The Quest for a Totally American Cheese

Move over, Camembert! Three creameries in the U.S. are developing a recipe for a unique cheese they are calling Cornerstone

Almost all American cheeses are based on European cheeses that are familiar to both producers and consumers. Not this one. (Josh Kramer)
smithsonian.com

If three artisanal cheesemakers in different states followed exactly the same recipe and procedures, would their cheeses taste any different?

That’s the foundational question for Cornerstone cheese. It’s a collaboration engineered to express the native flavors of three creameries in Connecticut, Vermont and Pennsylvania and create a new, totally original American cheese.

One of the participants is Sue Miller, a cheesemaker at Birchrun Hills Farm in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. Here, in her brand-new facility, is the next phase of artisanal cheese in the United States.

Where does cheese — milk, salt, live cultures (as in yogurt) and a coagulant called rennet — even get its flavor? At Birchrun Hills Farm, it begins in the pasture that Miller’s family has been tending for decades. Black-and-white Holsteins eat their fill of grass here and are milked back at the barn.

Miller indicates where the milk is gravity fed, down through a pipe, right into the cheesemaking vat. This is where Miller makes Cornerstone, just as the other two producers do. As each cheese ages, precise climate and environmental controls allow Miller to tailor humidity and temperature to their desired levels.

It all seems very state of the art, but we’re still on a working farm. Miller directs me to a window with a white streak across it. “A cow got out and licked the window, so I have that charm,” she jokes.

Cornerstone, which was designed in just a few years instead of evolving organically over centuries, is an outlier. Almost all American cheeses are based on European cheeses that are familiar to both producers and consumers. This tends to make the “American Originals” category at the American Cheese Society’s annual competition a bit frustrating.

In 2015, Brian Civitello, a cheesemaker at Mystic Cheese Co. in Lebanon, Connecticut, found himself venting over beers to Miller and Peter Dixon of Parish Hill Creamery in Vermont. The three had about 60 years of cheesemaking experience between them. “I suggested that the three of us — Sue, Peter and myself — come up with a cheese that we define ourselves,” says Civitello. A truly new, unique recipe would have to be simple, stripping cheese down to its essential elements. The cheese would show off the unique taste that is indigenous to each creamery. Civitello and Dixon, who had both consulted in countries with centuries of cheesemaking tradition, including Albania and Macedonia, realized they knew exactly how to do it.

Dixon and his wife, Rachel Schaal, quickly came up with a few guidelines and the name “Cornerstone.” The rules: raw milk from one herd of cows, with salt produced traditionally and as locally as possible, minimally processed animal rennet and — the crucial element — fresh starter cultures produced from the same herd’s milk.

To get started, Miller and Mark Gillman of Cato Corner Farm — brought in when Civitello was sidelined by expansion plans — would have to learn how to make their own starter cultures. Like nearly every cheesemaker in the United States, they were used to buying freeze-dried cultures from large chemical corporations like DuPont. With a little practice and troubleshooting, both began to warm clean, raw milk overnight until it set.

This is a common practice in Europe, even on an industrial scale, and some well-known staples like Parmigiano-Reggiano require it. “Freeze-dried cultures are awfully convenient and easy,” says Gillman. But they are a recent development, he says. “It’s remarkable to me that this is how everybody made cheese until 40 years ago and now very few people do,” he says.

Now, the Cornerstoners say, there are fewer high-quality commercial starter cultures available. Besides assisting in Cornerstone’s hyperlocal recipe, the homemade cultures bring a new level of independence and self-sufficiency to the producers.

“Because we were all doing it together,” says Rachel Schaal at Parish Hill Creamery, “there is this sense of community and collegiality, where we can talk to one another, face problems and figure out solutions together.”

Trying to get the consumer’s attention in a crowded marketplace is also a factor. “You look at wild-ripened beers and the success those have had,” says Gillman. “People are looking for unique and original.”

If Cornerstone takes off, its creators plan to greatly expand the project. “In 10 years, it would be rad to have 20 cheesemakers all making Cornerstone,” says Schaal. The group even plans to allow Cornerstone to be made with milk from other animals and heritage breeds of cow like Ayrshire. At the same time, they’re somewhat wary of unrestricted growth. The group is still considering production limits and how best to assess prospective producers.

For now, at least, it’s still only three creameries. Each is now producing finished “stones” and cracking them open to taste. One opportunity was at the 2018 American Cheese Society (ACS) meeting in Pittsburgh. Many attendees tasted the stones and enjoyed them but found it difficult to compare them. Just the fact that they were very different ages when cut made it hard to assess them. Besides, Cornerstone is so new and without context that no one knows what it’s supposed to taste like.

I’ve had my own opportunity to compare them. Each version has a distinct rind, smell and flavor, but they all have a common sweetness and richness. It’s almost like comparing the flavors of honeycomb, sweet corn and sugar beets.

Since October, Dennis D’Amico, an assistant professor in the department of animal science at the University of Connecticut, has been analyzing microbe samples from each Cornerstone producer. Soon, he will be comparing them with results from a professional tasting panel. The results should help set a microbiotic and flavor baseline for Cornerstone.

Very soon, you may get your own chance to compare stones. Civitello expects to begin making Cornerstone as soon as February, with aged stones that may be ready for the next ACS meeting in August. Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm will also begin making the cheese at her new facility.

The project may even begin to expand by the summer of 2019. “There are half a dozen people who are chomping at the bit,” says Schaal. “Really, we want to get through this year of study,” says Miller. “This is just the beginning."

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