On the Price of Cheese

CheeseBy Tami Parr

In my last discussion about cheese here at Portland Food and Drink, several commenters mentioned price as a big part of their decision to buy (or not to buy) domestic artisan cheese. This intrigued me, so I’ve been pondering the issue for awhile.

The first part of my thinking involved some retail research. I visited a local cheese purveyor a few days ago and randomly compared prices on a few foreign vs. domestic cheese. The result? It’s a mixed bag. Here are some retail prices (per pound) for a few types of cheese:

Domestic

  • Rogue River Blue $27.99/lb
  • Juniper Gove Tumalo Tomme $16.99/lb
  • Pleasant Ridge Reserve $24.99/lb
  • Willamette Valley Gouda $13.99/lb

Foreign

  • Colston Bassett Stilton $16.99/lb
  • Manchego $13.99/lb
  • Tomme de Chevre $15.99/lb
  • Ossau-Iraty $20.99/lb

Obviously this is unscientific, but overall, I don’t think one can necessarily generalize that domestic cheese is more expensive than foreign. The more obvious conclusion is that cheese is expensive, period.

I tend to think there’s more to the issue of how we buy cheese than strictly price. Many of us might be willing to spend money on wine, specific cuts of meat or exotic produce but why don’t we automatically make the leap to justify paying for (domestic) artisan cheese in the same way? I know I frequently ogle Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam and Red Hawk in the store, but either one can cost nearly $35 retail, and that price gives me pause. Some stores helpfully sell half rounds, but even at upwards of $15, the price still makes me wince a little. If you buy organic produce, you’re probably paying more for it than “regular” produce because of the perceived benefits (to your health, to the environment, etc). I don’t think we make the same conceptual leap in relation to cheese purchases, or at least not so easily.

To some extent, consumer cheese buying habits are the result of personal taste and preference, but as I’m thinking about this, I’m interested in how those preferences are shaped. I think a large component of our (lack of) perception about cheese is that we simply do not have a centuries-old tradition of cheesemaking and cheese consumption as does, say, France, where cheese is an inseparable part of culture and national identity. Per capita consumption of cheese in France is said to be more than 50 lbs per person, per year. This is a country that’s slightly larger than Oregon and Washington combined, which produces upwards of 500 types of cheese (Steve Jenkins puts the figure at around 650). In the US, we consume about 30 lbs per year, and I think it’s fair to say that a large portion of that is in the form nacho cheese sauce, not artisan cheese. The states of Oregon and Washington have around 30 cheesemakers between them. I’m not sure what in our culture qualifies as significant enough to be comparable to the importance of cheese to the French; the only thing I can come up with is Coca-Cola – not a very good example. We’re a much younger, larger country made up of diverse regions of microcuisines and local agricultural specialties which arguably work against any one product carrying deep cultural meaning. But I also think this is why it’s easy for us to pass by the cheese aisle altogether and focus on other parts of a meal that we’re more comfortable with and more educated about, like Oregon Country Beef or heirloom tomatoes.

Here’s another angle on the cheese buying issue. I asked a group of friends who carpool to and from Salem every day and have a lot of time to chat on the way, what their thoughts were about paying premium prices for artisan cheese. These are people who are interested in food and who have some disposable income to spend on cheese despite their meager state salaries. To my surprise, two of three discussion participants said that they were intimidated by cheese generally; this influenced their buying decisions, they said, because they weren’t willing to spend a significant amount of money on cheese if they felt uncertain about what to choose and/or how good any given cheese would be.

This tells me that another part of issue is education. Cheesemakers and cheesemongers need to do a lot more to educate people about their products, and about cheese in general. People simply aren’t going to purchase something that they don’t understand and don’t feel motivated to understand – and whether it’s foreign or domestic isn’t going to matter on this level. Farmer’s markets go a long way in this regard, bringing domestic artisan cheese directly to people who might otherwise be too intimidated to go to a cheese shop or to the cheese section of a deli. But even those of us who consider ourselves more savvy in the area of cheese appreciation might choose to buy the default Roquefort or Bucheron or Manchego we’re familiar with – and perceive the choice to be potentially better because it’s foreign – rather than try an unfamiliar domestic artisan cheese with an iffy pedigree.

