If You’re Buying a Story, It Should be a Story You Can Taste

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People who don’t work in the dairy industry are always amazed when they visit my house and come across back issues of Cheese Market News and The Cheese Reporter.

“Wait, you actually read these? How on earth can there be TWO national weekly newspapers dedicated to just cheese?” and the standard: “Wow, you’re weird.” These are the same comments I get when I take past issues into a coffee shop and dare to catch up on cheese news in public.

While I appreciate keeping up on the latest technology, industry news, commodity block prices and Class III milk futures that these publications provide, it’s always a jolt to sit down and read them after I’ve visited a small-batch, artisan cheesemaker in a far away place. I get reminded in a hurry of what’s important to Americans.

For example, here are three headlines from the current issue of Cheese Market News: “Laughing Cow Adds New Flavors to Cheese Dippers Line” and “Fairlife Introduces SuperKids Ultra-Filtered White and Chocolate Milks With Omega-3” and “Borden Cheese Unveils Snack Bars.” I’m not even cherry-picking headlines from multiple pages – all of  these stories actually exist on the centerfold pages of 8 and 9 in the October 13, 2017 issue of CMN.

When I compare these American dairy industry headlines to passages of the new book by Bronwen and Francis Percival: Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese, I get a little depressed. In America, we are so focused on creating the next biggest, boldest flavor and punching it into the most-convenient-to-eat dairy package, that I’m not sure we still appreciate what actual milk can taste like when we turn it into cheese without adding starter culture cocktails, berries or peppers.

Creating – and appreciating – simple cheese is going out of style in America. In an instant gratification society of snap chats, instant messaging and presidential orders issued in 140 characters, more of us are demanding every bite of cheese should rocket every one of our senses. Every. Single. Time.

I compare those headlines to the half dozen sheep dairies I visited in the French and Spanish Basque region last month, and I remember tasting cheeses made from just milk, rennet and salt. No added berries. Not a pepper in sight. Most of these cheesemakers weren’t even adding starter cultures. The tools at their disposal included a recipe for “mountain cheese” that had been passed down through generations, and a reliance on raw milk that contained enough natural bacteria to acidify on its own. (If you’re not familiar with what I mean by starter cultures, here’s an excellent primer from HomeCheeseAdam).

Were these Basque sheep milk cheeses flaming rockets of flavor? Did they transform my every sense into rainbows and unicorns? They did not. But each cheese was slightly different. Each was startling in its simplicity. And each allowed me to taste and appreciate the valley, mountain top or farm on which it was made.

Cheese worth eating has a story. It doesn’t come conveniently packaged, and it doesn’t have the words super or ultra in its name. What it does have is a story you can taste. In fact, my favorite passage from the Percivals’ book, Reinventing the Wheel, comes near the end, and after reading 250 pages that reignited my passion for artisan cheese, this passage was like salve to my soul: “If it is a story that we are buying, then it should be a story that we can taste. And if we value environmental and farming decisions, these are the attributes that we need to value. This is the ‘best’ taste for now. It is the moral dimension of flavor.”

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You can meet the Percivals and hear them speak on Sunday, November 5 at The Edgewater in Madison, Wisconsin. The pair, along with Uplands’ cheesemaker Andy Hatch, are presenting a 90-minute “Taste of Place” seminar featuring cheeses from Europe and America. Tickets available only in advance here. The seminar is part of Wisconsin Cheese Originals’ Wisconsin Cheese Camp.