How America became a global cheese power
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Life & Arts news every morning.
It’s early on a quiet Monday night in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of Manhattan, but hip bar Casellula already has a queue forming at the door. The space inside — all bare brick and flickering candles — is full of young professionals tackling the eclectic wine list. But it’s the vintage cabinet at the back of the room that is the centre of everyone’s attention.
Laden with about 40 artisan cheeses from France, Italy and the US, the glass-fronted display is tended by a team of young cheesemongers, who deliver a procession of beautifully presented cheese flights to the tables. Every plate is artfully arranged with each cheese matched to a home-made condiment, from a shiitake mushroom salad paired with a smoky cheese from North Carolina, Campo, to a super-sweet fudge for tasting with salty Buttermilk Blue from Wisconsin. There’s barely anyone in the room over 40 and everyone is eating cheese. Lots and lots of cheese.
Welcome to the US food scene, which is hotter right now than the molten centre of one of Casellula’s grilled-cheese sandwiches (another popular choice on the menu). Once seen as stodgy and old-fashioned, the pungent world of cheese has been rejuvenated by a new generation of fromage-focused bars and restaurants, and trendy cheese shops run by twentysomethings with cow tattoos are appearing all over the country. There are also hundreds of street-food traders doing magical things with melted cheese, from mozzarella sticks to posh fondue. Forget working in a craft beer bar or hipster coffee shop, young foodies in the US want to be cheesemongers. What’s more, the trend is starting to take off in the UK too (but more on that later).
“Cheese is hip,” says Brian Keyser, who set up Casellula in 2007 and is about to open a second cheese and wine bar in Pittsburgh. “It’s amazing how many people go crazy about it . . . There are lots of cheese-focused Instagram and Twitter accounts, and they want to explore new things. That’s why our inventory is so large and is constantly changing. We’ve got more cheese at any one time than anybody can eat.”
Not far from Casellula, Murray’s Cheese Bar in Greenwich Village also does a roaring trade in cheese flights matched with wine, cider and craft beer. The bar, which is a few doors down from its famous cheese-shop sibling on Bleecker Street, also does a nice line in raclette, fondue and toasties, known as Murray’s Melts. “We’re about taking the stuffiness out of cheese,” says 31-year-old manager Jake Goznikar, whose tattoos and ponytail are nothing out of the ordinary in the new cheese order. “You can come here, listen to rock, drink beer and eat and learn about cheese. It’s casual, knowledgeable and accessible.”
There are various reasons why cheese is having a moment in the US. The “farm to table” local food movement has played a part. Farmers’ markets and indie food shops have flourished, with a corresponding jump in the number of artisan cheeses being made. Membership of the American Cheese Society (ACS), which represents small-scale producers, has doubled in the past decade to 1,700 companies.
This stands in stark contrast to France — the spiritual home of fine cheese — where farmhouse businesses are being forced to close because of intense pressure from supermarkets and industrial producers. Restrictions imposed by food-safety authorities and difficulties in attracting young cheesemakers have also hampered the sector, to the extent that about 50 varieties of French cheese have disappeared altogether in the past four decades, according to the Association Fromages de Terroirs.
During roughly the same period, the ACS has seen entries to its annual national competition grow from 89 cheeses when it started in 1985, to more than 1,800 products this year, many made by a new breed of young, passionate producer.
It’s not just the quantity of artisan cheese that has increased here. Quality has also soared, to the point that the US’s reputation as the land of plastic orange cheese slices, fit only for melting on burgers, is wildly out of date. At last year’s World Cheese Awards in London, the country won more medals for its cheeses than either France or Italy, highlighting how it can now hold its own on the global stage. While continental cheesemakers are fettered by the weight of tradition and geographical indication schemes that restrict innovation, US producers are free to take inspiration from classic French, Italian and British cheeses, then move them in interesting new directions.
Murray’s Greensward is a case in point. Made in Vermont by pioneering producer Jasper Hill Farm, this spoonably soft cow’s-milk cheese is wrapped in a spruce band à la Vacherin, but is then washed in cider at one of Murray’s maturing caves (known as the “stink tank”) in Long Island City. It was originally developed for Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park, but is also served at the Cheese Bar paired with a perfumed Fleurie to complement its rich, bacon-like flavour. It’s an utterly delicious creation that is more than a match for anything made in France and Italy.
