the culture of cheese
by stewart oksenhorn

As a healthful food, cheese hasn’t got the greatest reputation: fatty, heavy, something that fills you up without necessarily filling the “good for you” requirement. But could the problem not so much be with cheese itself, but with our relationship — that is to say, America’s relationship — with it? Is it possible that we treat it all wrong? We eat it in large quantities — think of the piles of cheese cubes offered at the typical wine-and-cheese reception — rather than nibbling it, savoring the flavor and texture.

We can practically make a meal of cheese, where maybe the most appropriate use is after the meal, substituting a cheese course for a sugary dessert. We almost certainly eat the wrong kinds — mass-produced, rubbery slabs (or, God forbid, packaged slices) of orange-yellow stuff, rather than salty, savory blue cheeses, heavenly Stiltons and tart, creamy goat’s milk cheese.

Perhaps at the bottom of the troubled relationship is where we buy it. The vast majority of cheese in America is plucked off supermarket shelves, piled there most likely by the same hands that stocked the Wonder bread and the bathroom cleansers. These cheeses have been made, packaged and stored for maximum shelf life, rather than taste. Most egregious of all, there is no one overseeing the department, someone devoted to the care and enjoyment of cheese.

Kiley — a dreadlocked, vivacious, 39-year-old music-loving Aspenite who goes by that one name — is devoting herself to the cause. Call her a relationship coach, guiding the touchy liaison between Americans and their cheese to a better space, one with less guilt and more pleasure. On Christmas Eve 2003, she opened the Cheese Shop at Specialty Foods of Aspen, an emporium that sells
carefully selected wines, jarred vegetables and oils, chocolate, and, for lunch, tantalizing panini. In her nook of the shop, Kiley pays loving attention to each wedge of cheese — how it is stored and aged, whether it fits the tastes of the buyer — serving as a link between the farm and the table.

“Every piece of cheese that goes across the counter, I hold two people in my mind: the producer who crafted that cheese the best way he could, and the consumer, who is supposed to get the cheese as the crafter intended,” says Kiley, whose cell phone message expresses concern for callers’ “cheese emergencies.” “If it’s not going across the counter to those specifications, I’m not selling it.

“For a lot of people, the fun of coming to my store is the opportunity to rediscover real cheese.”

Kiley came to cheese while working in her native Maryland for Fresh Fields, a healthconscious East Coast supermarket chain later acquired by Whole Foods. Early on, she was placed in charge of the cheese department. She left the retail business for the nutrition field, but when she returned to Fresh Fields’ cheese program less than a year later, it was with “an absolute passion for it.”

At the Cheese Shop, Kiley’s offerings skew toward Europe: some Italian varieties, some Spanish, lots of French. But as transportation costs climb, she is looking to drastically increase her supply of American, even Colorado, products.

It is not only fuel costs behind her decision. American cheeses, she says, are on a dramatic rise in quality (though recognition lags somewhat behind). “Bite for bite, there are American cheeses that are every bit as good as European,” she says. “I couldn’t have said that eight years ago. The improvement is huge. Huge!”

Ranking near the top of her list is Haystack Mountain, located near Boulder, whose goat cheese earned first prize in its category at a recent American Cheese Society competition. “In the eight years I’ve been handling them, I’ve seen the quality, the sophistication, the consistency just go up and up.”

The endeavor to stock more regional produce is more involved than simply dialing up regional cheesemakers and placing an order. Over the last year or so, two of her favorite Colorado producers, including Bingham Hill, from Fort Collins, went out of business. Kiley chalks much of that up to the high barriers for entry into cheese-making operations, including stiff FDA regulations.

The regulatory obstacles and the relative shortage of infrastructure for artisanal American cheeses have made the price of such products higher. But it is Kiley’s strongly held opinion is
that customers committed to raising the bar on the eating experience should pay extra for regional products made and sold with an extra measure of care. And they should smile as they do so.

“That is just tragic,” she says, of her two former suppliers who closed up operations. “It should be a pleasure to support these people. At [Aspen’s] Saturday Market, you pay extra for heirloom
tomatoes — you should consider it as a tax against the elimination of local and regional products. We should be happy to pay that extra cost, to bring that culture back, those foods back.

“It’s really important to get in on a grassroots level. If you don’t support these handcrafted foods, they’re not going to be there for you.”

Kiley sees the advent of a new thinking about fresh and local foods not only as a matter of enjoyment, but of health and wellbeing.

“I feel that the single most essential element in returning America to health is through the foods we eat,” she says, in a manner that isn’t preachy, but emphasizes that such concerns are on her mind daily. “Whole Foods has done a lot to reverse the tradition away from shelf-stable foods — but we have to go one step further. We’re so in pursuit of material certainty, and we sacrifice our well-being in the process. The food we eat, the way we eat it, is a way back to health for America.”

A key link in that chain are the middlemen who place the orders with regional producers, are willing to risk charging higher prices for a better product, and are committed to educating consumers that the cost is worthwhile.

“It starts with where we procure our food,” says Kiley. “People always know when I did the cheese at a party. There’s no mistaking who procured them. I joke that cheeses are like my children, and I never get tired of hearing about them.”

While proselytizing on the glory of cheese, Kiley doesn’t seem so much interested in having people eat more cheese. More important, she would like the approach to cheese be reconsidered, so that enjoyment increases, even if consumption does not.

“More than the perception of cheese as unhealthy, or marginally healthy, is the fact that we don’t really have a culture of cheeseeating,” she says, adding that Aspen is a bit ahead of most of the
country on that score. “America thinks about cheese as satiation of hunger. But you think of cheese as an after-meal course, and you see it is intended to be enjoyed for its taste, as a palate-pleaser.
If Americans reconceive of their relationship to cheese, they’ll be amazed. Instead of a saccharin-filled dessert, they’ll have a cheese plate. I’d love to see that.” •

Stewart Oksenhorn, who has been covering the valley’s cultural scene for 15 years, has always believed that daily doses of fine cheeses are essential to the good life.

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