Artisanal Cheese - Are We Worshipping False Gods?
I could scarcely believe my ears the other day when a wine maker friend had pronounced to me that a certain truffle infused cheese was the best cheese he had ever eaten. I hesitated, partially out of anger and partially out of despair. For a fleeting instant I thought that we have no chance of elevating the artisanal cheese industry out of its Walt Disney status.
After several deep breaths, I resisted the urge to explode like a Roman Candle and asked instead.
Do you flavor your wine with truffle? No.
Do you add strawberry or blackberry to enhance your wine? Don't be ridiculous.
Do you mix grapes from various vineyards for a wine? No.
So you make single estate wines? Yes.
And you actually name the vineyard? Of course.
Tell me what is the key ingredient to making great wine? Why good quality grapes of course.
So why is it you can feel this way about wine and not cheese? Why is it you celebrate additives in your cheese but won't tolerate them in the wine?
The answer I think has much to do with knowledge and respect. Wine makers and a growing portion of the public respect wine because they know and understand it. Indeed, they devote a lifetime to knowing and understanding it. What goes into creating great tastes in cheese, on the other hand, is widely misunderstood and therefore less respected.
And there is the sum total of where we are at the moment with artisanal cheese in the United States. The cheese industry is in the same position that the wine industry was in the 60s and 70s. We're enthralled with cute names and fancy additives. We're eating the cheese equivalent of the wine cooler. And even people who turn their noses up at jalapeño jack but will wax poetical about a truffle infused cheese, are stunting the growth of this wonderful industry.
What is behind the countrified names, cleaver homespun looking labels and misuse of the word "Artisanal"? What foundations are we building?
Instead of the birth of a great cheese movement I feel that sometimes we are witnessing its death. How will the skills and appreciation ever develop without passionate people asking pertinent questions and demanding higher and higher standards and truer and truer foods? If we remain impressed with the superficial, the industry has little chance of longevity. If the wine industry had not lifted itself out of the wine cooler phase, it would have disappeared. People soon get bored with the superficial. The same problem now faces cheese people.
You can help dramatically by putting pressure on the staff at cheese counters and cheese shops. They in turn will pressure others in the industry. Here are a few things to ask and to look for:
- Is this artisanal cheese made in America? Unfortunately, some that are being sold under American labels are actually made in Europe.
- What farm or farms did the milk come from?
- Is the cheese made on the milk of a single herd or multiple herds? If the person doesn't know, don't buy it.
- What breeds of cow, goat or sheep were responsible for the milk?
- What is the size of the herd?
- Were the animals on grass? If not, what were they fed on? If so, what were they supplemented on?
- How old is this cheese? The cheesemonger should know within several days.
- Is this the right age and condition for this cheese? And, Is this the right taste profile for this cheese? Does it always taste like this or am I to expect improvement or degeneration?
- Is this a young version of the cheese or an older version?
- What are the seasons for this cheese? Seasons? Yes, in what season does it normally taste best?
- I see this cheese is wrapped in such and such; is this what it should be wrapped in?
- How long has it been sitting on shelf.
- How does the rind contribute to the taste?
You can ask these questions without any prior knowledge. All of them throw the onus onto the cheese sales person. And you will know instantly whether you are being told the truth or not. You will certainly catch somebody off guard, because they won't expect it. Cheese retail people aren't used to being challenged. But if you do challenge them they will start asking the right questions of the distributors, who in turn are failing to ask the right questions of the cheese makers. Nobody is putting pressure on anybody else to be better, not the numerous judges in the numerous competitions and certainly not the food writers. But it is the asking of these questions that will begin to apply the pressure backward until cheese makers are paying attention to what should preoccupy them: individuality and quality, that is a cheese that is uniquely theirs through taste and quality. There is no marketing tool as strong as quality. No logo, no cute label, no clever name, no additive, no personality will supplant quality. These gizmos may sell cheese in the short term but what shines through, what gives products and food longevity is quality. And most importantly quality adds value to our lives.
Of course, there are people out there who are doing it right. Almost to a person, however, they are concentrating on their products not their marketing. They rarely enter competitions, or occasionally enter just to learn something. They haven't insulated themselves from the public by layer upon layer of staff and infrastructure. They tend to keep their achievements to themselves. But you'll find them in the best cheese shops and sometimes (though not as often as I would like) the best restaurants. Ask the above questions and the cheese staff should guide you to the right cheese makers.
The term "handmade" is extremely misleading. I know of a cheese maker who makes cheese by hand on powdered milk or milk from unidentified sources. Yikes. And two of the best cheeses in America are made with use of tons of equipment including robots; however, the milk is impeccable.
Start with understanding the milk and the sources and not only will you begin to understand cheese better but you'll force the industry experts to begin to reveal all that they are keeping to themselves. This is the only way this industry will survive.
Copyright John P. Raymond
About the Cheesemonger
John Raymond, previously the Cheese Manager at Dean & Deluca, St. Helena, spent 20 years in Europe working with traditional foods. He now runs his own wholesale and retail cheese operation, called Raymond & Co., in Glen Ellen, California.