This is a nudge in the general direction of cheese. Most folks don’t need much of a nudge. But still, do you know who produces cheese in your neck of the woods. I promise that with a little investigation…very tasty investigation…you might find that there are small-batch, high quality, interesting cheeses being made very near you. But you might have to find it at a farmers market or a specialty cheese shop, or right on the farm. You do need to seek them out, because you typically will not find them at your big-ol-grocery-store. I spend a lot of time in the big-ol-grocery-store. I keep a lot of balls in the air and that means I try to make good choices in my big-ol-grocery-store and then seek out specialty items where and when I need to (and can) do so. It is a lucky day when I get to run over to Central Market and peruse each and every aisle (and visit my friend Carla). It is like going to the library or book store…a mission of joy.
One of the best reasons to go “specialty” instead of “big-ol” is when you want interesting cheeses. And Texas cheese makers are doing some great work. We have good farmers, raising great cows and sheep, and great artisans who are either making fabulous cheeses on the farm, or who are sourcing good milk to make cheeses.
This leads to a bit of semantics. When you shop for cheeses or other specialty food products off the beaten path, you will run into the words “farmstead” and “artisinal” a lot. In fact, it is hard to escape the word “artisanal” these days and my husband makes fun of me every time I utter the word. I agree with him for the most part because it has become so overused as to be almost meaningless. I tend to hate all of these foodie terms because they are very fuzzy around the edges and frankly, when Dominos and the like start using them, you know they have lost any real meaning other than for marketing. However, they do mean something, or at least they hint at something.
A farmstead cheese is theoretically made from start to finish on the farm. The cows, sheep or goats are owned, raised and milked by the same farm that makes the cheese. It is a start-to-finish operation. Artisinal is supposed to denote a product made in small-ish quantities, completely by hand. An artisanal cheese maker would seek out high quality milk elsewhere, but use great care and skill in producing the cheese.
Just how big can an operation be and still be “artisanal”? Just how mechanized can the process for cheese making be before it is no longer “artisanal”? I don’t know and I’m not particularly worried about it as long as the product is wonderful and made with extra care and attention. But, that is me. You might care very much. But note, farmstead says something about where the cheese is made. Artisinal seems to say more about how the cheese was made. So they aren’t opposed to one another, necessarily. Something could be farmstead and artisanal. Something could be farmstead, hand-made and artisanal.
It is all very confusing and I am led to believe that many people get very passionate about exactly who tries to use these words. But I don’t think there should be a litmus test for “you are too successful and big to call yourself artisanal anymore” or “you don’t remove the cherry pits by hand” and therefore you aren’t artisanal. I think success is a good thing and if you were artisanal selling 100 units a week, well, I don’t think you should lose your standing when you start employing people and selling 1,000 units a week. I think it should have to do more with care and quality, but everybody has a different opinion and there really isn’t a standard, it seems.
I don’t get too caught up in the semantics of it, though. Or rather, I’m fascinated by the semantics, but try not to get too caught up in it. Labels are a short-cut. If you look into what you are buying, which makes it more interesting anyway, they could call it mud. You know what you are eating. The same goes for “organic” in my book. There are folks who have fought the “organic” battle, gotten the certification, and live by it…and they have my utmost respect, and business. But, there are plenty of other folks who produce food using organic practices who aren’t buying into (or cannot afford) the certification process. If you, as a customer, know where your food comes from, labels don’t matter quite as much. I like to support local businesses and farms when I can, and learning about these labels and words is a good way to get in touch with what is being made in your area and how it is being made. But, if you don’t have the time to do the investigating, the labels are very important, and they should mean what they say.
(All this said, I happily admit that I still buy Velveeta for queso. One can have a foot in all camps, I think.)
I want you to know the basics of what they mean so that you can ask the right questions. And you should ask questions. Both farmstead and artisanal products will cost more. The economies of scale are not in the small cheese maker’s favor. But for the added cost, at least in my opinion, you get to ask questions. I have found that the cheese makers and cheesemongers are more than happy to entertain questions. They believe they have a superior product and want to convince you to treat cheese as a creation, not merely a commodity food. So, do your homework. Because, it is the extra care and attention to detail that justifies what is often the higher price associated with such products. If you bottle fed the calf that became the pasture raised, no-hormone, no-antibiotic cow that you have somehow kept healthy, happy and producing during our unprecedented local drought…and made that cow’s milk into an award winning cheese…you too might be inclined to charge a dollar or or so more. And, if I know these things about your effort and skill, I’ll happily spend the extra dollar.
