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How Cheese Is Leading the Charge in the Artisan Food Movement

There's a food renaissance happening in the United States today. At the forefront of this rebirth? Artisan cheese.

The following is an excerpt from The Farmstead Creamery Advisor: The Complete Guide to Building and Running a Small, Farm-Based Cheese BusinessBy Gianaclis Caldwell.

The United States is experiencing a food-quality renaissance. An increase in the number of farmers’ markets and “eat local” campaigns, a growing awareness of food quality, and a desire to appreciate the story behind the product are all influencing the way Americans are buying and consuming food. While we are still largely a nation of fast-food addicts and all-you-can-eat buffet aficionados, more and more people today are starting to care less about the size of the serving than about the quality and story of its ingredients. This awakening is not limited to those who can afford the luxury of finer foods. It extends -- and indeed originates -- from a basic need to reconnect with health, history, and the awareness of nutrition’s role in our very existence.

The History of Cheesemaking in the United States

Bernard Nantet, in his book Cheeses of the World, maintains that the United States, unlike Europe, does not have a strong tradition of artisan cheesemaking. It could be argued that it is this lack of an embedded culinary-cultural background, in part, that allowed the unfettered mechanization that all but extinguished the manufacture of handcrafted artisan cheeses in the U.S. by the mid-1900s. The current revival, which began in earnest in the late 1970s, occurred thanks to a combination of factors that increased the American public’s appreciation not only of food but also of the way of life that the farmer-cheesemaker leads.

Rise and Fall

Although goats, sheep, and cows traveled to the Antilles (Caribbean islands) with Christopher Columbus in the late 1400s, it wasn’t until the early 1600s that milk cows, and along with them cheesemaking, arrived at European settlements on the shores of what is now the United States of America. Cheeses were part of the provisions stocked on board ships traveling to the Americas, and as with all foods packed for the difficult voyages, cheese was a sustenance food, not a luxury. Cheese, both on board the ships and in the new settlements, was simply the best way to preserve excess milk and extend the availability of a valuable food.

European immigrants adapted to the hardships of life in the New World while continuing to practice the food traditions of their native cultures. Over time and through continued waves of immigration, cheese produced in America gradually began to reflect regional influences: In the northeast part of the country, an English influence created an early Cheddar industry; in Wisconsin, Swiss and Danish traditions included Gouda and alpine styles; and in California and the West, Spanish and French cultures influenced the kinds of cheeses made there, including the development of an American original, Monterey Jack cheese. By the mid-1800s most rural families had a milk cow or goats for dairy, meat, and by-products. Cheese was produced on the farm or at home, and cheesemaking was a normal part of a homemaker’s repertoire. The seeds of change, for all of agriculture and eating, came with the American Industrial Revolution in the 1850s. Mechanization increased the ability of farmers to grow more feed, raise more animals, and subsequently harvest ever-increasing quantities of milk. For the cheesemaker, equipment could be manufactured to process larger volumes of milk into cheese to feed a growing population.

In the 1840s a Wisconsin man named James Picket is believed to have been the first farmer to make cheese from the milk of not only his own animals, but a neighbor’s cows as well. This new concept in dairying was taken a step further in 1851 when the first “modern” cheese factory was built by Jesse Williams in Oneida, New York. Williams’s factory is believed to have been the first cheese plant to pool milk from multiple farmers and complete the entire process of cheesemaking in a commercial facility. Other factories quickly sprang up throughout the country. By 1880 there were 3,923 factories nationwide, with a production volume of 216 million pounds of cheese. The family cow was on her way out of the picture.

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