Are you ready to acquire your own personal cheesemaker?
The next great food revolution in the United States, the experts are predicting, will be cheese - with an individual touch and sometimes, an expensive one.
Just as a certain number of Americans have turned away from jug wines and packaged white breads in recent years, just as they have eschewed mass market beers and packaged coffees, so will they move from bulk manufactured cheese to cheeses manufactured in small quantities that are complex and unique.
So new is this phenomenon that the names to describe them aren't exact as yet. Sometimes they're called "artisanal cheeses," a name that indicates that there is at least some handwork involved in the process.
Sometimes they are called "farmstead cheeses," which means that the milk comes exclusively from the cheesemaker's own animals.
The term "speciality cheese" covers the whole field.
Whatever you call them, they are taking off.
"Americans are now recognizing the exceptional craftmanship and flavor of these cheeses," writes Laura Werlin in her book, the highly regarded "The New American Cheese" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2000).
"Cheese made in this country now has as much flavor, depth, complexity and pure artistry as any cheese made in the parts of the world where the traditions are hundreds of years old."
Cheesemaking itself is a pretty basic process: A starter is added to pasteurized or raw milk to sour it, then rennet goes in to coagulate it, separating the curds (solids) from the whey (liquid). Then the curds are cut to expel more whey, the whey is drained and the curds are slowly heated. Then they are cut again, salted and pressed or shaped. The basic method varies according to the type of cheese being produced.
"That's where the artisan process comes in," says David Brown, senior Extension associate in the Cornell University Department of Food Science, who has acted as mentor to just about every New York State cheesemaker.
"It may be a simple process, but there are nuances in time, temperature, salting and aging to get the desirable flavor. And the flavor is the part the public is looking for.
"Tantalize my taste buds,' they are saying."
Brown compares an artisan cheesemaker to a gourmet chef. And if that is so, Craig Erickson of Erickson Dairy and Farm, on Chaffee Road, Arcade, is a chef in training.
Cheese, once a week
On Erickson's first foray to market, he brought in 50 pounds of colby cheese and sold just about all of it. He'll be selling his aged colby and cheddar cheeses in the East Aurora Farmers Market for the first time this year.
His operation is still small - Erickson milks 17 cows and much of the milk goes to the Friendship Dairy. But one day a week he makes cheese. The raw milk is then aged at least 60 days, as required by law.
The aging serves another purpose, too. The longer cheese ages, the sharper it gets. Really sharp cheddar can age from one to one and half years.
Erickson, a former lineman for New York State Electric and Gas, went into the cheesemaking business because he was inspired by an article in a dairy magazine. He purchased all the equipment - which had to be adapted for small batches - secondhand.
A birthday present
In Dansville, Mary Pat Van Duyne is just completing the process of getting a license. Her farm is called Angel Acres and she expects to start selling goat cheese this fall.
The whole idea started when Van Duyne's husband brought two goats, a male and a female, home as a birthday present.
Since Van Duyne is originally from Syracuse, "I'd never ever seen a goat," she says. At first, she tied them up behind the house to eat and help maintain the property.
"I live in an 1850 house on 40 neglected acres," she explains. "This was supposed to be our retirement home."
It soon got a lot more complicated than that. Goats can require milking and then Van Duyne discovered that goat cheese, formerly only a European favorite, was becoming popular in America.
"In fact, I found that there was a whole subculture of goat cheese out there, and I actually found goat cheese in my supermarket.
"And this is Velveeta country," she adds.
Right now, she's selling goat milk soap to hospitals and expects to open the Angel Acres Creamery in October. She's planning to sell her cheese from the farm and, she hopes, through some wineries.
Van Duyne says she will probably sell a fresh goat cheese with salmon, capers and dill and one crystallized in ginger that's "cool and refreshing." She makes feta cheese on a regular basis and is considering an aged Camembert style cheese as well.
Angel Acres now boasts 70 goats, 17 of which are milking.
"The goats come when they are called," says Van Duyne, who does the milking. "And they jump up on the milking stand. They all have names, too. I have a Pamela, a Patsy and a Hillary," she adds.
The newest and most fashionable cheese in the United States, however, comes from sheep milk.
"Finding a sheep milk in this country is still a novelty," says Jane North of Northland Sheep Dairy in Marathon, just south of Cortland. She says many people "probably don't know that Roquefort and Pecorino cheeses are made from sheep milk. And those cheeses are made in millions of tons."
Jane and Karl North produce about 1,500 pounds of cheese from June through September, deliberately keeping production small. "We want to be local," she says.
The Norths sell most of their Bergere Bleue and Tomme Bergere at the Ithaca Farmers Market and a limited amount to exclusive restaurants across the country. "New York City could swallow up all we made," she says.
The Northland Farm Foods is certified as organic (not all artisan cheese producers are). "While living and farming in the Eastern Pyrenees of France, we were struck by the variety and quality of sheep milk cheese available in the Mediterranean region," Jane North explains. After moving to New York, the Norths continued to fashion the cheese after the European model, though the flavor is different because the locality is different. "The flock of Dorset sheep that pasture on upstate New York clover is in a climate much greener than that of La Mancha," she says.
Some New York State cheese comes from slightly larger facilities and have become famous and enormously successful. Coach Farm in the Hudson Valley town of Pine Plains, for instance, is said to produce a full tenth of all the goat cheese sold in this country.
Coach Farm milks about 1,000 goats to make both aged and fresh cheese, which are sold in many supermarkets and gourmet stores.
Then there is the Old Chatham Sheepherding Co., just south of Albany, which has the country's largest flock of dairy sheep - 1,000 - and continues to win awards. Old Chatham also makes cheese made from both sheep and cow's milk, which is a common practice in Europe. An example is their Nancy's Hudson Valley Camembert, which is a real desert island cheese. (I could live on it.)
And Old Chatham makes tiny, round, soft ripened sheep milk Mutton Button cheeses that not only taste good but are fun.
The artisanal cheese market continues to grow astoundingly.
"People's tastes have became sophisticated," David Brown, the extension associate, says.