American Artisanal Cheeses
Which are the best and who makes them?
Let's look at some of the best American artisanal cheeses and their makers. It's pretty obvious that artisanal cheesemakers are absolutely passionate about what they do! They'd have to be, considering the hard work and grueling time schedule they follow to milk the animals twice daily and to produce the cheese. They are independent artisans - some would describe them as quirky - dedicated to producing the finest quality specialty cheeses.
As recently as 20 years ago there were maybe 75 artisan cheesemakers in America. Today, they number hundreds so it's no surprise that we see so many fine American artisanal cheeses in the specialty cheese shops. There's no need today to be a cheese snob, thinking only imported European cheeses will do, just as there's no need today to be a wine snob either.
Our cheesemakers may be relatively new to their craft, at least compared to the Old World cheesemakers with centuries of tradition behind them ... but most cheese experts would agree that today, American artisanal cheeses easily stand on equal footing with their counterparts in Europe, winning top prizes in international competitions.
Here is a quick definition. What do we mean by the words "artisanal cheese" and "farmstead cheese"? Artisanal cheese is made by hand, in small batches using traditional tools and techniques, with little to no mechanization involved in the cheese's production. If the cheesemaker uses milk produced by his/her own animals, then it is also known as farmstead cheese. But not all artisanal cheese is farmstead cheese ... since cheesemakers may well use milk from neighboring farms or dairies. American artisanal cheeses are identified by the name of the farm or cheesemaker, because each of these cheeses is one-of-a-kind.
Steve Jenkins, well-known cheese expert, Master Cheesemonger (or Maître Fromager) and author of the Cheese Primer, described America ... in his Prologue to Laura Werlin's The New American Cheese ... as "the land where the vast majority sees cheese as rectangular blocks of solidified floor wax..."! That may still be a true statement about many, but I think if you are visiting this website, you are one of the cheese lovers (caseophiles or turophiles) and connoisseurs, seeking to become well informed about all that real cheese is about.
Did you know that the average American eats 32 lbs. of cheese each year? I wonder how many pounds of cheese each of us who is a cheese lover consumes each year?
Choosing the best of anything is always a subjective and highly personal choice which evolves over time. I have a list of 9 favorites, but even this list is not carved in stone! In fact I know my list will change over time! And you will develop your own list of personal favorites. In addition to this abbreviated list of great artisan cheesemakers and cheeses, I have created a separate American Artisan Cheesemakers Index which is a pretty comprehensive listing/guide to about 62 of our best cheesemakers. Please refer to that section of the website for more information on who they are, how to contact them, names of their special cheeses and other relevant facts.
So, Consider the Following Cheeses, Please!
In the early 1970s Laura Chenel, in collaboration with Alice Waters of the famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley,California, introduced goat cheese to the American public. It didn't catch on right away. But the early 1970s was the time when the concepts of "back to the land - sustainable and organic agriculture - natural, locally raised foods"... were taking root in American kitchens and restaurants. Laura is one of our cheese pioneers. Although she sold her company in 2006 to a French artisan cheese corporation, Laura still raises her goats and the same employees make her cheese. Today Laura Chenel makes both fresh goat cheeses and aged goat cheeses. Look for them in the cheese shop.
Fresh goat cheeses: Chef's Chèvre (a creamy chèvre packed in tubs)
The Clarks have been able to boost their milk production by encouraging off-season breeding. This has enabled them to produce some stellar sheep's milk cheeses, available year-round.
Their Hudson Valley Camembert is a bloomy rind cheese made from a combination of cow's and sheep's milk with a bit of cream added. Packaged as a square, not the typical round shape of camembert, this cheese is sweet, creamy and not as runny as a French camembert. Shepherd's Wheel, an aged sheep's milk cheese will please the connoisseur, with its buttery creamy texture and sweet, mild flavor. It has no gamey undertones.
Mutton Button (love that name!) is another aged sheep's milk cheese they make. It has a stronger flavor than Shepherd's Wheel and will appeal to cheese lovers who prefer a little stronger flavor.
Constant Bliss is their raw cow's milk semi-soft, bloomy rind cheese, produced from the milk of their herd of Ayrshire cows. A buttery soft cheese, it will mature as it ripens for at least 60 days in their aging cave, from a white cylindrical shape into a very tasty cheese, which may appear darkish and somewhat lumpy on the outside, boasting earthy flavors as it ages. Constant Bliss has won a Gold Medal at the American Cheese Society competition and other top honors worldwide. Winnimere is an extraordinary American artisanal cheese.
It is made from their raw cow's milk and then, wrapped in spruce bark strips, it is washed in beer brewed on their farm. Aged for at least 70 days, it packs a whole lot of flavor wallop. Well worth a try!
American Artisanal Cheeses should be a prominent part of your wine and cheese party menus. You can easily create an outstanding menu of cheeses and special accompaniments, along with wines selected to pair perfectly with your cheese choices. So you will want to browse through the gourmet food selections available at the Gourmet Food Store to order those specialty items which will make your party stress-free and hugely successful.
Go to American Artisan Cheesemakers Index