A History of Loving Cheese in the USA

Today, January 20th, is National Cheese Lover’s Day! We’re celebrating by looking back at the cheese lovers who came before us and paved the whey for our obsession today. 

The thing is, humankind has been loving cheese pretty much since we learned how to make it. There are a couple of stories about the discovery of cheese – the most well known and apocryphal is the story of a man traveling across the desert with milk in a sheep-stomach bag. After the heat of traveling and the rhythm of the camel he was riding, the milk transformed into whey and curds, which the hungry traveler devoured. While this story is questioned by historians (especially since it was suspected that humans were possibly lactose intolerant before the introduction of cheese into diets), cheesemaking can be traced back at least 4,000 years.

The manufacturing of cheese is depicted in murals in Egyptian tombs that are dated back to 2000 BCE. Jars from the First Dynasty of Egypt were found to contain cheese, dating back to 3000 BCE. Cheeses from this era were thought to be fresh cheeses, and were thought to be made through acid coagulation or through a combination of heat and acid.

(Cheesemaking according to ancient Egyptian heiroglyphics. credit: Oregon State University)

Cheesemaking became a way of life, especially in Europe, during the Middle Ages. Cheese during this period was highly regional, used as a method of bartering and taxing, and was especially important to places such as monasteries. In fact, it was the monasteries of the French and Swiss regions that developed one of the most beloved style of cheeses – the washed rind. Whether it was accidental (there is an excellent story of a drunken monk spilling his beer over an aging wheel of cheese that resulted in it’s funky exterior) or an experimental process, we came up with delicious, pungent wheels that are still enjoyed to this day. Also during the Medieval period, cheese such as Gorgonzola in the Po River Valley (897 CE), Roquefort by French monks (1070 CE), and English Cheddar (1500 CE) were developed, with their traditions continuing on to this day.

While we’ve talked plenty about cheesemaking in the Middle East and Europe, we haven’t talked much about the Americas. This mostly has to do with fact that cheesemaking simply was non-existent prior to European immigration to the Americas. Columbus brought goats on his voyages as a source of constant milk and cheese for the long voyage. The Mayflower included cheese among their supplies while crossing the Atlantic in 1620, and brought cheesemaking to the colonies as they raised livestock.

As American cheese production developed during the 18th and 19th centuries, it became clear that cheese was as regional as it was in Europe. English and Irish immigrants brought cheddar to New England, while the Swiss and Germans developed the Alpine recipes of their homeland in the Midwest (especially Wisconsin). Out on the West Coast, Spanish and Italian missionaries who had moved up and over the Mexican border brought their own style of aged goat and sheep’s milk cheeses.

It wasn’t just local farmers who were getting in on the action – inspired by his travels in Paris and Northern Italy, President Thomas Jefferson fell in love with a recipe there. For a state dinner, the President imported macaroni and Parmesan cheese. Dubbed “a pie called macaroni”, Thomas Jefferson unwittingly introduced macaroni and cheese to the American consciousness.

(above, Thomas Jefferson’s initial sketches of a pasta machine, which he would use to make the United States’ first version of macaroni and cheese. credit: Library of Congress)

But Thomas Jefferson wasn’t the only American president who enjoyed cheese. In 1835, Colonel Thomas Meacham, who was a dairy farmer from Sandy Creek, NY, made a gigantic wheel of cheddar. Four feet wide, and two feet thick, it weighted nearly 1400 lbs, and was dedicated to the current President of the United States, Andrew Jackson. But Meacham didn’t just dedicate that big block of cheese – he sent it to Jackson. When it arrived at the White House, Jackson was left wondering what exactly to do with it. It certainly didn’t help that the cheese was described, by one senator, as “an evil-smelling horror” that supposedly could be smelled from blocks away.

