I met Laura Werlin through her books, Cheese Essentials, Grilled Cheese Please and Mac n Cheese, Please. We then connected on Facebook and finally “met” at the 2013 ACS in Madison. She inspires me and fuels my cheese obsession.
Laura is a James Beard Award-Winning Author for The All American Cheese and Wine Book and her Cheese Essentials garnered her a second nomination. All six of her books, including her ground-breaking The New American Cheese ,are available at amazon.
Laura took time from her busy schedule to answer questions for my 2015 Q&A with Cheese Professional series. Her answers are thoughtful and enjoyable… I’m sure you will agree.
Briefly tell me about yourself. How did you come to cheese? When did you realize you were a cheese geek?
“As I often say, I didn’t come to cheese. Instead, it came to me. Cheese was my favorite food as a kid, as a teen, as a 20-something, and as a full-fledged adult. However, cheese wasn’t something I knew anything about. All I needed to know and cared about at the time was that I loved the stuff.
It wasn’t until I became a food writer — a career I pursued after leaving a 15-year career in television news — that I decided I wanted to explore the world of cheese, American style. That is, in 1998, my desire to write about American cheesemakers bubbled to the surface, and, well, there was no stopping me from then on.”
Where do you work and what is your job title? Describe a “typical” work day.
“I work in my home office and my job title? Well, I’m not sure I have one. That’s because quite frankly, I see no distinction between what I do and who I am. In many ways, they are one. So yes, I am an author and yes I am a cheese educator. But I’m also someone who thinks about cheese nonstop, whose world centers on it. Whether it’s because of the mere act of opening my fridge and having no small number of cheeses tumble out or because I am writing about it or eating it (or all three), or because I’m visiting a cheesemaker at their farm or maybe their urban creamery, I am focused on cheese in some way, shape or form pretty much all the time. “
Do you have a favorite cheese or type? What would be your perfect pairing with this cheese?
“I don’t have a single, favorite cheese or maybe, instead, I have too many to name. The way I look at it and always have is if I taste a cheese that has been made with good milk, care, that ideal blend of art and science, and, of course, has good flavor, chances are I’m going to love that cheese in that moment. Will it become my “desert island” cheese? Maybe or maybe not. Usually, though, the romance around a cheese is nearly as powerful for me as the aroma, appearance, and taste of the cheese itself. Of course, there are some cheeses that are more consistently great than others, and just like anyone, I tend to gravitate toward those cheeses more often when I’m entertaining or even just buying cheese for myself because I’m not always looking for surprises. Seasonal variations and even minor quality variations are fine; “wildly different” each time doesn’t work as well for me because most cheese is too expensive for that. If I’m unsure, though, I’ll ask the cheesemonger either for a taste or to buy as small a piece as they’ll sell. That way I can taste the cheese and support the cheesemaker (and ‘monger) even if in just a small way.”
“There’s no question that using raw or — not versus, in my mind — pasteurized milk makes a difference. What I’m less convinced about is that raw milk always makes a better cheese. There’s no question that some cheeses are enhanced by the use of raw milk. There’s also no question that some cheeses subjected to our 60-day law would be infinitely better if they could be made with raw milk. But two things have happened over the years that I think are worth noting.
First, because of our 60-day-for-raw-milk law, many American cheesemakers have figured out how to work with cultures to simulate the flavors they would get with raw milk in a pasteurized milk cheese. What I love about that is that lacking as our law may be, our cheesemakers have met and, in my opinion, often exceeded taste profiles in their cheeses all because they were forced to use pasteurized milk and get creative because of that. A great example of an extraordinary pasteurized milk cheese that, if made in Europe, would almost certainly be made with raw milk, is Jasper Hill Farms’s Harbison. Now maybe they’d prefer to make that cheese in its pasteurized form even if they didn’t have to — I’ve never asked them — but all I know is that they’ve worked with their special cow’s milk source for that along with the nearby spruce bark and certain cultures to create an extraordinary complex and flavorful raw milk-like cheese. Would it be better with raw milk? I don’t know. It’s likely the folks at Jasper Hill have experimented on their own and have the answer to that. But to someone who’s only tasted the “shelf version,” I can tell you it’s a cheese that certainly tastes as if it were made with raw milk.
Second, certain long-aged cheeses are actually better when made with pasteurized milk. The rancidity that can come with longer-aged cheeses may not occur, and some secondary cultures develop their flavors in the presence of pasteurized cheese as well or better. Or at least, this is what I’ve been told. I don’t make cheese, so i can’t say with 100 percent certainty. But it certainly makes sense to me.”
Should the US create a system similar to the European scheme of protecting, controlling and/or regulating specific cheeses?
