It may seem the most natural thing in the world to talk about cheese in Wisconsin, but not cheeses from Ireland and France and England and Italy and California. Yet there they were, available to look at, taste and discuss during a conference of the American Cheese Society held in Madison, Wis., this summer.
The society is a small but influential and growing group of people involved in making and marketing cheese, plus a smattering of consumers. As a not-for-profit organization, it cannot be political; still, it is, as one member put it, "anti-status quo."
In the world of American cheese, that means being supportive of the relative handful of craftspersons who are bucking the tide of big business and the nutrition establishment's war on fatty foods to produce handmade, natural cheeses in the European and Latin American tradition from the milk of goats and sheep as well as cows.
Little noticed until recently, Americans are making a wide variety of specialty cheeses, some of which compare in quality to Europe's best.
There are, of course, some American classics: aged Cheddars from Vermont and New York, dry Monterey Jack from California, blue from Iowa. There also are superb cheeses produced in Wisconsin that are not mass-produced. Auricchio mascarpone, Black Diamond Cheddar, Bresse Bleu goat's milk, Schneider provolone and string, Klondike feta, Roth Kaese St. Bernards and Fantome Farm boulot won prizes in the American Cheese Society's annual competition.
Industry projections forecast better growth for specialty cheeses than for the familiar so-called commodity cheeses in the years ahead. Domestic production of goat's milk cheese is climbing at a remarkable annual rate of 50 percent. Another seven of 16 categories show double-digit growth with only blue in decline. While the number of cheese shops has been shrinking, more specialty cheeses are being sold in general gourmet shops, supermarkets and restaurants.
But due to their cost, lack of awareness about them and -- ironically -- their superior richness and flavor, their toehold in the marketplace is still precarious.
Regarding richness: Despite the campaign to lower fat in the American diet, there was reluctance verging on hostility to discuss experiments in making low-fat cheese. "Any cheese with a butterfat content lower than 30 percent is not palatable," decreed one speaker.
As for flavor, there were groans in the audience when a representative of Stella, a Wisconsin cheese giant, said after tasting a magnificent Italian-made Parmigiano-Reggiano, "The American housewife does not want that much flavor in cheese."
"It's a long education process, sighed Errico Auricchio, who brought his family and several Italian cheesemakers to Wisconsin more than a decade ago. He and others agreed that more knowledgeable salespersons, in-store tastings and informational signage will help.
"It's a pivotal time for specialty cheeses," said David Grotenstein, buyer for New York City's esteemed Fairway market. "We're in the same situation American wine was in only a few years ago."
So buy and try to consider using some of your American specialty cheeses in the following recipes.
Celery and blue-cheese
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 pound tender inner ribs of celery, root end and leaves trimmed
1 teaspoon red-wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
2 tablespoons chopped celery leaves for garnish
1. Slice the celery ribs crosswise into thin half-moon shapes. Place in a large bowl.
2. In a small bowl, combine the vinegars, salt and pepper. Gradually whisk in the oil. Add the blue cheese and crush with a fork to blend.
3. Pour the dressing over the celery and toss to coat evenly. Correct seasoning and serve, garnished with chopped celery leaves.
Adapted from "Simply French," by Patricia Wells and Joel Rebuchon.
Pasta with red-pepper
% and goat-cheese cream
Makes 4 first-course servings.
2 large red bell peppers
1 1/2 cups broccoli florets
2/3 cup creme fraiche
1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large red, ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut in 1/2 -inch dice
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
8 ounces fresh angel-hair pasta or capellini
1 bunch basil leaves, cut in julienne strips
1. Roast the bell peppers over an open flame until charred. Rinse away the skin, then remove the stems, cores and seeds. Puree in a blender and reserve.
2. Bring water to a boil in a saucepan, add broccoli and cook only until crisp-tender. Drain well and reserve. (Recipe may be done ahead to this point.)
3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cover and keep at a simmer.
4. In a stainless steel mixing bowl or the top of a double boiler, combine the red-pepper puree and creme fraiche. Season with salt and pepper, add the goat cheese and heat over boiling water.
5. When ready to serve, heat the olive oil in a saute pan. Add the tomatoes and garlic and stir only until the garlic begins to color. Add the broccoli florets and allow them to heat through.
6. Uncover the pot, bring to a rolling boil and add a generous amount of salt. Cook the fresh pasta for about 3 minutes. Drain and add to the red-pepper mixture. Toss and portion among 4 heated bowls or plates. Top with broccoli mixture, garnish with basil and serve immediately.
Adapted from "Ken Frank's La Toque Cookbook."
Makes about 30 biscuits.
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
4 cups unbleached white flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
3/4 cup butter or margarine
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic or 1 teaspoon garlic powder
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/2 pound teleme cheese (Teleme is a creamy cow's milk cheese. As substitutes, use Monterey Jack or fontina.)
1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Sprinkle yeast over water.
2. In a bowl, thoroughly combine white and whole-wheat flours, margarine, baking powder and soda, salt, garlic and sugar. Stirring with a spoon, slowly add yeast water and buttermilk. Do not knead dough.
3. Transfer dough to a floured board. Sprinkle flour over the top and roll out to a 1/2 -inch thickness. Cut into biscuits and transfer to ungreased baking sheets. Use your thumb to make a dent in each biscuit. Put a grape-size scoop of cheese in each indentation.
4. Bake for about 10 minutes. Serve warm.
Note: This recipe comes from Peluso Cheese in Los Banos, Calif., which has produced Tomales Bay teleme since 1925. The cheese won the grand award at this year's conference of the American Cheese Society.