Over the weekend, Ed asked us to name our favorite American artisanal cheeses. As of Monday night there were almost 400 responses, a wonderful testament to the strides made in recent years by cheesemakers across the country.
In fact over the last few years, the explosion of the American artisanal cheese industry has made it quite difficult to pick just one favorite. But that is the task we were given, and that is the question I will answer. My favorite American artisanal cheese, for several reasons I'll discuss below, is Sweet Grass Dairy's Green Hill.
Green Hill is a sumptuous bloomy-rind cheese, similar to Camembert, made from pasteurized cow's milk. When young the texture is crumbly--as Janet Fletcher says, like whipped butter. As cheese gets older and the white penicillium mold ripens the cheese from the outside in, the texture loosens up and runs at room temperature. The taste is rich and buttery, with an underlying mushroomy and grassy complexity that makes you forget the cheese is pasteurized.
One of the main reasons the cheese is so good, of course, is the quality of the milk. Sweet Grass itself is actually a goat dairy, but for this cheese they purchase Jersey cow's milk from their parents who run the nearby Green Hill farm. Jersey cow's milk is relatively high in fat, which is one of the things that makes this cheese delicious. But much more important is the happy life these cows lead on Green Hill.
Desiree and Al Wehner, who run Green Hill Farm, are proponents of "rotational grazing," a system in which cows are given continual access to fresh pasture. The cows are only allowed to graze in fenced off areas, and once they have chomped the grass down to a certain length, they are moved to another area where the pasture is completely fresh. This makes for very happy cows, and also means that their milk will express the depth of flavor of the greenest, ripest grass.
These days, there are a number of farms practicing rotational grazing, and most of them are producing exceptional cheeses because of it. What makes Sweet Grass stand apart, however, is the fact that their climate in southern Georgia means they can keep the cows outside all year round. Here in the northeast cows spend winters inside, eating hay and silage. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in general cheeses made when the cows are eating grass are much tastier than when they're eating hay and silage.
Sweet Grass Dairy's Green Hill is available on the Sweet Grass website, and other fine purveyors across the country.