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Distant Cheeses, Local Farmers: A Story of Cheese

In 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. Read on to learn more!

A trip to the cheese counter can cause sensory overload. Dazzling, shiny labels boast certifications of original quality. Unpronounceable names in foreign languages can sound like gibberish. But I like to remember that what’s behind the label—the cheese—has a story to tell.

This story includes farms and caves, cheesemakers and animals. But it’s also a deeper story, one that involves history and geography, the movement of people and cultures, wisdom of ages, creativity, and innovation. In a European cheese you might find a story dating back thousands of years, the characters and plot continuing largely unchanged into the present. In an American cheese, you might find a story that began only a few years ago, but which was inspired by a plethora of stories (and cheeses) that preceded it. In fact, cheese can be a great lens through which we can view history, especially if we want to compare the histories of farming and food across continents.

In France, the idea that this story can be tasted is well-entrenched. The word terroir is a way to describe how geography is reflected in a food. The idea is that the local environment—the specific flora and fauna as well as the local know-how and traditions of the people—combine to create a unique final product. Because cheese is particularly influenced by terroir, a cheese from one locality may be imitated elsewhere, but never replicated. No two cheeses from different places will share the same story—nor will they taste the same.

Famous Terroirs: Clockwise from left, The Swiss Alps, Provence, Vermont, and Basque Country!

Famous Terroirs: Clockwise from left, The Swiss Alps, Provence, Vermont, and Basque Country!
Photo credits: Molly McDonough, Urko Dorronsoro, and Patrick Breen

The French have always taken this seriously. Take Roquefort: Its taste is heavily influenced both by the limestone geology in its home region (which dictates the grass and wildflowers available to the local sheep) and by the mold that gives it its character, which is found in the soil of local caves. In 1411 King Charles VI decreed that only the people of Roquefort would have the right to ripen Roquefort cheese. And in 1925 it became the first cheese to gain legal protection under the label of Appellation d’Origine Controllee (AOC), the French standard for protecting local wines and food products. This is why you’ll never see a cheese labeled ‘Roquefort’ made anywhere outside this designated area in France. The label ensures not only the geography, but also a traditional method of production.

In theory, AOC and other designation or origin labels ensure that small local producers can continue to thrive, that production of the cheese resists the temptations of industrialization, and that consumers will receive a high-quality, authentic product. The AOC system also has equivalents in Spain (‘Denominacion de Origen’), Italy (‘Denominazione di Origine Protetta’), and the wider European Union (‘Protected Designation of Origin’). Under this system, the names of local cheeses throughout Europe are now legally protected. Their stories are quantified, standardized, and given a guarantee of continuity into the future.

A couple hundred years from King Charles VI’s reign cheesemaking made its debut America. British emigrants brought recipes and know-how from England, but were quickly faced with the challenges of making an Old World cheese in a New World Landscape. Despite New England’s perfectly fertile farmland, its hot, humid summers wreaked havoc on aging cheeses, causing these new Americans to shift their recipes and aging techniques and invent new equipment. Early American cheeses, based on English recipes for Cheddar and Gloucester, changed and evolved into what we now consider American Cheddar.

Over the centuries, as emigrants from Europe populated the New World landscape, they brought with them many new cheeses. But as American dairy farming and cheesemaking shifted from a small-farm profession to a mechanized industry, those cheeses that couldn’t be efficiently produced on a huge scale at a low cost largely fizzled out. Some—such as mozzarella, Swiss (Emmental), cottage cheese, and cream cheese (all originally based on European cheeses) —were scaled up successfully and became American staples. These industrialized American cheeses often compromised quality and flavor for quantity and lacked the connection to place that European cheeses had enjoyed, especially in places like France, Spain, and Italy where peasant agriculture was better preserved into the 20th century.


Two views of cheesemaking: historic and small; industrial and modern.
Photo Credit: University of Sevilla

In the past few decades, though, American cheesemakers have begun to experiment as never before. Small producers have popped up in every corner of the country, and they’re proving what American cheeses can be. Some go to Europe to learn from the masters, others experiment in their kitchens; some base their cheeses off of traditional European recipes, others combine different recipes and invent something new. As in France, each of these American cheeses is shaped by its local environment: With geography, the know-how of the cheesemaker, and the tastes of the local purchasers all influencing it. But unlike protected European cheeses, most American cheeses have a terroir that is more difficult to grasp. While their stories often begin in Europe, the plot thickens in America—and the conclusion is yet unwritten.

I’m interested in how American cheesemakers draw inspiration from the great ‘local’ cheeses of Europe and make them into something new stateside. What are the benefits and challenges of remaking a cheese that’s so deeply connected to another place? How do we define the story of an American cheese? Can an American cheese ever be truly ‘local’? Over the coming weeks, I’ll be talking to American cheesemakers and exploring this concept. Each week I’ll feature a different type of European cheese and show how it’s been replicated or reinvented in the U.S. I don’t aim to simplify the story of American cheese, but instead hope to explore history and the movement of people and ideas through the lens of cheese.

Next week we’ll begin the journey by looking for Comté and Abondance cheeses- in the French Alps and in the rolling hills of Central Massachusetts! Click here to read the post.

Molly McDonough

Associate Editor Molly McDonough worked for cheesemakers in Switzerland and the US before earning a Master's degree in Agriculture and Food Science at the Ecole Supérieure d'Agriculture in Angers, France. After spending a year in Romania working on rural development projects with Heifer International, she returned home to Boston and joined the culture team in 2015.

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