October 23rd, 2006
I read a post on a great blog that I recently discovered (I heart farms) and it got me thinking about these three terms, what farmers mean when they use them, and what the consumer thinks they mean when they read them on a label. The questions I encourage consumers to answer for themselves are:
What do you want these words to mean? In other words, what are you looking for when you buy cheese- specific animal husbandry practices, stewardship of the land, taste, food safety information- and why do you think one of these terms is any better than the others?
Answering these questions will do more to help you make decisions, when shopping for cheese, than any of the three unregulated terms listed above. I ask you to consider these questions because when I traveled around the country visiting cheesemakers this summer I went through the process of answering them for myself and found it incredibly valuable. I realized that there were things that bothered me a lot that had nothing to do with the volume or taste- things like the amount of petroleum it takes to get the cheese from California to New York. Not everyone wants to think about their food this much, I understand that- and I yet I would caution you against relying on any of these labels to inform your product selection.
If you think about what matters to you in cheese production, it might be less about volume and more about taste or farming philosophy. Do you want animals to be mainly out on pasture? Do you want a farm to have a strong focus on environmental stewardship? Do you want to support a small, family farm? Do you mainly care about how the cheese tastes? None of these labels answer these questions.
All three of these terms can also be used as marketing tools. I’ve included definitions below, with their sources, for each of the three terms in question and I think you’ll find that they all have holes in them. Even farmstead- the one that many of us feel great about- can be somewhat misleading because for most of us it is synonymous with bucolic and yet it can be a legitimate label on products coming from confinement dairies. Rather than relying on these labels, I encourage you to decide what is important to you and ask farmers, cheesemongers, and shopkeepers questions that will tell you what you need to know before you put your money into and your mouth around that next piece of cheese.
SPECIALTY: The Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute defines this category of cheese as,
“Specialty cheese is defined as a value-added cheese product that is of high quality and limited quantity. A cheese product can be said to be of high quality if it commands a premium price, is of exotic origin, has particular processing, design, limited supply, unusual application or use, or extraordinary packing or channel of sale. A specialty cheese type cannot have a nationwide annual volume of more than 40 million pounds.”
This term is not defined by anyone. The rise of its use is indeed similar to terms like gourmet and natural which are often used to convey a message to consumers that the product is special, small-batch, hand-made or traditional. Researchers in the state of Wisconsin’s dairy industry say that “Artisan cheeses involve more hand-work and use of traditional cheesemaking techniques”. I stopped paying attention to this word a couple years ago when I read an article on an in-flight magazine about Artisanal water- I’m sure it is partly legit but I just couldn’t go there.
The American Cheese Society defines farmstead as follows,
1. Milk from herds on the farm where the cheeses is produced
2. Care and attention given to the purity, quality, and flavor of the milk
3. Production primarily accomplished by hand
4. Natural ripening with emphasis on development of characteristic flavor and texture, without the use of shortcuts and techniques to increase yield and shelf life at the expense of quality.
5. Respect for the traditions and history of cheese making regardless of the size of the production