Although terroir is often shrouded in mystery and used in marketing copies, it is based on agricultural reality. The soil, altitude, climate and other conditions undoubtedly influence the wines that try to convey the feeling of a place.
The concept can also be applied to cheese.
Wherever cheese is made, there are local flora and fauna that influence it, both in the milk and in the ripening process, said Chris Osborne, a cheesemaker at Blackberry Farm.
As with wine, organic and agricultural methods can produce cheeses with a strong sense of place, while others can obscure their location. Terroir is not guaranteed, but it can be an indicator of how the product has been grown and produced.
Most people don’t think about agricultural processes or climate change every time they have a piece of cheese or a glass of wine. But to better understand the terroirs of what we eat and drink, maybe we should.
Just as winegrowers select the grapes on the basis of tradition and ecological and financial profitability, cheesemakers have weighed many factors when choosing the animal to be grown.
The breed of cow, sheep or goat can influence the taste of the cheese made from their milk and is expressive in the place where it has been grown.
At Saxelby’s in New York City, Cheese offers a box of quintet cheeses of different cow breeds, each made from the milk of a different cow breed: Jersey, Dutch Belt, Holstein, Frisian, Eirshire or Brauner Swiss. It illustrates the fact that cheese made from Jersey cow’s milk, which is appreciated for its cream content, tastes different from cheese made from brown Swiss cow’s milk with a high casein or milk protein content.
Certain protected designations of European cheeses stipulate that the milk must come from both species and breeds of certain animals growing in the region. The Manchego from the region of La Mancha, Spain, must be made from Manchego sheep’s milk, while the Comte from the region of Jura, France, must be made from Monbelliard or Simmental cow’s milk.
The diet of each cow, sheep and goat determines the taste of the cheese made from milk. It helps to express your terroir. A cow grazing in the meadow produces milk that tastes different from the milk she gets from a standardized diet of cereals and supplements.
We think terroir is an amorphous idea, but in reality the aroma is based on complex chemistry and microbiology. – Mateo Koehler, Jasper Hill farm.
Part of it is under the control of the cheese producers. If you breed cows in Wisconsin, they probably won’t be able to graze on fresh grass in January. In this case, hay would be preferred by most local cheese producers, but it is not always advantageous.
Osborne believes that all cheeses have a terroir, but he says that grazing animals tend to produce milk to express a sense of togetherness.
Many claim that commercially produced cheeses, such as mass-produced cheeses, are not considered terroirs.
Terroir will not be represented in products made according to industrial methods, explains Dan Belmont, a London wine and cheese professor. Wine that has not been lobotomized by excess sulfites [or] cheese that has not been pumped with preservatives and artificial ingredients is alive, has energy and can take you further. It’s a terroir to me.
One of the problems for cheese producers is how milk is processed before it becomes cheese.
You have to start with raw milk cheese because it’s the most native, says Mateo Koehler, co-founder of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont.
Raw milk is not pasteurized or heat-treated to kill potentially harmful bacteria to the level specified by the FDA. Cheese producers are allowed to use raw milk, provided that these cheeses have a minimum shelf life of 60 days.
I think we use terroir too often as a marketing concept, which means something French is more fantastic. Carlos Yescas, Oldway Cheese Coalition.
Kehler believes that pasteurization kills healthy taste buds.
The germs are the most indigenous people in the landscape, he said. They say we milk the cows, but in reality we grow germs… Pasteurization is an excuse for agricultural practices that create problematic microbial ecologies.
These shoots are very important for the production of local cheese.
We see terroir as an amorphous idea, but in reality the aroma is based on complex chemistry and microbiology, says Köhler.
In the United States, most cheeses, many of which use raw milk, are made from ready-made field crops. This could probably shadow the terroir as well.
Best terroir exposure
As with wine, talking about a terroir with cheese can let the terroir pass with cheese.
Too often I think we use terroir as a marketing concept, which means something coming from France is more fantastic, says Carlos Jescas, programme director at the Oldway Cheese Coalition, a trade organisation. Instead, the discussion about the caysterroirs should focus on cattle breeding, animal breeds and the economy where the cheese comes from, he says.
Ann Saxelby, founder/owner of the Saxon cheese producers and author of the book New Cheese Rules, agrees.
You have to take the romantic, bizarre, elusive aspects of the country – oh! Skin! Sweat! Black fruit – pay too much attention without talking to the cheesemakers about the breeds of their animals, the food they eat, the nuances of their farmland and the cheese production processes that underlie those tastes, she says.
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There are other, more pressing problems.
I think the way cheese is made, including the way animals are treated, the way the land is treated and the impact of the waves (good or bad) on the rural economy and rural ecosystems is much more important than the land, she says.