Unlike Europe, American has only a handful of traditional cheeses. European immigrants came to America bringing with them the cheese knowledge of their homelands, and across the US there were concentrated ethnic bases—Portuguese, Italian, Sicilian, Scandanavian—some of which have maintained a few of their original cheeses. Over time, many of these cheeses have disappeared, with a few notable exceptions: the bricks and limburgers—the German style washed rinds of Wisconsin; Dry Aged Monterey Jack—a hard, grating cheese, originally produced by the Italian and Sicilian population of California; and the Portuguese cheeses along the coast of New England. Almost all of these cheese were at one time made from raw milk, including the most traditional cheeses of America’s twentieth century—cheddars, colby, jacks, and cottage cheeses, all made from cow’s milk. During the first half of the century, these were still small, local productions, but in the Post WWII era, the industrialization of these cheeses became widespread. This was a direct result of mandatory pasteurization, introduced in the late 40s and early 50s. Small-scale productions that could not afford the equipment to comply with the new requirements, simply disappeared.
In some ways, the current industrialization of European cheeses is a process that the US experienced over 50 years ago. Now what is happening in the US is a renaissance of cheeses made in a traditional manner, especially smaller productions using goat’s and sheep’s milk, traditional methods, sometimes cave-aged, and frequently made from raw milk. There are areas of the country—New England, Wisconsin, and California—where there are concentrations of these cheesemakers, but for the most part producers are widely scattered across the country’s vast geography, without any regional support system. Because they are creating cheeses new to this country, there is some local loyalty, but nothing close to the regional loyalty enjoyed by European cheeses. What brought on this revival was a combination of factors.
As American tourists traveled more widely to Europe in the 70s and 80s, they brought home a love of Europe’s traditional cheeses. At the same time America was experiencing a mini food revolution of its own, essentially a backlash against the generic, processed freezer food that dominated major retail and restaurant markets. American regional food rediscovered its roots—first in restaurants as creative young chefs began to combine traditional European technique with regional ingredients to produce what we have come to call ‘nouvelle cuisine’. It has become the signature of fine restaurants and specialty retail stores all across the country. Food has become fashion. Chefs are personalities, and their darlings, American farmstead and specialty cheeses, are gaining new status. However, the great wash of food culture in the U.S. is still dominated by chain restaurants and stores whose primary products are industrial ones. This includes cheeses.
During the 1970s and 80s, a small number of people, often young, educated professionals, fell rather blindly into farmstead and specialty cheesemaking. Some came as a part of the ‘back to the land’ movement, searching for a more basic lifestyle, tuned to natural cycles and a connection to the land. The first of these were the goat cheesemakers—often educated, often women, who wanted to turn an avocation into a vocation. I began producing fresh goat’s milk cheeses in my kitchen in 1982 with no training and no idea about what I was doing. I made a lot of bad cheeses! I had not traveled to Europe, taken cheesemaking courses, or studied with a master. I just liked to eat and cook, and had tasted the cheeses of Laura Chenel from California and from Westfield Farm in Massachusetts. But I was a good cook with a good palate, and knew what I liked I knew who my customer was. I was my customer! I had to love what I made. The soft, unripened lactic curd cheeses I first produced commercially from pasteurized milk in 1988 were light and delicate and a real improvement over the industrial imports available then in our market.
II. There have been and still are some very specific obstacles to making farmstead cheeses in the US, and some are quite particular to the development of raw milk cheeses. We have
a lack of cultural, technical, and governmental support base
this kind of production. The broad, cultural cheese base in U.S. is
American processed slices and primarily, pasteurized cheeses.
Farmstead cheeses, particularly raw milk ones, are still a long way from being mainstream.
Without a traditional, cultural but local bias for the kind of cheeses produced in Europe, America’s farmstead cheesemakers were immediately competing on a market with many well established European cheeses, most of which were produced from raw milk. In the US, cheeses can be made from raw milk only if they are aged over 60 days. This means that a whole range of cheeses like the fresh and ripened goat’s milk cheeses I began with, were immediately compared to their raw milk, European counterparts—complete with the romance and memories of the wonderful vacations that accompanied them. But most of the imports in the American market were not at all like the cheeses of the traveler’s memory and were fairly bad examples of what Europe had to offer. Fresh goat’s cheese for instance, was anything but fresh, and was often made from blended milk and frozen curd which had been in storage for a long time before it reached market shelves in the U.S.
But because ‘traditional’ agriculture here is large-scale, the support system— educational institutions, universities and technical schools, as well as agricultural services and equipment suppliers—support large-scale production. Basically the cheesemaking skills we developed in the US were not because of, but in spite of, available expertise in traditional cheesemaking technique. It was the result of trial and error, trips to Europe, and networking with each other. Small-scale and used equipment is also a challenge. It essentially disappeared over 50 years ago in the US and much of it has to be imported at considerable cost for shipping and customs that often doubles the initial price. In the U.S there are no subsidies for goat or sheep milk and since there are no DOC or AOC denominations, there are no marketing groups to support cheeses made from these milks. We compete in our own marketplace with subsidized, imported cheeses made from specialty milks–most of which do not have US quotas and are shipped into the US under a generic category called ‘cheese from other milks”.
American government is strongly influenced by world trade, large business, and does not favor small, “alternative” businesses in agriculture. The corporations involved in trade also supply the funding for universities and dairy science programs, as well as federal ag programs. While there is growing interest in small-scale, sustainable production, governmental agencies are largely ill-equipped to provide technical expertise and look to the private sector to school them in small scale ag endeavors.
This bias carries over into governmental regulation of milk products.
Judy Schad and her family own Capriole Farm in Indiana, where they produce fresh, ripened and aged farmstead chevres. Schad is a Prud’homme in France’s Guilde de Fromagers, and has won many awards from the American Cheese Society, including a Best of Show Award for her Wabash Cannonball. She is Vice President of the ACS, editor of its newsletter, and was chairman of the ACS 2001 Conference in Louisville, Kentucky.