Chronicler of handcrafted American artisan cheeses and their producers, Jeffrey Roberts has been spreading the word about these surprising delicacies for over a decade, since the time he first sampled a handcrafted goat cheese at a farmers market and struck up a conversation with the local producer. On June 6 he’ll be headlining a fundraiser in Marshfield. He’s currently working on a guidebook of American craft beers.
From the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus:
Jeffrey Roberts of Montpelier claims he can drive to just about anywhere in the country and nose his way to good food. He is more interested than most people in where it came from. Who made it? Where was it grown or raised?
Once while eating at a remote roadside diner in Montana, Roberts asked if the place got its beef from the herd of cattle he could see right across the road. Well, no one knew. So an employee went to check the wrapper on some meat that was still in the cooler. Best he could tell, the restaurant bought its beef from a processor in another part of the country, and there was no telling where the animals themselves came from.
American consumers and their food sources have suffered a giant disconnect over the past 60 years, stemming from the industrialization of food production, the shift from small farms to factory-like agribusiness and the rise of convoluted global distribution schemes. Roberts’ eyes tighten as he speaks about it. But he brightens wonderfully when he talks about local artisan foods.
Some 15 years ago, on Roberts’ second day as a new resident of Vermont, a bit of reconnaissance led him to the Capitol Farmer’s Market in Montpelier. He approached a woman tending a booth offering samples of goat’s milk cheese, and he asked her, “So who made this?” The woman answered, “I made it myself. What’s it to ya?” And thus began a great friendship â€” and a budding collaboration in growing markets for artisan cheesemakers.
Over several years, Roberts gained more such friends and collaborators. Then, in a pivotal move, he helped bring 85 varieties of American handcrafted cheeses to a prestigious international exhibition called Cheese 2001 in Bra, Italy. The showcase event attracted some 60,000 neo-gastronomes and fired-up cheese tasters from around the world. Begun in the 1990s, Cheese was organized by the group called Slow Food International, which espouses the ideals of “good, clean and fair food.” This means food produced in accordance with high standards of quality and safety, and with fair profits to producers.
Until that point, Europeans had long regarded America as a kind of cheese wasteland, on the assumption that we mainly ate mass produced, gelatinous bricks of orange “cheese product” and jars of school-paste-like spreads, heavily comprising vegetable oils and unsavory chemicals that were a cheap staple of many of childhoods.
But lo, the American artisan cheeses of 2001 were revelatory to the Europeans. The U.S. entries were deemed on a par with entries from Old World countries where cheese artisanship was honed and handed down over centuries. Notably, more than a third of the cheeses showcased at Cheese 2001 came from Vermont producers.
Author photo courtesy Lizzari Photographic.