The art of the small cheesemaker is getting big
ill Fuller, corporate chef for big Burrito Group, is surrounded by artisan cheese -- and how about those grapes? -- at Eleven in the Strip District.
Eleven in the Strip District's artisan cheese plate includes, starting with the double stacked pieces in upper right and going clockwise: Capriole (Greenville, Ind.) Old Kentucky Tomme (goat); Zingerman's Creamery (Ann Arbor, Mich.) Lincoln Log (goat); Jasper Hill Farm (Greensboro, Vt.) Bayley Hazen Blue (cow); Old Chatham (N.Y.) Sheepherding Co. Camembert (sheep); Capriole O'Bannon (goat); Bellwether Farms (Sonoma, Calif.) Carmody (cow); Hendricks Farms and Dairy (Telford, Pa.) Grass Stain (cow); and Uplands Cheese Co. (Dodgeville, Wisc.) Pleasant Ridge Reserve (cow).
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A backseat full of Styrofoam coolers emits a chorus of creaks on the trip home from Vermont. They are stuffed to groaning with untold pounds of champion American artisan cheeses.
This booty was scored earlier this month at the American Cheese Society's annual conference and judging in Burlington.
The event culminates with a tasting extravaganza on a Willy Wonka scale. The morning after, mountains of hand-crafted cheeses, retailing at $30 a pound and more, are whacked into chunks, marked down to a buck or two each and carried away by chefs and mortals alike.
Vermont is a land of superb green grass and advanced "green" outlook. It is an epicenter of quality American handmade cheese. A tourist attraction is a well-promoted "Cheese Trail," with stops at cow, goat and sheep creameries: www.uvm.edu/viac.
Burlington is thus an apt place for some 700 American, Canadian and European cheesemakers, brokers, chefs and writers, to taste, appreciate and deconstruct cheese from 10 a.m. until they drop.
The atmosphere is welcoming. James Beard called cheese "the friendliest of foods." Its makers are nice, too. They offer a registration category for cheese geeks, politely calling them "enthusiasts." So, cheezaholics, next year's meeting -- ACS's 25th anniversary -- is in Chicago.
American artisanal cheese is on the move. Its creators are as colorful as their products, making cheese the ultimate story food.
To my right at the conference lunch table were Steve and Stacie Ballard of Ballard Family Dairy and Cheese in Gooding, Idaho. Their son Travis, 23, was there on conference scholarship. They were there to collect an award for their halloumi-style grilling cheese. "Steve was a diesel mechanic in San Diego," Stacie explained. "I was a former waitress. We decided a few years ago to make a career change."
Why Idaho? "We'd honeymooned there with Steve's relatives."
They shifted into high: The plan was to make cheese curds first, a cheese popular in the heartland -- so fresh it squeaks when you bite into it.
The Ballards imposed tough discipline. They would make "farmstead" cheese, meaning they would use milk from cows on their property. Stacie had never even had a pet. She told a neighbor, "If you teach me how to milk, I'll milk for you, for fun."
By 2004, from the extra-rich milk of their 58 Jersey cows, they took their curds to market. They then added more complex cheeses, and in 2005 won national awards. Their daughter married the man they bought their cows from.
One of only two farmstead cheesemakers in Idaho, the family business sells all it can make locally and to a few restaurants.
"We got such generous advice from John Fiscalini," Stacie adds, gesturing across the table.
Putting the world on notice
To my left, Modesto, Calif.'s John and Heather Fiscalini and their Paraguayan cheesemaker Mariano Gonzalez were representing Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese Co. They were aglow from recent Wine Spectator raves for their 18-month, cloth-wrapped cheddar.
The "grassy, fruity, complex" cheddar woke up the cheesemaking world when it won best "extra-mature traditional cheddar" at the World Cheese Awards in London -- the first time a cheese from outside the United Kingdom has taken this honor (www.fiscalinicheese.com; $18 a pound, but it also shows up at Whole Foods).
Now if the "farmstead" picture you conjure is small herds up to their knees in green, revise that for Modesto. John is a third-generation dairy farmer, whose 1,500 Holsteins go outdoors but not to graze. The area lacks space for pasturing, so the herd eats only grain and silage raised on the property.
John wasn't looking for a wife or a cheesemaker when slender, dynamic Heather and Mariano, trailing a reputation as distinguished cheesemaker at the exalted Shelburne Farms in Vermont, came into his life in the same month in 2001.
He fell in love with both at first sight. "Luckily neither of us is jealous," Heather said.
The artisan cheese revolution
When Burlington hosted the cheesemakers a decade ago, judges had 300 cheeses to judge. This year they faced 1,200.
Vermont cheese aficionado Jeff Roberts has done much to stir this pot. Co-founder of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont, he has supported numerous initiatives to link sustainability and agriculture and is an active leader in Slow Food USA's raw milk cheese presidium.
Mr. Roberts sees cheese as "a bellweather for what has already changed in American agriculture.
"Not for what is changing," he stressed.
"American cheesemaking is there. It's having an impact on local communities. It has become important to preserving the working landscape and not just on the coasts."
The problem is, "Retailers don't know who's in their back yard." So he did something about that, too.
Mr. Roberts' "The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese" (Chelsea Green, $35) profiles 345 artisanal cheesemakers in 43 states.
