Because the cheese era is changing (see last entry), we are at a crossroads. The 70s and 80s cheese folks – as a whole – have a great deal of credibility and honesty associated with their work and that has reflected well on all of us working in the business today. What will happen next is unclear.
There are a lot of issues with credibility on the table right now. Companies that never thought they’d be secure have expanded beyond their wildest dreams. Despite the fact that the word “artisan” has no real definition, as a cheesemonger I can assure people reading that consumers have a lot of trust in the concept of “artisan cheese”. The loose definitions (like “artisan”) used by many small producers, however, leave these vulnerable to cynical marketing and manipulation by other, larger forces.
“Artisan cheese” is often being sold right now as if it’s an offering from the one person to another. Farmers markets — even when the person selling the cheese may never have even touched a ruminant– promote this idea whether they intend to or not. But as companies get bigger, get sold to outside interests, or start buying supplies from outside the region, the credibility earned with such hard work over the years is endangered.
Let me say briefly (since this issue has already popped up in discussions about this “2010 Wrap Up” series) that I have no issue with any company using frozen curd (for goats) or frozen milk (for sheep). I do have an issue with the marketing of a product as local when the ingredients are not (at least almost entirely) local. I think this is a huge issue for the future if customers start feeling lied to by cheese companies, especially when they buy them at a farmers market under the illusion that they are supporting a local business.
Certainly this issue only affects a subset of cheese eaters, obviously almost no customer in California cares if a Vermont cheese is using Midwest curd (as a “buy local” issue), but they do care if a company is advertising their “terroir” but are not entirely of that region.
(I use this picture to illustrate my point. I drove hundreds of miles out of my way to see the “World’s Largest Cheese”. When I found out it was a replica of the box the World’s Largest Cheese was shipped in, I distrusted Wisconsin cheesemakers for years)
This is kind of my hobby horse I guess… I like definitions, even if I do not necessarily feel qualified to make them. Farmers often get itchy when people start talking about certification programs, but very soon, as consumers get more educated, more questions will be asked. And not just about regionality, I just chose that because it’s an issue bubbling up all over the cheese world right now.
If a cheese is made with curd or milk from hundreds of miles away, is it local to anywhere? What percentage of non-local curd or milk makes it alocal?*
Can someone call a cheese’s ruminant “grass-fed” if they just let her graze occasionally? Or does it have to be part of an agricultural system that eschews grain-based feed?
Can dairies continue to be called “farmstead” if they have too many cows to name or if cheesemaking is not their primary form of business?
If Jack in the Box describes their fast food bread as “artisan” can the word really continue to have any meaning at all?
What is “small production”?… Could this cheese be considered “Domestic Fair Trade”?… Do the marketing images of a cheese company correspond to the look of the actual farm and the people doing most of the actual labor?…
So many questions…
I have my own answers to a lot of these, obviously. And cheese people are already working on defining some of these as well, but I think — moving forward — these are some things that need to be thought about in the coming years. Of course, these questions have their roots in the problem of success. The craft cheese business is more popular than ever as is the sophistication level of its customers. Not dealing honestly with many of these questions poses a real danger to the next era of the new American cheese.
*”alocal”. I just made that word up, but I like it. Without locality. As in, “You can’t talk about that cheese’s terroir because it’s alocal”
**Such specificity! Not the “Largest Jersey Cow”! Not the “Largest Guernsey Cow”! Nope, the “Largest Holstein”.