Wheel of Fortune
In 1976, America’s winemaking prowess came of age. In that bicentennial year, at the Paris Tasting in far-off France, wine consultant Steve Spurrier organized a panel of judges in a battle that pitted California against France. The winners were Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ 1973 Cabernet and Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay, both from the Golden State. Emerging equally victorious were California’s vintners, whose reputation was instantly made over by the shocking results.American cheeses may have had a similar transformative moment last year. At the World Cheese Awards in London last September, American cheese-makers captured a stunning 44 medals (up from 18 in 2003). It was an across-the-board victory, as American bries, blues, mascarpones and rind-washed creations all took honors; even American cheddars took awards away from the land where cheddar was invented. Winners came from the obvious cheese-head centers (California, Wisconsin and Vermont), but also, in a show of widespread strength, from such unlikely locales as Georgia, Louisiana and Maryland. (Among the multiple-award winners was Fort Collins’ Bingham Hill Cheese Company; its three medals included a silver for Aspen Log, in the category of cheeses made with the milk of more than one animal.)It seems that America not only is standing tall against such cheese giants as France, the Netherlands and Switzerland, but also may finally be overcoming its own lackluster reputation in the cheese community.”When you hear the phrase ‘American cheese,'” observed author Laura Werlin, “you think single-wrap slices. These days, there is far more to American cheese than that. But American cheese – we’re still fighting that stigma of flavorless, artificial stuff.”It would seem that fight is being won. The World Cheese Awards were one indication; another is the fact that the American Cheese Society’s Festival of Cheeses, to be held next month in Louisville, Ky., will feature more than 700 American artisanal cheeses – up from 300 in 1998 and 400 just last year.
More proof of America’s rise will be served up, literally, at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen, which runs Friday through Sunday, June 10-12. Werlin, a part-time Aspenite with a house in the West End, is teaming with master sommelier Andrea Immer to present “Artisanal American Cheeses,” a tasting demonstration that will pair seven cheeses – representing Werlin’s seven cheese categories – with wine. Though the Food & Wine Classic has focused on cheese since the introduction of Steven Jenkins’ cheese course demonstration, this is the first year that America stands alone under the spotlight.”That legitimizes American cheeses that much more, that they would have me conduct a seminar,” said Werlin, who will also appear in the Grand Tasting Tent, doling out samples of fennel, tomato and two-cheese fondue as a guest chef for All-Clad cookware. “Because they know that my thing is American cheese.”The organizers of the Food & Wine Classic believe not only that American cheese is legit, but also that it’s moment is overdue. “The focus of people’s cheese envy has always been European cheeses,” said Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine. “Because of that, we’ve tended to overlook American cheese. More American cheese-makers are making high-quality cheeses we think people need to know about. We think it’s time.”
Werlin came to cheese as a fan, not an expert. Her previous career had been in television, working as an assignment manager for the news department of a San Francisco station. Living in the Bay Area, which is still her main residence, Werlin was well able to indulge her passions for food and restaurants. She assumed that the artisanal cheese industry – cheeses made largely by hand, in small batches – was a phenomenon limited to food-saturated northern California. And then she attended the 1998 Festival of Cheeses in Madison, Wis.”That’s when I realized what was happening in northern California was happening all over the country,” said Werlin, who was able to choose from 300 domestic varieties.Werlin adds, however, that as recently as five years ago few others joined her in this realization. So she took it upon herself to spread the word on cheese. Jumping career tracks, Werlin wrote “The New American Cheese,” published in 2000, which featured stories of 55 American cheese-makers, the history of cheese in America, recipes and more. It was the first book of its kind devoted to American cheese. While Werlin hesitates to say that the book jump-started the recognition and expansion of the movement, the book did win the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ award for best American cookbook.Werlin followed in 2003 with “The All American Cheese and Wine Book,” a text on pairing cheese and wine that earned a James Beard award. Last year, she went more down-home with “Great Grilled Cheese: 50 Innovative Recipes for Stovetop, Sandwich Maker and Grill.” But instead of giving herself and her books credit for the attention being paid to American cheese, Werlin points everywhere else: to food lovers, to cheese-makers, to cheese itself.In Werlin’s view, Americans – or at least that slice of the population occupied by thoughts of food and drink – have warmed to the complexity of cheese. “Americans love a food challenge. And cheese really answers that call,” she said. “You can’t learn all about it in one day. I’ve been writing about cheese for five years, and I’ve only scratched the surface.
“It’s not a simple food. You taste it, and it keeps going. That’s due to the texture. It lingers in your mouth a long time, so you get a longer memory of it.”That complexity cuts both ways. For the gastronomically curious, cheese is a vast world of savory, creamy, sharp, smoked and stinky. (In Werlin’s formulation, there are seven styles of cheese: fresh, semisoft, soft-ripened, semihard, hard, blue and washed-rind; her Food & Wine demonstration will feature samples of each.) For the less daring, the idea of eating moldy blues or odoriferous Limburger, is daunting.”As a result of its complexity and variations, it can be very intimidating,” said Werlin. “Cheese is something people like but can be a little afraid of.”Taking the threat out of cheese are the producers themselves. As at Aspen’s Saturday market, cheese-makers are a ubiquitous attraction at the hundreds of farmers’ markets that have sprouted up seemingly everywhere. Being relatively inexpensive, easy to serve in small portions and requiring no preparation, cheese is a perfect sampling food. And buying cheese can come with the opportunity to talk with its makers, further demystifying the food.Perhaps the ultimate thing in favor of the explosion of cheese is the food’s universality. It exists on the high end and the low, fitting as well on a burger as it does on a plate that concludes a fine-dining experience.At its upper end, cheese serves as an accompaniment to wine. “The complexity of the two together is endlessly intriguing. If you pair them just right, you can’t imagine a better taste,” said Werlin. And the subtleties involved in the pairing can make for a challenge: “Both are agricultural products that change vintage to vintage, batch to batch. Pairing them can be like putting two moving targets together.”
Conversely, as Werlin knows just as well, cheese between two slices of bread can provide the simplest of pleasures.”Cheese, when it’s melted, is the ultimate comfort food. We never tire of that,” she said.Laura Werlin and Andrea Immer present “Artisanal American Cheeses” Friday and Saturday, June 10-11, at 2 p.m.Other cooking demonstrations at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic include “Chocolate Fantasy,” presented by Jacques Torres; “The Raw & the Cured,” with Marcus Samuelsson; “A Taste of Spain,” by José Andrés; and “Big Easy Potluck,” with Emeril Lagasse. Among the wine tastings are “Chile’s Superstar Reds,” by Kevin Zraly; “New Napa Cult Cabs,” with Jeff Morgan and Joshua Wesson’s “Oakless in Aspen.”For more information on the Food & Wine Classic, go to http://www.foodandwine.com.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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