The book should be a boon to chefs and cheese buyers. It would also be fun to use to explore Pennsylvania's fledgling cheese trail (www.pacheese.org) or, as Marian Burros of the New York Times suggests, as a companion guide in wine country.
Mr. Roberts says Pennsylvania could claim more artisan cheese than anyone if we could find our many Amish cheesemakers who do not have phones.
At the conference the pioneers who will figure in the legend of the new American cheese were passing the book around, trading autographs.
Pennsylvania on cheese map
We can thank foraging chefs and cheese buyers who are scouring our own state, linking us with Pennsylvania artisans.
Most lie in the eastern part of the state, including my personal Pennsylvania favorite, Trent Hendricks, who has been making certified organic, raw-milk, farmstead cheeses at his 60-acre place north of Philadelphia since 2001.
Mr. Hendricks typifies the young entrepreneurs who have swelled the ranks of ACS membership just since the new century began. Like many, he made a career leap. The neatly bearded Hendricks, in shorts and clogs, is a first generation farmer in a family of real estate developers. He uses certified organic raw milk from his Ayrshire cows and Alpine and Saanen goats to make a series of fancifully named farmstead cheeses. Nearly all are consumed locally, but Mr. Hendricks' Cow Pie, a lush Camembert type, is at Whole Foods. Taste it and others -- Grass Stains, a mellow herb/black pepper cow gouda type; Dirty Laundry, a stinky blue; and Telford Reserve, an aged cow/goat marvel -- on cheese plates at Eleven restaurant in the Strip District.
Taste your cheese heritage
Self-described cheese maniac big Burrito Corporate Chef Bill Fuller wants you to know he was first to hook Pittsburgh up to "America's best artisan cheese." He's talking about Uplands' Pleasant Reserve, a firm, nutty, sweet gruyere type, made from the farm's own seven breeds of cows that graze on Wisconsin grasses and herbs. It is always on the menu at Eleven.
Other 2007 winners to sample at Eleven: Haute Goat Blue, a palate-searing farmstead blue that a tiny cheesemaker from Lubbock, Texas, sells to Wolfgang Puck; Oakleaf, a craggy aged cow's milk blue from Kennebunkport, Maine; Jasper Hill's Bayley Hazen Blue of Vermont (wildly popular at the show); Jasper Hill's Winnimere, a smelly but delicate-flavored, washed-rind cheese that is a favorite of Eleven chef Derek Stevens; and Rumiano's whole peppercorn dry jack. (Mail-order it via www.rumiano-cheese.com at $50 per 8-pound wheel, plus shipping.)
This might be a good time to plunk yourself at the Eleven bar and taste your cheese heritage. Draw a plate map on your cocktail napkin to keep things straight. Or go to Casbah where Chef Alan Peet offers six American artisan cheeses. Several are ACS winners.
Other sources include:
Whole Foods Market: "These are exciting and frustrating times to be buying from the small artisanal makers," says team assistant leader Justin Crimone, who's been doing the ordering for four years. "A very special cheese you may be able to get a sufficient quantity of this week -- say, a leaf-wrapped Rogue River Blue macerated in Oregon pear brandy -- you could be on the waiting list for next week, or might never get again. But I love it. The customers are really getting into it. They know all about the health value of pastured foods -- and this is carrying over into cheese."
Mr. Crimone can steer you to intriguing possibilities. A current pet is a Wisconsin product, Carr Valley's bread cheese, juustoleipa in Finnish. It arrives oven-baked golden, to be reheated in a warm frying pan and served with fresh fruit or maple syrup. Try Colonial Classics' 24-month aged cheddar, a bargain at $9.99 a pound, from a tiny farmstead maker in Scio, Ohio. And don't overlook the market's hand-dipped ricotta: Maplebrook from Bennington, Vt., tastes like today's cream. Try it with honey-grilled peaches.
McGinnis Sisters Special Food Stores: Karen Novak, buyer for 20 years, has roped local cheese, like Emerald Valley, and rare quarry. Her bosses told her to find Goot Essa, "good eating," in Pennsylvania Dutch. This is an Amish co-op cheese the sisters had tasted at Murray's Cheese in Manhattan. Ms. Novak found it -- "a fine raw milk cheddar to die for" made in Milheim in Central Pennsylvania. Ms. Novak recommends Pennsylvania's Farmstead Fresh, making a Jersey raw milk cheese, and Springbank Acres, in Rebersburg, near State College, with a great feta.
Mail order. When the going gets tough, dial-a-cheese. It ain't cheap but it's fast and makes a memorable gift. Murray's Cheese, New York (www.murrayscheese.com) lists a $75 gift pack, plus $32.42 overnight shipping, with five 2007 ACS winners.
Grafton Village Cheddar, making cheese in Vermont for nearly 50 years, has a Pittsburgh connection. Vice president Peter Mohn grew up in Mt. Lebanon. He played on the St. Bernard's football team ("diocese champs, 115 wins, 5 losses") when kids were toughened by "tackles on the concrete playground." Mr. Mohn let us sample an in-the-works pride and joy, a premium cave-aged, cloth-wrapped cheddar cheese that will arrive in stores in about a year. Find Grafton at Whole Foods.
First Published August 29, 2007 4:28 pm