Cheesy Thoughts

In the early 90s, Culture magazine co-founder Kate Arding was a ripped jeans-and-baseball-hat wearing 20-something working for her family’s condiments company in the UK. She’d get the stink-eye when she’d show up in fancy gourmet shops to peddle mustard. Her life changed when she visited the still newish storefront of Neal's Yard Dairy. Although Neal's Yard would nearly single-handedly revive the dying tradition of farmstead cheeses in the UK over the next 20 years, at that time, Arding just saw a bunch of young unsnobby people cutting samples for anybody who walked through the door.Arding went to work for Neal's Yard, and today mentors artisan cheesemakers all over the world. Her most famous project was helping Cowgirl Creamery start up in Sonoma County, California. CHOW.com talked to Arding, who now lives in upstate New York, during a break at the California Artisan Cheese Festival last weekend about what’s up with American cheeses.

The double IPA was created in California, and sent shock waves through the entire international beer industry. Is there a similar story with a trend-setting U.S. cheese?

There aren't what I'd call "American originals" that sent, like, shockwaves. But there's one that's a real California original: Vella Dry Jack, with cocoa on the rind. The story with it is they took Monterey Jack and aged it to get something like Parmesan during WWII, when trade embargoes made it hard to get that cheese in the U.S. Instead of putting oil on the rind to keep it from cracking, but they put cocoa on it.

Seems like the next big thing for DIY food culture will be home cheesemaking. Right?

Home cheesemaking is huge! The most commented-on topics on Culture magazine’s Facebook page are pairings and home cheesemaking. [The latter is] not that difficult. It's just finding somewhere to age it --you want a cellar or a knackered old fridge where the seals are broken --only clean [it] out first. Some of the best cheeses in the beginning at Neal's Yard were aged in cardboard boxes under the counter. One of the misconceptions is that there is fancy equipment needed.

Who are you really excited about in American cheesemaking?

The brothers who run Jasper Hill Farm are amazing. They bought a dump of a run down farm in 2000 in this stunningly beautiful --but remote-- part of northern Vermont. The area is economically depressed. They started making their first cheese in '04, then a few years ago, they started this project where they built these 2000-square-foot cellars, where they can age other peoples’ cheeses, and teach people. It's now reached that tipping pint where people really want to go there and work, and learn how to make cheese --kind of like what happened to me at Neal's Yard. They’re transforming the economy of that entire area.

Have there been any positive or negative changes in cheese retailing you’ve seen, with the growth of interest in good cheese?

On the positive side, there are younger people with new energy coming in, and they're really knowledgeable about cheese. The only caveat is a criticism not so much about the cheesemongers, or producers, but of the small scale food world in general: people tend to latch onto these marketing terms. Like "locally-produced," "artisanal," "sustainable," and "organic." I've had cheeses that fit those descriptions that are just awful. And I've had really good cheeses from large-scale producers. But this is also an area where politics intersects with food, and I'm certainly not knocking those descriptions. All I'm saying is: taste it, and ask yourself --does it taste good?

Image by Galen Krumel