American Cheeses: The Best Regional, Artisan, and Farmhouse Cheeses,

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In 1976, Clark Wolf ran a little cheese shop at the base of Nob Hill in San Francisco; in 1980 he became the manager of the San Francisco branch of the legendary Oakville Grocery. While the rest of America was on the verge of a decade of a morbid fear of butterfat, Wolf was looking for a source of local fresh mozzarella and newly devoted to the joys of rice flour-rubbed teleme and four-year-old Wisconsin cheddar. Today, we are all knee-deep in bocconcini and fresh goat cheese, and Wolf is a restaurant and food consultant. But glorious cheese, particularly American cheese, is still his passion. In American Cheeses: The Best Regional, Artisan, and Farmhouse Cheeses, Who Makes Them, and Where to Find Them, Wolf gives us an in-depth look at the art and craft of cheese across the United States, and documents in words and beautiful black-and-white photographs the story of the talented and committed women and men who create this dairy ambrosia. He shares his expertise (with a touch of attitude) on how cheese is made, how to store it, and how to serve and enjoy it. Dividing the country into sections - The Northeast and New England, The South, The Middle West, The Wild West - he explores the cheese-making communities, discussing the kind of cheeses that are specific to each of the four sections of the country and profiling dozens of the most accomplished cheesemakers, from well-known national brands to the creators of small-batch, hand-crafted rarities. Each profile lists the kinds of cheeses available and contact information for producers and farms. At the end of each regional section is a selection of delectable recipes that showcase the best cheese of that area, from A Perfect Pimento Cheese of the American South to Blue Cheese Pralines from the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan.

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About the Author:

Clark Wolf has more than 25 years of experience in the food industry and is the founder and president of Clark Wolf Company, a New-York based food and restaurant consulting firm. His clients include major hotel companies like Loews and Sheraton, venerable institutions like The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and the Guggenheim Museum, and restaurants like Smith & Wollensky and Bradley Ogden at Caesar's Palace. He is a contributing authority to Food Arts magazine, and has written for Forbes and Cook's Magazine; he was The Cheese Wizard on AOL's website, Thrive. Wolf has appeared on CNN, Food Network and CNBC. He lectures and gives seminars to chefs' associations, food professionals, cooking and food service students and industry groups from California to Paris on subjects ranging from food trends, speciality foods, retaurants and marketing to restaurant real estate and finance. Since 1996 he has served as Chair of the Advisory Committee to New York University's Department of Nutrtition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction: Learning to Taste

This is a book about cheese. I've wanted to write it since about -- oh -- October 1980, the year I helped open the Oakville Grocery in San Francisco. We had nearly everything a passionate modern cook might want: free-range chickens, organic produce, cream-top milk in bottles, hand-gathered wild mushrooms, and fresh goat cheese lovingly handmade in Sonoma, California, and as good as any in France, or anywhere.

I was hired as the cheese department manager. Then they discovered I could merchandise. That means making things look appealing in a way that made people grab and spend. I created abundance to go.

They sent me to Manhattan to see how the big-city folks did it: the late-lamented original Balducci's; the early, highly stylistic Dean & DeLuca; some major Parisian players trying to conquer the States; the ill-fated Bloomingdale's food halls. I came back and immediately reverted to my California roots. I'd grown up surrounded by orange groves, lemon blossoms, and watermelons piled on wooden racks (Dad would wait until they dipped to six cents a pound before he'd cave and buy). Night-blossoming jasmine and heady garden roses gave me an inkling as to how things from the earth might look and smell, even in the soon-to-be-awful San Fernando Valley. So mostly I put things in bushels and baskets. It seemed to work.

Two weeks after we unlocked the doors, I was doing all the buying and all the selling. Two months later, I was running the store. In my mid-twenties, I was really in a post-postgraduate course of all things good to eat and drink, and learning from some of the great talents in the food world.

In those months before we opened, while I was madly gathering my cheese collection, I'd also be chatting and tasting with a group that might, from time to time, include Alice Waters, Marion Cunningham, Ruth Reichl, and, of course, our boss, Joe Phelps. We're talking some major palates.

Once we got going, my learning took a slightly different course. Every week we'd take delivery of what could amount to dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of types of foods: jams, mustards, sauces, raw meat, truly frightening snacks, wild greens nobody could identify, hand-gathered wild mushrooms. But rarely did I have the offer of a new American-made cheese waiting on the tasting table.

We'd decided that fresh mozzarella was a must-have, but there was nothing in the Golden State resembling that magical pasta filata (pulled curd) ball I'd first seen floating in a pool of whey in the famed Formaggio Peck cheese emporium in Milan. I'll admit that the marble fountain with the carved figure of a boy spewing milky fluid up and into the carved scallop shell below may have affected my senses. But I clearly recall the nutty fragrance and tender "give"of the cheese somehow tasted of warm sunshine.

