We can only speculate, but it seems likely that cheese was a prominent part of the first few Thanksgivings. Many of the Puritans came from dairy farming communities in England. Some historians estimate that nearly half of the settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were dairy farmers. Thus, it's probable that the early dinners featured new world interpretations of Cheddar, Wensleydale and Cheshire.
More recent Thanksgiving dinners have featured a more diverse menu when it comes to American-made cheeses. I have heard many stories from ardent cheese lovers of how some of the new American classics have turned heads at Turkey Day dinners.
Cheeses like the sweet, herbal Vermont Shepherd; the nutty, crunchy Pleasant Ridge Reserve; the fruity, biting Rogue River Blue; the citrusy, pretty Humboldt Fog; or dense, horseradishy Cabot Clothbound Cheddar—they've all turned skeptical guests into cheese enthusiasts.
Let's look at six stellar American hand-crafted cheeses that should highlight your Thanksgiving cheese plate.
1. Green Hill
When I tell people that one of the best Camembert-like cheeses comes from Georgia, they often suspect I'm talking about the former Soviet Republic. Yet, one of the best soft ripened cheeses in America is the Green Hill, from Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville, Georgia. It's full of rich vegetal flavors and biting, radicchio-like finish. It's perfect for the Thanksgiving cheese plate especially if you're featuring a white wine to go with your dinner.
2. Purple Haze
Any cheese named after a Jimi Hendrix classic has high standards, but this fresh goat's milk cheese from Cypress Grove Chevre in Arcata, California reaches, them easily. Purple Haze is light, flaky and smooth, and seasoned with fennel pollen and lavender (hence then name). The combination works perfectly to highlight the cheese's intrinsic flavors rather than obscure them (as is the case in so many cheeses with additional ingredients).
Washed rind cheeses are often what separate the true cheese aficionados from the casual fans. These are aromatic and pungent (though casual fans have been known to use less generous descriptions). Grayson, from Meadow Creek Farms in Galax, Virginia, has a messy orange rind and a dense, sweet flavor with a barnyardy finish. It's perfect for sweeter wines, or beers, and for cheese lovers it's the perfect finish to a big meal—until dessert that is.
If washed rind cheeses are polarizing agents on the cheese plate, aged goudas are the unity movement. Almost everyone can find something to like in its complex flavors, crumbly flavors and sweet, candy-like finish Yes, candy. There are elements of butterscotch and toffee among the closing notes of Marieke, a superb aged gouda made in Thorp Wisconsin. Marieke comes in seasoned varieties, but the older vintages of the plain are best. It's the perfect companion for a bone-dry white wine or any American-made India Pale Ale.
Many people still swear they don't like goat's milk cheese. Firm cheeses like Evalon usually bring them around. It's an elegantly balanced, gently sweet cheese made in a partnership between LaClare and Saxon, two dairy farms in Wisconsin, and it has none of the sour kick at the end that has turned some people off of goat's milk cheese; instead Evalon finishes gently with hints of chestnuts and mint.
6. Frere Fumant
The first time cheesemaker Karen Weinberg of 3-Corner Field Farms offered me a taste of her Frere Fumant, I politely declined. I was a big fan of her Shushan Snow, a creamy, sweet, brie-like cheese, but Frere Fumant was smoked and my palate didn't go there. Many smoked cheeses are made by pouring liquid smoke into the curds during the cheesemaking process; I'd rather eat Kraft Singles.
The next time Karen offered me Frere Fumant, I tried it just to be polite. I was glad she persisted. Frere Fumant, a firm sheep's milk cheese, is made the right way—the cheese is actually smoked—and it is full of herbal flavors, a light tinge of smoke, and a maple sweetness that may owe to the cheese coming from Shushan, a New York town that is a stone's throw from Vermont border, and a comfortable drive from Plymouth Rock.
About the author: Martin Johnson runs The Joy of Cheese, a series of informal cheese tastings that take place at four New York City bars and the 92nd Street Y. He has worked in and around cheese for 26 years, and he spends his weekend afternoons and evenings on the counter of the Bedford Cheese Shop in Brooklyn. He blogs at thejoyofcheese.wordpress.com