October is American Cheese Month — an opportunity to promote and celebrate the burgeoning domestic cheesemaking community and the mongers who put that cheese on our tables. Today we’re foregoing our regular profiles to highlight three American cheesemakers and one monger, all of whom have contributed to the growth and presence of domestic cheeses in the United States. — Ed.
“It wasn’t a good fit,” said Anne Saxelby, describing her relationship with the art world. Anne, founder of Saxelby Cheese, was finalizing a master’s program in art at NYU, and after stints at galleries and museums, knew it wasn’t for her. The cheese world, it turns out, was exactly the fit she was looking for.
From a young age, Anne had always loved cheese. After graduation she worked for several months at Cato Corner Farm in Connecticut and experienced her first taste of cheesemaking. It was there she realized what she had found — a perfect connection between producing cheese and her love of art.
“Making cheese is a lot like making a piece of art,” Anne said. “There is a similar concentration and rigor, attention to detail and technical skill, but with cheese your end result is edible.”
“People wanted to start making cheeses because they weren’t able to find cheeses they liked. Once you’ve been bitten by the cheesemaking bug, it’s irresistible.”
After traveling through Europe and studying with master affineuer Hervé Mons in France, Anne returned to the U.S. ready to establish an outpost of her own. She knew she wanted to focus her dream of opening a cheese shop on one specializing in American cheeses. And once she found a location at the Essex Street Market in Manhattan — where the shop still is today — she did just that.
Anne’s reasoning for opening a shop emphasizing domestic cheeses was simple. Focusing on local cheeses allowed her to establish a direct and tangible relationship with the makers, and in turn the shop could champion the case for domestic cheeses to customers. When Saxelby Cheese opened in 2006, the shop started with twenty regional farms. The selection has since grown to about forty.
“In the last 20 years, American farmstead and artisanal cheeses have taken off, not only in number of farms but in the quality of the product,” Anne said. “The bar for quality had been raised by new and talented American cheesemakers who are now making cheeses on par and even better than the imported cheese most already know.”
With domestic cheese more popular today than ever before, what was the initial reason for all the growth and outcropping of makers and mongers in the U.S.? Anne’s answer to this quandary is simple. It’s all in the cheese.
“I think many people wanted to start making cheeses because they weren’t able to find the cheeses they liked,” she said. “There isn’t always a rhyme or reason, but once you’ve been bitten by the cheese making bug, it’s irresistible.”
Saxelby Cheese, 120 Essex St., New York NY • 212.228.8204 • saxelbycheese.com
Allison Hoopers’ life with cheese began like many others — not in her childhood home in New Jersey, but while living in Paris during college studies. Lacking working papers and in need of a summer job, Allison found her way through the northwest region of France to Brittany. There she came across work on a small farmstead operation making cheese with forty goats and thirteen cows. All Allison could think was, “Where is this in the U.S.? Americans need this!”
Upon returning to the United States she began making her own fresh chèvre, and through happenstance, connected with her current business partner Bob Reese to form Vermont Creamery.
“The initial public reaction was tepid. At that time, the belief was that good cheeses came from France.”
“The creamery’s start in the mid-1980s had its share of difficulties. “The initial public reaction was tepid,” Allison said. “At that time, the belief was that good cheeses came from France. We had to work hard testing, sampling, and working with the media to change public attitudes and convince them the U.S. could compete. We had to show them the public was ready for this kind of cheese.”
As luck would have it, the work to expand their reach coincided with the growth of urban green markets in the 1980s. The notion of artisanally produced cheeses was new, but over time — and perhaps owing to a weak dollar that made imported cheeses expensive and difficult to stock — American cheeses gained momentum and caught on. Local makers began winning international awards and suppliers took notice.
In addition to changing public perception, Allison had to work to change the attitudes of her friends. She remembers attending college and high school reunions and the reactions her occupation drew. While others had established professional careers in law or finance, she was decidedly a cheesemaker.
“No one ever knew how to respond,” she said. “Now there is a sense of reverence towards those who have made a conscious decision to follow a nontraditional career path.”
And as for the current public perception, Anne says the view has taken a dramatic turn from the early days.
“Today, if you say you are an American cheesemaker, you’re a rockstar,” Anne said. “People think that’s the greatest thing ever.”
