Monday, January 04, 2010

Buzz Lightyear and the Decade in American Cheese

The first few days of the decade have got me thinking. In ten short years, American farmstead cheese has made astronomical leaps and bounds towards greatness. Today, there are great (not merely good) cheeses issuing forth from just about every state in the nation! I have every reason to believe and hope that the next ten years will be even more fruitful and delicious. Going through some of my cheese-centric library at home, I was chuffed by what I found written about American cheese in the past 10 (or slightly more) years.

In Steve Jenkins' Cheese Primer, first published in 1996, he dedicated a respectably hefty chapter of the book to our country's dairy artisans. This watershed book came at a time when Americans' curiosity for cheese was in its nascent phases; Mr. Jenkins' tome (no pun intended) served as many folks' first point of entry into the wonderful world of cheese. He praises the efforts of American cheese makers, saying, 'My genuine enthusiasm for many of the American artisanal cheeses that follow is not mere jingoism... I am encouraged by signs that fine American cheeses are beginning to emerge and assume their rightful status as American Treasures in much the same way that fine American wines did several decades ago.'

Flipping through the Primer, it was quite interesting to see which cheese makers were still around, and astounding to think of what has come about in the interim years. For the state of Vermont alone, there were 9 artisan cheese makers cited, where now the Vermont Cheese Council's website boasts 41 cheese maker members making over 150 varieties of artisan cheese! In 2020, there's no telling how many tantalizing cheeses the Green Mountain State will produce. Hopefully we can upgrade to a bigger cheese case in the meantime!

The Cheese Plate, written by Max McCalman, came out in 2002 to great acclaim. It is still one of my go-to books, and the one that I most heartily recommend to those who are new to cheese, but want to learn more about it. In the final chapter of the book, McCalman lists a selection of the world's finest cheeses. The Americans get a little play, but McCalman tempers his enthusiasm with the statement that, '...A handful of American artisans is making real cheese, which is an encouraging sign... Sometimes I worry that American cheeses may be nothing more than good -or merely passable- imitations of European originals. I want to encourage our artisans and also issue them a challenge: America's potential for superior production is mostly unfulfilled. We have a long way to go in terms of variety and originality.'

Just eight years later, in 2010, it is truly amazing to see the variety and originality offered just within the confines of our little cheese case in the Essex Street Market. All those young cheese makers out there must have heard (and heeded) Max's call!

One of the more recent books to chronicle the state of American farmstead cheese was Jeff Roberts' Atlas of American Artisan Cheese. Published in 2007, Mr. Roberts' book lists 345 cheese makers, though he acknowledges that there are many others at large. He states, 'In 2006, I identified over four hundred possible small-scale producers nationwide - an astounding number, since, in the year 2000, almost half of these producers did not exist!'

It's true. It's a mind-boggling task to try and keep up with all of the amazing American farmstead cheese out there. And I'm just trying to keep the producers on the East Coast straight in my head! The Midwest, South, and West Coast are home to innumerable great cheeses... more than enough to keep their local mongers stuffed to the gills! This first week of the new decade, I'd like to send out a hearty thanks to our cheese makers, and to those authors, chefs, and enthusiasts who keep our palates and our minds primed to taste new and exciting cheeses!

So here's to another great decade of American farmstead cheese! At the risk of being hunted down by Disney for copyright infringement, I'd like to end this weeks' email with a quote from Buzz Lightyear, who wasn't talking about cheese when he said this, but still seems apropos... 'To infinity! And beyond!'

1 comment:

laurie said...

I wish I could say the same for the Australian cheese industry...with similar, fairly recent beginnings...yet stagnation and mediocrity rather than the creativity and originality of the US...there is still hope!