BRA, Italy — A few weeks ago, I witnessed an unprecedented moment in the evolution of American artisan cheese. It happened here, in this small Piemontese city, at Cheese 2017, the 11th edition of the grand festival put on biennially by the organization Slow Food.
In a pavilion sponsored by the famed and powerful Parmigiano-Reggiano consortium, there was a comparative tasting, served to a mostly Italian audience. But on the plate was something previously unimaginable in Italy: Three American cheeses were served alongside a hunk of aged Parm.
At first, the audience seemed skeptical, even amused, by the notion of these American cheeses served next to one of their sacred culinary touchstones. One of presenters from the consortium made a dismissive joke about the green cans of Kraft pre-grated fake “Parmesan” that many Italians still believe Americans love.
But as the audience began sampling the cheeses — Appalachian from Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Va.; an American take on Dutch Gouda from Marieke in Wisconsin; Smokey Blue from Rogue Creamery in Oregon — the mood shifted. The tent got quieter as people sniffed and tasted. Husbands and wives exchanged furtive glances. I saw at least four people give each other that classic Italian shaking-hand gesture of the palm turned upward, thumb-and-middle-finger clenched, that basically means, “Are you freaking kidding me?”
One guy, impeccably dressed in a sharp suit and sunglasses, raised his hand and asked Kat Feete, Meadow Creek’s cheesemaker, “Where can I buy a wheel of this cheese from you?” — a question several people applauded. Given that Feete’s cheese was inspired by the famed Toma from Piedmont, that was high praise indeed.
“This should be a warning to the Italian people,” said Simone Ficarelli, marketing and communications manager for the Parmigiano-Reggiano consortium. “We can’t get lazy. We should be concerned about the Americans making better cheese than us.” Okay, so it may not have been the Judgment of Paris, the 1976 blind tasting where California wines bested France, forever changing the wine industry. But in the world of formaggio, it seemed relatively monumental. American artisan cheese had clearly arrived on the world stage.
It was these sorts of insights I gleaned from Cheese 2017 in mid-September. I spent several days elbowing through a crowd of more than 300,000 enthusiasts, toothpicking samples of varying pungency from more than 300 cheesemakers from more than 50 countries. “This event is the beating heart of cheese!” declared Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, dedicated to preserving local food traditions and cultures. He added that we were among the world’s “cheese intelligentsia.”
I don’t know if I joined the cheese intelligentsia. But I lusted after dark-brown, caramel-like Gjetost from Norway, Boeren Leyden cheese from the Netherlands that was spiked with cumin seeds, and the strange, spindle-shaped Oscypek cheese from the mountains of Poland. I fell in love with caciofiore, a sheep’s-milk cheese that dates to ancient Rome and is made with enzymes from artichoke blossoms and not animal rennet. I returned three times to the stall where the Robiola di Roccaverano was being offered, sampling the coveted sheep’s-milk cheese at two days, two weeks, six months and two years of aging. I was taught how to cut a full wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. I learned that, in the Alps, cheese made in June will taste much different from cheese made in August, because the cows graze in different pastures. I accepted a skewer with three balls of fresh mozzarella di bufala from a large Campanian man who blared his own cheesy theme song, “Viva la mozzarella! Viva la mozzarella! Mozzarella di bufala . . . mozzarella di amor!”
I never imagined that my life would take a turn in which I would be sitting in a cheese workshop entitled “50 Shades of Mold” — with 50 other cheese geeks — admiring and contemplating the gray mold of the alpine Graukäse vs. the blue veins of the mountain pasture Castelmagno vs. the green fungus of the ridiculously rare Tcherni Vit from Bulgaria.
“Please note the great lactic footprint of these cheeses,” said our moderator, Ludovico Roccatello, an educator for Slow Food International. Oh my, yes, the lactic footprint was duly noted. These cheeses were stinky and alive. We oohed and aahed over the funky, gooey, barnyardy Graukäse, the crumbly and earthy Castlemagno, and the salty, wild Tcherni Vit — which until recently had been illegal and almost extinct in its Balkan homeland. These cheeses almost seemed to speak to us in an ancient language. “Perhaps in some other context, mold wouldn’t be so attractive,” said Roccatello. “But here, for cheese enthusiasts, mold is beautiful.”
Suffice to say, that weekend in Bra was not a place for the lactose-intolerant.
Nor would it have an ideal spot for those who are squeamish about raw-milk cheese. That’s because raw-milk cheeses — made from milk that hasn’t been pasteurized — were the cause celebre this year. While great cheeses can be made with pasteurized milk, lovers of raw-milk cheese, like me, believe that pasteurization can strip away a cheese’s particular character, flavors and aromas, robbing its uniqueness and sense of place. At the “State of Raw Milk Cheese” panel on opening day, there was much revolutionary talk of the ongoing battle in defense of raw-milk cheese and of Slow Food’s intention to launch a raw-milk movement. Most significantly, Petrini hailed “a revival of raw-milk cheese in America.” Petrini suggested that a more widespread acceptance of raw-milk cheese by Americans had fueled this renaissance.