Jackson tried to get rid of it by handing out large chunks to friends and family, but two years later, there was still about 1200 lbs of cheese remaining. With his term almost up, Jackson sure wasn’t going to be bringing what remained of the cheese with him when he left the Oval Office. During his last public reception at the White House, Jackson opened the doors of the White House to his constituents, who swarmed the atrium. 10,000 people attacked the wheel, hacking into it with knives and walking away with sizable chunks. Jackson’s plan worked – after two hours, the entire wheel was gone, and Jackson was rid of his stinky cheddar.

(above, an illustration of Jackson’s big block of cheese, as the public attacks it with vigor. credit: Mental Floss)

Things in American cheesemaking began to change in the mid-nineteenth century, with the construction of the United States’ first cheese factory. Built in 1851 in Oneida County, New York, by a Mr. Jesse Williams. The father half of a father-son venture, Jesse’s boy wasn’t exactly the most skilled cheesemaker that had been born to the family. By buying milk from surrounding herds and pooling it to make a factory-made cheese, he covered up his son’s lack of skill, while making a bulk cheese that was affordable and less labor intensive. And like that, cheesemakers started changing to the factory style, which made them a much prettier penny than their small-scale farmhouse businesses had in the past.

The small time farmer’s cheese production slowly dwindled over the early 1900’s, but it was World War II that wiped out the regional diversity of US cheese. (The same thing, we should note, happened in Europe as well, and the war almost killed off some of our most beloved imported recipes.) Due to rationing, streamlining commodity cheeses in factories was an important wartime effort and a way of saving money while providing cheese for the nation. The cheese business was consolidated, for the sake of winning the war.

That was the state of American cheese for a good 30 years after the war – a desolate wasteland of “cheese food” and “cheese product”. Sure, we discovered that the mild, meltable processed American cheese was perfect for topping a burger or melting in a grilled cheese. But we, as a nation, missed the flavor of the Old World traditions that had been lost.

But the 1970’s birthed the artisan cheese revival! Started by women and small town farmers trying to re-establish their connection with Old World traditions, the focus began using goat and sheep’s milk instead of cow’s milk. While the yield of these cheeses was low and a more expensive product, the quality could not be denied. Cheesemakers like Laura Chenel, Vermont Creamery, and Cypress Grove had little to start with, but trained in French techniques and brought flavor back to the American cheese industry, from the ground up. Since then, the American cheesemaking scene has blown up, the artisan cheese boom giving birth to some of our favorite cheeses Bayley Hazen Blue, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, and Coupole.

 

 

Tequila and Cheese: The Perfect Pair?


This is not your ordinary cheese pairing, we realize. You’re probably wondering, “What are they thinking?!” Tequila isn’t wine. There’s no grand history of pairing cheese and tequila together. But we would never steer you wrong – the notes of tequila, from floral to caramelly sweet, make a perfect pairing to some of Murray’s most beloved cheeses. We’ve had our expert cheesemongers choose artisanal cheeses to go along with the beautifully crafted tequilas from Casa Noble to create a pairing experience unlike any other.

CrystalMurray’s Camembert

When it comes to those clean, crisp agave flavors, Crystal is the ideal Blanco tequila. Lingering beneath, there are notes of honey, buttery-sweetness, and hints of limey citrus. This well-balanced tequila is perfect with Murray’s Camembert – toasty, buttery, and lactic, it will balance out the sweet honey notes and pair with the citrusy nip of the tequila.

ReposadoBianco Sardo

After aging in a French White Oak barrel for an entire year, Reposado emerges smooth and full-bodied. The oak imparts notes of smokiness, while hints of vanilla, lemongrass, and wildflowers lingers with each taste. This sweeter, tangier version of Parmigiano Reggiano is the ideal along with that – toasty sweetness and lanolin loves the vanilla and oakiness of the tequila.

AnejoAnnelies

Aged for two full years in French White Oak barrels, Anejo develops into a complex balance of dried fruits and piquant spices. Toasted oak, butterscotch, and vanilla are the key flavors that linger on the tongue, making it a perfect pairing for our Murray’s Cavemaster Annelies. The cheese also shares flavors of butterscotch and toastiness, with the addition of a unique cocoa flavor that stands out against the aged tequila.

