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Cheese 101: What is artisanal cheese?

Red Hawk curd being stirred by hand
Red Hawk curd being stirred by hand
Photo by Bob Galivan

The word “artisanal” refers to something made by an artisan; a person who makes something by hand, often using traditional tools or methods. The term comes from Italian, and probably dates back to something in the 12th or 13th century. At that time, artisans made furniture, jewelry, and other items that were used in homes or business, and often became trade items. Most of us are familiar with this type of artisanal crafts through TV programs, like Antiques Roadshow.

Today's artisanal products seem to be more food-oriented, with products such as breads, cheeses, and wines, all carrying the artisanal label. They often command higher prices (deserved or not), and are usually perceived to be of better quality, than mass-produced version of the same products.

In her book, “The Cheese Chronicles” Liz Thorpe does a good job of defining the term “artisanal” when applied to cheese. She says “Artisanal cheesemakers change their recipe, and their cheesemaking technique, to accommodate the shifting fluid medium that is milk. Commodity cheesemakers take all possible steps to forcibly create a consistent fluid medium that can be made into a consistent final product, without modifying their approach.”

It’s a great definition; for many in the cheese world, artisanal only applies to true handmade products, but as the process of cheesemaking has become so well understood, and the demand for quality cheese has grown so much, even producers who could be considered “factory” style can certainly fall into the artisanal definition.

A concise definition of artisanal cheesemaking would be “an artisanal cheesemaker lets the milk become the cheese the milk wants it to be, whereas an industrial cheesemaker forces the milk to become the cheese that the cheesemaker wants it to be.” I believe it was Ms. Thorpe who also voiced that sentiment during a class at Murray's Cheese.

The term "artisanal" isn’t protected in terms of where and how it can be used, so it’s become mostly a marketing term that’s lost much of its meaning to the consuming public. Looking for true artisanal products requires some knowledge and some caution; there are numerous (and delicious) products out there, waiting to be found.

The question, then, is how can you tell? How do you know, when you’re in the store, if the “artisanal” product you’re buying is art or industry? The best way is to know the product you’re buying – either by doing a little research on the web about artisanal cheeses, or through recommendations from cheese books, cheese classes, or cheese friends. Over time, you get pretty good at picking the right cheese.

The store you’re buying it is going to be a big indicator – chain grocers are not very likely to have true artisanal cheeses, because they purchase in quantity, and because of their distribution system, require longer shelf-life in their products. Dedicated cheese shops are the best place, followed by stores with a dedicated cheese department. Locally, The Cheese Course, and Sunset Corners, are probably the two best examples of dedicated cheese shops, while some of the Whole Foods stores – especially the Coral Gables location – are good examples of dedicated cheese departments.

The other way to determine a true artisanal cheese is over time – find a cheese that you like, and try it over a period of months. If it’s artisanal, it’s not going to be the same. It will change with the seasons, with where the herd was grazed, the weather on the day the cheese was made - even the intern who was working in the dairy, will have an impact on the finished product. Different is good, because it indicates that the cheesemaker is letting the milk have its way, instead of bludgeoning it into submission.

Vive la difference!!

I like to write! If you enjoyed what you just read, please click the "Subscribe" link at the top of the page to follow this column, and please check out my other examiner.com columns: Coral Gables Wine Paring and Budget Wines. I also have a personal blog about food, cheese, and wine (with a little bit of life thrown in), and a brand new blog dedicated to syrah, at Que Syrah Shiraz.

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