Top | The Culinate Interview

Jeff Roberts

(article, Liz Crain)

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p(blue). An authority on the artisanal cheeses of North America, Jeff Roberts helped establish the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. As a national director for Slow Food USA, he has co-chaired several Artisan Cheeses of America events at Slow Food's international biannual cheese conference in Bra, Italy. His first book, The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese, came out this summer.
When did you develop an affinity for artisanal and farmstead cheeses?
That goes way back, certainly to my mother's family who were Italian-American and also to one of my uncles who had a delicatessen in Ford, New Jersey. It was always interesting to walk into his deli. I can still sort of envision some of it — the smells and all the different types of cheeses.
I just always had an interest in good food. When I was in Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I had a chance to try some wonderful cheeses. I came back and lived in Philadelphia for 25 years and almost immediately found all these great Italian delicatessens downtown. 
There was also a woman with a tiny cheese store, not far from where I lived, which I'd never seen anything like. I can't say that the cheese that this woman carried was particularly sophisticated, but in hindsight, she was carrying some very interesting handmade European cheeses, most of which have since become industrial. At the time, though, I wouldn't have known an industrial cheese from a handmade cheese unless somebody took the time to explain it to me. 

[%image roberts float=left width=250 caption="Jeff Roberts" credit="Photo: Lizzari Photographic"]
What's your take on the history of artisanal cheese in the U.S.?
Well, the U.S. has a very long cheese history, and I don't mean just \[the past\] 100 years. English settlers who came to the Northeast brought their cheesemaking skills and the cows that they had been working with from England. So from as early as the 17th century, and the settlement at Plymouth Plantation, there's been cheese being made in New England. 
And it was all made by hand — until the 1850s, when a guy in New York state figured out how to make cheddar in a factory. That invention doomed most of the handmade cheese and small dairy creameries across the country. There were a few that hung on in places like Wisconsin, Vermont, and the oldest existing dairy, which surprisingly enough is in Petaluma, California: Marin French. 
There were a handful of old dairies that existed into the mid-20th century. But after World War II, a lot of those went out of business.
Why has there been such a renaissance in artisanal cheese in the U.S.?
I never used the word "renaissance" because I had this impression that American handmade cheese was never really there. It's just been in the last couple of years that I've completely changed my thinking and my language. In fact, there is an American cheesemaking renaissance that's taken place since roughly 1970, driven to a degree by the emergence of goat cheese in the U.S. 
Prior to the 1970s, there were goat dairies \[in the U.S., but\] there wasn't any goat cheesemaking going on. The goat cheese that you would see in the States was all coming from Europe. The emergence \[of domestic cheesemaking from goat's milk\] in the 1970s was driven in part by changes in American attitudes about food: a greater sophistication of taste, experience in trying foods in Europe, more disposable income.  
How did you research your book?
I went to every source I could get my hands on. I used the Internet a lot, but I also started the project knowing at least half of the people in the U.S. who work in raw-milk cheese. Beyond that, I had access to The American Cheese Society membership lists and lots of resources through my work with Slow Food USA. A number of dairy inspectors within various state departments of agriculture were very helpful in getting me information as well about who was licensed.
But even with all of that help, we kind of expected that we would miss a few, and that things would change once the book came out. That's certainly been the case. Not only have there been a handful of producers that sadly went out of business \[since the book was published\], but a whole bunch of new ones have arrived. 
How do you plan to address these changes?
Right now, I'm working on getting a Web site set up so that I have a way of keeping at least new producers up to date. And then if people say, "Hey, we changed our phone number," I can put it on the site.
How many new cheesemakers did you interview for the book?
I identified over 400 artisan cheesemakers in the Atlas. And then through the various filters that I used, that number got whittled down to 345. 

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Of those 345, half of them didn't exist in the year 2000. And if you then take the roughly 155 in place in 1999, and you go back to 1990, half of those didn't exist. So the numbers doubled in the decade between 1989 and 1999 and doubled again from 2000 to 2006. That's phenomenal change. 
Do you think that this kind of growth in the industry will continue?
Yes, and in my opinion it's a bellweather for what has changed in American agriculture. \[It's different from\] the wine industry, which requires such significant investment and therefore becomes harder and harder for a lot of people to get involved with. 
It's not that cheesemaking requires just a handful of pennies; it can be an expensive venture. But it's attracting new people into farming, especially women. And if anything, what the statistics show in \[the past\] 30 years is the place of women in agriculture and then within the cheese community. Women have been leaders. 
I think that cheesemaking is showing us that there is a whole other way that we can grow and produce outstanding food that consumers in the places where the food is grown or produced will buy. It's not all high-end, $25-to-$30 cheeses we're talking about, and that's one of the things that I find important. People are looking to make a living without pricing their cheese like a rare bottle of wine. \[High prices tend\] to shut the door on a whole lot of people getting involved and eating these things. 
What kind of cheeses did you grow up eating?
I ate Velveeta and I loved it. I loved putting it on bread and melting it under a broiler. 

But my father's mother also made cheese strudel a lot, and we usually had a good Parmigiano-Reggiano, and usually a New York or Canadian white cheddar, in the house. At the time, most cheddars were colored with annatto, that yellow food coloring, because Americans like bright orange cheese. Fortunately now, as a country, we're moving away from that.
What cheeses are in your kitchen right now?
I have several cheeses from Maine, from a place called Hahn's End, several goat cheeses from Vermont's Lazy Lady Farm, a terrific handmade cheese from Wisconsin's Brunkow Cheese, and several Shelburne Farms cheddars.
There are also several from Italy: a 5-year-old Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the last of a cow-and-water-buffalo-milk hard cheese which is quite unique. I'd have to go around and poke around to see what else is still alive. 
Do you travel to eat cheese?
That's one of the keys to what's going on in the artisan cheese community. There's a lot of cheese being made that isn't going anyplace. It's staying in the locale where it was made or maybe within the state or the region. I think that's a very important change to the way in which Americans eat. That's part of what this whole local movement is introducing us to: the best foods come off of our very own local land.

p(bio). Liz Crain is a writer in Portland, Oregon.

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