Work in Progress
A retailer muses on the changing state of American cheese
I think I was about twenty years ago that I got up to speak at the American Cheese Society conference in San Francisco, and held up at the podium a slice of processed American cheese. Addressing the audience with my prop, I voiced a couple of predictions: two decades into the future, when they thought of American cheese, most people would no longer envision pre-sliced singles of the sort I was holding, but rather fl avorful, wellmade, interesting wheels and wedges. Furthermore, when those of us in the industry heard the word craft, we would think of skillful, hands-on production, not a multinational conglomerate cranking out processed cheese. Generally speaking, I don’t consider myself
much of a soothsayer, but I think there’s little doubt that these positive changes—and others—have been fully realized in the cheese world.
I’m reminded of this every day when I see wheels of cheese with natural rinds, amazing colors, and incredibly rich fl avors sitting on the counter of our market, Zingerman’s Delicatessen, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. While only cheese from large commercial plants was available when I was kid growing up in Chicago, today there are so many special cheeses from talented small producers in Europe and North America that we can’t even come close to carrying them all. As if that weren’t enough, we’ve also built our own creamery in town to make cheese right here in our backyard.
You may wonder why we decided to create Zingerman’s cheeses when the market is already chock-full.
As we learned from starting our own bake house back in 1992 to make artisanal breads, there’s something special about producing locally, about crafting food by hand using traditional techniques, and about being able to offer products that hadn’t previously been available in our region. That’s what drove us to start making traditional cream cheese. Although everyone knows cream cheese, the version that most people eat is essentially the equivalent of the processed American cheese I held up at the podium twenty years ago. By contrast, what we make at Zingerman’s is true to a century-old method, crafted from milk delivered to us each week from a small, family-owned dairy farm located 45 minutes from Ann Arbor. Our cream cheese is made without any mechanical extrusion, and without the addition of the industrial staples like vegetable gums, sugars, or preservatives. Its remarkable flavor is the result of the active cultures, the quality of the milk, and its low slow pasteurization. We also produce a range of fresh and gently aged goat cheeses and other, soft cow’s-milk cheese. And just this past year we added our first aged, raw-milk offering, called Great Lakes Cheshire. Aged for about three months, it’s a derivation of the Llangloffan cheese that John Loomis (our creamery managing partner and cheesemaker) learned from Leon Downey in Wales about two decades ago.
As with everything we do, we’re constantly pushing ourselves to improve the quality of our cheese, to
learn new and better ways to improve its flavor, and to care for the cheese once it’s made. With these efforts, I’d like to predict that in another twenty years, when folks from Ann Arbor travel abroad, they’ll speak with pride of our local cheeses in the same way that Normans boast of their Camembert, or like the locals from Parma enthuse about Parmesan. Let’s hope I’m right again.
Ari Weinzweig is the co-founder of Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, the first of eight different food-related operations that make up the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. Ari Weinzweig writes a bimonthly newsletter on food and has published books on olive oil, vinegar, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, as well as Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating.His latest book, due out this spring, is Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon: Stories of Pork Bellies, Hush Puppies, Rock ‘n’ Roll Music and Bacon Fat Mayonnaise.