The U.S. Cheese Ambassador

Photo by Dennis Curran

Jeff Roberts

Cow Creek Creative Ventures

Currently president of Montpelier, VT-based Cow Creek Creative Ventures, Jeff Roberts has championed the U.S. cheese industry in America as well as overseas.

Although not a cheesemaker or seller, he was co-founder and principal consultant at the University of Vermont’s Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. His 2007 book “The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese” was the first comprehensive survey of small-scale cheese producers. His more recent book, “Salted and Cured: Savoring the Culture, Heritage and Flavors of America’s Preserved Meats,” published in 2017, examines the history and culture of dry-cured meat.

In addition to being a member of the prestigious Guilde Internationale des Fromagers, Roberts taught the history and culture of food at the New England Culinary Institute and was a visiting professor at the University of Gastronomic Science. He provides consulting services to a wide array of small-scale food producers and is a frequent speaker in America and Europe on artisan food, sustainable agriculture and the working landscape. Roberts also served as director and treasurer of the national board of Slow Food USA as well as director of the Central Vermont Community Land Trust, Vermont Arts Council, Vermont Fresh Network and Hunger Mountain Food Coop.

In his current role at Cow Creek Creative Ventures, Roberts develops solutions in the areas of agriculture and food policy, conservation, the environment and community economic development.

Cheese Connoisseur spoke with Roberts about his background, many cheese industry exploits and what he predicts the future holds for the industry.

CC: Growing up, you had a fascination with food from a young age.

J.R.: In a way, my overall interest and involvement in Slow Food and teaching at the New England Culinary Institute are rooted in my childhood. I remember visiting my Uncle Joe, who owned a deli in New Jersey, and hearing stories about The Depression. A kid came into his store with a nickel saying he wanted five cents worth of ‘eye-talian’ cheese. My uncle was insulted with the mispronunciation yet took out a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano for the kid to sniff and purchase. We did not come from money but simple and great food was always on the table. Back in the 50s, we were eating pretty standard, industrial stuff, like Kraft Parmesan cheese in the green container. To find anything different, we had to go into New York City.

CC: When did your tastes become more refined?

J.R.: It was when I was in college that I was interested in finding something different. After graduating and before joining the Navy, I was living in Philadelphia. There were some dynamite places to get German, Italian and African-American food. Being in the Navy for four years, one of the great adventures was trying food in places I visited. It was a constant education in countries like the UK, Spain, Italy and Greece. In 1972, I got out of the service and went to graduate school at Temple University in Philly. I was very fortunate, especially as a grad student, to meet a number of knowledgeable wine collectors who generously introduced me to countries, grapes, terroir and the pleasure of wine and food. I was fascinated by good wine, and the private tastings were mind boggling. At large and small farmer’s markets around Philadelphia, I met many artisan food producers, including Amish cheesemakers, and saw what they were making. The great delis in South Philly taught me about so many foreign and domestic cheeses; oh, how I miss Di Bruno Brothers on 9th Street! This is where my interest in good cheese evolved.

CC: It was in Vermont when you became more ensconced in the cheese industry.

J.R.: Moving to Vermont on the last day of September 1995, I had strong interest in all types of food. That following Saturday, I went to a farmers’ market, where I saw a woman with purple hair standing behind a table of cheese. I was feeling cocky, walked up and said, “Nice cheeses. Where did you get them?” She answered, “I made them! What’s it to ya?” It was Laini Fondiller of Lazy Lady Farm. We became very good friends, and she is one of the best cheesemakers I ever met. I introduced her to people I knew in New York City as well as someone from the James Beard Foundation who orders from her direct.

CC: Talk about your work with the Vermont Land Trust in the mid to late 90s.

