After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Name the differences between artisan and industrial (or mass-produced) cheese making.
- Describe the relationships among artisan cheese, certain cheesemaking practices, social networks, storytelling, and places.
- Explain the importance of terroir and its influence in making artisan cheese unique.
Over the past 20 years, the category of artisan cheese has become important in understanding contemporary production and consumption of this fermented and aged dairy product. This category very much exists as a counterpoint to the category of industrial (or mass-produced) cheese.
There are several reasons why artisan cheeses are categorized differently than industrial cheese. One is that the conditions of production are dissimilar. Industrial or mass-produced cheese is based on a production model that seeks consistency. For example, if there are two Kraft factories making Cracker Barrel cheddar cheese, both of them will aim to make a product that is identical in appearance, taste, flavor, and texture. The industrial model of production also assumes that the labor involved in making the cheese is exchangeable and interchangeable, thus adding to the cheese’s role as a commodity. A second reason is that, in the case of industrial cheese, there is an assumption that it will be integrated into a spatially distributed supply chain. In other words, someone on the West Coast of the United States and someone else on the East Coast will have roughly equal access to the cheese. On the other hand, in the case of artisan cheese, the primary commitment is to a clear or present connection to a specific place. When foods are linked to a certain place—due to geographical conditions or cultural traditions—regionally based practices (in terms of making such foods) emerge. In this way, it is understandable that cheeses produced in Vermont should be fundamentally different from cheeses produced in Oregon or Wisconsin. The connection to place also has an impact on the conditions of production and the spatial distribution of the product. Both are based on smaller scales, and there is an implication that specific people (and not just machines) put skilled labor into the products.
Many food scholars are interested in artisan (as well as traditional and/or craft) products because of their social implications. This includes researching the stories, practices, and politics of these products to understand both what they reveal and reflect about our contemporary food system. Social scientists also examine the strong connections between products defined as artisan and the geographic regions where they are produced. In other words, artisan products can be understood as crucial to the identities of individuals, groups, and places—as much or more than anonymous commodities sold in a generic retail marketplace. In this way, the intrinsic and extrinsic attributes of a certain product are assumed to be intertwined with both their social and natural environments. There are numerous examples, including Comte cheese, Burgundy wine, and Darjeeling tea.
With artisan cheese (as with other similar products), it is widely understood that these products are unique due to their connection to the identity of a group of people, a set of shared practices, and a place. A powerful expression of this set of connections is identified in the unique sensory characteristics of, for example, a three-year aged Shelburne Farms cheddar cheese or a Cabot Clothbound cheddar. Both of these cheeses are made using similar production techniques; the ‘recipe’ for cheddar involves stacking blocks of cheese curd on top of each other to encourage the removal of moisture. That means these cheeses will be similarly dry and tangy. However, there are also sensory differences between these cheese (the Shelburne Farms is tangier and the Cabot Clothbound cheddar is nuttier). The differences can be ascribed to the breed of cow, the type of pasture the cows graze on, and the location and type of aging facilities for storing the cheese. The intersection of place, sensory qualities, and social embeddedness is expressed in the concept of terroir, or the taste of place.
Integral to terroir is that the intrinsic and extrinsic attributes of a food or drink are based on certain environmental conditions and/or human practices. In the case of cheese, this includes the breed of the animal, the plants eaten by the animal, and the traditional practices for transforming the fluid milk into the finished cheese (e.g., the type of rennet, other ingredients, aging, etc.) Although these can be understood as objective factors, they are all in fact the results of decisions made by human actors. Such human-made decisions act in ways that transform a wild landscape into a domesticated one, responding to what works in that natural environment while simultaneously creating an indelible human imprint on the landscape, the animals and plants, and the conditions for sensory evaluation. The analytic framework used in the sensory analysis of foods and drinks shaped by terroir relies on the articulation of these underlying environmental conditions, leading to an explanation of the ultimate sensory experience. At the same time, the story of terroir, of the unique natural environment and specialized human practices that make such foods and drinks, is very important to the appreciation of these practices.
Recent investigations into artisan cheese provide excellent evidence for the sensory importance of the story when it comes to eaters’ sensory experiences. In a qualitative study of the development of the market for Vermont artisan cheeses, people who were interviewed indicated that their preferences for and experience of these products were influenced by their knowledge of the cheeses’ stories. These included how the products were made, who was making them, and their connections to the landscape and community of Vermont. In this study, people became Vermont artisan cheese consumers because of specific connections and encounters with these cheeses (e.g., amongst friends, in restaurants, at a special tasting), and those same connections and encounters became their personal context for understanding and appreciating these products. In other words, the story of the products was relevant to the eaters because of their own stories. These qualitative findings were supported by a second quantitative consumer study in which subjects tasted, evaluated, and described Vermont artisan cheeses in two different “story” conditions. The first included accurate but general information about the technical production process for each cheese, and the second included a more specific description and story provided by the cheese’s actual producer.
In both research studies, the people involved reported higher liking and more positive experiences when provided with the specific stories. More intriguingly, they also reported significantly different sensory experiences. Specifically, the producers’ stories allowed them to understand their intrinsic experience of strong or challenging flavors (like those of a ripened, blue-mold cheese) into positive experiential frameworks related to the making of the product (or the extrinsic conditions). This finding seems to be consistent with what is known about the importance of context and information when it comes to sensory experience. Where the cheese comes from and how the cheese is made matter to consumers tasting it, as do the stories told about both.
An exploration of artisan cheese as a category within the world of all cheeses helps reveal the various structures, perceptions, and practices that constitute our contemporary food systems. It reveals the pervasiveness of industrial processes when it comes to making food, as well as the various other strategies that can be used. It also helps us see why producers who use industrial, large-scale production practices sometimes also adopt aspects of artisan production. For example, Cabot Creamery, a mid-sized, nationally marketed cheese producer that otherwise produces industrial cheeses, also makes Cabot Clothbound cheddar, an artisan cheese. This product draws on connections to place and tradition by using a single production line and single herd, located in Vermont, to produce the cheese. (It is also widely accepted and lauded in the artisan-cheese world.)
At the same time, artisan cheese reveals the importance of both social context and natural environments when it comes to the ways in which we make and appreciate food. No food is consumed in isolation (even if an eater of Kraft Cracker Barrel cheddar or Cabot Clothbound is alone). There are always larger cultural contexts and social values—as well as specific personal memories—that inform our sensory experiences and preferences.
- What are some of the different cheeses you consume in your everyday life, given the distinction that is made between artisan and industrial (mass-produced) cheeses? How do your cheese preferences reflect your social or cultural context?
- Recall a personal experience with a food or drink that involves the celebration of place (as defined by a natural environment) and an appreciation of the tastes of the food or drink. What was the place and how would you explain the tastes? What were the intrinsic and extrinsic attributes of the food/drink? If you haven’t had such an experience, are there other foods or drinks that you connect to certain celebrations and/or communities? How would you explain these tastes? What are the intrinsic and extrinsic attributes of that food/drink?
- What is the place of artisan cheese, informed by terroir, in our food system? How might the place for artisan cheese change, given contemporary changes in how we live and work today, and our increasing reliance on urban centers for both?
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