Natural Foods Merchandiser

Forget the fromage bring on the cheese

When John Fiscalini was a kid, he remembers asking his dad, a dairy farmer, to point out their milk when they were at the market. "My father could never do it," says the San Joaquin, Calif., native. "As a dairy farmer, you milk the cows, put the milk in a tank and then someone comes to pick it up. We get paid for it, but we have no control over it after that point."

Now a dairy farmer himself, Fiscalini credits that childhood wonder as one of the reasons he founded Fiscalini Cheese Co., where he makes three varieties of farmstead artisan cheese. "It was a little bit about ego, I guess," he says. "I've always wanted to have the ability to walk into a store and see where my milk ended up. Now I can do that."

Alex Garcia, director of affiange (the art of aging cheese to its peak flavor) at New York-based retailer Artisanal Cheese, says many cheese makers in this country got into the business for reasons similar to Fiscalini's. "For example, there's a great dairy farm in Virginia who's got some of the best-quality milk in the country. They make their living selling liquid milk, but they also make cheese in order to be able to exemplify their milk outside their area."

Garcia also credits the buy-local trend for increasing the popularity of artisanal cheese in the United States. "People are grasping for things that have tradition. And that's going hand in hand with the fact that people are more conscious of how healthy they're eating," he says. "With artisan cheeses, you'll have basically three ingredients in any given style: milk, enzymes and salt. And depending on the skill of the cheese maker and the health of the land, you'll have numerous styles from those three ingredients."

Whatever the reasons cheese makers have for getting into the business, one thing is for sure: It's a growing art. According to the American Cheese Society, the number of cheeses entered in its annual competition has grown steadily over the last three years, with about 700 entered in 2005, 900 entered in 2006 and 1,200 entered this year.

What's the difference between artisan and farmstead?
The term artisan means it's handmade; farmstead cheese is made on the farm where the milk is produced. Farmstead cheese can also be artisan if there's someone on the farm actually making the product. Artisan cheese can be made in a facility where the milk is purchased.

If you're just beginning to look into artisanal cheese, there are plenty of resources. To find local artisanal cheese manufacturers, contact The American Cheese Society ( For stocking the best-quality local cheese, Garcia recommends trying what Artisanal Cheese does: Get to know the dairy farmers in your area. "We have as close relationships with the farmers as we do with our customers, and we know what's going on with a cheese from one batch to the next," he says. "If you take some time to get to know where the cheese is coming from—to get to know the producer of the product, or even the supplier or the consolidator or the salesperson—you'll be able to stock better, higher-quality cheese."

If that's just not possible, or there aren't any artisan cheese makers in your area, talk to sales representatives in-depth about the cheese companies they represent, suggests Garcia. "If you're working with a rep who is unfamiliar with the product, then you need a new one. It's like going to a microbrewery and asking questions about a beer and having the person behind the bar have no clue how to answer."

Once you've picked the local cheeses you'd like to offer, rounding out the section to include a variety of styles is your next step, says Samm White, a sales representative at Cheese Importers, a wholesaler and retailer in Longmont, Colo. "I'd offer at least one or two cheeses in all categories—goat's, sheep's and cow's milk cheese," he says. "Then, you could offer a variety of cheeses in each of those sections, or break your section down by state or region."

Here's what White—who has helped natural foods retailers revamp their cheese departments—recommends for some domestic artisanal picks that'll fly off the shelves.

The best ways to treat cheese
Storage tips to share with your customers from Alex Garcia, director of affiange at New York-based Artisanal Cheese:
  1. Store artisanal cheese in the paper or packaging in which it was sold. The paper wrapping is typically designed to allow it to breathe and retain moisture, so re-wrap leftovers in the packaging it came in.
  2. If you accidentally toss the original packaging or it's torn and can't be reused:
    • Wrap blue cheeses in foil
    • Wrap washed-rind cheeses and small cheeses, like goat's milk crottin, in wax or grease-proof paper
    • Wrap soft cheeses in a sealed container or wax paper
    • Wrap only the cut surface of cheeses with harder and drier rinds in lightweight plastic, leaving the rind exposed so the cheese can breathe
  3. Choose a cool, damp place to store cheese, like a wine cabinet. Don't have one or can't stand the smell? The refrigerator's vegetable drawer is another option.
  4. If properly stored, most cheeses will last several weeks and as a general rule, aged hard cheeses will last longer than softer, fresher types.

Cypress Grove Chevre Purple Haze Goat Milk Cheese
"This is a very creamy goat chevre from California and is completely unique to the chevre world due to its added flavors of fennel pollen and lavender. It's a velvety smooth combo—luxurious."

Bravo Farms Original Chipotle Cheddar
"This California cheese has a unique flavor profile combo—their cheddar has a very buttery presentation versus the sharp, tangy flavor of most cheddars, and the chipotle complements the buttery flavor nicely, but it's not overly spicy or hot."

Sunny Breeze Farm Sunburst Tomato Basil Chipotle "Phenomenal! This Colorado cheese is one of the few domestic artisan sheep chevres. It's creamy and light—not too farm-y tasting—and a great first foray into the alternative milk world. Works nicely as an alternative to cream cheese or butter."
Call or fax 970.824.5881.

Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy Raw Milk Red Cloud
"This Colorado cheese has huge flavors reminiscent of the Front Range of Colorado—hints of wheat and sunshine. It's truly one of a kind. It's thick and dense—great for colder months."

Marin French Rouge et Noir Triple Cr?me Brie
"Think the best bries come from France? This one from California may change your mind. Since it doesn't have to travel, there's a lot less salt in it, and they don't have to ship it unaged, hoping it's aged properly when it gets to retailers."

MouCo ColoRouge
"This is a washed rind smear, in the legacy of stronger French counterparts. Like most of the ?stinky' cheeses, the bark is worse than the bite. And again, shorter shipping time means this Colorado cheese isn't going to go out too old or too young."

Vella Cheese Co. Whole Milk Dry Monterey
"This California cheese is rubbed with olive oil and cocoa powder to protect it, which gives it a unique edible rind. It can be swapped for any melting cheese or parmesan, and tastes great shredded on pastas or soups."

Grafton Village Cheese Co. Four Star Mature Vermont Cheddar
"Here is a premiere, super-sharp Vermont cheddar. It's aged in a way so that it doesn't turn rancid-sharp, and it has a subtleness to it that's palatable and beautiful."

Carr Valley Cheese Gran Canaria Cheese
"This is a three-milk cheese that's semi-firm. Olive oil is added to this Wisconsin blend to make it very smooth and velvety. It's great in sandwiches and also works nicely in a manicotti or a lasagna."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 11/p. 30

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