Harmonizing tradition with ingenuity in cheesemaking

Honoring long lineages of traditional production, European cheesemakers tend to follow recipes that have been handed down as patrimony since time immemorial. Comte, Roquefort, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Le Gruyère AOP have all been made in more or less exactly the same way for centuries. Their production in the contemporary era is governed by a set of Appellation restrictions that, in dictating what animal breeds can be used, what pastures can be grazed, what techniques should be used in the make room, and how and how long a cheese must age, help to ensure these cheeses will continue to live up to the strict standards of quality and the reputation for excellence that the names of these benchmark cheeses evoke.

While heritage and historical precedence informs cheesemaking abroad, creativity is a hallmark of the artisan cheese renaissance in America. American artisans often take classic recipes and apply unique American twists. Much like the country’s celebrated legacy as a cultural melting pot, American cheesemakers combine approaches from both near and far, interpret traditional recipes in unorthodox ways, and generally give novel spins to age-old classics. Whether it is a goat’s milk gouda or a sheep’s milk camembert, Americans artisans reinvent classics while remaining vigilant that quality, health, and community wellbeing are at the forefront of what makes these cheeses not only good to eat, but good to make.

Two American cheesemakers that embody this spirit of harmonizing tradition with ingenuity in cheesemaking are Cypress Grove Chevre and Cowgirl Creamery. We are delighted to welcome both of these companies as members of the Oldways Cheese Coalition as their unwavering commitment to artisan methods and quality expresses the heart and soul of what our Coalition represents.

Cypress Grove was founded in the early 1980’s by Mary Keehn. A mother of four and a trained biologist, Mary had made the proverbial move back to the land some years prior. Seeking to find a source of good milk for her children she approached a neighbor who happened to raise goats. When asked if she was willing to sell, the lady responded, “Honey, if you can catch them, you can have them.” Mary wrangled two and the rest is history. A matriarch of the artisan cheese renaissance, in the thirty years since its founding, Cypress Grove has become one of the most recognizable brands in American Artisan cheese. And they produce one of America’s most celebrated cheeses. 

Humboldt Fog, a Cypress Grove cheese, is an American original. It’s a bloomy-rinded goats milk cheese that is tangy, lactic, and resonate of aromatic herbs. Produced where the

Redwood forest meets the Pacific, the cheese is evocative of its Northern California ocean-side terroir: “We like to think that the softness and mystery of the fog infuses our cheese,” the Grovers (a term of endearment for staff) fondly say. Its signature is the layer of vegetable ash that lines the interior and makes it a sharp compliment to any cheese board. Its origin has become the stuff of legend. In short, Mary was on the long flight back to California from France, where she had apprenticed with traditional cheesemaking experts, when epiphany struck—why not model a goat’s milk cheese after the renowned cow’s milk Morbier? Voila, a distinctly delicious and distinctly American cheese was born.

Cowgirl Creamery was inspired by the passion of two long-time friends for good, healthy food, and for a strong, sustainable agricultural economy.  Peg Smith and Sue Conley have worked closely with neighboring Straus Family Creamery for over two decades to produce their exceptional and exceptionally delicious line of organic cow’s milk cheeses. Bridging tradition and creative innovation, one cheese in particular benefited from a stroke of serendipity.

As Peg describes it, a batch of their very popular Mt. Tam, a decadent triple cream cheese with a delicate, pristine white rind, began to attract bacteria (entirely benign!) from the ambient environment. To maintain the ivory integrity of the exterior, the Cowgirls attempted to rid the cheeses of these unsolicited microbes by giving them a briny bath. As the cheeses aged, their rinds turned from mottled-white to a rusty shade of copper. Intrigued, they tried the cheese and were overwhelmed with its meaty flavor and delightful, if odiferous, funk.  Red Hawk resonates with an evocative taste of place. Rather than the rubbish heap, the cheese has found its way into specialty stores nationwide and earned a special place in the hearts and bellies of cheese lovers everywhere. Sometimes innovation arrives from unexpected places.

Carlos Yescas - Oldways Cheese Coalition Program Director