Single Barrel Extra AnejoGreensward & Stichelton

Aged in a slightly charred French white oak barrel that has been used for 7 generations to create tequila, the most prominent notes are vanilla, hazelnut, and chocolate. Impossibly smooth, with strong cocoa notes, we love it with the fruity bite of Stichelton. When the stronger notes of woodiness come through, that’s when we break out the Greensward – those bacony, funky notes are strong enough to match it.

JovenCornelia

A mix of young silver tequila balanced with extra aged tequila, Joven combines the sweet floral and tropical fruit notes of the young with the smooth vanilla finish of the old. Murray’s own Cavemaster Reserve Cornelia makes an interesting pair – buttery and rich with a hint of roasted peanut, it adds a savory, bold element to act with the sweetness of the Joven.

Want to learn more about tequila pairings or cheese pairings in general? Check out our upcoming classes

Make Whey For… Tete de Moine!

Sometimes, even we are surprised by how beautiful cheese can be at times. Sometimes it’s the pattern of blue veining through a wheel of Bayley Hazen Blue, or maybe speckling of dappled herbs on the outside of a round of Hudson Flower. But nothing is as visually stunning as the bounty of rosettes we make whenever we break into a wheel of Tete de Moine. 

Tete de Moine, which literally translates to “monk’s head”, dates back to 12th century, in the glorious Swiss Jura Mountains. It was developed by monks in the Bellelay monastery, who would use the cheese as a means of paying their taxes to the local government. The Bellelay abbey was founded in 1136 by Sigenarnd, the Provost of Munster Cathedral, which is now part of the Swiss Jura, and their main income came from their cheesemaking, which also helped feed their monks. While the cheese was originally known as “Bellelay Cheese” (first called that in 1570), it received the name Tete de Moine around the time of the French Revolution. The new name dates from around 1793-1799, and appears to have two separate origins:

Version one appears to be a nickname from the French Revolution as a reference to how the cheese is served by shaving directly from the wheel, revealing a ‘bald spot’ similar to the haircut the monks had. The second version refers to the fact that Jura tradition counted cheeses in the abbey per “monk’s head”, or by monk. The name, no matter what the origin, this delightful Alpline cheese has stuck around since, and was given AOP (appellation d’origine protégée) status. Currently, there are fewer than 10 cheese dairies in the Jura Mountains that are producing Tete de Moine, making it pretty rare!

But Tete de Moine came into the limelight stateside in 1982 with the invention of the girolle. The girolle, invented by Nicolas Crevoisier, is used for scraping Tete de Moine to form gorgeous rosettes of the cheese that resemble chantrerelle mushrooms – mushrooms that are known as girolle in French! Since then, Tete de Moine has become a centerpiece at parties and events. Easy to use, the girolle creates a beautiful and delicious presentation of a classic Alpine Swiss cheese. When Tete de Moine is shaved, the surface of the cheese that comes into contact with the air is increased. This helps the full, aromatic, melt-in-your-mouth taste to develop. Notes of dried fruit and toasty nuttiness become more intense, pairing well with a hearty, dry white wine.

Break out the girolle and start shaving a garden of rosettes from the Tete de Moine – you’ve never had a more beautiful cheese experience.

Make Whey For… Langres!

It’s nearly the New Year – of course, we’re planning on popping corks on a few bottles of champagne and digging into cheese plates designed by our talented expert cheesemongers. But we’re not the first people to think that cheese and champagne are perfect for each other. In fact, the creator’s of one of the Champagne regions of France designed a cheese especially to pair with their eponymous drink – Langres!

This little guy dates back to 18th century, to the little town of Haute Marne. The area has always been quite famous for its bubbly, so it’s not surprising that this cheese was often looked over for the sparkling drink. But when 1991 rolled around,  the French government knew it was time to give it the recognition it deserved – admitting it to the AOC family, this regional cheese got star-status.

