All sorts of cheesy sayings came to mind as I read The Cheese Chronicles. Oh, "The cheese stands alone," and "Big cheese," and maybe another one, "Say cheese!"
The book is intensely cheesy. In the best way. It shamed me, really. I thought I loved cheese. Never said I knew anything about it, but whoa. I'm just blown away.
Liz Thorpe overwhelms the reader with everything you ever wanted to know about cheese, and then some. I know what I like: feta, chevre, bleu, brie, gorgonzola, etc. But other than knowing that I like almost everything except for "factory cheeses," as Thorpe calls them, I knew nothing.
Thorpe is one of the growing legion of corporate refugees who traded in their dress for success duds for a chance to pursue their passions. I'm thinking of Dalia Jurgenson and Kathleen Flinn. She went into cheese because she thought it would be cool, that knowing about cheese would make her cool. Everybody likes cheese, ergo she's the most popular person at the party. Not a bad strategy. She cut her chops at Murray's, "New York's oldest and best shop for cheese since 1940."
She grounds the reader in the aspects of cheese making early on. She highlights differences between cow, sheep, and goat milk and what that means for cheese, exactly. There's pressed cheese, unpressed cheese, raw milk cheese. You get the point. This provides context for later on, when she expands her research to individual farms.
Besides chronicling her path from office drone to cheese expert, she chronicles the diverse industry of cheese making across the country. That might be overstating it a bit. What makes the industry diverse are several things: ingredients, techniques, and personality. Otherwise, you have a few select regions where cheese is produced. Vermont. Wisconsin. New York.
Around page eight-eight my eyes glazed over because this is a dense topic. I love the book. Thorpe's writing is irreverent, witty, intelligent. She's thorough. She knows her cheese.
The problem, for me, is that my palate is so limited, I can only imagine the deliciousness of the cheeses she describes. My mouth watered. I yearned for cheese. One thing that would improve the book is if samples accompanied it, so that as you read about Willow Hill's Autumn Oak, you could taste it, too. Reading her tasting notes was an exercise in frustration because my cheese quotient is low.
But then she visited the Amish. That was interesting, different. Her theory was that, perhaps, the origins of cheese making in America were based in Pennsylvania/Ohio Amish country. Then she discovered something else entirely.
There are easily two or three dozen sidebars throughout the chapters explaining answers to questions like "What's a washed curd," "How do you define good milk?" and "Why is goat cheese white?" Each chapter tackles a different kind of cheese: Sheep cheese, American cheddar, Factory cheeses, Grass-fed cheeses.
By this point, again, I'm saturated with cheese and tired of hearing about Vermont. Wisconsin. New York. Finally, about the third chapter from the end, there is it: "Down South: Grass and the business of milking."
Yay Galax, yay Climax, yay Thomasville. There are cheese makers in the Southeast. And the best thing about that is that grass fed cheeses are fabulous, according to Thorpe. You can taste the earth and grass in each morsel. Apparently cheese makers in the southeast are doing something right. Land is cheap and each cow requires about an acre of grass to produce milk regularly. The southeast's mild climate is fabulous for cheese making as well; there's no need to stable the cows, or feed them grain, or shovel manure out of your barns. The model is sustainable, which is great.
So besides the cheese samples to nibble as I read, another improvement I'd make is to add a tear-away appendix listing all the cheeses she features. Or, maybe just the farms. Because how can I remember which ones to look for at the grocery?
That brings up another problem that I have personally: My location. You read about how democratized the grocery is anymore. That all parts of the USA have access to fruits and vegetables that were never seen in stores 10, 20, 30 years ago. But the chains that serve my area mostly stock factory cheeses.
Factory cheeses: rubbery, tasteless, mass produced products. Kraft, for example.
I haven't had a chance to check out Earthfare's cheese selection, to compare it what Thorpe says is worthwhile. But I'm betting, that even Earthfare won't have the bulk of the cheeses Thorpe raved about.
Anyways, I'll also concede, that there are cheese makers in states other than those three I mentioned: Washington, Oregon, and Indiana, even.
Again, this is a fabulous book. Thorpe provides a wealth of information about cheese making today. Her stories about traveling to different regions of the USA in search of cheese are filled with depictions of lush scenery, quirky structures, and her interactions with the "locals."
And boy, she sure looks pretty on the cover posing with goats and a cheese wheel. Who else could pull that off successfully?