Posts Tagged 'american cheese'

Factory cheese, Artisan cheese, Grayson

O, he is as tedious
As a tired horse, a railing wife;
Worse than a smoky house: I had rather live
With cheese and garlic in a windmill, far,
Than feed on cates and have him talk to me
In any summer-house in Christendom.
— Hotspur, in
King Henry IV, Part I

THE GIFT OF SCIENCE

Dr. Pasteur"ization" doing science.

Dr. Pasteur"ization" doing science.

Jesse Williams started his New York cheddar factory — the forerunner of all cheese factories — in 1851. That was before Louis Pasteur began heating milk to slay harmful bacteria and regularize the product (in 1857); before Christian Ditlev Ammentorp Hansen extracted a standardized rennet enzyme from calf-stomach (in 1872); it was before F. J. Lloyd created the acidimeter test, which measures milk’s acidity at any point in the cheesemaking process, again improving results (in 1899); and before Orla-Jensen isolated pure “starter cultures” of select microorganisms, to replace the unreliable sour milk and whey starters of ages past (in 1919). In sum: The factory took stage just on the cusp of cheesemaking’s slide into “science” — at a time when commoners still measured milk heat with elbows.

(If you don’t understand the cheesemaking process enough to respect these innovations, here’s a good summary. I will write my own soon, maybe even for the next post. I’m full of empty promises and inconstant ambition.)

Following Williams, cheese in the U.S. and Europe became increasingly industrialized and precise. Generally, all the breakthroughs above decreased waste and minimized failure. Contrary to the millenarian tirades of hippies and malcontents, science did work a little magic for the common man. In the old days failure-rate was high for cheesemaking, even in monasteries, where God’s Own Watchful Eye was always on alert. And yet (as Juliet Harbutt notes) such disappointments were more often blamed on some dairymaid’s menstrual cycle than on sour milk or careless handling. Many things can go wrong when making cheese, and some significant portion of those things might be out of the cheesemaker’s control, especially when the cheesemaker’s a premodern peasant. In that sense cheese is like love, or empire building. It took some real dirty hard science before people stopped blaming vaginal discharge, witchcraft, and Jewry for bunk cheeses. I guess I consider that progress.

It is true, though — to the credit of purists — that the more industrialized cheese became, the more insipid it got (and might continue to get). It seems that American factory cheese accepted from the beginning a certain subordinate status, along with a more lowbrow, “philistine” or “utilitarian” audience. For instance: An 1867 report from the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture documents the defects in American factory cheese, namely, “porosity and bad flavor”; suggests that foul milk with a “fetid and sickening odor” is the primary culprit, no thanks to New England’s unfortunate climate; and then offers the economizing solution that we improve our cheese just enough to appeal to England’s bottom-feeders. And in the New York Times’s coverage of the 1878 dairy fair, the paper reports that American cheeses of more-than-substandard-caliber were entering the world market under false European names — “to the great detriment of our reputation for fine production, though, possibly, to the present profit of middlemen and commission houses.”

But skipping to the present: Only the obtuse fanatic or wild dog would claim that factory cheesemakers have paid no attention over the years to quality. Still, the current inrush of “artisanal” American cheeses presents a totally different approach: blending organic and cosmopolitan food movements, this cheese trend is achieving levels of quality once restricted to sparse European imports. Some “artisanal” makers simply want to make the best cheese they can, while still remaining viable. Some want to slip into this emergent niche market, seizing the hearts and minds of the well-to-do. Most, however, seem to be more preoccupied with general “green food” issues, like sustainability, organicism, local markets, and so on (look at brochures from Whole Foods or your area Farmer’s Market for more keywords).

GRAYSON AT LAST

The Feete pair at Meadow Creek Dairy make a cheese that epitomizes that greenish side of American artisan cheese. I suggest you try it, if you can. It comes in squares instead of wheels, and it is called Grayson. The name might pay homage to Amanda Grayson, mother of Star Trek‘s Spock, or to Dick Grayson, the Christian-civilian name for Batman’s sidekick Robin. I can only speculate.

Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, in disguise.

Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, in disguise.

After 15 years on their dairy farm in southwest Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the Feete(s?) started making cheese out of their milk. They were motivated by fluctuating dairy prices and the benefits of adding value to their product on the farm — not an unusual origin-story for American artisanal cheesemakers. Their Jersey herd spurts richer milk than common Holsteins (though less of it); the cows graze on rotational pastures free of pesticides and herbicides, and never eat silage; and they’re only milked seasonally, according to the ebbs and flows of the lady-cow cycle. (As a result, this cheese, aged 4 months, is only available from June to March.) All this makes for substantial and flavorful raw milk cheeses; but also — and this is part of the point — cheeses with some kind of moral integrity.

