A scientist and a big cheese in one of Vermont's favorite industries
by Sally Johnson
From The Rutland Herald
June 19, 2005
Paul Kindstedt used to think of himself as an American cheese kind of guy ‚?? you know, the kind of cheese where every plastic-wrapped, pre-cut slice looks and tastes exactly the same because it's supposed to. Variety is not a desirable thing in the industrial cheese industry; uniformity is what sells.
Which is why even Kindstedt, 48, of Shelburne confesses to finding himself surprised at his current circumstances: Not only is he a professor of food science at the University of Vermont and co-director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, but he's also the author of a new book on artisan cheese, American Farmstead Cheese, published this month by Chelsea Green Publishing.
The subtitle of the book is "A Practical Guide to Making and Selling Artisan Cheeses," which pretty much says it all. He is now in the business of making cheeses that are as individual and eccentric as the people who produce them, cheeses with names that conjure images of herds grazing on rocky outcroppings in faraway places: Valencay, La Petite Tomme, Tarentaise, Mozzarella di Buffala and so on.
These cheeses ‚?? once rarities in the United States outside of specialty shops in major urban areas ‚?? are grouped under the umbrella of artisan cheese, which is an inexact term at best. "I think of artisan cheeses as involving a significant element of handcrafting," explains Kindstedt. "I like the idea of human interaction with the cheese process."
He didn't always see things that way. He grew up in eastern Massachusetts, where he watched the dairy farms and apple orchards turn into housing developments, much to his dismay. At the University of Vermont, he enrolled in the dairy technology program because Vermont and Massachusetts had a reciprocal agreement under which his tuition was covered. He stayed on in Burlington to get his master's degree, then moved west to Cornell for his doctorate.
Once again, fate took a hand. His mentor at Cornell, Frank Kosikowski, created the American Cheese Society in 1983, which was the beginning of artisan cheesemaking in the United States. "Kosi," as he was known, had spent years in Europe and "saw value in the traditions of cheese in the way of life there," says Kindstedt. "He also saw the potential in the back-to-the-land movement as a way of introducing traditional cheesemaking here. He was way ahead of his time."
Kindstedt, in the meantime, had jumped on the industrial cheese bandwagon in a big way. Pizza was taking off as the nation's favorite food, which meant that millions of pounds of pizza cheese were needed. "I had become interested in deconstructing the cheesemaking process," he says. "To standardize production quality requires absolute control of each step of the process. That was what interested me."
But his Cornell mentor forced him "to be involved with this group of artisan cheesemakers. I hated it. After I was recruited to come to UVM in January of 1986, I figured I was done with artisan cheese."
Wrong again. Vermont had four artisan cheesemakers at the time: Guilford Cheese, Shelburne Farms, Crowley and Orb Weaver. In March of that year, he was assigned to a research project with the now defunct Guilford Cheese Co. to see whether Brie and Camembert, those classical French cheeses, could be made in Vermont. A group of French cheesemakers brought over their equipment and their techniques to teach the Vermonters. After a week watching the Frenchmen work, Kindstedt changed his tune. "These guys were artists who had blended science into their processes," he recalls. "I was very impressed with what they were doing."
The experiment was a success, and soon, farmstead cheesemakers began to spring up here and there around the state. Nationally, the publicity was favorable, and Vermont found itself at the forefront of a national movement, with Kindstedt out in front, leading the charge.
Now, he's somewhat bemused by his own success: "It turns that I've been blessed to have them (the Vermont cheesemakers) there, pioneering. I get much more credit than I deserve. I'd be stupid not to be involved with them."
After 20 years at UVM, he now wears various hats, many of them at the same time. He teaches courses and co-directors the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, which is essentially a research program. He regularly teaches workshops for cheesemakers, who come from all over the country. He also does research on the safety of raw-milk cheeses, believing, as he does, that raw milk is essential to making certain traditional cheeses.
As all this is happening, artisan cheesemakers from other states are beginning to challenge Vermont's frontrunner status, and Kindstedt is determined to make sure that doesn't happen. Science, he says, is what will make the difference.
"Not all Vermont cheeses have been perfect," he notes candidly. "Our cheesemakers need to be gaining control of certain basic production processes through the application of science. The competition is getting much more fierce, and other states are nipping at our heels."
Sally Johnson is a Middlebury, Vermont writer.
A Cultured Man
By Kevin Foley
The View, University of Vermont
May 04, 2005
Paul Kindstedt‚??s new book, he insists, is not really ‚??his‚?Ě new book.
The professor of nutrition and food science, whose encyclopedic knowledge of cheese microbiology has made him a key resource for Vermont‚??s thriving grassroots cheese industry, sees American Farmstead Cheese: A Practical Guide to Making and Selling Artisan Cheeses as a way of giving something back to the area farmers who have sustained him with stories, funding, interesting research projects and ‚?? yes ‚?? sublime specimens of the English-style aged hard cheeses he adores.
So he is sharing author‚??s credit on the book, which will be published this month by Chelsea Green, and will give any royalties to the Vermont Cheese Council, a trade organization aimed at supporting the state‚??s cheese producers. The group‚??s members contributed three chapters, covering some of the business and practical aspects of cheese that Kindstedt says he as an academic doesn‚??t know ‚??beans‚?Ě about.
