Talking with Craig Nelson, plant manager for Rogue Creamery, one of the most successful "artisan" cheesemakers in the country, I asked why French cheeses are so much more varied and flavorful than American ones.
"The FDA has much higher standards for pathogens," he told me, "and many companies have even less tolerance than the FDA - for example, our tolerance is 20 percent lower." As hygiene becomes more rigorous, the molds that give cheeses distinctive flavors are less and less active. "I know of companies that are struggling to get the particular `good' molds to survive," he said.
Pasteurization, of course, is a way to kill pathogens, but there is a cost in flavor. That's why, although the U.S. is the seventh-largest cheese-consuming nation (between 1980 and 2004, the amount of cheese eaten per person rose from 17.5 pounds to 31.2 pounds), we rank low on the list of fine cheeses. The most popular domestic cheese is now low-fat mozzarella, a virtually flavorless product that can survive long shelf life and the sanitary conditions of chain pizza retailers. The consumption figures are thus skewed: Very little of the cheese consumed in America is artisan.
Rogue Creamery's limited edition Rogue River Blue won the "world's best blue cheese" award over Roqueforts, Gorgonzolas and Stiltons in London in 2003, and 80 percent of its sales are in different varieties of blues. Of its pasteurized cheddar cheeses, flavored ones - spiked with flavors like olive/garlic, chipotle, pesto, rosemary, etc. - dominate sales. This is consistent with the far larger output of Humboldt's own Loleta Cheese Factory, a high-quality non-artisan cheesemaker with a wide range of fairly bland cheeses, including Cheddar, Jack, Fontina and Havarti.
For me, however, "flavored" cheese is a sign of desperation, a clear indicator that for those who've never experienced more, our senses are telling us there is something out there beyond jack and mozzarella and mild cheddar.
But I also suspect that most Americans, tasting a ripe Tomme de Savoie, are more likely to go "Eww" than "Ahh!" We live in a culture suspicious of complexity, and the infinite combinations of sweet, sour, bitter, umami and salty (to say nothing of textures) often arrive unwelcome on our national palate.
A few years ago, my wife and I ordered a small selection of unpasteurized cheeses from France (six chunks cost $99, much of which was the ice-pak and international shipping charges). But it was worth knowing something about the real world outside our FDA-fortified fortress of sterile foods. True, we made some poor choices, and the company (fromages.com) turned out to be rude and venal, but in three shipments, we discovered that there were truly magnificent cheeses in France.
Part of our education was the fragile and highly seasonal nature of raw milk cheese. A true raw-milk *Roquefor*t, ordered in prime season, is a sublime experience; miss the season by a couple of weeks, and you've got a salty, sour mess.
So one problem lies in our expectation of cheese - that it will be always available and consistent. This is the American-supermarket syndrome: We've grown up thinking it perfectly natural to find tomatoes and strawberries in January, and the price we pay for that expectation is flavorless tomatoes and strawberries.
Rogue Creamery has a different attitude. They realize that the cows live in varying weather conditions in different seasons. Their approach is one that emphasizes the qualities intrinsic to climate, weather, and soil - which produce flavor profiles like citrus, elderberry and blackberry. After all, milk comes from the cow, which eats the grass, which is fertilized by decaying vegetation. The concept, now widely used in winemaking, is the French word terroir - literally the earth, but more poetically defined as a sense of "place" that resides in the final product.
This concept is not new to Humboldt County. For 25 years, Cypress Grove Chevre has been perfecting cheeses made from goats' milk. When my wife and I started our tiny restaurant in 1986, we featured Cypress Grove's delicate Fromage Blanc in a number of ways, only to discover that no one in the county wanted anything to do with goat cheese, no matter how "delicate."
In fact, the North Coast populace proved a non-factor in the growth and success of this remarkable company, despite their determination to be a part of community education and participation. As with restaurants, Humboldt punishes boldness.
Fortunately, persistence was rewarded nationally if not locally, and in 1998, their Fresh Chevre, Bermuda Triangle and Humboldt Fog were given gold medals at the American Cheese Society Awards; the latter won first prize at the 2002 London international competition. (One can only imagine how the French enjoyed being bested by Americans two years in a row, at cheeses that are their specialties!)
