Europe is hardly the only place on earth anymore where you can’t swing a baguette without hitting a cheesemaker. France, The Netherlands, and Switzerland have long since been destinations for curd aficionados, but cheese tourism is increasing broadly, with more and more artisanal production popping up in every corner of the globe where cows, sheep, or goats can graze. (Or donkeys, alpaca, moose…you get the idea.) A collective of dairies in New Zealand has even floated the term “Micro Cheesery” to mirror the microbrewery moment and draw attention to small batch processes happening there.
But you don’t need to get on a plane to participate in this phenomenon. Going, and hopefully gone soon, are the days when the words “American cheese” conjure up individually wrapped slices of that which doesn’t even actually qualify as cheese. American cheese is having a moment, evidenced by a domestic blue cheese, Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery, taking the top prize in the 2019 World Cheese Awards in Bergamot, Italy.
Cheese is made in every U.S. state, and several have such concentrated pockets of exemplary cheesemaking activity as to have given rise to cheese trails, or cheese maps, curated by dairy associations or collectives. Has there ever been a more worthy excuse for a road trip than the phrase “cheese map?” Here are six U.S. states where you can hit the road for cheese tasting and shopping and let your curd nerd flag fly.
Real California Milk has a series of ads that dig at the weather of other cheese producing states with the slogan: “Great milk comes from happy cows. Happy cows come from California.” Whether the happiness of dairy cows is actually something that can be measured remains to be seen, but good weather is a fine reason for a road trip, and great cheese is a finer one.
The California Cheese Trail includes 83 creameries up and down the state, with nine suggested loops that range in scope from 10 to 360 miles. The 15-mile Marin County loop offers the most impact for your distance, with stops at three trailblazing California creameries, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, Cowgirl Creamery, and Marin French Cheese, the longest continually operating cheese company in the United States.
Classic Cowgirl Cheese Collection, $70 on Goldbelly
If you're bound to East Coast road trips, you can still get some West Coast dairy in your life.
The Big Apple is home to the big cheese: Murray’s, one of the world’s most renowned cheesemongers. But further north, in a little pocket of New York State better known for its wines, the Finger Lakes Cheese Alliance includes 12 family farms in the space of about 40 miles all producing their own brands of cheese.
Enjoy the tang of the award winning cheese and winning personality of the goats themselves at Side Hill Acres Goat Farm, or get your raw cheese fix at Sunset View Creamery, also the site of the annual Finger Lakes Cheese Festival.
Did I mention this is also a wine region? On a series of lakes? OK, you want another reason to visit, then how about: FLX Wienery, a hot dog restaurant owned by a Master Sommelier?
If you’ve ever caught even a moment of a Green Bay Packers game, in person or televised, then you know that Wisconsin is the self-proclaimed cheese capital of the United States. Statistically, they also produce the most cheese in the U.S., so this is warranted.
But cheese production in cheesehead territory is not limited to just block cheddars or squeaky cheese curds. The state boasts over 60 artisanal production facilities, with a strong showing from Swiss immigrants producing old world styles with new world attitude (and Midwestern friendliness.)
Travel Wisconsin has compiled numerous cheese itineraries grouped by geography, and highlighting not only producers, but also markets, restaurants, and even inns where cheese lovers will delight in the hospitalicheese. (Forgive me.) Not to miss are Widmer’s Cheese Cellars for classic brick, colby, and cheddar, and Carr Valley Cheese, the winningest creamery worldwide for domestic and international tasting awards.
If you’re as obsessed with cheese as the state of Wisconsin (and me), mark your calendar: The first ever Art of Cheese Festival is coming to Madison on Aug. 14-16. The festivities promise cheese classes; a cheese bus to take you to farms and creameries; a four-course outdoor farm dinner featuring local cheeses; a cheese fair where you can pick up souvenirs; and…The Cheese Ball, with live music, performers, and food and drink.
Wisconsin Cheese Cookbook, $16.08 on Amazon
Clearly, Wisconsin's cookbooks are worth studying for further cheese inspo.
The Vermont Cheese Trail includes 53 creameries, a staggering number considering that its landmass is about 15 percent of Wisconsin’s and roughly 5 percent of California’s. But never mind the impressive quantity, because Vermont also brings the impressive quality.
Seven Vermont creameries took home awards at the World Cheese Awards in 2019, including Jasper Hill Farm, Parish Hill Creamery, Cabot Creamery, Spring Brook Farm, Grafton Village Cheese Company, Vermont Creamery, and von Trapp Farmstead. (Yes, it is a relation. Those hills are alive. The family also makes beer, so there’s lots to sing about.)
The Vermont Cheese Trail map itself is a wealth of information, including icons to delineate cow, sheep, and goat farms, as well as whether creameries are regularly open to the public or by-appointment.
Hands On Vermont Dairy Farm Tour, $15 on AirBnb
Before it was cheese...get straight to the source on a local farm tour!
The Berkshires is a rural, mountainous region located in western Massachusetts, with a bit of spillover into New York and Vermont. Topographically, it couldn’t be further from the coastal, urban metropolises of New York City and Boston. Culturally and gastronomically, it’s actually kind of close. Home to Tanglewood Music Center and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the region has become a draw for big city chefs looking for a life away from the bustle.
Among other things, this has created a hotbed of activity for artisanal food and beverage producers of all kinds, and Berkshire Farm and Table is an organization that promotes the Berkshire Cheese Trail, which includes 14 creameries and inns, as well as the Beer and Cider Trail and the Charcuterie Trail.
So definitely do all that when you’re in the area, because why wouldn’t you? As for cheese, a few stars of note are Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, a pioneer of sheep’s milk cheese in the U.S., and Cricket Creek Farm. (Try the formidable, taleggio-inspired Tobasi.)
Ricki's Basic Cheesemaking Kit, $29.95 on Amazon
From the OG cheese lady herself, you can make DIY cheese at home from cheddar to parmesan.
If you are a disciple of Portlandia and believe that the spirit of the 1890s is indeed alive there, then it will be no surprise that Oregon has been in the artisanal food game for as long as any place in the United States. The Oregon Cheese Guild provides an excellent guide for the Oregon Cheese and Food Trail, where nearly every possible style of cheese is represented in the state’s 20 featured creameries, as well as other handmade goods such as beer, chocolate, charcuterie, honey, bread, and preserves. (All of which, I might add, are excellent companions for cheese.)
In addition to the creameries, which are sorted into five geographic categories, each category highlights the region’s farmer’s markets, food destinations, and food retailers of note. Ochoa’s Queseria is a surprisingly northern stop for fresh Mexican-style cheeses, and since it’s basically otherwise sold out, you’ll want to get down to Rogue Creamery for a taste of the best cheese in the world right now. If that’s not travel-worthy, I don’t know what is.
Portland Wine and Artisan Cheese Pairing, $45 on AirBnb
If your vibe is more farm-to-table than on-the-farm.
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