Cheese is an ancient product, and a solution to an age-old problem: milk is perishable. Legend has it cheesemaking was discovered by a herdsman carrying milk in a bag made from an animal’s stomach. The beneficial yeasts and bacteria that ripen cheese already exist in the air, and on this hot day these bacteria--combined with agitation from the herdsman walking and some residual rennet from his stomach-lining bag--performed a miracle. The milk coagulated and separated into curds and whey. And cheese made its humble debut. As folks gradually learned to control this process, every region, town, and monastery had its cheese--adapted over centuries to climates and cultures.
Immigrants to the United States brought cheesemaking traditions with them and also created a few new varieties, like Colby, brick, and dry Jack. Industrial-scale cheesemaking followed when associated dairies were created in the 1800s and American farmers began to pool their milk. The same efficient impulse that brought us cars also brought us reliable cheese: wholesome, inexpensive, and available to all.
Many European cheesemakers joined the industrial trend when rebuilding after World War II. Traditional cheesemaking was far from lost; but the great artisan cheeses were not to be found in U.S. markets, having been replaced by their industrialized, pasteurized counterparts.
Then people began to travel again. And they discovered one very important thing: traditional cheese has amazing flavor. It tastes grassy, nutty, sweet, or pungent. It feels wonderful in your mouth. It is an experience.
These days, many dairies have taken a great leap backward and have learned or reinvigorated traditional methods wherein cheese is made by hand--daily and seasonally--on the farm where animals graze. The new cheesemakers choose breeds of sheep, goats, and cows for the quality of their milk. Feed is carefully selected and cheese is made only when the animals are producing top-quality milk.
As appreciation grows for unique, local cheese, we find in nearly every region someone is making cheese the old-fashioned way. The bad news is small batches--no matter how superb--may never make it beyond a farmers' market (a great incentive to support your local producers). The good news is nearly every grocery now stocks some European cheese and many shops and online retailers are building extensive collections of locally crafted cheese.
We have a delightful new dilemma: where to start? You're going to love the answer. It's easy. Put on your sense of adventure, and go taste cheese.