What Does Cheese Mean?

A certain euro-centrism reigns in cheese appreciation circles. When I think of good cheese (really good cheese), what immediately comes to mind is an imaginary French or Italian sheep’s milk gem crafted from the milk of herds grazing in the Alps. On some level, there’s a logic to this; European cheese-making is a centuries-old tradition that produces some of the world’s great cheeses. But on another level, many aficionados take an us vs. them approach to cheese appreciation, as if great cheese can only be measured against European standards. I think there’s a lot more to cheese than that. For example, when was the last time you read anything about Mexican cheeses? Mexican cheese doesn’t carry the same cachet as European cheese – but isn’t that reflective of historical and cultural differences that make cheese mean one thing in Mexico and another in Italy? Isn’t this also reflective of the fact that we’ve developed our concept of “cheese” through the European paradigm?

In his Cheese Primer, Steve Jenkins spends a couple of hundred pages detailing the virtues of a range of European (and a few American) cheeses. Although he’s famous for being a curmudgeon, he certainly knows what he’s talking about. After a recent trip to Canada, though, I checked the Primer to see what he had to say about Canadian cheese. Basically, he dismisses the whole nation in a couple of pages (pages 470-71, if you’re following along at home). I can’t speak for all of Canada, but I do know that at least in British Columbia, there are a few artisan cheese-makers who’d beg to differ with him. Salt Spring Island Cheese Company’s Montaña (an aged cow/sheep’s milk cheese) is, in my opinion, one of the best Northwest cheeses being made today.

wine-shutterstock_172786484In 1976, California wines beat out French wines in a now infamous blind tasting. Many people attribute the rise of the California wine industry to this pivotal moment in wine history – a point where it was finally acknowledged that California wine could be as good as French wine. We’ve yet to reach that critical moment with relation to domestic cheese, however. Part of it is simply our own mindset – we’re just not ready to think of ourselves in North America as true Cheese makers-with-a-capital-C. No one in Europe is, either. Part is also due to the fact that the North American artisan cheese-making industry is still growing, and variations in quality and consistency abound. Part of it is also marketing – local cheese-makers lack the support of local and federal governments that European cheese-makers enjoy (Brand Oregon doesn’t even come close – the Canadian Government’s Canadian Dairy Information Centre does much better on this front). And American cheese making’s umbrella organization, the American Cheese Society, has only been around since the early 1980′s.

While these historical, economic and cultural forces are beyond the control of the average consumer, what we can do is expand our minds and palates by exploring the range of tastes and flavors available to us locally. So next time you’re staring at the cheese case at Pastaworks or Whole Foods or New Seasons, feeling like you should buy the Camembert or the Manchego, stop for a moment and direct your attention to cheeses made by domestic producers. Here are some suggestions – all of these cheeses are available here in Portland. Let me know what you think.

Uplands Cheese Company’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a Wisconsin farmstead cheese made only in the summer months, won best in show at this year’s American Cheese Society competition. This is a wonderful creamy, nutty raw milk cheese.

Rogue Creamery’s Rogue River Blue – Blue cheese wrapped in grape leaves that are first soaked in brandy – absolute heaven and Rogue’s best blue. When I was at the New Seasons in Sellwood a few weeks ago, they had an entire wheel of Rogue River Blue in the refrigerated case, yet to be cut.

Fiscalini 18 month Bandage Wrapped Cheddar – I first tasted this at the Seattle Cheese Festival earlier this year – this is an amazing, deep, complex cheddar from California.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. ExtraMSG says

    Did you try the Tiger Blue while in BC? Great cheese. Plenty of really tasty things coming out of there.

    I do think another problem, though, is that domestic cheeses, for some reason, are often more expensive than their European competitors even if they’re no better. I pay more for an aged Tillamook than a sharp Irish cheddar, and frankly, the Irish cheddar is much better. Same with the Irish vs the Vermont cheddars I’ve tasted. Rogue River Blue is as expensive or moreso than online sources for Cabrales. I once tasted a Portuguese St. George right up against a California version at the Cheese Board and me and my companions all thought the Portuguese version was far and away better, yet was a few bucks cheaper per pound. Nearly all those chevres at the Portland Farmer’s Market are twice the price or more than the tastiest ones at your local Trader Joe’s.

