Real American Cheese

There’s a renaissance in cheese making in this country, and fans of fromage enjoy the benefits.

January 15, 2013

Bleu Mont Dairy’s Bandaged Cheddar matures in the cheese cave. No doubt there’s at least one at your farmers’ market: a local cheese maker, handcrafting a product that defies what we typically refer to as American cheese, those orange, processed squares that refuse to ooze like real cheese from grilled sandwiches. Small-scale cheese makers, whose numbers are growing like the bacteria count in ripening milk, honor and adapt to the seasonal variations in milk that is sourced from either their own farms (farmstead cheese) or local dairy farms (artisanal cheese). America is finally making fine cheeses, again.

Cheese fans are currently enjoying the renaissance, not birth, of real American artisanal cheese, a movement that began in the 1970s. Our young nation once made cheese that tasted of place and the seasons, much like wines, but the invention of the factory system for cheese production in Rome, New York, in 1851 and its widespread adoption eventually led to our current dairy landscape where nuanced flavors are eradicated in favor of reliably consistent but bland, industrial products.

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The Midwest

Today’s artisanal cheese makers are retilling that fallow landscape, so to speak, thereby crafting tasty, unique cheeses and also preserving dairy land and the local agricultural economy. Cheese potentially provides independent dairy farmers significantly more income than liquid milk. Small-scale cheese production can save the farm, as well as traditional dining habits.

To see how this new breed of American cheese makers are respecting their land and milk, we’ll visit three award-winning, chiefly organic cheese makers in three distinct areas of the country—the Midwest, the largest producer of cheese; the Northeast, the birthplace of American cheese; and the West Coast, the spiritual home of this renaissance.

Bleu Mont cheesemaker Willi Lehner and his partner, Kitas McKnight. The cheese cave is made from limestone.Bleu Mont Dairy

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 enticed dairy farmers westward, away from crowded New England. Fast-forward almost 200 years to Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, the site of Bleu Mont Dairy, where Willi Lehner has been making a variety of cheeses since the mid-1980s. A decade-long sojourn in Switzerland, the birthplace of his parents, led Lehner to understand the connection between what cows eat and the quality of cheese. Since then, he’s been passionately committed to using milk only when pasture is at its peak and thus limits production to the seasonal periods of mid-spring to early summer and late summer to early autumn. A roving cheese maker, he travels to four different, local cheese-making facilities, some that have organic milk and others that don’t. Nevertheless, the milk is of high quality and from cows that have not been given hormones.

One of the cheeses that has earned Lehner great recognition is Cheddar. No ordinary Cheddar, it’s traditionally made, wrapped in cloth strips, and aged in Bleu Mont’s 1,600-square-foot caves dug into the limestone hillside. Lehner may not have his own animals or cheese-making facilities, but he does have this special aging, or curing, area. “This is where the magic happens,” enthuses Lehner. It is here in this cave, shaped like a medicine capsule split in half lengthwise, that he cultivates the indigenous molds, bacteria, and yeast that grow on the rinds and create cheeses of such distinct character that other cheese makers can pick out Lehner’s cheese in a blind tasting. On top of that, this has garnered Bleu Mont Dairy awards and numerous followers at the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, Wisconsin, the largest producer-only market in the country.

Photos:Beth Skogen

The Northeast: Thistle Hill Farm

In Europe, climate and environment have shaped the type of cheese consumed in a region over the centuries (think of feta in sunny Greece and triple-cream cheeses in verdant northwestern France). Likewise, today’s American cheese makers craft their cheese to reflect their location—an approach that differs from that of the earliest New England cheese makers, who employed the Cheddar and Cheshire technology from homeland England.

With this in mind, John and Janine Putnam started making cheese in 2002 at Thistle Hill, their home farm of 83 acres in North Pomfret, Vermont. They wanted to create a product that suited their land, and for the Putnams and their dairy farm, this meant an Alpine cheese, like Gruyère.

