As Cheese 2009 (September 18-21) approaches, we delve into the Slow Food archives to find put more about cheesemaking stateside
Before I left for America to discover raw milk cheeses, I researched the basic statistics: 75 million tons of cow’s milk, 3,600,000 tons of cheese produced per year, 14.7kg consumed pro capita per year.
“Quite a bit then,” I said to myself—though not as much as in Italy (20kg per head) or France, world record holders (just ahead of the Greeks) with over 23kg per head. But if you consider that those 14.7kg are to be multiplied by 260 million people (instead of our own 60 million), you begin to get an idea of the amazing quantity of cheese that ends up on American tables every day. So when I arrived in the US, I expected to see cheese shop after cheese shop, prestige cheese menus in the restaurants, and supermarkets overflowing with a variety of products and prices. But I was disappointed: where was all the cheese?
The fact is that, in the US, cheese is not treated as a hedonistic, gourmet product as it is in Europe: a little piece as an appetiser with your aperitif, a selection of cheeses instead of meat for an alternative main course, a little piece at the end of a meal, as is customary in Greece or southern Italy. In the States, cheese is mostly transformed into a huge, unending flow that floods the whole market, and especially the fast food sector, from hamburgers to the omnipresent, imaginative pizzas.
That’s where the 14.7kg end up: unnoticed and almost unwittingly consumed. To the extent that a few years ago the mayor of Philadelphia, John Street, announced a crusade against the extravagant consumption of cheese sandwiches. It must be remembered that, in this agreeable, multiracial, pleasure-loving city (no coincidence that it wants to be twinned with Naples!), fast food is celebrated in the form of the cheese steak, not of the hamburger. This is a huge bun filled with barbecued meat and smothered in undefined melted cheese. To make it even more palatable, the Philadelphians usually add mounds of mayonnaise, too.
Eating a Philly cheese steak at one of the many kiosks along the streets is a must for anyone curious about food, but not an experience to be repeated. The mayor was right to want to cut down on consumption and oblige citizens to eat more modest quantities. But as far as I could see, the battle was won by the cholesterol-bloated sandwich: old eating habits are not easily uprooted nor new ones easily adopted.
So even though interest is growing in a rational and hedonistic consumption of cheese at the table, it will be years before this becomes widely adopted in the American lifestyle (though some far-sighted New York businessmen are gambling on this positive trend). If you want to know which way the wind is blowing, pay a visit to Artisanal, a fashionable eatery on Park Avenue where cheese rules.
Artisanal is also a restaurant, only that its heart is not in the kitchen but in the quality cheese shop. A real shop with a well-stocked selection, where you can buy to take away or choose a cheese platter to eat in loco. The owner of Artisanal is a successful manager in the food sector whose restaurants include Picholine, one of the trendiest in town. He is now setting up a center for maturing and supplying cheeses around the world. Acres of cold storage, designed and perfected by a well-known French engineer, plenty of space for tasting and teaching, portioning and packaging.
Quality and ageing are supervised by important figures from the cheesemaking world, like Daphne Zepos, founder of the Cheese of Choice Coalition, and Greg Davids, a young taster who spent some of his training period in Italy. It’s a billion-dollar wager but it’s bound to pay off. And that’s not all: a visit to the best New York shops, like Dean And Deluca and Murray’s Cheese Shop, will show you that things are changing. Three or four hundred varieties on sale by the slice at dizzying prices: who will buy them, one wonders?
Someone will buy those cheeses, someone does know which to choose between a Crottin, a Roccaverano, and an Azeitao, and is prepared to spend plenty of money on it to take it home.
So if these are the trends, how come the producers of raw milk cheeses are appealing to us at Slow Food to help them fight the battle of raw milk and quality? How come the American Cheese Society is defending a kind of frontier of good taste from the siege of standardization and hyper-hygiene?
First, because Philadelphia and New York are not America. Secondly, because we are talking about the first steps towards discovering good cheese, while all the rest is still cheeseburgers and pseudo-pizzas. Thirdly and lastly, because—this is the most worrying aspect of all—the US laws (reluctantly) allow raw milk to be used only in cheeses that are aged longer than 60 days, and as if that were not enough they are threatening to remove this opportunity as well.
So goodbye to products from France, Italy, Portugal, and goodbye to the 80 farmers who stubbornly continue to produce raw milk cheeses. This is why I made the trip and tasted many of those cheeses represented by the American Cheese Society.
Piero Sardo is president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity
Adapted from an article which first appeared in the journal Slow 41, in 2004.