One cheese wheel stands out among the others at the Food Dance Market. Jan Carpenter, the market manager, points it out first — a Capriole Farmstead O’Banon goat cheese, wrapped in dark-green chestnut leaves and twine. The leaves are arranged in a picturesque petal design, making the cheese a striking addition to the display. I spotted it right away but wouldn’t have bought it in a million years.
Carpenter says I’m not alone. Most people who come into the shop for the first time gravitate toward mozzarella, parmesan and cheddar — the varieties that are most familiar. But there’s not a cheese in the Food Dance Market that would normally be found in a grocery store, Carpenter says, because they are all handmade, domestic, artisan cheeses. The artisan cheeses all have stories behind them, and the experts at the market love to tell them.
“You cut this twine and open up the leaves, which have been soaked in bourbon, and the whole thing becomes a flower,” Carpenter says. “The bourbon-soaked leaves give the fresh goat cheese spicy vanilla flavor notes, and the bright-white mound of cheese has little veins imprinted from the leaves and slight color from the bourbon. It’s just beautiful, and it’s a great story. That’s what ends up selling the cheese.”
Artisan cheese defined
The increasing popularity of artisan cheeses is a ripple effect from the local food movement. According to national market analysts, the national artisan cheese market is a $16 billion industry that’s forecast to grow another 4 percent in the next four years as consumers continue to look for more indulgent tastes, new food experiences and local food choices.
The term “artisan cheese” is usually reserved for cheeses made by hand in small batches by skilled cheesemakers. They’re often more complex than other cheeses in their variety and taste. But be careful: The term “artisan” can be misused.
“I’ve seen cheeses that say ‘artisan’ and are produced by Kraft,” says Mattawan Artisan Creamery owner and operator Anne Cavanagh. “It’s almost like ‘natural’ — it doesn’t really have a good operating definition.”
Mattawan Artisan Creamery produces feta and chèvre cheese and handmade yogurt. Cavanagh operates the creamery with her son Steve Cavanagh, selling their cheeses and yogurts to local retailers and restaurants.
Domestic artisan cheeses made by small producers like Mattawan Creamery are an anchor at the Food Dance Market, with a selection of Michigan cheeses sold at the shop, including some from Evergreen Lane Creamery, in Fennville, and Zingerman’s Creamery, in Ann Arbor. Food Dance looks for local cheeses to support sustainable local agriculture and for artisan cheeses for their flavor.
“The flavor stands out from commodity cheese — a cheese that is mass-produced,” Carpenter says. “The producers of artisan cheeses work at the flavor of a cheese until it’s just right.
Start your artisan cheese journey
Because of its rich farmland and agricultural strength, the Midwest is a perfect place to explore artisan cheeses. Southwest Michigan has many “jumping off” points for an artisan cheese journey, including restaurants like Food Dance, Rustica, Zazios, London Grill and Old Dog Tavern, which are just a few of those that use cheese from local creameries. Many restaurants that use artisan cheeses feature a cheeseboard appetizer on their menus, allowing diners to select a variety of cheeses to sample with complementary meats, nuts, dried fruits, aioli and jams.
Artisan cheeses also can be found at local farmers’ markets and in specialty foods shops like The Cheese Lady, in Texas Township, and the People’s Food Co-op and Food Dance Market in Kalamazoo. Many shops provide samples of the artisan cheeses they offer, allowing customers to explore choices.
For a hands-on artisan cheese experience, Evergreen Lane Creamery offers a tasting room during certain times of the year, welcoming visitors to try the cheeses made on-site.
Make it yourself
It might seem that making cheese at home would be a far-fetched endeavor, but many people are learning how to make fresh cow’s milk cheese in their own kitchens.
“There’s been an increasing interest in cheesemaking in the last five or 10 years,” says Lori Evesque, education coordinator at Tillers International, a nonprofit organization based in Scotts that offers a variety of artisanal and farm-craft workshops in blacksmithing, woodworking, timber framing and cheesemaking.
“People who take our workshops leave feeling self-sufficient, independent and satisfied,” Evesque says. “Many homesteading crafts like cheesemaking are viewed as difficult or inconvenient. Here people find out it’s really not as hard as they thought.”
With a gallon of milk and a little direction, anyone can learn how to make fresh, creamy cheese and benefit from the taste of small-batch cheese, Evesque says.
“Handmade cheese is fresher, for one thing,” she says. “And you can fine-tune the flavors by adding herbs and flavorings to your taste. Not to mention, cheesemaking is a fulfilling creative outlet.”
To sign up for one of two November cheesemaking workshops, visit Tillers Inter-national online at TillersInternational.org.