Friday, February 25, 2011

It's time for my close up.

From a series of articles in the upcoming Zingerman's catalog featuring American cheese.

American Cheese Takes the Stage

Twenty years ago you could count the number of great American cheeses on two hands. Maybe that’s exaggerating, but not by much. Back then, being a small-scale cheesemaker was like being a beekeeper—a strange hobby, with little reward or recognition. Half the cheesemakers crafted nearly identical tiny wheels of goat’s milk cheese, which, given that we had no American goat cheese tradition to speak of, cheese shops insisted on calling chevre, the French word for goat. If you went into any serious cheese shop in America in 1994 chances are the only American cheeses you found were chevres and cheddars.

Have things ever changed.

At Zingerman’s Deli, cheesemonger Carlos now offers over a hundred American cheeses, almost half his total inventory. At the American Cheese Society’s annual conference judges had to wade through nearly 1,500 American cheeses to pick winners in 22 categories. In July, I attended a cheesemonger’s event in a warehouse in New York that had all the buzz and fun of an illegal, underground concert. It was packed with people watching other people cut cheese.

What has happened?

It’s impossible to point to one thing that’s given cheese such a spotlight. There is, however, a network effect among cheesemakers and cheesemongers that is different than any other I’ve seen in the food business. For the last two decades, dedicated merchants have educated a gang of cheesemongers. They’ve taught customers what good cheese is and how to buy it. The customers, in turn, have demanded better cheese. The cheesemongers have given feedback to the makers, who’ve improved their cheese. Cheesemongers and makers are thick as thieves. When I go to trade shows or food trips the cheese people all hang out together. They’re like a mafia. They have their own language and customs. They aren’t exclusive, though. Anyone can join. Just make or sell cheese, take it seriously,  you’re in.

I give credit to our currency for the transformation, too. The dollar was relatively strong through the 1990s. It made great European cheeses relatively cheap to import. John Loomis, who made Great Lakes Cheshire—unsuccessfully—at that time told me, “Great imported English cheshire, made by people with decades of experience, retailed at $20 a pound. I was selling a local cheshire, made in Ann Arbor for 8 months, and it cost fifty percent more. I couldn’t compete. I quit after two years. But now, I started making it again, and with the British pound what it is, my cheese seems like a relative bargain.” That begs the question: what happens when the dollar rises again? It might make tough going for American cheesemakers. 

What about the move to buy local? It certainly hasn't hurt. Many cheesemakers have found they can make ends meet just by selling at a few farmer's markets. (I've seen the same story unfold in England, too.) Still, if the the dollar gets stronger the cheesemakers will have the same problem John faced:  experienced imported competition at low prices. At that point customers may be less concerned about having something nice and local and will look for something great to eat, something that makes them return to buy more.

Meanwhile, as eaters, all this is our win. We are in a golden age of American cheesemaking. Like Hollywood in the middle of the 20th century there is a glut of great talent. I just realized Oscar night is Sunday so — cheese and red carpet? Seems about perfect.

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