    For me, it’s not so much an issue of there not being really good cheeses here in Oregon or around the continent. It’s that proportionally, most of the domestic cheeses I like are over-priced.

  2. Food Dude says

    Government subsidies with cheese perhaps? The same thing is true with wine. Many times imports are a much better bargain then domestics. It drives me crazy that heavy bottles can be shipped half way across the world and still be cheaper then local wines.

    Sigh. I miss the Cheese Board!

  3. Marshall Manning says

    I love good cheese from all over (as you can tell by looking at me!), and over the past week or so we’ve had a fontina from Wisconsin, an Oregon beerkaese (sp?), a lovely 5 year Gouda, and an Affinois, one of my all-time favorite cheeses, so I have nothing against the domestic product as long as it’s tasty and competitively priced.

    Unlike wine, the domestic producers are staying true to the European style, and aren’t making cheese from overripe milk (G). However, as Nick mentions (and like US wine producers), for some reason some new world producers seem to think that they should price their product above the European originals. I’ll eat Boucheron all day long (another of my favorites) before paying twice as much for local goat cheese that isn’t as good.

  4. hunter says

    No actually it’s an entire cheese cart supplied by Artisnal in NYC. I’ve had it a few times and it’s pretty damn good.

  5. Marshall Manning says

    Hunter, what are the prices and servings like…similar to other places around town that offer your choice of 3 cheeses for $10? Do they have any cheeses that you otherwise might not see around Portland?

  6. Vapid1 says

    It seems to me to be a product of the culture. Outside of a few cheese bastions in this country, Kraft is king. Unripened flavorless, salty, annatto colored cheddar, and little wax pellets, more beneficial for use on a shuffleboard table than Pasta, are the dominant cheese varieties in our fair land. Sure Italy and France and England have large producers. However their large producers have to answer to a more discriminating clientele. They have to compete against local artisans; as opposed to our country were a local artisan has to scrape and claw to even gain awareness that something out of the norm exists. While bad food exists everywhere it seems as if Europes LCD is much higher than ours. A market based culture as opposed to a supermarket culture. All things being equal It seems that occasionally paying a bit more to support the little, and local guy is wholly worth it. Producers will only respond to demand, much like the Micro/homebrew boom has created a new market and awareness that there is something beyond St Louis and Milwaukee. Raising the proverbial bar as it were. Of course whoever is responsible for the death of Bandon will find there own special Bolgia in cheese hell.

  7. Richard Bennett says

    What you got against Velveeta, Marshall? Velveeta and Rotel makes the best Chili Con Queso. Until we can get aerosol Brie, it’s the convenient of all cheese products.

  8. ExtraMSG says

    Easy or adequate? Yes. Best? No. I know Texans like Robb Walsh try to insist that Velveeta makes good food, but he’s just plain wrong. He’s drank a little too much of his own Tex-Mex apologist Kool-Aid. I’ll put mornay-based chili con queso made with a tasty cheddar against the salty solidified Cheez Whiz that is Velveeta any day.

  9. tparr says

    Price is definitely an issue, this is something that keeps cheesemakers up at night. But most of the time I know I’m not comparing price per pound very carefully between, say, a French and Oregon cheese. Both kinds of cheese are fairly expensive, generally. And you’re going to pay for artisan bread, Painted Hills beef, etc – so in the long run, what’s the difference? I agree that, all things being equal, I’d rather pay the little local guy. But I’m also going to pay for what’s good, period, so that seems to me to be the real challenge for the cheesemaker – through product and through marketing, they’ve got to do a better job at convincing consumers that they’re good and worth buying.

    It’s tough, though, for the small cheesemaker, who’s trying to price around the cost of production, the cost of keeping animals, etc. (That being said, cheese is a pretty high profit margin product.) I have noticed, for example, that you can get Laura Chenel chevre for a lot cheaper than Juniper Grove chevre. But she’s got a well established production facility and a huge farm compared to Juniper grove. It’s an economy of scale.

