My wife and I spent the last days of July in California. I spent most of my time visiting dairies to talk about their situations and gather information for stories. But my wife was in Sacramento at the American Cheese Society (ACS) convention — the big gathering of artisan cheese minds each year.
It was my third and my wife’s fourth conference, the tastiest conference I’ve ever attended — especially in comparison to many dairy conferences where “expensive” milk and cheese is not even offered by the conference meal planners.
Cheesemaking is an art and a science — although I would argue it’s all science that we have not nailed down yet. But, the smell, the taste, and the texture in the artisan cheeses are so unique compared to the “pasteurized processed cheese food” products you’ll find on most grocery store shelves; dyed orange resembling something that’s more like JELLO than a product we can proudly proclaim came from a cow (that’s the inner cheese snob in me talking). Of course, there are plenty of good cheeses in-between that don't fit either the "artisan" or "processed" category.
That being said, even the processed stuff is nutritious, delicious, and any other great adjective you want add in the right setting. But, I’ve never seen anyone line up for the stuff in a can or pre-sliced packaging they way they do for each year’s Festival of Cheese to conclude ACS.
At the Festival you’ll find the best blues, aged cheddars, and even cottage cheeses in the Americas. There’s Swiss, ricotta, burrata, mozzarella, and I could go on and on to list the over 100 categories among cow, goat, sheep, and mixed-milk cheeses. There’s the really stinky stuff too, — that’s not a category name — but my previous experience is that most dairy farmers stop at a sharp cheddar.
My perception was confirmed when a panel of three cheesemongers (the people who sell artisan cheese at counters across the country) were on stage during a Friday session. Two of the three were from the popular cheese counters on the coast - New York and California. But the third, my friend Jeanne Carpenter, hails from Metcalfe’s Market of Wisconsin. Fittingly, she sat in the middle.
The session by cheesemongers and for cheesemongers was about word choice and verbiage when describing cheeses. One of the first topics was how they answer that one question they’re continually asked. While the coastal consumer wants to know about the milk, the farm, or the conditions under which the cheese has aged, Jeanne knew exactly what her #1 question was: “What’s your sharpest cheddar?” (Check out her blog at Cheese Underground)
She said it frustrates her to no end, because she’s got this huge case of the dozens of cheeses available to the artisan world, in the state that makes the most cheese, but Wisconsinites can’t get past their beloved cheddar — named after a town in England.
I don’t fault you, fair cheeseheads to my east. A good cheddar is a good cheddar. But, as dairy farmers looking to expand markets and increase our value, I would encourage you to try something new from our industry each month.
On our farm, where we’re starting up our cheese factory, it’s been a learning curve. Luckily, I’m particularly good at eating, so in the five years I’ve been married my “foodie” wife has introduced me to more cheeses than there are cows on our farm. I can eat (and enjoy) just about any cheese due to my respect for the process. But, that doesn’t mean our family members always finish their sample of our latest discovery.
And that’s the point — they don’t have to!
On Friday we ran an article about drinkable yogurt’s popularity in China. Searching nearby grocery store shelves I found nothing of the sort; what are we missing? Not all butter is equal, and not every tastebud is fit for Limburger. But consumers may be missing out on something they think is great — and we’re part of the problem if we can’t tell them where to find it.
Again, I challenge you to test a new dairy product on your palate each month. If you like it, tell someone about it. The best artisan cheeses can fetch upward of $20 or $30 per pound -- that's one way to increase the value for milk ten-fold. But if you don't like it, farm dogs like pretty much every cheese ever invented.