Unlike Rogue Creamery, Cypress Grove makes a wide variety of cheeses, with different textures (patés) and tastes. They are, without any sacrifice in quality, in a state of continual innovation. Here again the concept of terroircomes into play. Cypress Grove's origin is the story of a rural mother who began raising Alpine goats in the 1970s, as an organic source of healthful milk for her children. Mary Keehn gradually became nationally recognized for selective breeding of Alpine goats, and her skills at cheese-making developed as a by-product of having large amounts of goats' milk. The milk, in turn, reflects the soil. Yes, it sounds mystical, but there is underlying truth in the concept of terroir.
Over the past decade, Cypress Grove has helped at least five local families earn a living with goat herds of their own, in the process relieving the company of responsibility for providing all the milk for what is now a large, nationally distributed line of artisan cheeses. These local herds, like Rogue View Dairy's, produce milk that has a distinctive flavor - different from, say, the Central or Willamette Valleys.
Rogue Creamery's blue cheeses have an even longer pedigree: In 1955, Tom Vella traveled to Roquefort, France - the Mount Olympus of blue cheeses. There he developed friendships with members of The Roquefort Association, and departed with plans for a Roquefort-type cheese factory. If, 40 years later, Mary Keehn faced resistance to her ideas, one can only imagine what people thought of a native blue cheese in an era in which the choices were American, Cheddar, Philadelphia Cream and cottage.
I remember the Roquefort from that era. My two maiden aunts - who had been to Europe! - used to buy it in tiny one-ounce foil triangles (it was very expensive), and mash it into a package of cream cheese, then spread it on Ritz crackers. Perhaps that was the beginning of a glimmer in my 10-year-old mind, that there was something more out there, an exotic wilderness of tastes to be explored.
Of course, this was just after the war. As John Thorne writes in the current issue of Simple Cooking, "Spending real money on everyday food was a novel idea ... It wasn't that people weren't interested in good food, but their perception of its possibilities was still largely determined by the Depression and the world war that followed. A roast chicken or a plateful of flapjacks was plenty enough for most people, whose image of `fancy' eating was the groaning board laid out each time a holiday rolled around."
Julia Child brought French cooking into the American mainstream, mostly with ingredients readily available in urban grocery stores. Cheese - in the U.S., never close to what France had to offer - was left out of the picture. Curiously, as American tastes have grown more catholic, they have evolved more in the direction of Asia - think sushi, dim sum, Thai and "Pacific Rim" cuisines.
Though the origins of cheese lie deep in Central Asia, it developed sophistication only in Western Europe, and is all-but-unknown in the Orient. In any case, cheese seems to be the ugly duckling of the "food revolution" - smoked salmon/cream cheese dip and other abominations have taken the place of the complex flavors of the real thing. And one cannot discount the Calvinist fervor of the FDA, which seems not to distinguish between "good" and "bad" molds and bacteria. "If it's alive, kill it."
But now we have domestic raw cheeses that meet even the FDA rigors applied to imports. Yes, it's a late arrival. But having now expanded our culinary frontier to Asia, we now need the great regional artisan raw milk cheeses in our own backyard, to complete the circumnavigation.
Rogue Creamery Cheeses
Available at Murphy's Market in Sunnybrae
Oregon Blue Vein - classic Roquefort-style, versatile
Oregonzola - a higher-fat, creamy Italian-style
Crater Lake Blue - intense, tart, and complex
X-Sharp Cheddar - classic, aged for three years (from pasteurized milk)
Cypress Grove Chevre
*Available at Northcoast Co-op stores, Wildberries Marketplace,
Eureka Natural Foods and Murphy's.*
Humboldt Fog - their "signature" cheese, mild tang, with layered ash
Midnight Moon - aged cheddar tang, medium hard paté
Mad River Roll- a traditional mild slightly chalky exterior around a creamy center
Mt. McKinley - firm paté with a complex, nutty flavor
Pee Wee Pyramid - French-style, amazingly creamy and mild
McKinleyville foodie Joseph Byrd teaches music at College of the Redwoods.