There has been cheese in America ever since Europeans first landed on the continent. Originally the styles of cheese made in different regions of the country reflected the different groups of immigrants that settled there - British-style cheeses in New England, German and Swiss-style cheeses in Wisconsin, and Spanish and Italian-style cheeses on the west coast. However, after the second World War, local artisan cheese traditions (like many of our artisan food traditions), were forgotten in favor of newer, more fashionable shelf-stable processed cheeses.
In the 1970's and 1980's, a group of women who called themselves the goat ladies* started making artisan goat's milk cheeses for themselves, their families, and for expatriate French chefs clamoring for the real thing in the land of Kraft singles. They were onto something delicious, and a movement was born.
Throughout the 1980's and 1990's, there was a boom of artisan cheesemaking in the United States despite there being a dearth of resources for cheesemakers. The cheesemakers in our 'American Icons' gift collection came up during that time, and through their own gumption and with help from European friends like Neal's Yard Dairy and Herve Mons, helped push American artisan cheese to new heights of technical prowess and deliciousness. Read on to learn more about these pioneers and their incredible cheeses.
Vermont Shepherd - Westminster West, Vermont
David Major always wanted to be a grass farmer. He made the decision that his most valuable allies in this pursuit were sheep, and wanted to do more with his flock than just shear them for their wool. He took his family to the Pyrenees region of France to learn cheesemaking from the shepherds there, and brought his know-how back to Vermont to launch Vermont Shepherd. In the beginning Verano was called 'Vermont Shepherd' but over the years the name changed to reflect the season in which it is made - summer. Verano was and is a standout in the American artisan cheese canon. Smooth, fruity, and bright when young, deep, nutty and toasty when aged - your tastebuds will meet with a great reward when sampling a morsel of this cheese.
Pleasant Ridge Reserve
Uplands Cheese Company - Dodgeville, Wisconsin
In the 1990's Mike Gingrich - an ex-IBM employee and Dan Patenaude - a rotational grazing, grass-based dairy pioneer, were farming as neighbors in the beautiful rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin. They decided to join forces to turn this superlative milk into something special - a seasonal, raw milk cheese called Pleasant Ridge Reserve. In 2014 the farm was sold to Andy Hatch and Scott Mericka and their families to continue this delicious tradition. Pleasant Ridge Reserve is still made for just 9 weeks out of the year when the cows are grazing the farm's lush, green pastures. Rich, nutty, supple and complex, Pleasant Ridge Reserve harkens to the best of the famed Alpine-style cheeses from Europe for its deep flavor.
Meadow Creek Dairy - Galax, Virginia
Dairy farmers Rick and Helen Feete settled in Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains because they loved two things - milking cows and making music. Galax is home to a thriving bluegrass and old-time music scene, and because of its remote location, they could afford to purchase a large and beautiful farm. They decided to opt out of the commodity milk market, a money-losing proposition for most small farms, and try their hand at artisan cheesemaking. Rick and his son Jim, are the herdsman and pasture afficionados. Helen learned the art of washed rind cheesemaking and aging by apprenticing with cheesemakers in England and Ireland, and perfected her craft over many years of trial and error at home. She passed this craft to her daughter Kat, and together they make Grayson, one of the first great washed rind cheeses to emerge in the American artisan cheese-scape in the late 1990's and early 2000's. Grayson is made only when the cows are on pasture - from about March through November, and the flavor changes throughout the season.
Jasper Hill Farm - Greensboro, Vermont
Jasper Hill Farm's mission is to create a 'Taste of Place'. Harbison, named after Greensboro Vermont's local librarian and unofficial town grandmother, does exactly that. In making Harbison, Jasper Hill Farm borrowed from different European cheesemaking traditions to create a cheese that is uniquely their own. The spruce bark girdle that encircles each wheel is an homage to cheeses like Vacherin mont d'Or from the French Alps. However, Vacherin is a washed rind cheese, and Harbison is a bloomy rind cheese, which totally alters the flavor dynamic between the bark wrap and the interior of the cheese. Harbison tastes of creme fraiche, raspberries, mustard, and smoked meats - a completely unique and mind-blowing eating experience!
Cabot Clothbound Cheddar
The Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm - Greensboro, Vermont
Cabot Clothbound changed Americans' conception of what cheddar can be. Before Cabot Clothbound, bandaged cheddars were the purview of British farmhouse cheesemakers, though it is unclear whether the tradition started in the US or the UK. Cabot Creamery reached out to Jasper Hill Farm, then still a small start-up, to ask if they would bandage and cave age wheels of their cheddar, and the rest is history! Cabot Clothbound Cheddar won 'Best in Show' at the 2006 American Cheese Society awards, and spurred the Kehler brothers who own Jasper Hill Farm to build The Cellars at Jasper Hill, the country's largest cheese aging facility. Cabot Clothbound is just about as addictive as cheese comes... salty and savory with a slight nutty sweetness, it's like cheddar meets Parmigiano Reggiano.
Marieke Premium Gouda
Holland's Family Cheese - Thorp, Wisconsin
Marieke and Rolf Penterman moved to the United States from Holland to start a dairy farm in northwestern Wisconsin. They were both farmers at heart, but farmland in their native country was prohibitively expensive, so they decided to move stateside. After they established the dairy, Marieke decided she missed the Gouda from back home and tried her hand at cheesemaking. The result - a slew of cheesemaking awards, a prolific lineup of plain and flavored raw milk goudas aged to different levels of maturity, and a booming business! Before Marieke, there were no great aged American goudas. Now, happily, there are many!
*Laura Chenel, Judy Schad, Mary Keene, Allison Hooper, and Laini Fondiller, among others