Grayson recently won two major awards at the American Cheese Society‘s 2008 Conference: runner-up for Best in Show, and first place for Farmstead Cow’s Milk Cheese. Not insubstantial, if you’re into cheese awards. I’m posting on Grayson because of the second award. “Farmstead” means that all of the production is done in one place, on one farm: the grass grows, the beasts eat, they are milked, the milk is cheesed, the cheese is aged. There is a strictly culinary appeal to this purity, since the farmstead cheesemaker has absolute control over his or her product, from beginning to end. No “fetid and sickening odors” will slip past the cheesemaker who doubles as dairy farmer. In fact, some American artisans earn reputations for fussiness and perfectionism — only accepting milk when the pastures are prime, for example. (Uplands Cheese, producer of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, is often cited as a quintessential American “designer” cheese.) In addition, on the “ethical” end, no unwelcome practice will taint the moral valor of the cheese, less petroleum is consumed, dada dada dada.

(Yes, weep, for such finely tuned farmstead cheeses can be very, very expensive. Happily, Grayson is on the cheaper end of the spectrum.)

Another reason I pinpointed Grayson was to juxtapose it with Taleggio. (To see my prior post on Taleggio, click here.) It’s a standard refrain in cheesewriting that there are few true American originals: most of the cheese here derives too directly from some “ancestor” cheese in Europe. (Jack, Colby, and Brick are three accepted originals that I can think of, off the cuff.). It’s a strange evolutionary logic I don’t quite approve — but this is no place for “positions,” not now. Many artisanal cheeses are also “inspired” by old European winners; and in this respect, Grayson follows Taleggio. Grayson is also a washed-rind cows milk cheese that attains a silky, dense, custard texture without gooing out too much. Grayson and Taleggio look similar, too — pale yellow paste (the interior, non-rind of a cheese), orange rind — and with real handmade cheese appearance can indicate a lot about what the cheese is and how it tastes. You can eat both rinds, and both rinds taste like wet sand.

Eating the two cheeses, however, will reveal enough differences to justify coexistence. Grayson has a more odorous rind: more sand, seaweed, and sewage. The inside smells sweeter, openly milky, with a little fruit and a little more sock. From a small distance I smell ripe banana. (Why am I smelling this cheese from a distance? What happened?) The taste takes longer to warm up on your tongue; then there’s more tartness, more sweetness — higher tones — and perhaps less range than Taleggio. Grayson also tasted like poultry to me, full grown cocks and hens, whereas I only remember the eggs in Taleggio. These are worldly wonders.

Goat and background included for scale.

Grayson: goat and background included for scale.

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The Original American Cheese, plus Anecdotes

“The history of the world is the discipline of the uncontrolled natural will, bringing it into obedience to a universal principle and conferring subjective freedom.” — Hegel

“Progress might have been alright once but it has gone on too long.” — Ogden Nash

(To quiet complaints about the last long post, I’ve broke this one into smaller sections, each with a heading. I hope it “feels” like several small, acceptable posts, even if it is really one large, unacceptable post.)

THE ORIGINAL AMERICAN CHEESE

The culmination of . . .

The culmination of . . . ?

As far as I know, none of the Native Americans were cheesemaking people. They had other things to do; so there are no “ancient” American cheeses. And nobody’s suggested to me that pilgrim cheesemakers, colonial cheesemakers, or settler cheesemakers felt compelled to creatively experiment with their medium, not for the better, at least. Cheeses and recipes were brought from overseas, and cheeses were made at home, sold in smalltime markets. Cheddar was the big thing. It seems to have been a practical cheese, then as now: manageable despite the volatile New England climate, which defeated most cheeses. By 1790 American cheddars were exported back to England, the original motherland of the breed (which is not so much named after the town of Cheddar as the Cheddar Gorge, a tourist attraction since the 18th century that gathered hungry crowds and popularized the local cheese). Before the curious single-serving packets now called “American Cheese,” Brits called imported U.S. cheddar “American cheese,” or “Yankee cheese.” Americans called it “yellow cheese” and “store cheese,” sometimes “applepie cheese.”

Too much cheddar for the man on the nickel!

Too much cheese for the man on the nickel!

The Brits looked down on Yankee cheese. But Americans were doing their best, probably; and sometimes they even felt pride in their yellow cheese. For example: the people of Cheshire Massachusetts once made a 1235-pound, 4-foot by 15-inch cheddar and gave it to President Thomas Jefferson, for inspiration I suppose. That was in 1802. They inscribed on the rind one of Jefferson’s famous slogans: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” They wrote that on a cheese. The pastor that orchestrated the Mammoth Cheese‘s creation, Elder John Leland, assured Jefferson that none of the milk was made by any slaves, or Federalists — since this cheese was also a political gesture. Leland thought it was the best damn cheese ever made. I imagine Jefferson was nonplussed.