There are places to go where you are more likely to get good answers to these questions. And, if you think your local grocer should carry some of these cheeses, or at least more interesting cheeses, it never hurts to ask.
Which leads me to this again, finally…Texas is putting out some amazing cheeses. If you live in Texas, keep reading…if not, start hunting for local cheese where you are. In every state with cows, sheep or goats, I guarantee that someone is making some great cheese.
Here are some of my recent favorites. Try them, and try some of the other cheeses from these makers. You will not always find all of these. It is a treasure hunt, frankly, even in Dallas. One place will have one of them. But one other might have one you’ve never heard of before. It is a fun hunt. I’m no cheese expert. And, there are cheese experts out there. I am simply a cheese lover and these cheeses are a great place to start.
Here are two Texas Farmstead Cheese makers:
Veldhuizen is a family operation in Dublin, Texas. Their cheddar cheeses are quite wonderful. I will work my way through the list below as I run across them in Dallas.
Offerings: Bosque Blue, Paragon Reserve, Parmesan, Texas Gold Cheddar, Jalapeno Cheddar, Redneck Cheddar, Classic Cheddar, Caraway Cheddar, and Royal Cheddar. You can also buy raw milk at the farm.
Try the Drunken Monk from Eagle Mountain. I really love it. Both they, and Veldhuizen make some very tasty cheeses. Grab them when you can and nibble on them with the confidence that these folks are truly concerned about their cows and their cheeses.
Offerings: Gouda and Trappist style cheese, including Drunken Monk
You will love the brie from Brazos Valley. It is some of the best to be had anywhere. Brazos Valley is part of the Homestead Heritage family of businesses in Elm Mott, Texas, near Waco. If you don’t know about Homestead Heritage, you should. Not only can you buy great cheese, but you can take classes on how to make it. They also have classes on woodworking, pottery, weaving, and all sorts of wonderful things. Their gift shop is great fun if you are ever passing by. I actually bought my daughter’s very first stuffed animal there…a grey wool hand-made sheep, and my bed was made by their master woodworker, Frank Strazza. We bought it as our 5th anniversary present to ourselves.
Offerings: Brie, Eden, Brazos Select, White Cheddar, Smoked Gouda, Feta, Horseradish Pecan Cheddar
Paula Lambert started something really wonderful with this company, and you will see her cheeses pop up on menus all about town. In fact, my family ate at Fearing’s just yesterday and her cheese was featured on the menu. She has some terrific offerings. It is worth going over to the store front in Deep Ellum, too, to see what they have in the case. Also, I must happily note that Paula has some of her cheeses in the big-ol-grocery-stores now. But, at one near my home, I noticed that they have prices marked for her cheeses by the pound, and the ones just next to it marked by the unit, which makes her cheese appear to be twice as costly when you are just looking at the numbers. So, don’t let the number on the case fool you. Pick up the cheese and look at the price on the cheese, not on the case.
Offerings: Mozzarella (smoked, Oaxaca, curd, and more), Mascarpone, Cream Cheese, Blanca Bianca, Caciotta (Texas version of Jack), Queso Fresco, Crème Fraiche, Deep Ellum Blue, Goat Cheeses (feta, ricotta, Fromage Blanc, Hoja Santa, and Montasio) And, FYI, I made a scalloped potato recipe for Edible Dallas & Fort Worth this Spring from the Smoked Mozzarella and it was awesome.
These are just four of my favorites, but there are many other fun cheeses to be found. Other names to look for in the cheese case: Pure Luck, Sand Creek, Latte Da, CKC Farms, On Pure Ground, Caprino Royale.
If you are not in a position to research this, or don’t have the religious fascination with food that I have, seek out a knowledgeable cheese person. In Dallas, that means Scardello, Molto Formaggio, the Park Lane Whole Foods, or Central Market on Lovers. I will happily add the Green Grocer on Greenville to the list, by the way. Scardello and Green Grocer seem to have the best selections if you are looking for a Texas Cheese. They are all good choices for general cheese advice. And many excellent cheese makers, especially the goat cheese producers, sell their cheeses at the local farmers markets, too. Don’t forget Artizone. If you don’t have time to run around picking up cheeses, they will deliver…and they carry both Scardello’s cheeses and The Mozzarella Company cheeses. If you are near Houston, I hear that Houston Dairymaids is also wonderful.