Demand is on the rise for artisan cheeses

Ring in a new year and (unofficially) a new decade with an ancient foodstuff. Celebrate with cheese.

More and more people are getting turned on to cheese. Cheesemakers are popping up around the country. New cheese books are being published seemingly every week. The first consumer cheese magazine, a quarterly called Culture, debuted a year ago. And shoppers can increasingly find and buy all sorts of cheese at area farmers markets and in ambitious cheese stores and even the dairy and deli cases of their local supermarkets.

Clark Wolf, the author of “American Cheese,” said people turn to ages-old basics when life gets complicated. That’s why cheese, particularly American-made cheese, is surging in popularity during these hard economic times.

“We re-entered the macaroni-and-cheese economy in a good way,” he said. “There’s nothing kitschy about this stuff. It’s heartfelt and real. They’re using ancient wisdom and new ways, and that’s just good.”

Consumer demand is fueling the boom in the American artisan cheese production, said Jeanne Carpenter, founder of Wisconsin Cheese Originals in Madison, Wis., which spreads the word about new cheeses and their makers.

Only 20 of the state’s dairies produced a specialty cheese in 2004, she said. Now 88 of 127 cheese plants are making at least one type of specialty cheese.

“Many cheesemakers are developing innovative American originals, which are rivaling the great European cheeses in flavor, quality and popularity,” Carpenter said.

Yet this burgeoning supplycan be daunting to the average consumer. Here are some ways to grapple with the choices.

“View it as an adventure,” Carpenter said. “Visit a cut-to-order cheese shop so you can taste any cheese before you buy it. If you’re not sure where to begin, tell the cheesemonger some of your favorite foods. This will give him or her a direction for your palate, and you can start with flavor profiles you know you’ll like.”

Be willing to go outside your comfort zone, she added. “You may discover a new favorite.”

While artisan, locally made cheeses are the rage, Elaine Khosrova, the editor of Culture magazine, said don’t give a cold shoulder to cheese made by big companies. “Just because they’re big doesn’t mean they aren’t high quality,” she said.

Conversely, just because a cheesemaker is small doesn’t guarantee the cheese will be delicious. “You have to taste your way around,” Khosrova said.

When you do bring the cheese home, take steps to make it accessible to guests.

Allison Hooper, co-founder of the Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery in Websterville, Vt., said some cheese boards can look scary all festooned with big hunks of cheese that people are reluctant to cut into.

“Get a cheese started,” said Hooper. “I think it’s OK to cut up some of the cheese so it’s a little more inviting.”

And don’t put out too much.

“Even for a party of 15 people, two signature cheeses are plenty,” Khosrova said. “Go for something special.”

These days, that’s easier to do than ever.