Artisanal Cheese 101—Dig In!
One of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s most famous quotes describes the passion that most countries—notably France—have for cheese: “A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.” However, here in the states I have found that a good majority of folks think cheese only comes from cows, shrink-wrapped in individual slices and stacked in neat piles on the shelves of our mega-mart’s refrigerated sections. Friends, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Cheese is a complex, varied and often misunderstood part of our culinary and agricultural history. So, here I am: a girl from South St. Louis, willing and ready to give you the basic nuts and bolts of artisanal cheeses.
What’s so special about artisanal cheese?
What in the world is artisanal cheese? Well, that is a both a simple and complex question. In a nutshell, artisanal cheese can be described as cheese made by hand in small batches using traditional methods that have withstood the test of time. With this method comes great variability in the end product, which is part of the true beauty of artisanal cheese. Over the next couple months we will delve into every aspect of artisanal cheese, from sourcing milk to production methods, aging, and finally, the joy of EATING artisanal cheese!
Where does it come from?
Like I said before, cheese is not only a product of dairy cows. Think about it: cheese is made from milk. What other animals produce milk? Cows are the first that come to mind, yes, but there are also goats and sheep. Many Mediterranean and European countries have relied on sheep and goats as their main source of food for hundreds or even thousands of years! In turn, they have perfected the art of making cheese from the milk of these animals. Waste not, want not.
First lesson: cheese can be made with cow, sheep or goat’s milk. Those are the most common types of milk we use in the U.S. to make artisanal cheeses. (In the Middle East and parts of Asia, the milk of other mammals is used for cheese. But that’s another story for another time.) Each type of milk can be used alone, or blended for a more complex flavor profile. Depending on the animal, there is a different fat content and of course, flavor. Sheep’s milk has the highest fat content out of our milk triumvirate. Next in line is cow’s milk, and finally, our ornery friend, the goat. Factor in where the animal was raised, what type of food it ate, the production method and the aging process, and you can see how artisanal cheesemakers are able to create a multitude of distinct-tasting cheeses.
What’s next? Where can I get my hands on some tasty artisanal cheese?
So I’ve planted the seed in your brain. Artisanal cheese sounds like a pretty fabulous idea, right? Next step: venturing out into your community in search of some artisanal cheese. I suggest starting with your local farmer’s market. You are bound to find some artisanal cheese there. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Farmers and cheesemakers love what they do…and they love to talk about what they do with you! Try something new and stay tuned for more cheese talk!
This has been a very brief introduction to artisanal cheese. If you want more information, I suggest starting with the American Cheese Society.
– Annie Lehrer