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By Thane Peterson When I caught up by phone the other day with Allison Hooper, co-founder of Vermont Butter & Cheese, a momentous event had just occurred: A French consultant -- a revered expert on goat cheeses -- had arrived at the company's base in Websterville, Vt., that very morning. Hooper had given him a first taste of one of her finest goat cheeses. Far from announcing that it couldn't measure up to French goat cheese, the Frenchman loved it.
For Hooper, it was a validation of 18 years of effort by her small company to become one of the top makers of gourmet cheeses and butters in the U.S. It was also a tiny step forward in a significant advance for American culinary habits.
CATCHING UP. Interest in fine food and wine has exploded in North America, and one of the more curious (to me, at least) subsets of the trend is the huge annual increase in cheese consumption, which has doubled in the last three decades to nearly 30 pounds per person. That's still way behind Greece and France, the leading cheesehead nations, where people eat an average of about 50 pounds annually. Nonetheless, Americans now consume more than half a pound of cheese per week per person -- defying every admonition to adopt a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet.
A lot of that cheese comes in the form of toppings on pizza and other fast foods. However, consumption of gourmet cheeses -- many of them made by relatively small, high-end outfits like Vermont Butter & Cheese -- has soared, too. Indeed, cheese experts contend that the U.S. industry is now on the verge of the same sort of transformation that American wines underwent 25 years ago.
Back then, Robert Mondavi and a few other pioneers began moving the U.S. wine industry from cheap jugs to premium wines. In the years since, hundreds of boutique wineries have sprung up, now producing wine as good as any in the world. When it comes to cheese, the U.S. and Canada (mainly Quebec) are moving in a similar direction. "We came out of a cheddar and Cheese Wiz world in Quebec, too," says John Eggena, international marketing director at Fromagerie Tournevent in Chesterville, Quebec. "But it has really been happening in cheese in the last 10 years."
NIBBLE AND SIP. Americans are far more adventurous when it comes to cheese than they are with premium wines, where they tend to favor bland merlots and undistinguised chardonnays. The hottest gourmet cheeses in the U.S. right now include such flavorful varieties as gorgonzola and other blues, feta, and spicy Hispanic-style cheeses, according to Dick Groves, editor of The Cheese Reporter, an industry journal published out of Madison, Wis.
One sign of the times: In late April, when the top honors were handed out at the biennial World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, some two-thirds of the 99 top spots in 33 categories went to North American cheeses, including the winners in such relatively exotic categories as feta, soft and semi-soft goat cheese, fresh mozzarella, and string cheese.
I sampled a few of these award-winning new cheeses, including the dry jack from the legendary California cheesemaker Ig Vella, the creamy Great Hill Blue from the Great Hill Dairy on Buzzard's Bay, 50 miles south of Boston, and a semi-soft Pleasant Ridge farmhouse cheese from Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, Wis. As someone on a fat-reduced diet, I was struck by their strong burst of old-time milk flavor. Laura Werlin, author of The New American Cheese (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $35), is right when she says you don't have to eat much to be satisfied because even a small piece is so flavorful.
RISING CULTURE. What's behind the renaissance in North American cheesemaking? In part, it's probably a product of the general prosperity of the 1990s. Americans also are doing more traveling abroad, where they have been introduced to great European cheeses, and more high-end U.S. restaurants now offer a good selection of fine cheeses.
The burgeoning popularity of farmer's markets nationwide also is a major factor, Werlin says. "Americans are becoming far more connected to their food," she notes. "They want to know where it comes from and who makes it. That's why farmer's markets are so popular -- and at any good farmer's market, you'll usually find [a number of] local cheesemakers."
Happily, it's not hard to sample the tastiest North American fare, no matter where you live. Many of the pioneering new cheeses from outfits like Vermont Butter & Cheese and California's Cowgirl Creamery can be found nationwide in high-end food stores such as Whole Foods, as well as in specialty cheese shops in major cities. Good specialty shops with mail-order sales include Oakville Grocery in Northern California, Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Mich., Dean & Delucca in various cities, and Murray's Cheese Shop (888 692-4339) in New York City.
LONG WAY TO GO. Often, you also can buy online or by phone directly from the cheesemakers. Check out
capriolegoatcheese.com, the Internet home of Greenville (Ind.)-based Capriole Farmstead Goat Cheese, for a really mouth-watering site/sight. Contact information for dozens of other top cheesemakers around the country can be found in The New American Cheese.
By their own admission, American cheesemakers have a long way to go before they equal the Europeans. For instance, none of the three "best in show" cheeses at the recent World Champion Cheese Contest were North American. The top prize went to a Brie from Australia, of all places, with a reduced-fat Cantenaar from the Netherlands taking the first runner-up ribbon and the second runner-up award going to a hard goat's milk cheese from France. Americans did best in such categories as spreadable cheese, pasteurized process cheese, and flavored pasteurized process cheese.
If the cheese biz follows the same course as the wine industry, however, American cheesemakers are destined to make big waves. You can see New World inventiveness in the huge variety of cheeses on the U.S. market. And if there's one thing Americans are good at, it's marketing. In wine, U.S. vintners and other international newcomers revolutionized a tradition-bound European industry. They may just do the same in cheese. Cheese-lover Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online