Originally published in culture's winter 2010 issue
One of the UK’s biggest newspapers, the Daily Telegraph, recently ran a short column titled, “Blessed Are the British Cheesemakers.” Having tasted many cheeses from Britain, I was prepared to cheer the essay based on the title alone. My goodwill quickly deflated, however, once I read the first paragraph. The writer—award-winning journalist and editor Clive Aslet—started his homage to British cheesemakers by first trampling on American ones, claiming, “I couldn’t live in the [United States] because of the cheese. America seems unable to cope with this most glorious of foods, both a staple which fills the sandwich and a luxury that enchants the epicure.”
Excuse me? “Unable to cope”? Does he know nothing of the American revolution in our dairy, which has given rise to more than 500 (at last count) artisan cheesemakers over the past 25 years? Not to mention the many larger domestic producers who have put high-quality cheeses in nearly every American supermarket. Clearly, Aslet is unaware that in the 2010 World Cheese Competition, U.S. cheesemakers earned gold medals in 51 out of 79 cheese and butter categories judged. Let me also boast about this year’s American Cheese Society (ACS) invitational, where a parade of 1,462 New World cheeses competed for 350 ribbons in 107 categories. A few bites of these ACS winners would have had our condescending columnist eating his words.
Do I sound a wee bit defensive on this point? If so, it’s with good reason. Working the U.S. food beat for more than two decades, I’ve long endured these foreign potshots at American gastronomy. I admit, there was a time when such jabs were actually justified—as in the post-war pre-1980 period, when our food culture was driven almost entirely by restaurant chains and giant food corporations and the best we (aspiring chefs and gourmets) could do was try to imitate the Europeans. The cheese scene in those days was equally dismal, as cheese meister Steven Jenkins has cited in these pages. “There was nothing available . . . in the seventies that had any legitimacy in the realm of cuisine . . . and certainly no cheese,” quoth Jenkins when profiled in culture’s Summer 2010 issue.
But that was then—a very long time ago in American food years. To continue to treat the United States like the Rodney Dangerfield of the cheese world shows nothing more than willful ignorance. And so it was proven when I read the comment blog at the Daily Telegraph in response to the column. Despite articulate counterarguments from American readers, Aslet refused to be even curious about fine American cheese, let alone complimentary. “My wife and I were in New York fairly recently,” he wrote, “and the only cheese we could find in the supermarkets looked (and subsequently tasted) like plasticine.” I guess he never made it to Artisanal, Fairway, Di Palo’s, the Ideal Cheese Shop, Murray’s, Saxelby, Zabar’s, or even Whole Foods. That’s like my ignoring London’s Neal’s Yard Dairy yet opining on British cheeses.
Much as I decry this public cheese insult, the sad fact is that we have ourselves partly to blame. FDA politics are such that it’s nearly impossible for any artisanal American cheeses to make it across the pond so that Brits, and other Europeans, can actually taste our really good stuff. The experience of trying to get Rogue River Blue—an award-winning cheese from Rogue Creamery in Oregon—for sale on a cheese counter in London is a case in point. Even though Rogue owners David Gremmels and Cary Bryant had a committed UK retailer, Randolph Hodgson, eager to sell their cheese, they spent four years navigating FDA red tape and roadblocks before their cheese could be sold to the EU market.
“The big hurdle,” explains Gremmels, “was not having a health certificate available for export of raw milk cheese to EU. It didn’t exist in the system.” Even with the help of three high-level politicians—fans of the Rogue cheese—it still took constant diligence, weekly phone calls, and years of correspondence to get approval in 2007. All for a cheese that was already deemed legal and acceptable for sale in the United States, where raw-milk-cheese regulations are more stringent than anywhere in Europe. FDA logic escapes me.
Fortunately, perseverance paid off for Gremmels and Bryant. Their Rogue River Blue now travels regularly to Neal’s Yard Dairy and La Fromagerie in London, where it has a devoted following despite stiff competition from European counterparts. “It always sells out,” Gremmels beams. But despite this happy ending to their bureaucratic odyssey, he has sobering advice: “There is so much work to be done regarding the perception of American cheese abroad.” Cheese outreach is a big part of that work, he adds. “We are educating the foreign market one taste at a time. Once they try our cheese they’re blown away.” And then, he smiles, “they become our ambassadors.”
Eating is believing when it comes to appreciating America’s world-class cheesemaking. So is the simple fact of this magazine; culture exists because the United States has such an expansive, enthusiastic cheese community, hungry for the subject regardless of national boundaries. No other country has such a consumer publication. And guess what? It sells really well at Neal’s Yard Dairy and Fromagination.