At that time I was unable to find fresh mozzarella being made out west, so I burned up the phone lines trying to have some sent from somewhere. Finally I was able to convince some poor salesperson at the Polly-O Cheese Company in Brooklyn, New York, to send me a forty-pound block of frozen cheese curd.

Up in the little apartment we'd rented as an office overlooking San Francisco on Russian Hill, we broke off bits from the massive lump of curd and dumped them into hot water. We kneaded and pulled and tried to use a wooden paddle to get a balanced, regular motion going. We achieved a sort of white rubber that bore little resemblance to mozzarella. But it taught me something. It taught me to look for benchmarks. I knew mozzarella, and this wasn't it.

Since about 1983, I've led hundreds of tastings -- cheeses, oils and vinegars, wild mushrooms, herbs and spices. I always ask people what they do first when they set about to taste something new or try something they've had before, with a focus on better understanding just what it's all about. These are professionals -- sometimes teachers, chefs, retailers, writers. Some say they sniff. Some poke and pull.

I say what they do -- what we all do -- is to quickly and unconsciously run whatever it is by our internal computer of everything we've ever tasted, loved, hated, or fantasized about eating. This visceral physical and emotional experience is universal, and it is connected to a pretty useful set of instincts, some obviously related to survival.

If a new food is vaguely reminiscent of something unhappily ingested in youth, a quick tummy turn can ensue. If it's vaguely reminiscent of a magical trip through Spain, it's something else again. And who knows what preferences we inherit at birth.

I always encourage people to be mildly aware of such reactions, while maintaining a sort of calm innocence in the experience. Don't try to be too hyperaware. Let yourself react without editing. Respond!

For most everyone who will admit it, whether or not we like a food is a quick yes or no. I like it or I don't. We can change that view and acquire a taste, but I will always fi nd it helpful to let my body lead my mind.

For me, it was cheese that led to understanding how I could keep my palate -- and my experience of food -- real, a little innocent, fresh, and deeply satisfying.

Before I worked at the Oakville Grocery, I had opened and managed a little cheese shop at the base of Nob Hill in San Francisco. Every day I lugged several hundred different kinds of well-wrapped cheeses out of the walk-in refrigerator and piled them artistically on the wooden countertop in front of two open cases of yet more, mainly international, cheeses.

I'd been quickly trained in the world and ways of cheese shop living, but I still needed every legend proffered by salesmen or customers (and some I just made up or embellished) to sell those wheels and blocks and the crackers to hold them.

I spent hours on the phone with importers and distributors trying to separate rumor from fact, marketing from history. But if it helped me tell the story of one cheese or another, helped me connect a person to a specific world of taste, it was a keeper (the story), at least until I found a better, sometimes even more authentic, tale.

I was visited every week or so by an out-of-work-Santa-looking fellow named Jim Sebastiani, who would pull up in his little refrigerated van and sell me too much gorgeous French cheese. Seduced and sold, I somehow managed to get those highly perishable treasures out the door, at a profi t, in time for his next visit.

Through it all there was precious little in the way of really good American cheeses. Being in San Francisco, we sold plenty of good Jack, "fresh or dry." We'd occasionally score some wonderful four- or five-year-old Wisconsin cheddar (that the salesman claimed had been "lost in a warehouse someplace"). There was a creamy Oregon Blue, a crumbly Wisconsin Blue, and something called New York sharp. Otherwise, what we got from the United States was mostly a collection of lower-priced, lesser-quality knockoffs we cheerfully referred to as "domestic."

I still just don't much like that word. It always makes me feel as if something has been neutered or at least tamed. "Local," "regional," "American" are all more currently appealing terms, although "domestic" is literally defined as produced in or indigenous to a particular country.

In those days, "from around here" meant that it didn't have the history or the gastronomic gravitas of European foods. We were beginning to crave those goods dripping with what seemed like depth, class, charm, and quality, even then rebelling against the postwar industrially fabricated plenty of the American market basket.

Finally, just a quarter century later, we're living in a more balanced world where we can take real pride in not just how much food we crank out, but how good it is and how connected we feel to both the foods themselves and the people who make or grow them. Homegrown, artisanal cheesemakers are bringing extraordinary cheeses to market all over the country.

James Beard is known for a lot of things, but mostly he was a master teacher of home cookery who deeply valued and regularly promoted the very good foods from every corner of this country. Against his doctor's orders, I suspect he'd be pretty thrilled by what's going on in the craft of American cheesemaking. I hope you are, too.

Copyright © 2008 by Clark Wolf

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