Cheese Writer Kirstin Jackson On Our National State of Cheese

Kristin Jackson, author of the popular blog and now book It’s Not You, It’s Brie, will be in Chicago this week for a series of cheese-related events including tonight’s talk and tasting about pairings at City Winery, a signing tomorrow at Provenance in Lincoln Square and a cooking event at The Chopping Block in the same area, and Fete Chicago on Thursday. (See her schedule here.) With her book’s emphasis on enjoying today’s bounty of artisanal cheese, we asked her some questions about the state of American cheesemaking, and what to do with it when you have some.

So what’s the state of cheese in America?

The state of cheese in America is… fantastic. It’s a great time to be writing about cheese, working in the industry, or even just to be eating cheese. Not only is there more out there than ever before, there’s better artisan cheese out there. In other words, cheesemakers are really hitting their stride. They’re passionate, sharing knowledge about what works and doesn’t, and supporting each other within the community.

This is good because it means their creations are getting more tasty and complex. This equals more delicious cheese for everyone. Score. Plus, because more people are inspired by what’s out there, more people are starting to make cheese. Score again.

What do you think is an underappreciated or undiscovered part of American cheese making?

People tend to be a little less inclined to sample as many stronger smelling and tasting cheeses, like washed-rinds or blues (ones with orange rinds, pungent scents, or blue veining). I of course encourage people to keep eating what makes them happy, but, sample more strong ones here and there. Maybe drizzle them with a little honey or have them with a sweeter wine or beer pairing to start, if you’d like to take it slow and warm up to their complex flavors. These are cheeses that seem fierce at first, but after you become accustomed to their layered flavors, they’re hard to turn down.

What are the differences between the major cheese regions, like California vs. Wisconsin or Vermont?

This is a very big question! Geographically and climate-wise, some regions lend themselves to different animals- sheep are generally happier in the areas you mentioned as opposed to the humid south, for example. Can’t blame them— I wouldn’t want to wear a wool coat during a Tennessee summer either. Cows like it colder, and like to take it easy- only gentle rolling hills for them. Goats can take a much rockier terrain and varied climate.

Historically, immigration has been the biggest influence. California has more South American influenced cheese, for example, because people have brought their cheese customs from Mexico and beyond. Wisconsin is the only state in the country that still makes Limburger— the demand for this tasty number is sustained by its German-American following. And knowledge about making cheddar hit the east coast first— where Puritans who specialized in that style of cheesemaking knowledge in England, landed— and it spread west from there.

Beyond that, historically Wisconsin and Vermont have both been very well known for Alpine cheese styles and Cheddar, and California’s received a lot of attention for its goat’s milk cheeses. But as artisan cheesemaking has gained momentum, people have been breaking out of those boxes and now it’s really hard to say what’s made where specifically. I love this. Cheese boxes are made to be broken (and the cheese inside them eaten)! We now have goat’s milk goudas in Wisconsin, stinky, fudge-like washed rinds in Virginia, ooey-goey beer-washed cheeses in Vermont, and Basque inspired sheep’s milk wheels in California.

As I mentioned above, it’s a good time to be a cheese lover in the U.S.

So basically, what makes a cheese go with a particular wine? How do we figure that out?

Another big question, but here’s a cheat sheet in case your trusted winemonger isn’t around.

1. White wines are generally easier to pair with cheese than red- a red wine’s tannins and berry fruit flavors can get in the way of some rinds, molds, and strong cheese flavors. So, if you don’t know what cheese is going to be at the party and you’re responsible for bringing the bottle, grab a white wine. And lean away from heavily oaked wines— oak can overwhelm a cheese just like tannins and berries can.

2. Pick a high-acidity wine over low acidity. Cheese is rich. It likes a little zip to balance its lushness.

3. As your cheese becomes bolder, so should your wine. A spicy sheep’s milk wheel goes well with a spicy wine. A light goat cheese likes a light white.

4. When in doubt, go for bubbles (I find this is also a fabulous life motto).

Cheese Writer Kirstin Jackson On Our National State of Cheese