Pictured here: Andante Dairy cheeses at River Cafe & Cheese Shop in Santa Cruz.
Michael Ruhlman, respected food writer (and a favorite of mine), left a comment on my blog yesterday that was thought-provoking.
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Farmstead cheeses are like estate wines: they are made with the milk produced right there on the premises. They are rarer than other cheeses, since running a dairy is one thing, but running a dairy and making cheeses instead of just selling the milk, is quite another level of commitment.
Artisanal cheeses, like those exquisite ones produced by Soyoung Scanlan (pictured above) at Andante Dairy, use milk from animals elsewhere (all over, anywhere). But in Soyoung's case, she gets warm milk from two dairies (one cows, and the other, goats), and the milk comes straight to her every morning without ever being in a cooling machine. The milk is treated very gently (she says), and all her cheeses are made from aged curds scooped by hand into the individual molds. There they sit until they are matured. The whole process looks like the cheeses are little babies getting born into a quiet little nursery, not rattling down metal wheels on a conveyor rack. I would seriously not be surprised if she sings them to sleep at night. (Given that they all have the names of musical terms, this would especially not surprise me.)
So, my definition of artisanal cheese = hand-crafted, with particular attention paid to the quality of the milk(s) used.
THE NEXT BEST THING
I had some truly delicious (sock-knocking-off) cheddar cheese at the FamilyFarmed conference in Chicago in March...and looking at their site (Cedar Grove Cheese), I see that they have milk from 35 farms arrive at their factory each and every morning. Six certified cheesemakers produce 13,000 pounds of cheese a day! Now, I met one of those cheesemakers, and he was so passionate about what he was doing, especially the organic cheeses. His name was Dane—can't remember his last name. But having met him and other cheesemakers, it didn't occur to me to do the kind of math Michael Ruhlman is proposing....now, however, I could not think "artisanal" about that kind of operation. But it wouldn't matter to me: the cheese was utterly fantastic. And cost $15 a pound. (Like you, I don't mind the sticker shock: I savor costly foods because they aren't cheap.) I don't know how it's possible to make six and a half tons of "handmade" cheeses a day, so let's designate Cedar Grove's cheese to be the highest quality factory cheese made. It really is delicious stuff.
Bravo Farms makes handmade cheeses, in a manner of speaking, though the dairy farm and the cheese factory are not on the same premises. I have had their cheese—the Western Sage Cheddar is out of this world, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if they are feeding those cows marijuana. Great smoky taste. But their operation is pretty big, so I don't think they could be called "artisanal" by the Soyoung Scanlan definition I'm comfortable using. But I should visit them and see how big they really are.
Still: they make damn good cheese. (Try the sage cheddar on a shrimp risotto, if you feel like committing that kind of culinary anarchy...I do!)
And when it comes to farmstead, or "farmhouse," cheeses, surely none are better than those coming from Fiscalini Cheese in Modesto, California. I talked to Heather Fiscalini, whose husband, John, comes from a family of Swiss cheesemakers whose dairies date back over three hundred years. They have 1500 cows at their dairy, but sell 90% of their milk to Nestlé (of all things! I have asked Heather about that, and will post here more about the Fiscalinis). The remainder of the milk goes straight into the cheesemaking vat, not twenty minutes after it leaves the cow.
Fiscalini cheeses are made from raw milk, and are handcrafted. The quality? The bandaged cheddar won the "Best Farmhouse Cheddar" gold medal at the World Cheese Awards in London for four of the past five years. No less a personage than James Montgomery, a third-generation cheesemaker in England, visited the Fiscalinis and said they have, bar none, the best American cheddar cheese he's ever had. (Mr. Ruhlman, you may remember "Montgomery Cheddar" as being your friend, Ruth Reichl's, favorite thing to eat in all of London. She went back twice to have a Montgomery grilled cheese sandwich at Neal's Yard Dairy when accumulating notables in the London eating scene issue of Gourmet in March of 2005.) Mr. Montgomery was named Champion Cheesemaker of the World this year.
Heather says the Fiscalinis are one of a very few cheesemakers that use cheddar mills, which gives a grain to the bandaged cheddars. She said why this was important, but honestly, I can't read my own scribbling. I'll find out and amend this. Recently, they returned to Switzerland with their cheesemaker, and researched cheeses that are Old World which haven't made it to America. In honor of the village where her husband's family originated, they have developed a new Alpine cheese called "Lionza" (pronounced "lee-OWN-za").
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WHAT DO I THINK?
How important are these distinctions to me? I like knowing that Cedar Grove is making organic cheeses. I like that a young cheesemaker like Dane would take two or three days out of his schedule, and travel to Chicago to bring his product to a market and meet people. I would buy his cheese again and again.
I can afford only small amounts of Soyoung's cheeses, which can run $9 for a piece about twice as big as a bar of hotel soap. But when I have them, it is a very special occasion, and one that I cherish. These are not "pop 'em in your mouth and snarf 'em down" cheeses. They require a slow, appreciative experience: we might have one of her cheeses with a really good bottle of wine and some oysters, and that would be dinner. (I'm lucky to live on the Pacific coast: Miyagi oysters as big as a dog's tongue are only $10/dozen, year-round.)
I am thrilled that the Fiscalinis use raw milk for their cheeses, and will spotlight them later on this site.
Maybe if the grocers were to do as Amy and Heidi do at the River Cafe and Cheese Shop, and offer tastes of the not-exactly-artisanal cheeses. If it tastes good, it is good, barring the presence of ingredients we like to avoid ingesting.
Maybe Michael Ruhlman is seeking new language to describe high-quality factory cheeses, or maybe supermarkets need some help in understanding the difference between Kraft and Cedar Grove. I don't know. I think what I'm hearing is that "artisanal," in that context (a corporate or multi-national environment, is becoming a buzzword as meaningless as "gourmet."
I do know that loving fabulous cheese puts me in pretty good company. Loving mediocre cheese puts you in the company of most of America. Bummer, dude.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: “That's it, Gromit. We'll get some cheeeeeeeeeeese.” — “Wallace & Gromit”
Coming up next: artisan farmers, and some thoughts on Paul Bertolli's operation.
Thanks for visiting.