The following day, at a panel called “Raw in the USA,” several American cheese professionals led by David Gibbons, author of “Mastering Cheese,” explored this narrative, which seemed to be a lot more complicated. There’s no doubt that the quality, quantity and reputation of American artisan cheese is on the rise, as evidenced by how many Italians I saw scarfing down, say, Jasper Hill’s Bayley Hazen Blue. But there’s actually very little data.
Last year, the American Cheese Society, a trade organization of 1,800 cheese professionals, released its first study of artisan and specialty cheesemaking in the United States. Nora Weiser, the executive director, said that her group had underestimated the number of such cheesemakers and that there are more than 900 plying their trade — three-quarters of them making less than 50,000 pounds of cheese per year. (To put that into perspective, consider that a billion pounds of cheese is produced each month in the United States, most of it by industrial brands). Just how much artisan cheese-making has increased over the past five or 10 years is still hard to ascertain, except anecdotally. John Antonelli, a cheese-shop owner from Austin who is the president of the society, said that these days about 60 percent of the cheese he sells is domestic, which is a big shift from even a few years ago.
The study also found that only 38 percent of American artisan and specialty cheesemakers produce a raw-milk cheese. “In the United States, we’re still in the phase where we’re trying to prove the safety of raw-milk cheese,” Weiser said.
That has proved difficult, with a large portion of the American public still frightened by even the idea of raw milk. Opponents cite a National Institutes of Health study that found that 90 outbreaks attributed to cheese between 1998 and 2011 caused 1,882 illnesses, 230 hospitalizations and six deaths. However, only 42 percent of those outbreaks resulted from raw-milk cheese. Yet when high-profile outbreaks happen — such as one in March when two people died eating cheese made by celebrated artisan producer Jos Vulto in New York — the debate over raw-milk cheeses heats up once again, and the future grows murky.
Several on the panel, including Feete of Meadow Creek and Wisconsin cheesemakers Marieke Penterman of Marieke Gouda and Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese, vented about the lingering perception of raw-milk cheese in the United States. Feete, whose cheese had earned the applause of the Italians in the Parmigiano-Reggiano tent, told the panel that it was raw milk or nothing for her dairy. “For us, this was not negotiable,” she said. “Sure, it’s harder to work with raw milk, but you choose your challenges.”
To that end, the American Cheese Society has expanded its educational efforts, launching a Safe Cheesemaking Hub website to promote the proper production of raw-milk cheese. “The most important thing is that nobody makes unsafe cheese,” said Weiser.
Raw-milk cheeses must be aged at least 60 days, according to the Food and Drug Administration. That means many of the young, soft raw-milk cheeses you find in Europe are nonexistent in the United States. There has been talk about revisiting this rule, and possibly extending the time period, but the future is unclear. The FDA has also gone back and forth on whether cheese should be allowed to be aged on a wooden board, as many of the world’s great cheeses are.
“So much of what comes out of the FDA is opaque. How much is based on science and how much is based on lobbying? We don’t know,” said Hatch, who won this year’s Slow Cheese Award. “I’m worried that [President] Trump will strip the FDA budget. Which means less-educated inspectors.”
Still, there were plenty of positive signs about the state of American cheese. For instance, more and more artisan cheese is being exported, almost 10 percent — something unimaginable a decade ago.
Penterman, who was born in the Netherlands and moved to a Wisconsin dairy farm in her youth, drew applause when she told the story of how her Dutch-inspired cheese was now being imported into the Netherlands, Gouda’s homeland.
Yet while many American cheesemakers look to Europe for inspiration, over the course of the festival I heard plenty of boasting about “American innovation” and how cheesemakers in the United States do not feel bound by tradition. Artisan cheese seems to be where craft beer was about two decades ago.
Feete told the story about how her mother had come to Cheese 2005 in Bra as a relative novice, trying to learn as much as she could about making raw-milk cheese and to bring that knowledge home to Galax, Va., in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Twelve years later, the Feete family’s Meadow Creek cheeses were being celebrated at what is called the “beating heart of cheese.” If there is indeed a cheese intelligentsia, they are now very much a part of it.
“It’s amazing,” Feete told me. “People put our cheese in their mouth, and their eyes light up. They say, ‘Americano?’ ”
Wilson is the author of the upcoming book “Godforsaken Grapes” (Abrams Press, spring 2018).
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the frequency of the Slow Food cheese festival. It is biennial.