Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Cheesy goodness

For those of you who know me, you are aware that one of my great food passions is cheese.  I can think of no better "fast food" meal than to pick up a couple hunks of it, along with some crackers, a bottle of wine, and maybe a little fruit.  I have yet to meet a type of cheese that I don't care for - I revel in washed and bloom-rinded cheese, live for the crunch inside a good aged hard cheese, and positively salivate over the beautiful veins of a blue.

To me, cheese is the ultimate expression of dairy.  On the other hand, I am frequently horrified by what passes for cheese to most people.  I'm sorry, but a "cheese tray" that includes chunks of generic and bland cheddar, Colby-jack, mozzarella, Munster, and Swiss just doesn't pass muster for me.  Why, oh why, must most Americans relegate cheese to the vaguely rubberized versions that we are most often able to find at the grocery store.  I won't even start on Frankenstein's monsters like Velveeta, that don't even deserve the label of cheese.

Until a little over 30 years ago, the only way that one could find more interesting cheese fare was to locate a specialty food shop, where you could peruse a select variety of imported cheeses from far off locales such as France, Italy, and England.  Eventually, American cheesemakers caught on and started producing some fairly generic versions of things such as Gouda, Brie, and a few blue varieties.  But let's face it, if you wanted the good stuff, you were still going to have to look around for the imported varieties.  To compound matters, there were tantalizing tales of amazing cheeses made overseas but blocked from import due to agricultural concerns.  Smuggling cheese back to the US in a pair of old socks became an acceptable practice for cheese diehards.

Fortunately, about  20 years back, people in the US suddenly realized that we could make stuff the same way Europeans had been doing it for centuries, and the artisanal movement was born Ok, technically, it was born in the 70's, but the 90's is when it really took off.  Suddenly, there were Americans who were studying traditional techniques for making cheeses, and then trying it themselves!!!  At the same time, gourmet food became a bigger market than it ever had before.  I can still remember the first time I saw the cheese counter at Whole Foods in Chicago - I felt as Robin Williams must have shopping for coffee in Moscow on the Hudson.  

The US now has a cheese industry that actually makes some truly impressive artisanal cheeses.  Unfortunately, it's not very distributed, though it's growing all the time.  At trade shows, such as the Fancy Food Expo in Chicago (now tragically defunct), I have had the opportunity to sample from a number of these artisan producers, and each year, it seems to get better.  There are now truly original American style cheeses, unlike anything that Europe is producing, as well as numerous fantastic native versions of European classics.  At the last Fancy Food show, I tasted an aged Parmesan that was easily on par with a Parmesan Reggiano.

Good cheese is truly starting to become accepted by Americans.  Even the Northpoint Kroger put in a fair cheese case last year.  Unfortunately for Peorians, most of the great artisanal cheese in the midwest is produced in Wisconsin, unsurprising given its history of producing cheese in the US.  

Nonetheless, I did some poking around on the interwebz, and discovered this gem: Prairie Fruits Farm.  Located near Urbana, they have become a hot commodity amongst Chicago chefs who feature local products on their menus.  They have a fairly impressive website, and appear to be very involved in the local food scene, doing sustainable agriculture as well.  They also host dinners and brunches occasionally, bringing in top chefs from the area to cook for them, and are active in educating the public about eating locally.  It appears that they produce a number of goat's milk cheeses.  The only downside is that they sell to the public only at the Champaign-Urbana farmer's markets, and nowhere nearer to Peoria than that, as far as I can find.  Still, they do appear to have a pretty exciting operation.  I think a field trip is in order.

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