Keeping It Real

Artisanal Cheese: what, where & how to buy

By Diana Pittet

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Washing Red Hawk with brine to encourage the growth of B. linens. The best way to support and enjoy artisanal American cheese is to buy it from a local cheese maker. Be prepared to pay considerably more than you would pay for a commodity cheese, as the price reflects the real, not subsidized, cost of production.

Where to Buy
Your farmers’ market will probably have locally made cheese, but there may also be a dairy nearby where you can buy directly from the producer.

How to Buy
Talk to the cheese maker about the selection and then taste the ones that interest you to determine whether you like them and whether they’re of good quality (strong odors of ammonia or plastic wrap should turn you off). Even if it’s a cheese that’s familiar, it’s always wise to evaluate a sample, since each batch will be different.

What to buy
If it’s just for one or two people, one cheese will probably suffice, but for entertaining, a selection is best. Aim for one of these qualities:

  • Soft, e.g., a white, bloomy-rind cheese, like Cowgirl Creamery’s triple-cream Mount Tam. N.B.: Please don’t refer to this type of cheese as Brie! It’s but one type in this category.
  • Semisoft, with a washed rind, i.e., those meaty-tasting stinkers, like Cowgirl’s Red Hawk.
  • Hard, either a semihard cheese like Bleu Mont’s Bandaged Cheddar or completely firm like Thistle Hill’s Tarentaise.
  • Blue, e.g., Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery in Oregon, which won Best in Show twice at the American Cheese Society’s Conference and Competition (2009 and 2011).
  • Different, such as a sheep’s-milk cheese, like Flagsheep, from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Washington
     

How Much to Buy
Cheese is made to last, but the refrigerator is not the ideal place to store it, so purchase no more than a week’s worth at one time. Wrap leftovers in wax paper, place in an unsealed plastic bag, and keep it in the vegetable drawer, the most humid area of the fridge.

Photo: Robyn Lehr

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