely unique to the farm, and they change over time. This, coupled with seasonal changes in milk as goats rotate pastures, means that cheesemakers must constantly adapt to accommodate nature. But in the end, it’s worth it; they’ve created a delicious cheese that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else.
So given these kinds of local ties that we’re seeing more and more in American cheesemaking, is there a precedent for the legal protection of local cheeses, similar to what exists in Europe? I posed this question to Heather Paxson, an Anthropologist at MIT who examines the culture of American artisan cheese. In terms of government-mediated protection, she doesn’t see it happening. “I don’t see the state being interested,” she said, “but I also have a sense that the American cheesemakers all want to do their own thing.”
My conversations with cheesemakers around the country are a testament to her point. As opposed to honoring one specific tradition, most draw inspiration from the principle of traditional, handmade cheeses. But freed of the patrimony that exists in the Old World, they’re inspired to create something of their own. The uniqueness of each cheesemaker’s product is a source of pride, and few would want to see it forced into a category.
But what are we seeing instead? According to Professor Paxson, American cheesemakers are now thinking up ways to strategically mimic the resource-sharing and collective branding that the European PDOs offer, but without imposing regulatory or aesthetic norms. Think of the Cellars at Jasper Hill, where the Kehlers aid small farms by providing aging and distribution facilities and branding strategy—without imposing their recipes, still allowing the partner farms to shape the identity of each cheese. Instead of a legal structure, it’s a social and economic structure, and one that reflects the peculiarly American emphasis on innovation and uniqueness. As Professor Paxson says, it’s a “culturally-attuned experiment,” the results of which remain to be seen.
And of course there are the consumers, whose appreciation for quality product and the desire to support artisan cheesemakers enables the movement to go forward. More and more of us are sensing the difference it makes when we buy cheese directly from a small producer at a farmers’ market, or from a knowledgeable and passionate cheesemonger. It becomes clear that each artisan cheese has an identity; each has it’s own story. It builds off of centuries, even millennia of Old World tradition, but here it’s become inextricably tied to its landscape and community. And besides the fact that it’s delicious, that uniqueness, that story, is to me what makes cheese great.
So as I drill away at plastic buckets from Home Depot and lament over the complications of starting a new cheese, I remind myself of the 8th century Loire Valley inhabitants who probably struggled to adapt North African goat cheesemaking traditions to their landscape. Or I channel the Pilgrims, whose English-style cheeses suffered unwanted fermentations, cracking, and maggot infestations during the unfamiliar heat and humidity of their first New England summer. It’s a journey of adaptation and inventiveness, and it’s not easy, but in the end it’s what makes a new cheese. Each failed batch and each delicious success is a chapter in the unfolding story, and the unwritten ending is what keeps me going—and what makes it fun.