A Traveler's Guide to American Cheese

Sep 29, 2019

If you think every month should be cheese month, well, same. But National American Cheese Month actually falls in October, and we’ll take it. 

Yes, yes...we know: The words American cheese make visions of plastic-wrapped singles dance in your head. But in reality, America’s cheeses can go rind-to-rind with any of the old-world varieties, and in many cases, ours are more varied. Because the U.S. isn’t bound by centuries-old traditions the way many European countries are, it draws inspiration from all over. We are—forgive us—just one big melting pot of cheese. A grand fondue, if you will. 

Still, some specialties are worth getting to know at the source (not least, because cheese-making regions tend to spring up in the greenest, most gorgeous of places). So celebrate this monthlong national holiday with our cheese lover's grand tour.

Vermont

Shelburne Farms

Budding turophiles (that’s Greek for cheese-lovers, or, as we like to call them, curd nerds) will want to start in Vermont, the state with the highest per-capita number of cheesemakers in the country, where cheddar is king. 

Teaching is the mission at the nonprofit Shelburne Farms, and the 120 Jersey cows (and the cheesemakers who love them) take it very seriously, as you'll find on the two-hour Sun to Cheese Tour. Your lesson includes a tasting of six types of cheddar, one of which is an American Cheese Society Award-winning 6-month-aged beauty. 

If you’re ready to get your hands dirty, book a stay at Rochester's Liberty Hill Farm—part of the farmer-owned Cabot Creamery Coop that's known primarily for its cheddars. (There are 24 different kinds, only some of which you may know from your grocery store.) The innkeepers, Bob and Beth Kennett, have an open barn-door policy, so you’re free to pet, feed or even milk their cows (with instruction, of course). The family-style meals here tend to feature Cabot dairy, and if you spot the Shaker cheese bread pudding—a spoon bread loaded with sharp Cabot cheddar—throw restraint out the barn window.

Connecticut, New York and New Jersey

Murray's Cheese

A tristate cheese tour is as varied as it is tasty. Start on an Open Barn Saturday (through Oct. 26) at Litchfield, CT's Arethusa Farm, where you can't miss the word to the wise that's emblazoned on the wall: “Every cow in this barn is a lady, please treat her as such.” And the owners, George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis, know something about ladies. For years, the pair ran Manolo Blahnik. Yes, we do mean the stiletto-happy line Carrie Bradshaw wore religiously—and no, her fish-out-of-Manhattan trip to the country is little indication of how Malkemus and Yurgatis have fared here. To taste how successful this venture has been, try any of the nine cheeses at Arethusa Farm Dairy in Bantam, CT (don't miss the English-style Arethusa Blue, which took home the top prize for blue-veined cheeses at the World Championship Cheese Contest). Better yet, have one of the cheeses melted into a crusty panino at A Mano across the street.

Of course, the city does have its advantages. One of them is the oldest cheese shop in America, Alleva Cheese. Since 1892, this charming storefront in New York's Little Italy has been dishing up super-fresh ricotta and mozzarella, both made in the back room daily. You might even run into Tony Danza, a co-owner. The comparative new kid on the cheese block, Murray's has nonetheless become a Greenwich Village icon over the last eight decades, and you'll definitely want to stop in for some samples, if not a cave tour, class or whiskey pairing (there's programming almost daily).

Just a bit uptown from here, the Union Square Greenmarket is home to another essential stop: the Valley Shepherd Creamery stand. Be prepared to fall so hard for the aged raw milk cheese, you'll want to drive to Long Valley, NJ to visit the caves. Also be prepared for some seriously punny names: More-beer, a cow’s milk cheese, recalls Morbier, a soft and slightly stinky French cheese, and Melter Skelter is similar to mild and meltable Raclette—and all are delicious, as you'll discover on the house tour.

Wisconsin

Marieke Gouda

To say this state is cheese-crazy is an understatement (see: the foam cheese wedges on sports fans' heads). Wisconsin is best-known for its cow’s milk cheeses, the most distinctive being the tangy cheese curds and extra-stinky limburger. But whatever you choose, there’s plenty to go around—Wisconsin produces a quarter of all American-made cheese.

