When most people hear the words “American cheese,” they think Velveeta or Cheez Whiz. Not so anymore. Thanks to a handful of dedicated farmers, America is producing cheese that stands up to some of Europe’s most elegant cheeses.
I love stinky European cheeses, but over the years, American artisanal cheeses have become some of my favorites — the staples I reach for when I’m preparing a dinner party or want a snack on Sunday afternoon. Sure, they have a new-world taste. But they capture something about the American spirit that makes them uniquely our own; they take the best of the old world and mix it all up into cheeses that are fresh and shockingly bold, with kitschy names (such as Cypress Grove’s Ewe-F-O or Firefly Farms’ Merry Goat Round).
“Terroir,” a word often thrown around in the wine world, literally means “soil,” but refers to the way that the taste that imbues a particular food comes uniquely from the land in which it was produced. These artisanal cheeses haven’t been produced on one small pasture in the middle of the Alps for the past 300 years, but terroir is alive and well in the American cheese world. Bite into a block of Gruyère-like Tarentaise, and the taste of grass from a slopey hillside farm comes alive. Milk is only as tasty as a herd animal’s diet, and it is now possible to stock the cheese course with the complex taste of milk from animals that graze on our very own grasses.
Many of these innovative producers spent time on some of the oldest dairy farms in England and France and brought the knowledge they gleaned onto ailing farmsteads to try to rectify America’s sad lack of a food identity. In a way, these cheesemakers are protectors of a way of life that is quickly dying off. They are firmly planting their feet into farms that were nearly squandered, and making them thriving, healthy places that produce delicious food.
We are industrializing our food supply (spinach eaters, take note!) and what we are losing in the crossfire is taste. American artisanal cheese producers are giving the finger to the model that says we should produce our food in big, centralized factories. They are proving that what all the industrial foodists say cannot be done can be done, and done with style.
So in honor of the season, and in my passion for food that is made sustainably, I have put together an American cheese course. I mean, Cheez Whiz has its merits — thank you, Philly cheese steak — but one cannot live on processed foodstuff alone. (All of the following are available at Whole Foods Market in Winter Park or online at www.artisanalcheese.com or www.murrayscheese.com.)
Hoja Santa: Texan cheesemaker Paula Lambert got her start after spending five years in Italy. When she returned home, she decided to re-create for Texans what she missed most about Italy — fresh mozzarella. In 1982, fresh mozzarella was not yet part of the American food psyche, and she burst onto the food scene with this creamy delicacy. She founded the Mozzarella Co., and she’s been making handcrafted cheeses ever since. She’s gone from making about 100 pounds of fresh mozzarella per week to having more than a dozen tasty cheeses in her profile, which are sold far and wide and have won multiple awards. One that really reflects the terroir of its Texan home is Hoja Santa, a goat-milk cheese that is wrapped in herbaceous hoja santa, a plant that grows wild in Texas. The slightly minty, sassafras note that the cheese takes on is downright delicious.www.murrayscheese.com
Constant Bliss: How could you not try it with a name like that? The Kehler family of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vt., has been at it since 1998, when they purchased an ailing dairy farm in the heart of the Northeast. Their goal was to create a sustainable farming method that would enhance the countryside they loved dearly. They purportedly tried beer and tofu production before settling on cheesemaking. In the process of reaching their farming goals, they stumbled upon one of the most amazing American cheeses ever made.
The Kehlers’ cheesemaking process begins in the evening. Every time I bite into a small disc of Constant Bliss, I think of dusk easing its way into night. Crickets are chirping and the time for rest is at hand. This cheese, though modeled on French Chaource, is truly unique. It is almost three cheeses in one, with a chalky, sharp center surrounded by a creamy layer under an assertive rind. The flavor profile is astounding: A lemony savor bursts against the soft, mushroomy background. Terroir shines through in this delectable cheese made with the raw milk from a small herd of Ayreshire cows. www.jasperhillfarm.com
Humboldt Fog: It’s hardly worth mentioning American goat cheese without a huge hats-off to Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove. She first bought a herd of goats as a way to give her children a healthful source of milk, but soon discovered she had a knack for breeding goats and making some of the most stunning artisanal cheese around. This double-layered 5-pound wheel is beautiful, with a bloomy rind that looks like a steely gray-and-white rock. Cut into it, and a thin black layer of vegetable ash separates two layers of fresh, white goat cheese. It is soft, milky-fresh and tangy all at once; in a sense, you’re literally eating the fog that surrounds a cathedral of redwoods in Northern California. www.cypressgrovechevre.com
Tarentaise is an organic, nutty cow’s-milk cheese made in North Pomfret, Vt., from a herd of Jersey cows. The Putnam family traveled all over Europe to find a cheese that they loved and that was made in an environment that matched that of their family farm. They chose to model their cheese after those of the Alpine regions of Switzerland. The process of making Tarentaise is started in a big, copper vat, and is unmechanized from beginning to end. This gem of a cheese has a rich, buttery flavor with a hint of hazelnut. www.thistlehillfarm.com