Jeff Roberts

The cheese expert

October 2, 2007

An authority on the artisanal cheeses of North America, Jeff Roberts helped establish the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. As a national director for Slow Food USA, he has co-chaired several Artisan Cheeses of America events at Slow Food’s international biannual cheese conference in Bra, Italy. His first book, The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese, came out this summer.

When did you develop an affinity for artisanal and farmstead cheeses?
That goes way back, certainly to my mother’s family who were Italian-American and also to one of my uncles who had a delicatessen in Ford, New Jersey. It was always interesting to walk into his deli. I can still sort of envision some of it — the smells and all the different types of cheeses.

I just always had an interest in good food. When I was in Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I had a chance to try some wonderful cheeses. I came back and lived in Philadelphia for 25 years and almost immediately found all these great Italian delicatessens downtown.

There was also a woman with a tiny cheese store, not far from where I lived, which I’d never seen anything like. I can’t say that the cheese that this woman carried was particularly sophisticated, but in hindsight, she was carrying some very interesting handmade European cheeses, most of which have since become industrial. At the time, though, I wouldn’t have known an industrial cheese from a handmade cheese unless somebody took the time to explain it to me.

Jeff Roberts

What’s your take on the history of artisanal cheese in the U.S.?
Well, the U.S. has a very long cheese history, and I don’t mean just [the past] 100 years. English settlers who came to the Northeast brought their cheesemaking skills and the cows that they had been working with from England. So from as early as the 17th century, and the settlement at Plymouth Plantation, there’s been cheese being made in New England.

And it was all made by hand — until the 1850s, when a guy in New York state figured out how to make cheddar in a factory. That invention doomed most of the handmade cheese and small dairy creameries across the country. There were a few that hung on in places like Wisconsin, Vermont, and the oldest existing dairy, which surprisingly enough is in Petaluma, California: Marin French.

There were a handful of old dairies that existed into the mid-20th century. But after World War II, a lot of those went out of business.

Why has there been such a renaissance in artisanal cheese in the U.S.?
I never used the word “renaissance” because I had this impression that American handmade cheese was never really there. It’s just been in the last couple of years that I’ve completely changed my thinking and my language. In fact, there is an American cheesemaking renaissance that’s taken place since roughly 1970, driven to a degree by the emergence of goat cheese in the U.S.

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Prior to the 1970s, there were goat dairies [in the U.S., but] there wasn’t any goat cheesemaking going on. The goat cheese that you would see in the States was all coming from Europe. The emergence [of domestic cheesemaking from goat’s milk] in the 1970s was driven in part by changes in American attitudes about food: a greater sophistication of taste, experience in trying foods in Europe, more disposable income.

How did you research your book?
I went to every source I could get my hands on. I used the Internet a lot, but I also started the project knowing at least half of the people in the U.S. who work in raw-milk cheese. Beyond that, I had access to The American Cheese Society membership lists and lots of resources through my work with Slow Food USA. A number of dairy inspectors within various state departments of agriculture were very helpful in getting me information as well about who was licensed.

But even with all of that help, we kind of expected that we would miss a few, and that things would change once the book came out. That’s certainly been the case. Not only have there been a handful of producers that sadly went out of business [since the book was published], but a whole bunch of new ones have arrived.

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