“We’re not exactly the Alps, but we’re as high as you get in Vermont,” claims John about the grassy and wooded slopes of his farm, about 10 miles from White River Junction. A family trip to the French, Swiss, and Italian Alps resulted in Tarentaise, the only cheese that Thistle Hill makes. Similar to Beaufort, a French mountain cheese, and named for the Savoie valley where Beaufort is produced, Tarentaise is a 20-pound, firm wheel with concave sides, butterscotch in color and taste, with a long, nutty finish. The intense yellow color is the result of making Tarentaise only when the Putnams’ own Jersey cows are on pasture, an indication of the couple’s commitment to sustainable agriculture. The nutritious beta-carotene from the grass, which is fertilized by the cows’ manure (a responsible closed agricultural loop), comes through in Thistle Hill’s organic and unpasteurized milk.

Janine pours fresh milk into calf bottles to feed young heifers.Our industrialized eating habits can make us forget that cows are built for eating only grass, and that what the cows eat—and what breed they are—affects the flavor of their milk. Weather, soil, and terrain determine what grows in this corner of Vermont. This means that if Thistle Hill were transplanted to, say, Connecticut, Tarentaise would taste very different.

Countless other factors besides grass determine its ultimate flavor profile (e.g., a Swiss copper cheese vat and John’s handiwork). But there is one very small thing that has a big impact: the farm’s unique microflora—its bacteria and other microorganisms. Whereas large-scale factories attempt to eliminate their effect, John promotes it when making and aging his cheeses. The result is a cheese that could be found nowhere else.

Photos: Cory Hendrickson

Fresh wheels of Red Hawk maturing at Cowgirl Creamery. The West Coast: Cowgirl Creamery

Our journey ends in California, where the current farm-to-table movement began. Cofounders of Cowgirl Creamery, in coastal Point Reyes Station, California, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith were key players in this culinary revolution, working in pioneering restaurants in the Bay Area. Relocating to foggy Marin County, northwest of San Francisco, in the 1990s, the two were committed to preserving the area’s agricultural land and traditional, homegrown food products. For the two, the chief way to do this was to make cheese.

Cowgirl Creamery sources almost all of its organic milk from the Straus Organic Dairy, also in Marin. One taste of Straus’s luscious dairy products shows why; it’s so rich and creamy that you’ll be hard-pressed to use those adjectives for anything else. “We’re in love with the milk that we work with, we’re in love with Albert Straus’s mission, and so we’re just trying to promote that,” asserts Smith. Only a few years before Cowgirl Creamery started making cheeses in 1997, Straus had courageously converted his parents’ dairy to organic and became the first certified-organic dairy in California, and the “cowgirls” wanted to help. The result: seven voluptuous soft-aged cheeses, one firm table cheese, and three fresh ones.

A selection of Cowgirl Creamery’s cheeses.One cheese in particular showcases the special Mediterranean-like climate of Marin County. As with all Cowgirl cheeses, the flavor of Red Hawk changes depending on what’s growing in the pasture at that time of year. Whereas a commodity cheese will taste the same no matter the season, an artisanal one changes, even daily. Preparing each batch of handcrafted cheese is like creating a vintage of wine, but every day. What distinguishes Red Hawk, a triple-cream, is its pungent, sticky rind, colored orange by the presence of Brevibacterium linens, a species of bacteria. Most cheese makers who are going for this odoriferous type of cheese inoculate their milk with B. linens. This is not necessary at Cowgirl Creamery, where these bacteria are naturally present in the air. All that is needed is to wash the nascent rind of this small cheese with a brine solution. Nature takes care of the rest.

All three of these cheese makers create exceptional cheese showcasing the terroir of their region. A French word meaning “taste of place,” terroir was originally reserved for wine but has expanded to encompass a variety of artisanal foods and the way that soil, microflora, weather, terrain, traditional skills, and other factors shape their memorable flavors. While it is tempting to order these cheeses online, it is better to keep with the mission of real American cheeses and buy from local cheese makers. In this way, you can keep the renaissance going.

Learn More: Artisanal Cheese—Where, What, & How to Buy

Photos: Robyn Lehr