Arts & Culture

Ecologies of value

6 min read

Artisanal cheese-making carves a path both profitable and moral

In the ancient Mediterranean world, tapered ceramic jars called amphorae were used to store and transport fish, olive oil, grapes, grain, and other goods. When these containers were used for wine, Greek merchants stamped them with regional seals.

These seals were the earliest sign of what is now known as terroir, the notion that a wine or other food embodies a sense of place.

Centuries later, the French popularized the idea that the climate, soil, and topography of a place are reflected in the taste and quality of the food produced there. Hence, Burgundy or Champagne wines, named after regions in France, are expressions of terroir. Where they are produced is part of their nature.

Starting in 1919, the French codified this old idea as what is now called Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), a complex legal framework meant to guarantee a product’s regionality.

The notion of terroir has been exported around the world, said anthropologist Heather Paxson in a Harvard lecture this week (Oct. 28). The labeling widely applies to wine, tea, coffee, chocolate, and — recently — even heritage-breed pigs.

In the United States, artisan producers of wine, cheese, and other regional products would never tolerate a rigid AOC regime, she said, but they do embrace the idea of terroir. American food artisans also give the concept new meaning as a way to honor small-scale farming and “working” landscapes that have aesthetic and ecological value.

Paxson, who teaches anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is a student of how people infuse their lives with meaning, and the everyday ethical choices that come with that. She is a Radcliffe Fellow this year, writing a book on what she calls the “ecologies of value” in making American artisanal cheese.

“I know why you’re here,” said Paxson to her rainy-day audience of 90 in Radcliffe Gymnasium. That got a guilty collective laugh: At the back of the hall, arrayed on a table that smelled of fresh hay, were samples of New England artisanal cheeses.

Cheese is a dense, portable, and nutritious food that involves human arts developed over millennia. Making it, in simple terms, requires acidifying and then dehydrating milk.

Paxson called terroir “the taste of place.” It is a concept that combines both the physical realities of a location — soils, rock formations, and weather — and the “cultural know-how” that exists in a locale.

The concept depends on artisans — that is, workers who create a product by hand, in small batches, using regional foods and traditional methods. Cheese artisans, for instance, use raw milk — an ingredient that resists standard recipes and that sometimes requires adjustments.

Artisanal cheese makers create layers of value, said Paxson. One layer is intrinsic (good food, ready to sell). Another is instrumental (a product that embraces social and environmental values). A third layer is prescriptive: that is, cheese artisans represent a model of “thoughtful action” in the realm of a regional economy, she said.

With one act, making cheese, they earn a living, create meaning, and preserve the landscape. “This marks a philosophical shift for terroir,” said Paxson, and involves creating a “value-space label” for cheese, similar to fair-trade coffee.

Earlier this year, she and an MIT graduate student conducted the first social science survey of U.S. artisanal cheese operations, getting responses from 177 producers in 35 states.

Specialty cheese makers are universally well-educated, they found, and most are married, middle-aged, white, and parents. Artisanal cheese makers also work in family operations, involving at least a partnership of siblings or mother-child pairs.

To get to an American version of terroir, artisans have to “reverse engineer” the old European concept — breaking tradition down into its components, then rebuilding it. They often visit French operations, study traditional methods, and once back home adjust them to the realities of American landscapes and markets.

The adjustments are often trivial, like using cheap plastic bowls perforated with holes instead of hard-to-get traditional cheese molds. Meanwhile, European cheese makers are critical of Americanized terroir — skeptical that traditional crafts that go back 1,000 years can sink roots in a nation not even 300 years old.

But Americans are free of AOC-style strictures, said Paxson, which gives cheese artisans “free rein to create more recipes.” The culture here is less a matter of “patrimony,” she said, and more a matter of cheese as “intellectual property.”

Using a slide show, Paxson cited three small-scale cheese makers to illustrate what she called “the American way” of terroir.

David Major of Vermont Shepherd Cheese — who uses the cheap plastic bowls to mold his cheese — traveled to southern France and lived with cheese-making shepherds to learn the craft.

Anne Topham makes small-batch goat cheese at Fantome Farm, her hand-built farmstead in Wisconsin. While hand-ladling cheese, “I feel all the goats in the room,” she said, as quoted by Paxson, a spiritual notion of artisan life that “for Anne … is part of the ecology of making cheese.”

Topham completes the circle of production by selling her cheese face-to-face with customers at a regional market. This personalization of food-making characterizes American-style terroir, said Paxson, which has also made a sense of place in artisanal cheese “a coin of value.”

Mateo and Andy Kehler make artisanal cheese at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. (One of their standards is called Constant Bliss.) They tried making beer and tofu first, but to Andy it was cheese that became “his personal answer to globalization,” said Paxson.

Vermont produces only 1.4 percent of the nation’s fluid milk and can’t compete with high-volume producers like California. So artisanal cheese, with whatever marketing power the idea of terroir can summon, is a useful niche for regional producers like Jasper Hill Farm.

At the same time, Jasper Hill shows that traditional cheese making can be scaled up in an American setting, as it is in Europe — and can at the same time be an expression of cooperative values. The Kehler brothers started what they call an “artisan cheese partnership” — a $2.3 million, 22,000-square-foot cellar complex that allows 10 independent cheese makers to age their product.

Meanwhile, tourism has become part of American-style terroir. There is now a Vermont Cheese Trail map, and the Oregon Cheese Guild does something similar. “Highways, gas stations, restaurants, and motels become part of the working landscape,” said Paxson.