In 2012, I applied for a job at Fromagination, an innovative local cheese store in downtown Madison, Wisconsin that focuses on creating a relationship between local cheesemakers and Madisonian customers. Wisconsin is known for its cheese. We’ve all had a good Wisconsin cheddar, some cheese curds, maybe a little brick cheese. But, if we want a cheese that will impress a guest, most people go for something imported (and probably French); a Camembert, some Roquefort, or perhaps Tallegio.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with imported cheeses. Importing cheese is a good way to get the culinary experiences of the world without having to travel to the cheeses countries of origin. However, in the U.S., people tend to miss a lot of what this country has to offer, cheese-wise.
The French concept of terroir is the understanding that a food created in a certain region embodies some of the characteristics of that region. When you taste an artisanal cheese, you can also taste the place where it was made. I really believe that one should try to experience the terroir of the region that you are in by tasting its local delicacies. What better way is there to acquaint yourself with a place than through your taste buds?
It makes sense environmentally and economically to eat locally made cheese (cheeses that don’t have to travel have less of an environmental impact, and are generally less expensive). It also makes sense taste-wise. The closer you are to a cheese’s place of production, the better it will taste; cheeses that don’t have to travel hold up more of the delicate flavor that the farmer works to create. Supporting local cheese producers is also extremely economically important in the U.S., where artisanal cheese production is in tough competition with government subsidized industrial agriculture.
Some regions have more varieties of interesting cheeses to offer than others (ahem, Wisconsin), but there are incredible cheeses being made all over the U.S. At Fromagination, about three-quarters of the cheeses available are Wisconsin originals. One of my favorites is Pleasant Ridge Reserve made by Uplands Cheese. This nutty, buttery, Alpine-style cheese (i.e. like a gruyere) is a crowd pleaser. It’s not too strong to put off cautious cheese eaters, but still full-flavored enough that it can be paired with a good jam or a full-bodied wine.
Next time you go in to your local cheese shop, instead of asking for something with a recognizable name, try tasting a few cheeses that are made in the region of your store! When you discover something like Pleasant Ridge Reserve, your taste buds will thank you.