What makes it all the more remarkable is that Greensward is produced with pasteurised milk — a consequence of strict food-safety laws, which specify unpasteurised cheeses must be aged for at least 60 days. Raw-milk cheeses are widely seen as having more complex flavours, but the rule effectively bans unpasteurised soft cheeses from being imported or made in the US. It is a testament to the skill and know-how of the country’s new-wave cheesemakers that they are still able to create such spectacularly good products.
The fact that Greensward only came third in the ACS cheese competition’s Best in Show class this year shows just how far US cheese has come.
The top title was taken by Roelli Cheese Company in Wisconsin for Little Mountain, an Appenzeller-style cheese aged for nine months and washed in a secret blend of bacteria and brine. Second place was tied between the ultra-creamy Buff Blue, made with buffalo milk in California, and St Malachi Reserve from Pennsylvania — a hard, fruity cow’s-milk cheese that is the love child of Gruyère and Parmesan.
“You can build a career in cheese, which wasn’t always clear before,” says Goznikar. “There’s a community and culture now around cheese that is really exciting.”
But perhaps the biggest assist to cheese’s ascent to the pinnacle of cool is the Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI) — a biannual cheesemonger competition held in New York and San Francisco that is a cross between a rave and Fight Club for cheese. “If you go to CMI, you understand why cheese is cool,” says Goznikar. “It’s young, edgy and punk rock.”
Set up by Adam Moskowitz, a former DJ and rapper who now runs his family’s cheese distribution business Larkin Cold Storage, the Invitational involves 50 young cheesemongers pitting their skills against each other in a frenetic battle of curd nerdery. Cutting, wrapping, serving suggestions and knowledge are all put to the test in front of a cheering crowd of hundreds of cheese fanatics in a warehouse in Queens and San Francisco’s uber-cool Mission District. The charismatic Moskowitz, aka Mr Moo, compères in a cow onesie, with a series of quips, puns and cheese rants delivered in a wild hip-hop style that the Beastie Boys would be proud of.
“Cheese is as addictive as cocaine,” booms Moskowitz in his office in Queens, before showing off a fine collection of dairy-themed tattoos, including an entire cheeseboard on his inner arm. “We’re all cheese addicts and distilled milk hungerists, but people just don’t know it yet. I wear the cow costume because it’s cute and funny, but it’s also about raising the bar on cheese — inspiring cheesemongers to go deep within themselves. The US already had a strong dairy culture, but we’ve seen a creative class coming into the industry — poets, writers, actors and painters, who are really passionate — along with a chef class who have had enough of working the line and shitty hours in restaurants.”
What’s happening in the US hasn’t gone unnoticed in the UK, especially by British cheese companies, many of whom are benefiting directly. Neal’s Yard Dairy supplies hundreds of shops with British cheeses such as Montgomery’s Cheddar, Colston Bassett Stilton and Berkswell, and also sponsors CMI, with its cheesemongers flying over to take part.
At Devon-based farmhouse cheddar company Quickes, more than 20 per cent of sales now come from exports to the US. Owner Mary Quicke is driving the creation of Britain’s own professional cheese qualification, called the Academy of Cheese, which is directly influenced by the US system. (The launch in 2012 of the Certified Cheese Professional exam, developed by the ACS, has also been integral to improving standards; 740 people now hold the qualification.) Due to launch next year, it will operate in a similar way to the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, offering qualifications all the way up to Master of Cheese.
Tom Chatfield, Quickes’ sales and marketing manager, says there are other ways the UK is following in the US’s footsteps. “Craft beer has been through a meteoric revival in Britain — now it’s cheese’s turn,” he says. “We’re seeing young, cool and happening people taking it on as a career, setting up shops and street-food businesses. Five years ago these kinds of places barely existed but in another five the scene is going to be buzzing.”
Leading the charge are two converted 1970s Bedford ice-cream trucks, christened Alfie and Audrey. Mathew Carver’s bright yellow grilled-cheese sandwich vans trade as the Cheese Truck at music festivals and in Maltby Street Market in London. The 30-year-old set up the business in 2014 after seeing similar street-food traders in the US, but he sticks to all-British fillings, including Keen’s cheddar, Ogleshield — a raclette-style cheese made by Montgomery’s in Somerset — and Cropwell Bishop Stilton with sweet-cure bacon and spiced-pear chutney.
