Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Americans Are Finally “Getting” Cheese

(First published in the Norwegian food retail newspaper Dagligvarehandelen in September 2005.) 

If you ask for American Cheese in an American supermarket, chances are that you will be offered a small square block of an industrially processed product that is pre-sliced and individually wrapped, but has little if any taste. But the American cheese landscape is changing, and could follow the path towards sophistication, similar to what happened to the country's coffee and wine culture over the past few decades. 
“We are serving 160 wines by the glass and have over 200-250 cheeses,“ says Frank Bismuth, General Manager of Artisanal, a New York restaurant located on the 32nd Street close to Park Avenue.

Artisanal opened in 2001 and seats about 180 people. One of the most popular items on the menu is the cheese fondue, of course! Many customers, who come in for lunch or dinner, and smell the cheese, end up buying a piece of hand made and often pungent cheese from the cheese deli, which sits along one side of the restaurant.
“Cheese is becoming more popular, especially in New York City, which is very cosmopolitan and where people travel a lot,” says Frank Bismuth, who came to New York from Paris eleven years ago. “We find that people are very passionate about cheese," he says.

It is a bit of a paradox that cheese is gaining in popularity at the same time as health care experts and mass media warn of the obesity epidemic, but Frank Bismuth gives at least some of the credit for the current cheese craze to the Atkins diet, which allows its dieters to indulge in fatty foods, as long as they cut back on the carbohydrates. “You can enjoy your cheese without feeling guilty,” he adds. 
Artisanal carries cheeses from all over the world, from Spain, Italy and France, England and Scotland, just to name a few places of origin. “We also have a lot of great domestic cheeses, like those from Vermont and California,” he says. “And more and more restaurants are expanding their cheese selection,” he says. This growing cheese interest led to the opening of the Artisanal Premium Cheese Center in New York in 2003, which promotes and distributes artisan cheese, as well as gives classes to cheese lovers and aspiring cheese sellers alike. New York Times recently reported that many women are entering the cheese trade, and some even have taken up making artisan cheese. Over 1,700 people have taken classes at the center. The American Cheese Society, which is headquartered in Kentucky, has seen its membership double in four years and now counts about 1,000 members.
Good cheese is of course not new to New York City, but it seems that the taste for good non-industrial cheese is spreading beyond the ethnic enclaves of the big cities. Valdemar Albrecht is in charge of the cheeses at Artisanal. He is from Germany, but has lived in Barcelona, Spain and about ten years in the U.S. “Our focus here is to showcase artisan cheese making. All these cheeses are small batches. We both sell cheese to customers, but also prepare them for customers who want some cheese to their wine,” he says, adding “Almost everything you see here comes from the Artisanal Premium Cheese Center, but we have our own cave here where we stock our cheeses.” 
“Rouge River Blue is one of the most expensive domestic cheeses we have. We also have a classic French cheese called Roquefort. They sell for about 37 dollars per pound. This might sound like a lot, but these are cheeses made by artists, so I think they are prices accordingly.”
“I think that the attitude to cheese is changing the more we expose them to cheeses and educated about them. Luckily, we have an extremely savvy clientèle here in New York. They are world travelers, very well educated and they know the products that they want. But there is definitively a shift in the United States’ cheese culture. We were in Kentucky two weeks ago, at the American Cheese Society’s convention, and you can see cheese makers coming out of every single state of the United States. That speaks very positive for the future of America’s cheese culture,” says Valdemar Albrecht. 
“People see cheese as the perfect food. It has been eaten for a thousand years and it is easily digested, and there is something wonderful about it. As far as the cholesterol goes, you may need to have some red wine with it,” he laughs.

Are there any Scandinavian cheeses among the 250? 
“No, but we are very interested in tasting artisan cheeses from Scandinavia. I am really fond of Norwegian gjetost, which my father used to give me when I was little. I might have issues with calling it a cheese, but I really enjoyed it.”

Good cheese can also be a very personal choice. When asked about his personal favorites, Valdemar Albrecht says: “I do have a passion for many of these cheeses. They can bring memories of a happy time that I had. When I for example think of a cheese such as the Spanish Roncal, it reminds me of my grandfather, because that was the first cheese that he gave me. That cheese will always have a very special place in my heart.” He says that one of the most rewarding aspects of his job is to see the expression in the face of somebody when he has served them that special cheese they are connected to.

Hans Sandberg