Cheese In The Raw

The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese by friend of Slow Food Jeff Roberts was published in the US this month by Chelsea Green Publishing. Here is Carlo Petrini’s specially written foreword.

The growing number of American raw milk cheeses is a perfect metaphor for the history of agrifood systems and gives us an inkling of what future scenarios might look like. This ‘Renaissance’ of cultural, productive and food diversity shows that our traditions need not be lost, and that an alternative does exist to the mass production and standardization that — for the moment at least — seem to dominate the world of food.

Nature teaches us that, luckily, every trend, be it good or bad, to some degree fosters its own opposite. This raises hopes for the future, since man cannot continue to do violence to the Earth.

The United States, a boundless nation boasting incredible diversity and biodiversity, has proved as much by creating a great variety of raw milk cheeses in a relatively short period of time, along with the surprising proliferation of its microbreweries and small-scale producers of bread, oil, vegetables, and so on.

I’ve had to use the word ‘surprising’ since, according to stereotypes, the Unites States is also, alas, the land wherein a system of hyper-concentrated, standardized, ultra-industrialized production systems has been devised and continues to multiply, causing damage to the whole world. This system needs to be scaled down and profoundly altered. But, of course, all stereotypes offer only a limited vision of life and reality.

In fact, it’s precisely from the United States that we are receiving major signals of a possible change in direction, or at least of resistance: suffice it to think of the farmers’ market phenomenon, the work of Community Supported Agriculture, and the rapid progress in the organic farming sector (at least until the day when it too turns into an industry of monocultures, intercontinental transport, and labor exploitation).

When I think that, if all cheesemakers in different parts of the world had been forced to pasteurize milk, the joyous, tasty, sustainable diversity so well described in this book would have risked disappearing, I get the shivers. All we can do is continue to fight for the right to ‘good, clean, and fair’ food.

I believe that Slow Food’s battles for the defense of raw milk cheeses — including a manifesto signed by thousands of people all over the world — have produced results. American artisan cheeses prove this, as does the huge number of raw milk cheeses that were saved or came into being in Europe after we managed to persuade the European Union not to impose over-restrictive norms on pasteurization and workshop hygiene — norms that appeared tailor-made for a depersonalized industry, virtually devoid of any sense of taste.

You only have to take a walk round ‘Cheese’ — the event starring the world’s raw milk cheeses that Slow Food organizes in Bra (Italy) every two years — to realize that the battles I’m talking about are no mere flight of fancy, and that mine aren’t idealistic declarations that don’t change the world one iota. The results are there to be seen, with the creation of economic opportunities and new food systems by producers and consumers at a local level. More sustainable systems, more and tastier products are everywhere in evidence, and on the increase.

Products should be ‘good’ in terms of flavor, ‘clean’ in terms of their sustainability, and ‘fair’ insofar as they gratify the people who make them — culturally, economically, and physically. This is the new definition of food quality; this is the only possible future. The incredible thing — though no one seems to notice it — is that such three-faceted quality is actually the result of a single intention: the defense of seasonal, local, traditional artisan food products. By moving in this direction, achieving ‘good, clean and fair’ food is virtually automatic.

It is only right therefore that my introductory comments should be a tribute to the flourishing production of American cheeses, which attract us with their taste but also stand as the symbol of a real hope for a better future, for a better quality of life — starting with the food we eat — to be shared by all.

To celebrate these cheeses, I’d like to quote the great Italian writer Italo Calvino who, in his book Palomar, poetically described the value of the diversity of artisan cheeses:

Behind every cheese there is a pasture of a different green under a different sky: meadows caked with salt that the tides of Normandy deposit every evening; meadows scented with aromas in the windy sunlight of Provence; there are different flocks, with their stablings and their transhumances; there are secret processes handed down over the centuries.

From now on we can ideally add to these images the vast expanses of America with their ‘different greens and different skies.’

Jeffrey P. Roberts, The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese
Edition: Paperback
Format: full-color photographs, illustrations, index, resource list
Pages: 7 x 10, 464 pages
ISBN: 978-1-933392-34-9
Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
Release Date: 2007-05-30

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