Art Finds its Whey Back to the Masses

According to Steve Jones from The Wine Merchant, Ltd. in St. Louis (20 S Hanley, Clayton, MO 314.863.6282), "Cheese is peasant food. It was initially created to deal with the excess milk produced on farms, to ensure nothing would go to waste." Over the last century, fine cheese has slowly crept into the upper echelon of the food hierarchy, nestled alongside paté, caviar and escargot. Cheese began to slip out of the grasp of everyday people who were being bombarded with gluey triangles of white stuff wrapped in cow covered tin foil, liquid matter in spray cans, orange blocks of chemicals that will only be referred to on these pages as "V" - all with a shelf life of Spam. It’s time to reclaim our past. Make things right again. The revolution has begun. The secret weapon? Artisan Cheese.

The dictionary definition of artisan is one skilled in an applied art: a craftsmen. Within the cheese world it also means there was no factory involved in any of the production process. There are also farmstead or farmhouse cheeses (which fall under the umbrella of artisan cheeses) that are created in an environment where the producers own the animals that produce the milk from which they make the cheese. Artisan cheeses are made and sold locally because their freshness is paramount to its taste. Imported cheeses tend to loose some of that freshness in transit - put simply, you wouldn’t want a filet mignon flown in from Europe if you can go to your local butcher.

Most cheese begins simply as milk. It is generally thickened with rennet (a coagulating enzyme) or some other bacteria until it separates into two components: a semisolid - curds, and a liquid - whey. The whey is drained off and the curds are pressed into a variety of shapes and sizes. At this stage it is considered fresh, or unripened, cheese.

Now things get interesting. Herbs and spices can be added, or the curds can be subjected to heat or bacteria - the possibilities are endless when you are the producer of artisan cheeses. In other words, the curds are an empty canvas.

A friend and I had the pleasure of indulging in a tasting with The Wine Merchant’s King of Cheese, Jones, and his associate, Kent LaBoube. Their stock was impressive: over 150 cheeses in a six foot diameter space- most of them artisanal from farms throughout the United States. The shapes, sizes and colors were magnificent - each batch different from the last because each cheese is made by hand so you will never encounter the same shape twice - not unlike an original piece of fine art. According to Jones, the same rules for wine apply to cheese - "taste it and talk about it." Taste we did.

Jones had us sample close to twenty different artisan cheeses of varying textures and tastes. The cheeses don’t have names like the European cheeses we are all familiar with (i.e. Brie, Camembert, etc.), they are identified by their farm name. For example, we tried a gloriously sublime raw cow’s milk cheese (that was similar to a Raclette or Emmenthaler) from Love Tree Farm of Grantsburg, WI called Gabrielson Lake.

Time out. Let’s talk about raw milk cheese and the pasteurization process for a minute. Louis Pasteur was an incredible man who made important contributions to the dairy industry and I salute his brilliance. However, cheese does not have to be pasteurized for it to be safe. Big misconception. For example, cheese made with raw milk demands a strict vigilance regarding the quality of its production. According to Jones, "All cheese mold is fine - as long as you are not allergic to the strain of bacteria." He has never known anyone to get sick from unintentionally moldy cheese (the intentional kind being Roquefort, Gorgonzola etc...). In fact he had us sample a Cloth Bound Organic Raw Cow’s Milk Cheddar from Capri-Westfield in Hubbardston, MA that had grown some blue-green mold. It was smooth and creamy with great depth and a slight apple aftertaste - it did not taste old or bad or make us sick. The cheese itself was very different from supermarket cheddars which tend to have an overpowering bite to them - what Jones describes as heat - a result of overaging that results in a taste not dissimilar to ammonia.

We also tried an incredible Goats Milk Yerba Santa Private Reserve Shepherd Cheese from Lake Port, CA that had a distinctive earthy taste to it. Jones told us the goats roam free and feed off the land, which has not been altered or polluted in any way in over one hundred years. Another amazing cheese was the Vella Bear Flag Dry Monterey Jack from Sonoma, CA that is rolled in cocoa and chili peppers. It tasted ever so slightly of chocolate and spice and I’m told it makes an excellent pairing with our local Schlafly Beer.

Purchasing, storing and eating fine artisan cheeses should not be a daunting endeavor - for anyone (except the lactose intolerant). While some of the per-pound prices might at first seem high (the Wine Merchant actually prices their cheese a third lower than most commercial stores), you are paying for the highest quality ingredients prepared in a highly controlled and expert environment. The cheese is also fresher than anything you can get in a supermarket.

Storing the cheese is very important. "Do not cover the entire cheese in plastic wrap - you will suffocate and kill your cheese", said Jones emphatically. The cheese is a live culture and needs to be treated accordingly. You can wrap the cheese in either parchment paper or cover the cut end loosely with plastic wrap, changing the coverings every few days to keep it extra fresh. Store the cheese in the vegetable bins of your refrigerator. As for eating the cheese, well of course that's the best part. There is no right or wrong time to serve cheese, it's wonderful before a meal as well as after a meal, or even for dessert. However, you should take it out of the 'fridge and leave it at room temperature for about an hour before eating. The flavor of the cheese is best when it's not cold.

Pairing cheese with wine enables an even more heightened gastronomic experience. Jones recommends three ways of pairing cheese with wine: comparative, contrasting, and regional. An example of comparative pairing would be goat cheese and champagne because both are high in acid. A contrasting pairing would be a triple creme cheese with a full-bodied red wine because the fat in the cheese cuts through the tannins in the wine. Regional pairing would be simply pairing a Sonoma Valley wine with Sonoma Valley cheese. The opportunities are boundless. Check your local wine and cheese merchants for classes that teach such information (The Wine Merchant is having their next session of classes on May 30 and June 1).

As the world of artisan cheese began to reveal itself to us, we realized that we were being exposed to a realm of centuries old traditions, fine craftsmanship, and artistry - all in our own backyard. We did not have to go to extraordinary lengths to experience fine art firsthand. The extraordinary encounter of eating hand-crafted artisan cheese is one of the easiest and most satisfying aesthetic experiences that anyone can enjoy. Viva la revolution!