The Cheese Truck gets through 15 tonnes of cheese every year, knocking out 10,000 grilled-cheese sandwiches at Glastonbury alone. The business has proved so successful that Carver is launching a permanent cheese restaurant called The Cheese Bar later this year at locations in Deptford and Camden. It will sell tasting boards of cheese matched with craft beer, as well as hot dishes, such as baked Tunworth with rosemary and honey, and queso fundido with corn tortillas.
“It’s amazing how many people in their twenties come to Maltby Street Market and really know about cheese now,” says Carver. “When we started two years ago, nobody knew what Ogleshield was. Now we don’t have to explain. [It’s a raw-milk, washed-rind cheese made in Somerset.] There are also lots of young people going into cheesemaking, breaking the rules, coming up with new products. We’ve even got urban cheesemakers in London, like Gringa in Peckham, which makes a Mexican melting cheese called Queso Chihuahua under a railway arch.”
In Edinburgh, Amy and Duncan Findlater were also bitten by the cheese bug after a trip to the US. Last year, the couple opened Smith & Gertrude in upmarket Stockbridge to rave reviews, serving cheese flights and interesting wines in a bar with communal tables and a record player for diners to choose their own tunes. There are 15 cheeses on the menu, supplied by award-winning local cheesemonger George Mewes, with options such as Scottish goat’s cheese Bonnet and Montgomery’s Cheddar.
“We were really inspired by Mission Cheese in San Francisco and Murray’s in New York,” says Duncan Findlater. “People think they know brie or cheddar, but when they taste the good stuff it’s completely different to what you get in a supermarket. We’ve been massively impressed with the quality of British cheese and we have some amazing cheesemongers, so people are starting to buy into the idea and revisit preconceptions.”
After serving thousands of grilled-cheese sandwiches at nearly 30 music festivals this year, Mathew Carver can only agree. “I didn’t realise how much people were into cheese in this country until I started the Cheese Truck. They don’t just like cheese; they absolutely love it — with the same kind of mad passion I saw when I was in the US.”
An all-American cheeseboard
The Alps meet Vermont in a maturing cave in Brooklyn. This whopping, raw cow’s-milk cheese, made by Small Brook Farm in Vermont, owes a big debt to European mountain cheeses such as Beaufort. The 30lb wheels are washed in a brine solution and aged for a year or more by specialist maturer Crown Finish Caves deep beneath New York’s sidewalks in what were once the lagering tunnels of a Brooklyn brewery. The cheese has a smooth texture pocketed with crunchy crystals, plus complex layers of flavour including pineapple and butterscotch with a slight burn on the finish.
Brothers Mateo and Andy Kehler set up Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont, in 2002, making cheese with rich, creamy milk from their small herd of Ayrshire cows. The company has gone on to become a pioneer of modern American cheesemaking, building its own state of the art maturing tunnels into the side of a hill on the farm. Similar to France’s Mont d’Or, Harbison is a soft cow’s-milk cheese, wrapped in a collar of spruce bark, which develops a silky, runny texture as it matures. Sweet, herbaceous and with hints of mustard, it also has interesting piney notes from the spruce.
Named after the ocean mist that rolls in from Humboldt Bay, this beautiful Californian goat’s cheese has a distinctive line of ash running through the centre. Made by Cypress Grove Chevre, which was set up by self-proclaimed “serious hippie” Mary Keehn in the 1980s, the cheese has a lovely mousse-like texture with a gooey layer just beneath the rind. Tangy, lemony and with delicate floral flavours.
Rogue River Blue
A wild and wonderful unpasteurised cow’s milk blue from Oregon that is wrapped in vine leaves soaked in pear brandy, Rogue River was named the World’s Best Blue Cheese at the World Cheese Awards in 2012. Fruity, boozy, spicy and meaty all at the same time, the cheese takes you on a roller-coaster ride of intense flavours, which are wrapped up in a big comforting blanket of cream. Exhilarating.
Patrick McGuigan is a food journalist and judge at the World Cheese Awards
Photographs: Kate Owen
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published