American Cheeses: The Best Regional, Artisan, and Farmhouse Cheeses

August 28th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Clark Wolf

Simon and Schuster, 2008

Hardcover.  $25.

Review by Chris Thompson

          The sub-subtitle of Clark Wolf’s handsome book is “Who Makes Them and Where to Find Them.”  That covers the general structure of the book, which is divided into four regions of the U.S., and the bulk of its content, which comprises a selective compendium of cheesemakers, cheese mavens, and restauranteurs (with recipes) from each region, with a one-pagish overview for each.  Each cheesemaker gets a short history (a couple of sentences), a comment and a preview of a few highlighted cheeses, followed by a list of the names of all their cheeses, and their address, telephone, and e-mail.  A few mavens of the cheese world (Ricki Carroll, of New England Cheesemaking, for example) get a profile page.

          Setting out the scope and intent of American Cheeses, on page 12, Wolf writes, “Believe me, there is a lot more to making world class cheese than I plan to go into here.  This is a book for the cheese lover, not the cheese maker.”  And on page 22, he writes, “What I hope you’ll take from this book is a more-than-basic feel for cheese that will help and let you explore, experiment, and, most important, enjoy a growing world of wonderfully made American cheeses.”  So Cheese Enthusiast duly notes that we should not criticize the book for what it is not trying to be.  We try to lean toward usefulness, and with those eyes we see that the opening section of the book, “Introduction: Learning to Taste” provides a fine introduction to cheesemaking, its roots and branches, categories of cheese, and guidelines about how to eat cheese, wine pairings, and so forth.  Wolf was in his earlier days a cheesemonger, so he has a good sense of the mind of the retail customer for whom this book seems intended.  The prose is clean and slightly whimsical, and he goes into just enough detail to take a casual reader one step closer to cheese-insider status. 

American Cheese moves away from the comprehensive approach of the opening sections when Wolf turns to the regional sections highlighting cheesemakers and providing recipes featuring cheese, ostensibly from the featured region.  The selection principles he uses in highlighting certain regional cheesemakers and not others is not evident.  We suspect he tapped cheesemakers he knows and likes.  Nothing wrong with that — especially since Wolf highlights some of Cheese Enthusiasts’ favorites, including Green Mountain Blue and Lazy Lady.  The cheese-related recipes all look pretty tasty, and pretty high-end (ingredients you will need include Swiss kirsch, pear liqueur, a chipotle canned in adobo, paper-thin slices of Serrano ham, etc.).  But we must quibble here.  The dust jacket blurb for American Cheese states, “At the end of each regional section is a selection of delectable recipes that showcase the best cheese of that area,” which is admirable, yet the recipe for a Houston chef’s chile con queso in The South section calls for Velveeta and a California white cheddar.  Elsewhere in the book Wolf correctly places California in The Wild West (his term), and Kraft Foods, which makes Velveeta, is in Northfield, Illinois, and one imagines no one even there considers it among the best cheeses of that area.  Another Southern recipe (also from Houston, as it happens) calls for a Great Hill Blue from Marion, Massachusetts (a great cheese, by the way).   The point here is that the recipes are “regional”–in the sense that the restaurant or recipe source are in the region–rather than regional-cheese based.  Wolf ‘s editor owes him a bottle or two there. 

There is something else that emerges from Wolf’s book– not a quibble, but worth noting.  With two-thirds of the book emphasizing artisan and farmstead cheesemaking, celebrating the emphasis on small production and staying close to the milk source, the recipes offered come from another universe, that of celebrity chefs, many at glitzy hotels.  The juxtaposition perhaps demonstrates an underlying, if partial, truth about American cheesemaking these days…the more rustic and authentic the production end, the more luxurious the possibilities at the market end.  One can imagine one very special farmer with one very special goat making one very special cheese per year, and selling it in a boutique cheese shop in NYC or Los Angeles to a very special customer for $100,000.  Maybe not as much of a stretch as it seems…

          Overall, American Cheeses is a book a cheesemonger might put out for retail customers, to help them get a better feel for cheese varieties overall, and to help them become better acquainted with a few brands (which the monger ought to be sure are in stock).  The book is pricey at $25, and the recipes and overall feel of the book place it in the luxury market (although the uncaptioned photos are all in black and white and the paper stock is not glossy).  We know that many cheese shops are located in image and address in the luxury retail market, so the approach makes sense.  We don’t see this book a year from now stained and dog-eared on the countertop or in the barn, but we can see it on the back seat of the Benz for ready reference before heading into the shop to pick up tonight’s cheese course.

Originally appeared in Cheese Enthusiast 4

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