The fragrant, rich pungency of a washed-rind, the creamy bite of a blue, the gentle sweetness of a sheep's milk ricotta -- all are types of fabulous artisanal cheeses being produced right here in the U.S. Long overshadowed by the venerable cheeses of Europe, domestic artisanal cheeses are growing in popularity and variety. Judging by the varieties we sampled at, they well deserve the spotlight.

These cheeses have undergone a renaissance in the U.S., due in part to the increased awareness of the local food concept and the growing popularity of food media coverage such as Scripps' ( SSP - Get Report) Food Network, says Marilyn Wilkenson of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

As opposed to using a mechanized process, artisan cheeses are handcrafted and produced on a small scale. Julie McAskin of Murray's, the renowned New York cheese shop, noted a further distinction of "farmstead" cheeses -- they are sourced and produced entirely on site.

In Europe, McAskin continued, cheese making is an established tradition; channels for production and distribution have been in place for centuries, and much of production is even government-subsidized. In the U.S., however, this infrastructure and financial support is lacking, so American cheese makers must rely on their own acumen. The unexpected benefit, however, is that they are freed from the bounds of tradition and thus, more open to experimentation and innovation -- leading to some truly stunning cheeses.

A Cheese of His Own

Fiscalini Farms' San Joaquin Gold, for instance, was actually created by accident -- a "gold medal mistake," says cheese entrepreneur John Fiscalini. He was trying to follow a recipe for a Fontina cheese, but the proper infrastructure and experience with the aging process was lacking. The surprising result of the first cheese he attempted to produce, however, was a hard cheese with a perfect balance of creaminess and salty tang. It was named after California's San Joaquin Valley, where Fiscalini Farms is located, and continues to be one of their most popular cheeses. It was the hands-down favorite of staff.

Fiscalini Farms is owned by John Fiscalini, a third-generation dairy farmer, along with his mother, Marie, and two sisters, Joanne and Dolores. His grandfather started the dairy in 1914 in Modesta, Calif., and Fiscalini grew up milking the herd of 200 cows along with his father.

When he inherited the very successful dairy in 1992, Fiscalini was somewhat bothered by others' assumption that he was just being handed the family business. A desire to innovate and to set himself apart from the family tradition led him to cheese production in 2000.

He's quick to point out, however, that this desire had to be realized on a more intense scale than he ever imagined, suggesting cheese making is about as similar to running a traditional dairy farm as shipbuilding is. Rather than a natural extension of dairy farming, cheese making requires a completely diverse distribution chain and sales plan from those for liquid milk.

One benefit of cheese making vs. selling liquid milk is its profit potential. As a dairy farmer, Fiscalini's profits were at the mercy of milk price fluctuations. As a cheese maker, conversely, he has increased control over the price of the final product.

The biggest impetus for Fiscalini, however, was a sense of pride in his product. Liquid milk, he explained, is sold to a company or distributor, but what happens to it afterward is out of his control -- it may end up as milk, or butter, or another ingredient in a food product. A desire to follow and maintain the quality of the product in its entirety sparked his entry into the cheese-making business.

Today, Fiscalini Farms maintains a herd of 1,500 Holstein cows for its entire dairy operation, and about 5% to 8% of the milk is used for Fiscalini Cheeses, the separate company he owns with his three children, Laura, Alaine and Brian. To grow and survive today, cheese makers must be businessmen above all, Fiscalini maintains. "My son Brian, a junior in college, is really eager to get back to the farm," he says. "But I told him he needs to stay in school and get his MBA first."

Harsh Climate, Rich Cheese

Mateo Kehler, 34, of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vt., is another artisan, but one who defines himself as a cheese maker who farms, not a farmer who makes cheese.

Constant Bliss Is Constant Work
Part of the process at Jasper Hill

The cheeses from Jasper Hill are produced solely by him, his wife Angie, his brother, Andy, and Andy's wife Victoria. With just one additional employee, they take care of everything from raising the cows to preparing 40,000-50,000 pounds of cheese a year for transport.

The farm is located in northern Vermont, not a place known for its gentle climate. However, the land is able to successfully support their herd of 30 Ayrshire cows (a hearty Scottish breed).

Jasper Hill produced its first wheel of cheese in July 2003, and today its incredibly rich Bayley Hazen Blue variety has quickly sparked a growing contingent of devotees.

Kehler has a nontraditional background for a cheese maker. Originally from Bogota, Columbia, he and his brother moved to Vermont when he was a young boy. Before starting Jasper Hill, he worked on financial development in communities from Asia to Central and South America.

A Cow's Life
This Ayrshire enjoys classical music during the winter months in Vermont.
After some years of this, however, Kehler decided to return to Vermont and assess the economic needs of his home community. Ultimately, he was inspired to try to preserve a failing industry: The small dairy farm, once ubiquitous in New England, was disappearing. In establishing Jasper Hill Farm, Kehler has certainly succeeded in his goal of transforming a marginal piece of land into something valuable, in the form of these unique, premium cheeses that fetch a deserved high price.

For the future, Kehler spoke of scaling up the cheese production not by increasing the herd at Jasper Hill, but rather by working in cooperation with other small farms to establish an increasingly extended "microproduction" chain. In this way, the artisanal cheese-making business can expand without sacrificing quality.

Our Picks

Fiscalini Farms and Jasper Hill are just two out of hundreds of artisanal cheese makers. Visit your local cheese shop and ask for any artisanal or farmstead recommendations, or try the selection below for a good starting point. Online resources include the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, the California Milk Marketing Board or Murray's Cheese.

Cheeses tasted by include:

  • Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. Fresh Ricotta
  • Consider Bardwell Farms Mettowee
  • Marin French Cheese Co. Yellow Buck Camembert
  • Great Midwest Morel & Leek Jack Cheese
  • Three Sisters Serena
  • Carr Valley Canaria
  • Fiscalini San Joaquin Gold
  • Antigo Stravecchio Parmesan
  • Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen Blue
  • Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk
  • Gather a few different types -- and a few friends -- for a tasting of your own.

    And keep in mind the high prices -- up to about $25 a pound -- can easily be understood when you realize the skilled craftsmanship that goes into these cheeses. Trust us, they're worth it.

    To view a video take on this installment of The Good Life, click here.