Cheese Whizzes

American artisans are earning respect and a growing following for producing cheeses that rival those in Europe.

September 25, 2002|By Cynthia Glover | Cynthia Glover,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Specialty cheese-making in America is coming of age.

When the American Cheese Society convened last month in Washington, D.C., for its 19th Annual Conference, there were 467 entries in the yearly competition. Compare that to the 20 or so entered in a contest held shortly after the society was formed in 1982. But there's more to this story than the growing number of contestants.

"The biggest trend I see is an overall improvement in the quality of cheese being made," says Laura Werlin, author of The New American Cheese.

While cheese has been made here since the first Europeans arrived with dairy cows in the early 1600s, America has staked its claim to dairy fame on the development of industrial cheeses rather than those made lovingly by hand with milk obtained either from the maker's own herd of cows, sheep or goats or purchased from nearby farms. It is factory-made versions of cheddar, Colby, Gouda, mozzarella and more, designed for stability on grocery-store shelves, together with the ubiquitous "processed cheese" developed by John Kraft in the early 1900s, that have made the United States the world's largest producer.

Bulk, however, is one thing, and the fine art of cheese-making is another. For that, Americans have long looked to Europe.

"We don't have a fine cheese-making tradition here," says Alison Hooper of Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. "For years, we didn't have the technical knowledge, the generations of cheese-makers, to tell us how to do it."

In 1984, having spent time working with goat-cheese-makers in France and with a couple thousand dollars to invest, she and her husband dove headlong into cheese-making. "Americans weren't eating goat cheese and creme fraiche and all the things we now make," she says. "So we said, `Let's pick an existing European product that we can't find here, and try to make it.' "

Her first attempts at making the fresh goat cheese called chevre were a hit with local chefs in Vermont and Massachusetts, and a business -- one that now sells more than a million pounds of handmade cheese each year -- was born.

Another pioneer among cheese-makers is Paula Lambert, who founded the Mozzarella Cheese Co. in 1982. For her, the model was the Italian cheeses she had enjoyed while living in Perugia, Italy. Her Dallas-based company now produces 250,000 pounds of cow's and goat's milk cheese each year in 20 or so varieties, all made by hand.

"The only mechanical equipment we have is a pump," she says. The vast majority of the new cheese-makers, she adds, are very small companies. "Most cheese-makers make very limited quantities, and sell their wares only locally."

Along with the cadre of cheese-makers for whom European-style products represent the gold standard is a growing number of practitioners for whom experimentation, rather than emulation, is the order of the day.

"Twelve of the 27 California cheeses that won last year's ACS competition didn't even exist four years ago," said Nancy Fletcher of the California Dairy Advisory Board, speaking at a Smithsonian-sponsored event during the conference. The fact that Americans are eating more cheese is a spur to production. "In 1990, Americans were eating 25 pounds of cheese a year," she says. "Now we are consuming 30 pounds per person," a figure she compares to the 50 pounds per person consumed in France.

Wisconsin, California and Vermont are the big three when it comes to artisanal cheese-making. California produces 1.6 billion pounds each year, much of it by hand, says Fletcher. The state is home to notable American inventions like Jack cheese, also called Monterey Jack, which dates back to the 1890s, along with its latter-day cousin, Dry Jack, which is an aged version of the original that develops a sharp, nutty flavor over time.

In Maryland, however, few dairy farmers have ventured into cheese-making, even though cottage industries like this can help even out the profit cycles of milk production.

The reason, according to Bill Zepp of the state Division of Milk Control, is that starting a creamery is an expensive proposition. It's not the cost of the facility itself, he says, referring to the bricks and mortar of establishing a creamery, but the equipment for milk-handling, pasteurization and storage that is out of reach for most small cheese-makers.

"A lot of farmers, especially goat farmers, talk to me about this, but when they find out what it costs, their interest withers," he says.

Dairy farmer David Keyes of Mount Felix Farm in Havre de Grace sees cheese-making as an entirely different enterprise from milking cows. So, he and a handful of other Maryland dairy farmers -- among them Kate Dallam of Broom's Bloom in Bel Air and Tom Mason of Fawnwood Farm in Chestertown, who sells his products under the name Eve's Cheese -- ship raw, unpasteurized milk to Amish cheese-makers in Lancaster County, Pa. There the milk is turned into basic American-style cheeses like Colby and cheddar, often flavored with dill, jalapeno or horseradish.

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