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Food and Drink

The artisan-cheese revolution

What does it all mean? Well, purer and more healthful food, for starters

Wendy M. Levy is the owner of Brattleboro Cheese Shop & Café, and she makes a special effort to sell artisan-made and farmstead cheeses from Vermont and other republics.

BRATTLEBORO—If you pay one whit of attention to food trends, you could end up with a bad case of vertigo. Since there really is no good case of vertigo, other than the film by the same name, you’d be much better off ignoring what the talking heads tell you about food. (Unless, of course, you’re listening to Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food, but there I go digressing again.)

Think about it: how many times have you heard about fat being good for you, or fat being bad for you, or certain kinds of fat being good? (Pity the poor palm and its oil.)

Remember when athletes were encouraged to “carbo-load”? Now some do-gooder will certainly scold them, wagging a finger to warn of the dangers of chubbiness and diabetes.

And don’t even get me started about gluten.

There’s one trend that seems to be staying pretty firmly in the larder of our collective unconscious, and that’s artisan-made cheese. Considering it’s been with us for so long, as far as a trend’s lifespan would normally dictate, dare I say it’s no longer a trend but a part of our culture?

I hope so. What else will I do for work?

* * *

First, though, let’s define our terms. Although there is no legal definition of “artisan-made” when it comes to cheese or any food — for instance, Tostitos® Artisan Recipes® tortilla chips (I’m not making that up) — in the cheese world, “artisan-made” generally refers to cheese that’s made by hand in open vats using milk from one’s own farm and from neighboring farms. The cheesemaker always knows the milk source.

A similar term used in the cheese world is fermier, or “farmstead,” and that refers to a cheese made in the same place as the animals live and provide milk.

A farmstead cheese is an artisan-made cheese, but an artisan-made cheese might not necessarily be a farmstead cheese.

“Artisan-made” doesn’t have to mean cheese made on a very small scale, but it is generally used to differentiate itself from factory-made cheeses, which tend to be made mechanically, in closed vats, using milk from the commodity market.

* * *

It’s hard to pinpoint when the “artisan-cheese revolution” really hit the United States. It did not happen overnight; it’s not like one morning, millions of Americans opened their refrigerators and tossed out all the Velveeta, replacing it with Ossau-Iraty.

One place to look to see evidence of the artisan-made cheese revolution is in your own backyard, especially if you are reading this in Vermont. For such a small state as ours, we boast more than 40 artisan cheesemakers. Wisconsin doesn’t have many more than that, and some of the cheesemakers considered “artisan” there seem to play a bit fast and loose with the definition.

Another place to find evidence of the artisan-cheese revolution is the American Cheese Society. Founded in 1983, the organization counts 1,200 members, all somehow involved in the cheese industry, and every year sees a proliferation of new cheesemakers.

So why is artisan-made cheese important, and why now?

Of all the food concerns, one that seems to be growing with no sign of waning is food purity: where food comes from, how it’s grown or processed, what exactly goes into it.

Perhaps this interest comes as a result of all-too-frequent news stories about large numbers of people falling violently ill — or worse — as a result of eating industrially produced, contaminated food.

Or maybe it’s because the loca(l)vore movement moved from the fringe to the mainstream, with national bestsellers detailing the virtues of eating local food in-season and celebrity chefs changing their menus to align with growing and harvesting seasons.

Or maybe it’s simply a result of critical mass: agribusiness has grown so large, so ubiquitous, that people not normally so cautious about their food can’t buy anything to eat in a grocery store which doesn’t somehow remind them of a factory.

Food has become more like “food” (in air quotes), and people are getting pissed off.

* * *

Cheese is a good solution. Artisan-made or farmstead cheese is a better solution. It solves the food purity problem: in terms of food safety, cheeses made legally by certified makers enjoy a very low rate of contamination by food-borne pathogens.

Cheese wears its provenance on its sleeve — well, actually, on its label — so there’s no mystery regarding where it comes from. Or, if you buy cheese from a full-service shop where there are few labels, the cheesemonger will be able to tell you the country in which your cheese was made and often the province, state, or village.

The cheesemaking process is fairly simple to explain to a child, and the ingredients that go into cheese are about as wholesome as they get: milk and salt, some enzymes.

And cheese-lovers interested in eating locally-made food can pretty much always find at least one local cheese; wherever mammals are domesticated, which is near-everywhere, someone is making cheese. It might not be in your specific town, but it’s likely there’s cheese being made within 100 miles or so from your home.

When you buy a cheese that’s made by hand, chances are that cheese has no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or rBST (bovine growth hormone). If the cheesemaker is using animal-based rennet or is using GMO-free microbial enzymes to precipitate the milk, you can be sure you are avoiding GMOs.

Likewise, nearly all artisan cheesemakers have eschewed the use of milk treated with rBST. Even though in 1994 the Food and Drug Administration asked dairy companies to include a disclaimer (“No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST treated cows”) on labels on products made with milk from rBST-free cows, not everyone is convinced there is “no difference.”

The European Union and Canada have banned rBST use, and the insert for Posilac (the trade name for rBST) lists side effects detrimental to the cows’ health, including mastitis, heat stress, reproductive issues, increase in digestive disorders, birth defects, and lameness in offspring.

In addition to these side effects being harmful to the animals, they also cost money to treat, and they often lead to the overuse of antibiotics in cows, suggested as a cause of antibiotic-resistant strains of pathogenic bacteria in human beings. Eating cheese made of milk from cows not treated with rBST is a way to gain the health advantages of cheese — protein, calcium, trace minerals, vitamins — without ingesting unneeded antibiotics.

* * *

In terms of food economy, even a pricey cheese is a good deal, especially when it’s made by a hard-working cheesemaking individual or family and not by a series of robots in a factory.

When you buy cheese, you can eat the entire cheese. There’s no waste. Sure, there are some cheeses with inedible rinds, but the rind is very thin and makes up a minuscule percentage of the overall product. There are no seeds or stems to discard, no skin or bones to throw to the dog.

When you consider all that goes into making a cheese — the immense amount of labor, the preserved farmland, the humane stewardship of the dairy animals — the price somehow seems almost too low.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #206 (Wednesday, June 5, 2013).

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