Get an overview of cheesemaking history at the National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe, and tour a restored century-old cheese factory that still churns out 90-pound wheels of Swiss. While you’re there, stop by Baumgartner’s, the oldest cheese shop in Wisconsin that’s aged like a fine you-know-what. The signature sandwich served at the store's next-door tavern has stayed the same since opening day: Limburger (a stinky, spreadable cow’s milk cheese) on rye with red onion and optional horseradish mustard. Wisely, the kitchen serves a mint with each order.

For more delicate palates, there’s the old world-style cheese at Marieke Gouda in Thorp. Marieke Penterman and her husband Rolf, both from Holland, make many flavors of Dutch-style gouda (think bacon, black mustard and fenugreek, to name a few). This stuff melts like a dream, as you'll find at the pair's Dutchess Cafe (Dutch-ess—get it?), where even the nachos come smothered in gouda, or peer through the observation window to say hi to the cows. And be sure to snap a selfie in front of the giant fiberglass cow up front.

For an urban experience, head to Milwaukee, where you can check out one of the few city-based cheesemakers in the country, Clock Shadow Creamery. Using tank-stored fresh local milk, the creamery makes quark (a fresh cheese similar to cream cheese) and salty, snackable cheese curds. Take the tour to see how the curds are made—and of course, sample a few. 

To try out multiple local cheeses at once, head to Madison's Fromagination—ideally, on a Friday between 3 and 6pm. That's Funky Friday time, when you'll find discounted cheese boards and melty Swiss raclette, all with $5 glasses of wine.

California

Cowgirl Creamery courtesy of Visit California

The Sunshine State was—and remains—a pioneer in artisan cheesemaking, producing some of the country’s most surprising and exceptional varieties, from ripened-to-perfection goat cheeses to top-notch triple cream cow’s milk cheeses.

Start in Point Reyes, home to two of the best creameries in the state, the country, and possibly the world. First stop: Cowgirl Creamery, which sells its own artisan cow’s milk cheeses and a selection of American and European varieties in a former hay barn. Whether or not you take the shop's one-hour class (offered Fridays), don’t leave without sampling the Mt. Tam cheese. This French-style triple cream cheese is butter-rich, with just enough tanginess to keep things in check. Nearby Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company offers a walking farm tour and cheese tasting class on Fridays as well. You can also book a more extensive, tailored experience with the house “cheese concierge.” But whatever experience you choose, the must-try cheese is the original Blue. Sweet, salty and funky enough to stand up to a burger or a nice red wine, this treat alone is pilgrimage-worthy.

At Ramini Mozzarella in Tomales, don’t be alarmed by the mammoth animals you spy—they’re Italian water buffalo and they’re quite gentle. More to the point, their milk makes incredible mozzarella, creamier and tangier than the cow’s milk variety. On Saturdays, the farm runs a two-hour tour that explains everything about these gentle giants, and offers samples of the stellar house mozzarella. The animals may be much smaller (goats!) at Stepladder Ranch & Creamery in San Luis Obispo County, but the flavors are just as big, as you'll find when you bite into the standout Cabrillo, a nutty goat- and cow-milk hybrid, along with the house-grown fruit.

Pacific Northwest

Beecher's Handmade Cheese

The cool air and green pastures of the Pacific Northwest make for some happy cows, goats and sheep—and, eventually, happy cheese lovers. 

Your first stop is arguably the most iconic: Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, where the award-winning cheeses are made on-site. Gawk at the process and nibble on Flagship, a creamy yet crumbly aged cow’s milk cheese. The store also offers cheeses from other producers, none made east of the Mississippi. If you want to go more local still, head to Portland for The Wedge cheese festival on Oct. 5, when you sample from scores of area cheese producers, and more than 75 artisan food brands overall—breweries and cideries included. All proceeds go to the Oregon Cheese Guild, so you know it’s a good cause.

Cheese lovers in a rush will appreciate one rather unusual feature at Appel Farms in Ferndale, WA: the dairy drive-through, where you can buy the house-made cheese without leaving your car. Be sure and grab some of the mild, smooth gouda—the Appel family has been making it for forty years. Or linger at the cheese shop and cafe, where you should have grilled cheese curd sandwiches by the fireplace.

Another perfect spot for lingering: the tasting room at Crushpad Creamery, part of Wooldridge Creek Winery. The house cheeses, which include a fresh goat cheese that changes weekly, pair beautifully with the wines and charcuterie, also made on-site. Contemplate the imposing mountains in the distance, or—who are we kidding?—whatever cheese you want to try next.

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