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In Defence of American Cheese

28 July, 2021
Hand holding American cheese

Illustration by: Alberto Grasso / Fine Dining Lovers

Thorpe goes on to explain how there has been a proliferation of smaller-scale cheesemaking in the United States in the past 20 years that has coincided with changes in the American fine dining scene. As a result, there are now thousands of cheeses being made in every state, which, as Thorpe explains, “makes the odds of having a better cheese much greater”.

Another reason that American-made cheeses seem to be slighted is because of the rules around raw milk and pasteurisation. Unlike its European counterparts, American cheeses have to either be pasteurised, or be aged 60 days if they use raw, unpasteurised milk. For cheese novices, the younger (less than 60 days) the cheese, the creamier that cheese can and will be – think brie, camembert, etc. Because of this legal requirement, US cheesemakers are capped at what they can make. The question remains, however, does this drastically affect the quality and taste of the cheese?

Not according to Elizabeth Chubbuck, the chief strategy officer at Murray’s Cheese, one of the most essential artisanal cheese and specialty foods retailers and wholesalers in America. She is an expert in the cheese world and one of the responsible parties for Murray’s stellar stature in the country. She says: “I think it is erroneous to state that there is a perception that American raw milk cheeses aren’t good. Rogue River Blue – the cheese that won world’s best in 2019 is a raw milk cheese.”

The cheese that Chubbuck is referring to comes from Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon. Their cheese beat nearly 4,000 other cheeses from more than 40 countries for cheese supremacy at the World Cheese Awards in Bergamo, Italy. That moment for American cheese was tantamount to the ‘Judgment of Paris’, a wine competition that took place in the 1970s that put California wines on the map by besting French varietals. 

But Chubbuck does concede that the FDA rules are a hindrance: “Relative to the diversity of raw milk cheeses in Europe, there is less variety in American raw milk cheeses. US federal law mandates that any raw milk cheese in the USA must be aged for a minimum of 60 days. Generally speaking, this limits raw milk cheeses to things that are firmer and lower in moisture.”

Because of these rules, American cheesemakers have to make a choice – either pasteurise the milk or age raw milk past 60 days. The process of pasteurising is to heat-treat raw milk to 65° C / 149° F for the purpose of destroying potentially dangerous bacteria. Liz Thorpe says that this also has unintended consequences: “You may be killing potentially harmful microbes, but you are also killing other microbes that contribute to flavour and aroma, that are not harmful at all. There are micro flora that are in raw milk that contribute to the taste of the cheese that are killed when you pasteurise the milk. And it's sort of a shame to lose that nuance and that kind of fingerprint of individuality.”

One of the more interesting aspects of the debate also happens within uneducated cheese circles around America itself. The FDA rule about pasteurisation and ageing doesn’t just apply to homegrown cheesemakers, but to exporters of cheese into America from around the world. Simply stated, you can’t buy raw milk cheese in America that isn’t aged more than 60 days or hasn’t been pasteurised. That rule puts all cheesemaking in America on equal footing, so you’re not comparing a 60-day aged raw cheese with something much younger from a European counterpart.

Both Chubbuck and Thorpe, however, speak glowingly about America’s place in the cheese world today. And it’s no longer limited to the farms of California, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Both experts have favourites that include: Walden, a pasteurised alternative to a soft-ripened Reblochon style cheese, from Sequatchie Cove Creamery in Tennessee; Afterglow, a goat’s milk cheese from Blakesville Creamery in Port Washington, Wisconsin; all the cheeses from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont; and of course that Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery in Oregon.

The next time you’re in a cheese aisle at an American grocery store, scrutinise the packaging a little closer. The cheeses you know and love from Italy, France, and Spain might all have American counterparts that are growing in popularity in line with their quality. American cheeses are now on the map, winning awards, and making a dent in their global reputation. 

So, experiment, explore, and get a little adventurous, because the next great cheese you discover might be from an American farm near you.

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