For years, as the great cheese renaissance took off, there was no magazine to unify those making the cheese or tell the serious cheese-philes where to buy it. Then in 2008, at the bottom of the worst recession in generations, Culture magazine started. I loved it but feared its future. But, thankfully, two and half years later it's thriving like the wheels of goat-gouda at your local cheese shop.
I chatted with editor Elaine Khosrova about the evolution of the magazine, as well as the present and future of small scale cheesemaking in America.
Why did you get involved with the magazine? This isn't exactly the best time for print ventures. Yes, the print world is certainly in huge flux. Print media has forever lost its monopoly on public access to information. Launching a premium magazine about cheese under these new market conditions was definitely a giant leap of faith. But we saw a great opportunity to be the voice for this rapidly growing niche industry of specialty cheese, and the past 2.5 years have proven we were right.
What were you doing before this? I've been in food publishing for more than 20 years and on staff of various national magazines. When I was introduced to Culture's founding partners Stephanie and Lassa Skinner and Kate Arding by a colleague, I had a good working knowledge of cheese but have learned so much more about the incredible challenges and hard work involved in cheesemaking. I really admire the people I meet.
Can you sum up the current state of American cheesemaking? I see many indications that it's a growing sector with robust potential. More cheese shops, expanded cheese departments in markets, more cheese vendors at farmers' markets, more competitors at the American Cheese Society competition, more cheese menus at restaurants, new cheese books, blogs, and even our magazine. All these things point to good.
How serious is the current controversy over raw milk? To a cheesemaker, very serious. Regulations could seriously curtail choices for the producer and consumer. I appreciate the necessity for food safety regulation and enforcement but believe that with modern technology and testing, we've never been in a better position to produce safe delicious raw milk cheese. It takes dedication and care, but I have great faith in the integrity of artisan cheesemakers.
What are the biggest obstacles small American cheesemakers face right now? What I hear often is consumers don't always understand why high-quality cheese costs so much compared to industrial-made cheese. After milk expenses (or animal care for farmstead producers), operating and maintaining a legal creamery, aging a cheese, and bringing it to market, many artisans cheesemakers operate on a very small margin of profit. Their price reflects the cost of handmade food. This consciousness is hard to cultivate in the store. People need to see where cheese comes from and it's my hope that our magazine is helping to do that.
Do you have a crystal ball? What do you see for American cheesemaking ten years from now? Interesting cheese—different styles of both artisan and industrial American-made cheese—will be completely mainstream in ten years. A cheeseplate at McDonalds? I imagine we'll see more and more change and market infiltration among the big producers as they try to promote their own "artisan" product lines. Unfortunately, I think the fate of real artisan cheese, ten years hence, depends much on the course of government regulations.
About the interviewer: 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