The Art of Cheese
What is Artisan Cheese? I write a blog about the subject, yet I’ve never really defined the term. Wikipedia defines it as such “Artisanal cheese refers to cheeses produced by hand using the traditional craftsmanship of skilled cheesemakers”. This is both appropriate and misleading at the same time. It reflects the simplicity of a practice that has been in place since before recorded history, yet it lacks the depth necessary to understand just how complex the product of a cheese maker’s labor truly is. Let me share some examples.
Rogue Creamery in Oregon uses fresh milk produced on their personal dairy farm. These cows are graze fed grass for most of the year which, by their estimation, produces the best milk for their cheeses, both rich in protein and butterfat. After heating, the rennet is introduced to the milk in order to begin the curdling process. Once the curds have begun to set, they are cut with a cheese harp and separated from the whey. From these curds they can produce amazing blue cheeses and bitingly delicious cheddars. All of these steps are performed by hand to exacting detail by processes developed hundreds of years ago and perfected to modern standards. For those that have not experienced it yet, their Rogue River Blue is an absolute pleasure of a cheese. It is aged in grape leaves that have been soaked in pear brandy, and the end product is by far my favorite blue, by which all other blue cheeses must be measured. (My opinion)
Another example involves a Mennonite family From Pennsylvania. After moving to Southern Iowa in 1992, they started a dairy farm. Living In the heart of old Amish country, it wasn’t a difficult stretch to imagine turning all of that milk into something more. Thus was born the Milton Creamery. Hard work and tradition was a way of life for this family. Simple living and dedication found its way into the methods by which they prepare their cheeses. The Prairie Breeze for instance, is an exceptional offering from the cheddar family. Both sweet and sharp, and painstakingly prepared the way cheese makers have been producing it for hundreds of years. They even produce a Truckle, which is the Old English word for cylinder. It is a cloth-bound cheddar made and aged to produce a crumbly marvel that literally tastes of old world culture.
Most first crossing the line between plastic wrapped slices and hand crafted art, quickly become daunted by the posted price tag for some of these cheeses. The main thing to remember is that those prices are by the pound! If someone were to spend an afternoon eating a pound of any cheese, they had better keep some laxative handy, because their digestive system would certainly go on lockdown in protest. When serving cheese to guests or enjoying some yourself, the common recommendation is 2-4 ounces per person. That’s ounces, not pounds. So, unless you plan on having a cheese tasting involving the local high school football team and all of their friends, I suggest you take a deep breath and use some practical sense.
Just remember that when you are buying an artisan cheese, you are not just purchasing a product. You are also buying years of experience and expertise, generations of tradition, and a dedication to perfection. If this still doesn’t convince you, then you are more than welcome to purchase some lactic imposter that is a byproduct of ingenuity, born out of the idea of mass consumption, and hand crafted on an assembly line. All I can really hope is that you, the reader, take from this at least enough curiosity to entertain the idea of stepping out of the supermarket and into the art gallery. You won’t be disappointed.