The term "American cheese" might still bring to mind those orange, processed slices, but Richard Sutton, proprietor of St. James Cheese Company (5004 Prytania St., 899-4737; www.stjamescheese.com), is excited about some new ideas emerging for domestic artisanal cheeses. He recently attended the American Cheese Society Conference (www.cheesesociety.org) in Raleigh, N.C., which featured some 1,800 varieties of domestic cheese. He served as an official judge during the event. Sutton is now stocking more American-made products at St. James, the cheese shop he and his wife Danielle opened Uptown in 2006.
What's the mood in American cheese circles these days? Is there a renaissance underway?
Sutton: To use the term "renaissance" implies a rebirth, and I don't think this was ever born. This is the birth of domestic cheese we're seeing now. There's a renaissance going on in European cheeses, but here I think it's more of an evolution with people discovering what they can do.
Are domestic cheese makers mostly working in European styles or doing something different?
S: I think a cheese maker has three choices. One is to make a Brie, for instance, and call it Brie. You're putting yourself up for comparison with every other Brie out there, but at least consumers know the name already. The second route is making something like a Brie but calling it something else; it's inspired by a traditional cheese but you're changing it. Then there's this third option: They just make it up. It's the mad scientist approach. I think that's really cool. They're exploring more and more with American cheeses, coming up with their own style and identity of what an American cheese can be.
Do you think consumers are ready to give these new cheeses a try?
S: I have never been more excited about cheese making in this country as I am with the stuff they're making now. They stand up, and I think when people try them they will be floored. If I can fulfill the demand for what people want, all the way down the line, with just domestic cheese alone, from cheese makers I know, well, that's the goal, and I feel we're almost at that point. — IAN MCNULTY