    I haven’t gotten to Bluehour yet but hope to in the next few weeks so I’ll report back about the cheese course.

  10. Marshall Manning says

    Richard, if we’re stranded on a desert island, I’ll take the Boucheron, Brie, Redhawk, Reggiano, La Tur, cave-aged Gruyere, and Loire Croitin. You can have the Velveeta!

  11. Vapid1 says

    I miss squeez a snack. It recommended against refrigerating on the side of the tube. Indestructable. Perfect for a desert Island.

  12. mczlaw says

    I love cheese (which cheese product isn’t)! Don’t care where it comes from.

    Tried recently: Vento d’Estate, an Italian sheep (?) aged in hay and herbs, including mint. Ass kicking delicious. Then there’s this other Italian sheep which is thickly coated and aged in barolo grape must. So good it makes me hum with pleasure.

    I dearly love American artisan cheeses, but in terms of value, with few exceptions (Juniper Grove being one), they don’t measure up.

    My views on the Rogue River Blue Reserve, for example, are fairly well known. I continue to suspect artificial price maintenance despite the screams of protest from Rogue apologists. When it was released this summer, it was selling at retail at about $26/lb. despite a quadrupling in production over last year. Sources told me that, in addition to the allocation system in place that favored certain large retailers, the creamery was holding some of its production back. Hmmm. I have been told of a little grey market that developed after disfavored, secondary retailers ran out and wanted more.

    Bear in mind that the head cheese at Rogue, David Gremmels, is a former marketing guy at Harry and David. A true artisan, eh? He and I traded calls after my first exposition of concern over Rogue’s distribution practices, but I’m still waiting for him to return my last call. I’m not holding my breath. (Prediction: wait and see if Whole Foods doesn’t try and get $29 or even $30 for the RRB around the holidays.)

    Anyway, I’ll buy a little once in a while because it’s damn good stuff, but I’ll buy a helluvalot more of other things that don’t feel like a gouge.

  13. lilhuna says

    Cheeses I always keep in stock – a great Parmigano Reggiano, a soft silky desert cheese like Pierre Robert, a creamy blue like St Agur, and a huge chunk of Tillamook Vintage White that I use mindlessly in many ways.

    I recently fell in love with cheeses from Estrella. Great stuff.

    And Amanda that runs the cheese program at Blue Hour is the only reason I ever go there. She’s a true cheese geek.

  14. says

    As a lover of all cheeses, well most cheeses, I think it is also OK to like things like processed cheese food on occasion. Lord knows I’ll never be able to kick my La Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow) habit which is something I picked up at age age 11 when it was served to us (along with real cheeses) at school lunch in France.

    So creamy! So spreadable! So inexpensive! No apologies! I just like the stuff. And on occasion I still love a good old grilled cheese sandwich with American slices.

  15. Jason Wax says

    In his Cheese Primer, Steve Jenkins spends a couple of hundred pages detailing the virtues of a range of European (and a few American) cheeses [and] … he dismisses the whole nation [of Canada] in a couple of pages”>

    To be fair to Jenkins, I believe his Cheese Primer was last published in 1996. American (and presumably Canadian) cheesemaking and the appetites and knowledge of domestic consumers have come a long, long way since then. Jenkins’s book is meant to be a primer, and in 1996, it made a lot more to sense to assume that a Eurocentric primer would suffice. Just considering American cheeses, I wasn’t able to find a decent book until Jeff Roberts’s Atlas of American Artisan Cheese came out earlier this year. For Canadian cheeses, the best book I’ve found so far is Gurth Pretty’s beautiful Definitive Guide to Canadian Artisanal and Fine Cheeses.

    Now I’ve gone and made myself all hungry…

  16. tparr says

    things have come a long way since 1996, for sure. That being said, the US domestic cheese movement dates back to the late 1970s…and Quebec has had a thriving cheese industry that rivals Wisconsin and/or Vermont for at least as long, if not longer.

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