Similar to our funky friend, Epoisses, the rind can be sticky and shiny, or wrinkled and white. But beneath it all, the burnished orange rind gives you an idea of just what kind of cheese this is – a little bit funky, but delightfully creamy. When you slice past that intriguing little rind, Langres is a touch on the firmer side, but it melts over the tongue with little pretense.

But that’s just how Langres can be enjoyed on its own. This little button of cheese’s claim to fame is the divot at its top. Shaped like a cup, you might have some idea of how Langres and Champagne are enjoyed together…. That’s right! Langres is traditionally enjoyed by pouring your celebratory champagne right over the tiny wheel. The top dip of the cheese is called in French the “fontaine”, which is a reference to a fountain or natural spring.

Here’s how you make your French fountain: simply cut a small slit in the middle of the wheel to allow the bubbles to transform its demure fudginess into a brioche-laden creambomb. And then pour your favorite sparkler – the classic is a touch of the Marc de Champagne – right over top. A tradition that has been lost over time, we think it’s the perfect way to start your New Year – and by that, we mean eating delicious cheese and impressing your friends and family.

Make Whey For… Stichelton!

The holidays are about bringing people together. We love to gather around with our friends and family, enjoying each other’s company. Of course, adding good food into the mix is always an added bonus. This year, we are taking a leaf out of the Brit’s book and breaking out our favorite Stilton and a bit of port. But, of course, it wouldn’t be Murray’s if we didn’t put a little twist on it – it’s time to meet Stichelton

Stilton’s greatest competition, Stichelton is the raw milk recipe of England’s most well-known blue cheese. Each wheel is made by hand, and is a spicy-sweet homage to its older brother. In fact, Stichelton is what Stilton once was – it uses Stilton’s original, raw-milk recipe, which was switched over to the pasteurized version in 1996t. Stichelton, because of its raw milk, could not be called ‘Stilton’ because of the protected designation of origin or PDO, which specified what cheeses could or couldn’t be called Stilton. But Stichelton, because of its raw milk, has a piquancy that the normal Stilton simply cannot rival. Whether it is the soft creaminess that coats the palate, or the lingering caramel sweetness that hides beneath the bite of blue, Stichelton will blow the Stilton you know out of the water.

So why Stichelton and Port? In yesteryear, this was a classic dish enjoyed during the holidays – to serve a wheel (or sometimes half a wheel) of Stilton infused with port wine. This dessert wine has always paired best with Stilton and other tangy blue cheeses, but it’s taken to a whole new level with Stichelton. It is truly a way to bring people together and will be talked about for years to come.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Pick up a wheel of Stichelton – or half a wheel, depending on how many people you’re planning on hosting. If you go for the full wheel, you’re going to have to remove the top (try and keep it as flat as possible, so you don’t have an uneven surface).
  2. Start scooping around the edge of the cheese with a spoon, creating a sort of moat with the edge of the rind and the center of the cheese remaining. Stick that cheese you scooped out to the side – you can nibble on it as you go.
  3. Through the middle of the wheel, prick the cheese from top to bottom with a thick skewer, creating a hole where you can start pouring that Port into. Put several more holes through the moat you’ve scooped.
  4. Now, grab a funnel, because it’s time to pour that Port! Pour slowly, letting the liquid flow into and irrigate the blue cheese veins.
  5. When the holes have all been filled, and if you kept the top of your cheese flat, you can pour the Port directly on top too. Fair warning: since the cheese is a bit porous, the port will start seeping out eventually – all you have to do is make sure that you serve this bad boy in a deep bowl, then wrap it in plastic wrap until it’s ready to serve. Depending on how strong you want that port to soak, you can do it anywhere from a few hours before, or two weeks before you serve that wheel.

When it’s time to roll out the Stichelton, serving it with pears and walnuts is the tradition. But feel free to try something new and exciting – maybe spread the Port-Stichelton over one of Jan’s Farmhouse Cranberry & Pistachio Crisps. Want a little bit of extra sweetness? Top each bite with a dab of Black Cherry Confit. Let everyone dig into the wheel with their own spoons, serving as they like. It’ll be both a delicious centerpiece and quite the talking point for the holidays.