Vermont Creamery, 40 Pitman Rd., Websterville VT • 800.884.6287 • vermontcreamery.com
“In the early 2000s, people didn’t think much of the idea of local-made artisanal cheese,” Kurt Dammeier said. “Before Starbucks, drinking canned coffee was the household norm, and eating cheese was much the same.”
Kurt Dammeier is no stranger to the early days of artisanal cheese and the eventual sea change that has occured in the public mind. As the proprietor of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, with a flagship store in Seattle and a recently opened outpost here in New York, he has experienced first hand the transformation of domestic cheese and what it has come to mean to consumers.
In late 2003, Kurt, a lifelong cheese lover, opened Beecher’s first shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Beecher’s was the first artisanal cheesemaker in Seattle proper, sourcing product from local dairies to make its cheese in-house. Yet even in Seattle — a city that generally welcomes artisanal food and small-scale food production with open arms — early business for the cheesemaker was slow. The prevailing perception of cheese was lackluster at best — think Kraft Singles or Easy Cheese — and most customers couldn’t get past their association of cheese production with large scale factory operations. “Making cheese at all was new, let alone the idea that we were making it in the middle of a city,” Kurt recalled.
Even those familiar with so called “gourmet” cheeses believed only good cheese came from Europe. Kurt admits it took some time for the public to figure out what Beecher’s was up to, and that premium, delicious cheese could be made right here at home.
“Before Starbucks, drinking canned coffee was the household norm, and eating cheese was much the same.”
Today, Beecher’s produces a select line of cheeses and most recently Beecher’s Flagsheep, a sheep’s and cow’s milk clothbound cheddar that took home the 2012 Best in Show award from the American Cheese Society. Kurt credits Beecher’s success to their emphasis on simplicity.
“[Historically] cheese was conceived by accident, and as such was never intended to be complicated,” Kurt reflected. Cheesemaking is a simple art, and when it’s done simply and well it is at its best.
“At the end of the day, a lot about what cheese is, is the story,” he stated. “It’s the taste and the texture, but it’s also the story — who makes it and where you first encountered it.”
Beecher's Handmade Cheese, 1600 Pike Pl, Seattle WA • 206.956.1964; 900 Broadway, New York NY • 212.466.3340 • beechershandmadecheese.com
It would be difficult to discuss the growth of American cheese without mention of Shelburne Farms, that 19th century model agricultural estate that today churns out staple farmhouse cheddars.
Nestled on the shores of Lake Champlain just south of Burlington, Vermont, the sprawling farm was originally built by William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb in 1886. Today, the grass-based dairy is an educational non-profit best known for its award-winning farmhouse cheddar. Unlike the majority of cheddars sold in grocery stores and produced in large scale factories, Shelburne Farms’ cheddar is made on site from milk produced on the farm. Each morning between five hundred and eight hundred gallons of fresh milk are brought in from the dairy and, with the care of the cheesemakers, warmed, turned, and cheddared, until it is ready to be aged.
“It’s a magical thing, the idea that we can take a simple liquid product and make it into a solid cheese,” Shelburne Farms cheesemaking manager Nat Bacon said. Nat has been with Shelburne Farms for fourteen years and continues to relish in the process, which to him extends beyond just making cheese. It’s a bond formed between the dairy, the land, the cheese, and the people it feeds.
Since becoming a non-profit in 1972, the farm has evolved into a leading example of sustainable rural land use augmented by an inn and educational programming. Every year more than 100,000 people visit the farm, many of whom take cheesemaking classes or explore the farm’s walking trails.
“It gives everyone, even others like myself who didn’t grow up around a farming community, a chance to see up close what we do,” Nat said. “We need these kinds of education opportunities for the public and it’s so good to have them happening.”
Nat agrees that over the past two decades the resources for people interested in farmstead and artisanal cheeses has gone from almost nonexistent to readily accessible. And it’s still growing.
“The food revolution we’ve seen around the country is so encouraging. Our society is beginning to value ‘old time jobs.’ And the understanding about these careers is a lot like cheesemaking — they both take time, but the time makes it worth it in the end.”
Shelburne Farms, 1611 Harbor Rd., Shelburne VT • 802.985.8686 • shelburnefarms.org