Let’s talk about cheese. Cheese is at its most basic level carefully rotted milk. Beyond the milk itself, it is, like beer, an ancient domestication of microbial activities for human consumption. We work in concert with communities of bacteria, molds, and fungi, eating the sugars, proteins, and fats in the milk to produce the hundreds of different kinds of cheeses. It is symbiotic, sustained funk. It isn’t sexy, but it is the biological reality.
But cheese is more than biology. It is poetry and passion. It is the embodiment local identity as well as a testament to the power of mass production. That said, after an evening of exploring locally-produced charcuterie with my daughters, my thoughts drift to artisanal cheeses, not the stuff produced in sterile factories. Making and marketing artisanal cheese is a dance in how we as humans blur the lines between nature and culture, urban and rural, production and consumption. It is the product of human skill working in concert with the natural agencies of bacteria, yeasts, and molds to transform a fluid made by cows, sheep, and goats (and no doubt other milk-producing creatures I’m simply unaware of).
Cheesemakers are increasingly interested in the microbial inhabitants of local environments and the unique communities that shape a place and its cheeses. Microbial terroir emphasizes the importance of the unique geography of a place, using the qualities of specific, local microbes to craft an identity for a brand of cheese. While the microbial similarities of cheeses from different regions are often more striking than their differences, identifying cheeses through the flavors produced by their bacteria allows consumers to get to know the microbes in our lives, and through those microbes, establish a sense of connectedness and regional pride.
Beyond the unique flavors produced by virtue of location, the lifestyle is part of the appeal to consumers of artisanal cheese. The ethics and politics of locally produced foods of American farmstead or imported raw-milk cheeses are all symbols of a privileged kind of eating, but with their own challenges and their own complex cultural contexts – like all things, cheese is political. For producers, the single most relevant issue is how to create a product that is economically viable while staying true to their beliefs. There’s a very small profit margin in cheese or most other “craft” foods. No one goes into these professions to get rich. But that is, for many consumers, the draw. Its production is about passion and commitment to the local community. In essence, all foods have social lives. But with an increased sense of local or regional identity, the antithesis of post-war industrial sameness, artisanal cheeses are becoming less an expression of privilege and wealth, and more an expression of community involvement. Uncovering the many complex practices and decisions of artisanal cheesemakers and cultivating a sense of place, shows that food is a means of building of cultural identity. And all of this matters because it extends beyond cheese to locally produced foods.
Shatto is a small family-owned and operated dairy farm located just north of the Kansas City. With approximately 350 dairy cows, they have established a strong regional following. As their website points outs, “Our family has been farming here for more than 100 years and began a dairy farm more than 80 years ago. In June 2003 our family began processing our own milk on the farm.” Two things stand out with Shatto. First, the milk has a consistent and specific taste because the herd is small and the food it eats reflects the local grasses and alfalfa. Second, Shatto is about the product, not just the profits. The messaging and the access consumers have to the dairy farm (including the small bottling plant) represent a strong sense of belonging to regional culture. The romance sells to be sure, stirring up pastoral images of a simple, rural life. It appeals to people because it is the rural counterpart to independent restaurant, locally distilled spirits, even regional start-ups. But the labor behind it sells it as well. It’s hard work, which appeals to the cultural underpinnings of the Midwestern work ethic. The things that have helped drive Shatto’s success hold true for makers of artisanal cheeses.
Handcrafted foods, whether cheese or Duroc pork, bring the practices of food production “back to the future,” reintroducing techniques that have been marginalized and largely eliminated during the modernization of industrial food production. Through artisanal cheese and other foods, producers and consumers challenge these industrial imperatives, leading to diverse and exuberant elements to our diet. For producers and the people who market their products, understanding the deeper personal and cultural connections we have with our food is central to success.