Real American Cheese

There’s a renaissance in cheese making in this country, and fans of fromage enjoy the benefits.

By Diana Pittet

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Bleu Mont Dairy’s Bandaged Cheddar matures in the cheese cave. No doubt there’s at least one at your farmers’ market: a local cheese maker, handcrafting a product that defies what we typically refer to as American cheese, those orange, processed squares that refuse to ooze like real cheese from grilled sandwiches. Small-scale cheese makers, whose numbers are growing like the bacteria count in ripening milk, honor and adapt to the seasonal variations in milk that is sourced from either their own farms (farmstead cheese) or local dairy farms (artisanal cheese). America is finally making fine cheeses, again.

Cheese fans are currently enjoying the renaissance, not birth, of real American artisanal cheese, a movement that began in the 1970s. Our young nation once made cheese that tasted of place and the seasons, much like wines, but the invention of the factory system for cheese production in Rome, New York, in 1851 and its widespread adoption eventually led to our current dairy landscape where nuanced flavors are eradicated in favor of reliably consistent but bland, industrial products.

The Midwest

Today’s artisanal cheese makers are retilling that fallow landscape, so to speak, thereby crafting tasty, unique cheeses and also preserving dairy land and the local agricultural economy. Cheese potentially provides independent dairy farmers significantly more income than liquid milk. Small-scale cheese production can save the farm, as well as traditional dining habits.

To see how this new breed of American cheese makers are respecting their land and milk, we’ll visit three award-winning, chiefly organic cheese makers in three distinct areas of the country—the Midwest, the largest producer of cheese; the Northeast, the birthplace of American cheese; and the West Coast, the spiritual home of this renaissance.

Bleu Mont cheesemaker Willi Lehner and his partner, Kitas McKnight. The cheese cave is made from limestone.Bleu Mont Dairy

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 enticed dairy farmers westward, away from crowded New England. Fast-forward almost 200 years to Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, the site of Bleu Mont Dairy, where Willi Lehner has been making a variety of cheeses since the mid-1980s. A decade-long sojourn in Switzerland, the birthplace of his parents, led Lehner to understand the connection between what cows eat and the quality of cheese. Since then, he’s been passionately committed to using milk only when pasture is at its peak and thus limits production to the seasonal periods of mid-spring to early summer and late summer to early autumn. A roving cheese maker, he travels to four different, local cheese-making facilities, some that have organic milk and others that don’t. Nevertheless, the milk is of high quality and from cows that have not been given hormones.

One of the cheeses that has earned Lehner great recognition is Cheddar. No ordinary Cheddar, it’s traditionally made, wrapped in cloth strips, and aged in Bleu Mont’s 1,600-square-foot caves dug into the limestone hillside. Lehner may not have his own animals or cheese-making facilities, but he does have this special aging, or curing, area. “This is where the magic happens,” enthuses Lehner. It is here in this cave, shaped like a medicine capsule split in half lengthwise, that he cultivates the indigenous molds, bacteria, and yeast that grow on the rinds and create cheeses of such distinct character that other cheese makers can pick out Lehner’s cheese in a blind tasting. On top of that, this has garnered Bleu Mont Dairy awards and numerous followers at the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, Wisconsin, the largest producer-only market in the country.

Photos:Beth Skogen
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