In the early 1980’s, a wave of small independent cheese shops sprung up in the suburbs around New York City. It worked out well for those of us not in the city because traveling into Manhattan was often challenging and – as it is today – very time-consuming. Until then, we were limited to the choices at our local grocery stores, which consisted mostly of the processed, pre-packaged or generic uninspired varieties.
I had the privilege of working at The Better Cheddar Cheese Shop, one of those new, avant-garde purveyors in northern New Jersey. Located at the historic Tice Farm in Woodcliff Lake, the small shop carried cheeses that were exotic and sophisticated to our unseasoned and unrefined palates of the time.
Over time, we became rather busy and our clientele grew. We had both regular local customers as well as those from the city who were escaping for a day in the “country.” (It always seemed more like suburbia and less like “country” to me.) Richard Nixon was a frequent visitor to the farm, having settled in the area after leaving Washington, D.C.
With great enthusiasm, I learned all that I could about cheese, albeit the hard way – by tasting and talking with wholesalers. We didn’t have the books, training or internet so prevalent today. We were excited by our “large” number of imported cheeses, now paltry compared with contemporary cheese counters. On the domestic side, I remember cheddars (Wisconsin, New York and Vermont), some fresh mozzarella, feta, and assorted spreads with cheddar and cream cheese bases.
Sadly, the farm and many like it were replaced by large corporate buildings and homogeneous mini malls. Though I saw many of the small local cheese shops quietly close their doors, I never lost interest in cheese. It is always a thrilling sight and a culinary pleasure for me, whether home or abroad, to walk in to a well-stocked, knowledgeable and friendly cheese shop. It feels like home to me. When I moved to New England decades ago, I was immediately impressed by the regional, budding cheese culture. Surprisingly, it dates back to the English and Dutch settling of North America.
Today, I am especially pleased to see so many more New England cheese artisans practicing this wonderful art, which is a true labor of love. Increasing numbers of these cheese makers travel the globe learning from world renowned cheese masters and incorporating classic styles while leveraging their own unique terroir and indigenous fare. Many are winning national awards. Comparing this growing specialty cheese industry to the evolution of the US wine industry, I think we have much to look forward to as these artisans develop and refine their craft.
New England artisan and farmstead cheeses come from all six states; some producers have been doing this for years, while many are new. I applaud their efforts. Though I haven’t yet tried all the New England cheeses, I am determined to do so. Perhaps it is the locavore in me, but I feel a strong connection, an inherent sense of pride and a good deal pleasure from enjoying cheese produced in my own region of the world.
I encourage cheese lovers to sample and enjoy these creations from New England. Serve them along side your old standbys and international favorites. Ask your cheesemonger to point you toward the local and regional varieties. The more we seek out New England cheeses, the more readily available they will be.
Be sure to take advantage of local cheese offerings when you see them on restaurant menus. Remember that many of the farmstead cheeses are produced from the farm’s own herd and yields are justifiably low. Some are sold exclusively to local restaurants, but many are available retail to the general public.
Though my cheese shop in New Jersey is a fond memory, I am fortunate to benefit from the cheese purveyors and cheese artisans of New England.
-Laura Ciampa, Palaverer Too
Some favorites thus far:
Alys’s Eclipse– Carlisle Farmstead Cheese– Carlisle, MA
Ascutney Mountain– Cobb Hill Cheese– Hartland, VT
Bridgid’s Abbey, Bloomsday & Drunken Hooligan- Cato Corner Farm– Colchester, CT
Burrata with Roasted Garlic and Onion – Fiore di Nonno– Somerville, MA
Cabot Clothbound Cheddar – Cabot Creamery & Jasper Hill Farms– Greensboro, VT
Chevre– The Farmstead At Mine Brook– Charlemont, MA
Chevre– Hillman Farm– Colrain, MA
Chevre Roulé with Nutmeg & Green Peppercorns– York Hill Farm– New Sharon, ME
Classic Chevre- Seal Cove Farm– LaMoine, ME
Cremont- Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery– Websterville, VT
Crottina- Blue Ledge Farm– Salisbury, VT
Divine Providence and Atwells Gold– Narragansett Creamery, RI
Downeast Derby- State of Maine Cheese Company– Rockport, ME
Fiddlehead Tomme & Baby Swiss– Boggy Meadow Farm– Walpole, NH
Full Circle Goat Tomme– West River Creamery– Londonderry, VT
Fuzzy Wheel– Twig Farm– West Cornwall, VT
Great Hill Blue– Great Hill Dairy– Marion, MA
Green Mountain Gruyere- Blythedale Farm– Corinth, VT
Hannahbells– Shy Brothers Farm– Westport, MA
Landaff Cheese- Landaff Creamery– Landaff, NH
Maggie’s Round- Cricket Creek Farm– Williamstown, MA
Mozzarella– Mozzarella House– Everett, MA
Oma- von Trapp Farmstead– Waitsfield, VT
Organic Champlain Triple– Champlain Valley Creamery– Vergennes, VT
Salsa Jack– Pineland Farms– New Gloucester, ME
Tarentaise– Thistle Hill Farm– North Pomfret, VT
TAVA Chevre with Chive & Garlic– Sangha Farm– Ashfield, MA
Topnotch Tomme– Mt. Mansfield Creamery– Morrisville, VT