Artisanal food renaissance in the USA

As many of the readers of this blog will be aware, we are in the throes of an artisanal food renaissance in the good ol’ US of A and in the Midwest in particular. This trend is perhaps best reflected in the explosion of quality craft microbreweries through the country. According to figures from BusinessWeek, as craft brewers’ sales have continued to rise at a double-digit pace throughout the recession despite beer consumption overall remaining more or less stagnant.  This tells us that while people are just as, or in some cases, less likely to pony up for a cold one at the bar, they are more willing to pay for a better, more local brew.

The same trend is being seen in the world of cheese, as people increasingly seek out better quality, artisan-produced cheeses from closer to home. However, there is one issue that talented American cheese-makers have to deal with that the country’s innovative and acclaimed beer-makers do not: government food regulation telling them what they can and can’t make.

This video (courtesy of Edible Chicago) from last year’s Pastoral Artisan Producer Festival succinctly summarizes the issue at hand: raw milk cheeses aged for less than 60 days are illegal for sale in the United States. Why does this matter? Because many of the world’s most beloved soft-ripened cheeses require raw milk to meet naming regulations. Just as the wine industry has regional naming controls that require wines to be of a certain quality, of a certain blend of grapes, or from a specific region of a country, so too do many of the world’s most well-known cheeses.


Many of us have no doubt had “brie” or “camembert” at some point in our lives, but what is less obvious to many is that unless you had those cheeses outside of North America, you likely have never had authentic “Brie de Meaux” or “Camembert de Normandie”. These cheeses are two of France’s most famous soft-ripened cheeses, and yet the best we can get in the States is a bland, buttery-flavored cheese that most closely resembles its faux-namesake in texture, rather than flavor. In truth, Brie de Meaux is full of mushroomy-earthiness and robust flavors and scents, while Camembert de Normandie is chock full of garlicky goodness and a pungency that could be mistaken for a cheese-scented Glade Plug-In.

Of course, for many people the “brie-style” cheeses that are so plentiful on our cheese shelves are pleasant, popular cheeses and for many others the news that many types of cheese cannot be made or sold in the US will be met with a resounding “so what”? Well the answer is that just as beer-makers likely wouldn’t put up with the idea of not being able to make any but a limited selection of types of lager, so too should cheese-makers, dairy farmers, and cheese-lovers alike be upset that there is an entire, beautiful category of cheese that we are not allowed to enjoy in the US.

As many caesophiles (the fancy word for cheese-lovers) already know, the American cheese-making tradition is deeply rooted in the traditions of immigrant communities from Europe. In fact, despite cheese-making being practiced in the US since practically the country’s inception, there are precious few truly unique American styles of cheese that exist today. In fact, many of those that do exist are relatively new creations and many of them are simply new twists or slight departures from firmly established European categories.

The various government agencies at hand, the Department of Agriculture and FDA among others, had good reasons to implement these laws when they did; for a long time it was difficult to accurately detect food-borne bacterium and diseases that can be harmful to humans and transmitted by things like milk and to this day still poses problems for producers and regulators alike. However, similar problems have recently been seen in high profile cases with things as varied as canteloupemeats, and even salads without any increased scrutiny on the handling and sale of raw fruit to American consumers. In fact, some states have started to lessen some of these restrictions. In Illinois, raw milk can be sold, but cannot be advertised, and the consumer must bring his or her own container to the transaction.


However, what this fails to account for is that pasteurization also removes many of the positive bacterium and nutrients that can be found in raw milk. Cows in particular retain beta-carotenes and other beneficial proteins and nutrients from the grasses and flowers that they graze on. Of course, this benefit will only come from cows that are allowed to graze on the farms that they live on. This puts the onus on the consumer to find out where their food is coming from and make sure that the animals are being allowed to roam as free as possible. But isn’t this behavior that we should be encouraging in consumers, rather than stunting by limiting options? Additionally, cheeses made from raw milk, almost without exception, possess deeper and more beautiful colors, more vivid scents, and a depth and complexity of flavor that pasteurized cheeses simply cannot compete with.

While many in the cheese-making industry have adapted to these issues, with skilled artisans and raw milk enthusiasts like Andy Hatch at Uplands Dairy in Wisconsin, we have been able to get some pretty good likenesses to the real thing.  Andy literally re-engineered the traditional recipe for Vacherin Mont d’Or/Vacherin du Haut-Doubs to be able to stand up to the minimum 60 day aging period in order to produce his extremely small production and extremely sought-after Rush Creek Reserve. Similarly, folks at dairies likeMeadow Creek in Virginia and Jasper Hill in Vermont have found their own ways to create soft-ripened cheeses that can be made with raw milk while standing up to the added aging restrictions. However, now there is concern that these restrictions may be increasedrather than lessened, which would serve only to strangle artisanal  American cheese-making when the industry is just starting to take off in both quality and creativity, with some even making the leap across the Atlantic, being featured in cheese shops in London and Paris.

This emergence of the United States as a truly skillful producer and increasingly educated consumer of cheese  coupled with President Obama’s call to lessen the regulatory restrictions of American small business, the time is ripe to help our cheese-makers develop new and exciting takes on European classics as well as some innovative new all-American cheeses by allowing them a full set of tools to work with.

Photos courtesy of Kari Skaflen.


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