‚??There are tons of cheese books ‚?? cheese chemistry, cheese technology ‚?? but they are almost all written for industrial cheesemakers or academics. There are a few cookbooks for farmstead folks, but nothing designed for artisanal cheesemakers that provides tools and knowledge written in a way that they can actually use and understand,‚?Ě Kindstedt says. ‚??The objective was to take the complex science that I deal with in my research and put it in a format they can actually use by reducing it to what‚??s really crucial.‚?Ě
The moment for the project is ripe.
Artisanal cheese in general, and the proliferation of high-end Vermont cheeses (the state has more cheesemakers per-capita than any other) in specific, has commanded considerable media attention, including a recent New York Times feature that suggested that cheese is the new wine and shared anecdotes of professionals dropping out of careers with dreams of producing sublime goat cheese.
Affinity for fromage
All of this might create a picture of Kindstedt as a slow food romantic bewitched by traditional agriculture, and there‚??s some truth to that. But this convenient caricature neglects another facet of his professional life, one on display on a bulletin board next to his office door. He has spent much of his career deconstructing cheese, often mozzarella, for industry, honing the complex techniques necessary to get consistent product out of factories that might produce a million pounds of curd a day.
The paper titles, dozens of them, tell the story: There‚??s Kindstedt on commercial mozzarella cultures, on whiteness, on the all-important issue of ‚??chewiness.‚?Ě The farmstead cheese guru‚??s roots, it turns out, are in the factory. Mostly ‚?? his graduate mentor at Cornell, Frank Kosikowski, founded the American Cheese Society, an artisanal group, in 1983 and quickly pressed an unwilling Kindstedt into an organizing role.
‚??I thought they were nuts, that these people were hippies. I was a third-year Ph.D. student, and my idea was to take cheese and deconstruct it and recreate it in my own image, to use science to give industry the tools to tailor that cheese to a target audience, making it more uniform, standardized, everything that the American Cheese Society is against,‚?Ě he says.
Kindstedt figured he would continue with the group until Kosikowski signed off on his dissertation. Then he returned to UVM as an assistant professor (Kindstedt is an undergraduate alumnus, transferring here from the University of Chicago to study dairy technology largely because the program offered him, a Massachusetts native, in-state tuition through an exchange program) and immediately found himself ‚??sucked into‚?Ě a farmstead project.
After that, he says, his contradictory career accelerated, as he established an industry-based research program while simultaneously doing plenty of consulting for the tiny cheesemakers sprouting in Vermont. ‚??They‚??d have problems from time to time and come to me, the cheese guy at UVM. I couldn‚??t turn them away, and so I start gradually getting to know these folks and begin admiring what they‚??re doing,‚?Ě he says.
Kindstedt jokes that the split, which continues today as he pursues large-scale cheddar research, was ‚??schizophrenic,‚?Ě but in writing the book and as a leader of UVM‚??s Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese, a public-private research and education partnership, he found that his widely separated professional experiences put him in a rare and important place.
‚??It turns out that the dichotomy, straddling both worlds, has become really critical at this juncture because of regulatory issues. There‚??s this antagonism between large and small cheesemakers on either side of the spectrum ‚?? they don‚??t like each other, they don‚??t trust each other,‚?Ě he says. ‚??But you really need to have a bridge between them because of federal policy‚?¶ if artisans are going to survive, the policies need to work for them, but until recently, it‚??s been the industrial end that has the lobbyists and credibility to influence the process. So you need folks, academics, to bridge the gap.‚?Ě
Food, says Kindstedt, is memory. It‚??s culture. It‚??s symbolic. It can preserve the land ‚?? and families.
He has believed this since he spent childhood reading a neighbor‚??s handed-down issues of Vermont Life or mourned the nearby dairy farm that became a housing tract. Kindstedt, it seems, is a scientist with the sensibility of an historian ‚?? his adolescent pleasure reading was the 11 volumes of Will and Ariel Durant‚??s The Story of Civilization, and the four months of sabbatical time he spent researching the history and culture of farmstead for the book, he says, was ‚??a joy, like a vacation.‚?Ě
Asked about that history, of the 18th century rise, 19th century fall and the late 20th century rebirth of farmstead cheese, Kindstedt launches in with brio of a born teacher, riffing through a 15-minute tour of cheese-related agriculture, industry, history, economics and microbiology. Much of this material, he says, came from the book research, and he‚??s deploying it in a new class, ‚??Cheese and Culture.‚?Ě
Up next: Perhaps collaboration with an anthropologist to investigate early cheesemaking artifacts, which Kindstedt says are often misunderstood in the literature. Or maybe something on the policy side someday, since he passionately believes that small cheesemakers and farmers need creative public support. In the meantime, though, there‚??s sharing the book: a meticulous collection of information that will give artisans tools to help them hone their art and work their land.
‚??They have given me so much. They led the way and made Vermont famous for cheese beyond cheddar. In some academic circles I get credit for that, credit that I don‚??t deserve. I was there to give a little bit of help, but these people flourished, and they would have flourished without me. I helped them out bit by bit but‚?¶ I have this stature that I honestly don‚??t deserve‚?¶ That‚??s the idea of giving them the book.‚?Ě