Say Cheese

It should probably be said at the outset that I’m more or less the dairy queen; if it’s got butterfat in it, I’m for it. But I’m particularly fond of cheese, which leads us to a recent party where Masako, a friend from the city, wandered into the kitchen as I was butchering a rather elderly Barat.
“What’s that? ” she asked. “It’s a local cheese, ” I said, “comes from a place called Sprout Creek Farm . It’s a cow cheese – nutty and mild, a bit on the dry side … (especially this one, I thought without saying) It’ll be great with the red wine you brought.”
Meanwhile the Barat is coming apart in very funny looking chunks – you can only cut it neatly when it’s very fresh – so of course I handed her a piece.
She chewed. I unwrapped crackers and went looking for the walnuts. ” Where IS this farm? ” she asked. ” Far from here? Do we have time to go there before dinner? ”
Point of story: it’s easy to forget how far American cheese has come in just the last little while. The Barat, for instance, is local in the Hudson Valley, which has lately become a hotbed ( coolbed ? ) of very tasty cheese. If you go to the website of the New York State Farmstead Artisan Cheese Makers Guild, you’ll find links to 20 farms, each of which makes multiple cheeses: cheddars and blues and gouda-types, ricottas and fetas…almost all from the milk of beasts that live outdoors in summer and eat grass, almost all cheese that tastes of this place and nowhere else.
Stop me before I swoon… Of course every one of these marvels is either pasteurized or aged for at least 60 days. It’s against the law to sell the kind of goozy, fresh raw milk cheeses that you eat in Europe and think, well, maybe I could buy a little apartment and just live here part of the year. But one Wisconsin cheesemaker has found a way around this problem and it’s such a lovely idea it deserves widespread dissemination.
The story comes by way of Steve Jenkins, one of the country’s best known cheesemongers, currently plying his trade – and blogging –at Manhattan’s famed Fairway market. The entry is for January 21st; the teller is one of Jenkins’ suppliers, a woman named Mary Falk. She sent him some splendid fresh raw milk cheese, he asked what it was called. And here in shortened form is what she said:

” The ‘cheese’ is currently called “Fishbait” since it is only 6 weeks old and made from raw Jersey cow’s milk… My customers have been routinely asking me for young, fresh, grassy raw milk cheeses. For the past 10 years I have dutifully told them that it is against the law in Wisconsin and Minnesota to sell raw milk cheese aged less than 60 days for human consumption. This has always been a sore spot for me since our farmstead milk is so darn clean.”

Then she explains and says a whole lot more ( it’s a long story, but well worth reading). Then she describes an aborted attempt to sell the raw milk cheese as cat food. THEN she says:

” I phoned the Department of Natural Resources and asked them what, if any, license requirements were necessary to produce fishbait. The DNR said that it would be nice if the product was bio-degradable. I said that we could do that.
So now we bring Fishbait to the St. Paul Farmers’ Market and we sell it with a sign that states that it is not legal to sell raw milk cheese aged less than 60 days for human consumption … so we bring it to the citizens of Minnesota, Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, as “Fishbait”.
We have been EXTENSIVELY inspected by the state of Wisconsin because of our Fishbait, and also by the USFDA, but it seems OK so far to sell the product in this manner as long as the public is properly notified that it is fishbait, and not legal cheese… ”

Ms. Falk has not copyrighted the name fishbait and is actually hopeful that cheesemakers elsewhere will follow her lead.
Me too. But while we’re waiting, there is plenty of great local cheese being made – in plenty of localities. For a partial – and very impressive – guide to what’s shaking nationwide, check out the member-locator map at the American Cheese Society.

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