(Andrew Jackson was awarded a cheese to match Jefferson’s in 1845. The cheesemakers wanted to assert that Jackson deserved Jefferson’s “every honor” and more — even cheese honors. [For more on White House cheeses, look here.] And in 1890 a couple of British villages made a 1250-pound, 9-foot-diameter cheddar and gave it to Queen Victoria, who no doubt envied Jefferson’s cheese as much as Jackson did.)

Some claim that Jefferson, thanks to Cheshire’s brief madness, was the first man of authority dubbed The Big Cheese. Another authority suggests that the phrase comes first from the Persian or Urdu word chiz, for “thing,” which the English picked up in India. The imperialists started calling things cheeses, with a positive connotation; so by 1890 they were calling big things big cheeses. Jefferson was indeed a big thing in his day; but he may have been a little early for the epithet.

IMPERIAL SNOBBERY AND AMERICAN IMPATIENCE

Google Books found me an issue of the British Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge from March 12, 1842, which features an article on “American Cheese” of the time. It contains, not surprisingly, some useful knowledge on the subject. Here’s an excerpt:

“The characteristics of American cheeses consist in their greater diameter or breadth in proportion to their thickness; in their possessing their natural colour, little or no artificial colouring being employed; in their being full of holes or eyes; in possessing a pungent or rather bitter taste, and in a bandage of linen or cotton cloth being passed round their outward rim. In some matters the Americans have adopted modes and customs different from ours and from those of other countries, and by no means superior to those they have rejected or altered. [I do appreciate the passive aggressive condescension of that deliberately overgeneral sentence.] Cheese-making may be considered one of those; and, as a consequence, they produce a quality of cheese decidedly inferior to our own.”

The author also blames American inferiority on a climate too extreme for cheese, and on misplaced priorities that valued salt and, above all, speed (in coagulation, curd breaking, and pressing) over finished quality.

THE YANKS CHANGE CHEESE FOREVER

So maybe Americans didn’t successfully innovate or stake out a cultural niche with cheese, until later — until 1851, when Jesse Williams established the America’s first cheese factory in New York — possibly the first “modern”/industrial cheese factory in the world. (Arguably, cooperative American systems were already practiced in other areas — in 1841, for instance, after the People of Wisconsin “had arrived at that point of refinement when they longed for cheese” and banded together to serve that cause [see Pickett] . But Jesse Williams gets the credit and none of us have the time to research and debate it.) Jesse Williams’ father was a famously good cheesemaker, but fate had condemned young Jesse to meager talent in the trade. Jesse was living under a shadow, shaming his maker; so he conceived the cheese factory as a means of still collaborating in business with his father. Which is touching. There is Disney-movie potential in this story. With his factory, Jesse was able to buy up milk from many local dairy herds, mix it all together with his own and his father’s, and churn out extra-large cheeses that were more uniform, consistent, and economic. Of course his factory made cheddar. It changed everything.

THE FALL AND REDEMPTION OF MAN, REPLAY

From there, today’s Standard American Cheese Tale, as culled from glossy books and internet sites, goes like this: America’s main cheesemaking-innovation was mass production, efficiency: Williams’ factory-style cheese. The States were the vanguard of the Great Industrialization that then swept Europe, and with the help of two World Wars crippled, bludgeoned, all but garroted traditional cheesemaking culture — in part, for a time. During the Dark Ages of American Prosperity the Forces of Darkness strengthened their grip on the cheesesoul of the people; Americans were eating plastic scraps and used car parts and calling it food; given a few more decades they would have gladly consumed raw cancer boiled in turpentine, if nothing stopped them . . . culture and decency rotted and ruined, the human spirit severed from its source . . . Until 60s counterculture at last declared everything like that wrong, evil, Mammon- or Moloch-ish. And then those movements promoting organic, local, sustainable food began gathering their followings. 80s affluence encouraged creative-types to buy farms and experiment, the fervor caught on; and so it is that now we have a fabulous artisanal cheese culture coming into its own. It’s up to our generation to spread the good news and carry on the work.

Yes, it’s a suspiciously messianic tale that twists some undeniable truths, and so standardized that the discriminating cynic must suspect it’s some large fraction myth — but I don’t know right now, and I won’t take a stand on it  — maybe later — I’m not here now to take stands — I’m unsure what I’m here to do — I was supposed to write about Grayson still. And I will, but I was sidetracked. So:

Next time on “After Cheese Comes Nothing”: Posts on St. Hildegard, Taleggio, and American cheesemaking culminate in a single anticlimactic post on Grayson, an artisanal American washed-rind cheese from Virginia.


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