Immigrants brought cheesemaking expertise to the United States from their respective countries, but cheesemaking for the most part took a back seat to survival in the New World. Today, in our twenty-first century United States, people are talking about an emerging “new wave” of domestic artisan cheesemakers. Clearly, said domestic cheesemakers have their work cut out for them if they hope to achieve the cultural prominence afforded the Old World fromageur. Whether or not that’s possible or even preferable, we cheese appreciators can contribute by taking the time to learn about cheesemaking in our own backyards.

Today’s Cheese Recommendation: New Seasons has just started carrying goat’s milk cheeses from River’s Edge Chevre, a new Oregon goat cheese producer out of Logsden, Oregon (near Newport). I tried their soft ripened cheese recently and it was really remarkable – rich, creamy, complex and a little oozy around the sides. This is really good stuff if you like smelly, brie-style cheeses.

(Editors note: the River’s Edge is really good!)

You can read more of Tammy’s writing at Pacific Northwest Cheese Project

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Norm says

    Education on food is the key. Take a look at the Farmers markets in the metro area. When I moved here in 1993 the Portland Farmers Mkt. was tiny. Today there is a demand for fresh, local and flavorful produce. The same goes with these artisan cheeses, these producers need to do tastings and side by side comparisons. Expense is also relative here. As a nation we spend fewer dollars on food than almost any other developed country. We have for a greater extent also forgotten (or never learned) to cook. Chances are that the same person whining about $17 Stilton, is the same person paying $3.00 for gas in an SUV that gets 12 mpg. Yes, artisan cheese is expensive because it is handcrafted and it is a time consuming process-these products will never be produced in a “Velveta” quantity so as to see the price come down with the incresed production. We should all just be thankful that we can even get these cheeses here in the area. Remember, not that long ago our choices were cheddar, swiss and jack.

  2. Marshall Manning says

    Norm, as one of those who mentioned the price of cheese in Tami’s earlier post, it has nothing to do with the percentage of money we spend on food/wine (huge), our ability to cook, nor our appreciation of cheese. The simple fact is that with cheese, as with wine, many American producers have priced themselves over and above the real thing, and yet offer quality that is not up to the same level. I’ll take a $20 Chianti Classico over a $50 Napa Sangiovese almost any day of week, and the same is true with a $8/lb Brie from Trader Joe’s, which is usually better than many $15+/lb “Brie style” cheeses from the U.S. The problem is the American mindset of maximum short-term profit as opposed to the European ideal of making the best you can and selling it for a fair price.

    Marshall

  3. tparr says

    Marshall, I’d like to hear more about why you feel American producers’ cheese is overpriced? Certainly there are some domestic cheeses that aren’t worth the hype, no question – but I think this is the exception rather than the rule.

    I think part of the issue, too, is that artisan cheese has carved out an upscale market niche with other expensive goodies like imported olive oils and “gourmet” products. Maybe this makes artisan cheese more profitable to the producer…. but I think to some extent it’s counterproductive because, like you say, at some point people are going to opt out and buy at Trader Joe’s instead.

  4. Chris says

    I also feel that Oregon cheeses tend to be terribly overpriced. Willamette Valley Cheese Co. and Rogue River Creamery are noted offenders. At the Farmer’s Market, they ask $20 a pound or more for decidedly mediocre cheese. [Note: I think the Rogue River Reserve is pretty amazing, and worth the $30ish a pound I pay, when it's available.]

    Pastaworks sells a lot of Spanish, French and Italian cheeses that blow away the local competition in terms of quality-per-dollar. At least, that’s what my palate tells me–and that’s what counts. I will continue to taste both local and imported cheeses when I buy (which is often!). If the past is any indication, I’ll usually come home with cheese that was produced far away.

  5. Marshall Manning says

    Tami, I don’t think that ALL domestic cheese is overpriced, and we enjoy many U.S. cheeses, as long as they are reasonably priced compared to their competition. Chris mentions a couple above that seem to be priced above their European counterparts, and I’m even starting to be less impressed with things like the Cowgirl Mt. Tam, which at one time was one of our favorite cheeses. But, our last couple of rounds (one purchased at City Market, one at Elephant’s) have not been as creamy and rich as past experiences. If they are slipping in quality, I simply won’t buy them any more at the $25/lb. price.

  6. Ann Marie Hebert says

    Tami,

    What a great website! I particularly enjoy the way you pose a problem and then work through it, with the reader as the lucky eavesdropper, as in “On the Price of Cheese.” I’m planning a trip to Oregon, looking forward to eating some good cheeses, and grateful for the artisan cheese primer that you offer to your reader. Thanks.

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