“I don’t believe the U.S. should try and emulate the European system of AOC, DOC, etc. Indeed, I don’t think we could do that even if we wanted to. Perhaps in the early days of our country we could have instituted something like that. But now, it would be like trying to put the genie back in the bottle. Impossible. Most of all, American artisans of all kinds like to express their creativity in unique ways. Cheesemakers are no exception. Every farmstead cheesemaker, in particular, has unique terroir and therefore milk. Yes, they could all follow the same recipe to make a particular cheese, but what would be the point? I like the diversity of American cheeses and would hate to see that quashed. I realize this diversity makes it very hard for the consumer to figure out what cheeses to buy on any given day. But to me that’s a worthwhile trade-off for the types of cheeses that have been developed all because the cheesemakers weren’t constrained by any laws or rules affecting their creativity.”
Tell me about one of your “cheese journeys”. Was it traveling for pleasure or maybe “on the hunt” for an obscure cheese you just had to taste?
“My most amazing cheese journey took place in the Dolomites, which tower above the region in Italy known as the Alto Adige, and extend into Austria as well. This area was formerly part of Austria, so the people there speak two languages — German and Italian. Because of this, the road signs are in both languages, although because of how Austrian-influenced the region still is, the default language is actually German. In any case, I was there to learn about the wines and other agricultural products of the Alto Adige, but because I was personally interested in cheese, our amiable group leader started inquiring about cheesemakers of a certain cheese that had recently been added to the Slow Food “Ark of Taste.” The Ark honors certain foods made in the way they’ve always been made for decades if not centuries and are worth preserving because of that. Are they always the best-tasting foods? Maybe not always…
The cheese I was in search of is called Graukäse. That literally translates to “gray cheese.” Not all that enticing-sounding, right? Our fearless leader found out about a producer — a woman and her family — that lived high in the mountains above Bergamo (also known as Bozen in German), the capital of the Alto Adige. We traveled in our van up and up and up passing impossibly green fields, steep banks (i didn’t look down) and storybook cottages adorned with geranium flower boxes at each shutter-lined window. The spots of vibrant red and pink flowers lit up the mountain sky and acted as a succession of welcome mats as we ascended. We finally reached our destination — another of those cottages — where a cow lazily chewed the grass nearby and a pig slumbered uphill from the cottage.
The aroma of baking bread greeted us as we walked into the tidy home of these “mountain people.” So too did the smell of heated milk, which was no coincidence. A vat of Graukäse was underway. Luckily, our host had some already-made cheese for us to taste along with her dark brown, hearty, mountain herb-flecked bread (to this day, I have never tasted flavors like those that were in her bread). We sat around her midget table and reveled in our good fortune to be greeted with such warmth and good food. The joy for me came in the symbolism of the way cheese inevitably brings people around a table and with it, smiles, joy, and appreciation all the way around.
You wonder about the cheese itself? Well, it’s aptly named. It does have a grayish hue. It’s soft but crumbly, and, well, one of the oddest tasting cheeses I’ve ever had. The lowfat cheese (they use the cream for butter-making, and yes — the butter was spectacular) smelled like nothing I’ve ever smelled before. I can’t even assign an adjective to it. Let’s just say it’s an acquired smell and taste. But even if I didn’t love the cheese itself, it served as yet another reminder that life really is about the journey rather than the destination.”
“A non-cheesy fact about me? Is there such thing? 🙂 Well, I was on the ski team at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In case you wondered, no — there are no ski mountains anywhere close to Santa Barbara. Instead, we would drive seven hours every other weekend to June Mountain, near Mammoth, and race against other universities. Out of 55 women competitors, I came in 12th. It was not, however, because I was a good or fast skier. I was neither. Instead, because I was so scared standing at the starting gate each time, I went out of the gate as slowly as possible and skied equally slowly around the slalom gates all the way to the bottom. That meant I never fell, which in turn meant I got points for finishing each and every race. The other, better skiers inevitably fell because they pushed themselves. Ever the cautious one, I finished the runs but I’ve yet to add “racer” to my resume.”
If you could do one thing, anything, all day long, what would it be?
“Actually, I think it’s pretty much what I do. That is, my life is all cheese, all the time — writing about it, organizing logistics around it, being in touch with cheesemakers and other cheese people about this and that, buying cheese, talking to ‘mongers, eating cheese, teaching cheese. You name it. If, however, I weren’t cheesing it up, then I would definitely spend the day hiking. I try and do that two or three times each summer, and when I do, I’m exhausted but incredibly exhilarated at the same time. “
You can view Laura’s complete bio here.
My thanks to everyone participating in my 2015 Virtual Q&A with Cheese Professionals. I hope all of you, my loyal readers, are enjoying this as much as I am…
Interviews will continue throughout 2015… sometimes, they will be “stand-alone” and sometimes they will be presented as round-table discussions with several Cheese Professionals answering the same question. Those participating includeCheesemakers, ACS CCPs™, Cheesemongers and Cheese Professionals and Experts who contribute to this Wonderful World we call “Cheese”.
List of 2015 Cheese Professionals.
List of all Cheese Professionals Bios.
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