J.R.: I worked for the Vermont Land Trust, whose mission was to preserve Vermont farmland. I was vice president of external affairs from 1995 to 1998. One of the key partners was Shelburne Farms. In the late 90s, the farm asked me to develop several public programs to coincide with its annual fall art show inspired by Vermont’s landscape. It showcased the state’s artists, and they asked me to do tastings. I put together a panel for this show that included a chef who started his career with an MFA in photography; an art historian from the University of Vermont who talked about landscapes and food; a music composer whose pieces reflected landscapes in her work; and cheesemaker Ross Gagnon, who I called the poet of cheese. Ross truly surprised us, as he came out carrying a tray of Velveeta cheese. People were looking at me quizzically, and everyone in the audience was having the same reaction. He used it as a teaching tool, an example of the cultural food connection everyone in the audience had, even if it wasn’t an artisan cheese.

CC: You helped bring together the Vermont Fresh Network and the Land Trust.

J.R.: In 1996, the Vermont Fresh Network was created to help small farm enterprises develop local markets. The farms struggled to make enough money wholesaling, so I encouraged the Land Trust to partner with them, as their job was to conserve, enrich and keep fertile good farm land. It was a no brainer. When I left the Land Trust, I was asked to go on the VFN board. I was an anomaly, as half the board consisted of farmers and the other half were chefs. I was the sole consumer representative. However, consumers are the ones making the decisions and voting with our money. In part because of the Fresh Network, Vermont was one of the first states to focus on farm to table menus and collaborations.

CC: You became an American fixture with Slow Foods. Talk about how this came about.

J.R.: In 1998, I saw an article in USA Today on Bra, Italy’s Slow Food. It sounded like a similar organization as the Vermont Fresh Network. I got in touch with the organization, and we exchanged ideas. In early 1999, I got a call from a guy who told me representatives from Slow Food were coming to Canada and the U.S. and asked if we would be their first stop after Montreal. Of course I said yes. I met Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food International and two other representatives in Montreal and enjoyed some amazing food, both French and Italian. They then visited Vermont for two days. Carlo had lunch with New England Culinary Institute Bachelor of Arts students. That evening, we visited Shelburne Farms, eating at the stunning inn overlooking Lake Champlain. All of the food was sourced from members of the Vermont Fresh Network, and the dessert plate was cheese. Carlo asked what states the cheeses came from, and we told him they were all from Vermont. There were a dozen. Carlo then said if the rest of his trip would be like what he learned in Vermont, Slow Food would have a future in the U.S. At that time, I was doing consulting work and thought there were opportunities here.

CC: You brought even more national attention to Shelburne Farms in the late 90s.

J.R.: In 1999, Shelburne Farms asked me to take over a program called “Pasture to Palate: The Art of Cheesemaking.” During a three-day residential weekend, guests learned about artisan cheese, met small-scale producers and made the farm’s cheddar with Ross Gagnon. A good friend of mine in Vermont got wind of it. She was a stringer for the New York Times and, intrigued by the farms, promise to ship a block of cheddar cheese made by our guests six months later in time for the holidays. She convinced the Times to do short piece in the paper’s travel section a week after our call; to say the least we were totally unprepared for it.. We ran the program for three years based on the outpouring of interest in the Times piece. Because of it, we met people from all over the world.

In 1999, Ross went to Slow Cheese and brought a wheel of Shelburne Farms’ clothbound cheddar. While the cheddaring process began in England, evidence suggests the first clothbound versions originated with New England cheesemakers in the early 19th century. Applying wax to cheddar and other aged cheese varieties spelled the end of clothbound and was dropped in America as we industrialized cheese production. In the late 1980s, Mariano Gonzalez was Shelburne Farms’ head cheesemaker, and he resurrected clothbound cheddar in the States. After leaving Shelburne, he introduced the process at Fiscalini Farmstead in Modesto, CA. These cheeses were spectacular and set a high bar for those wanting to make clothbound cheddar.

CC: You also served as chapter leader for New England for Slow Food USA.

J.R.: At the end of 1999, I was asked to be chapter leader. At the time, there weren’t enough members in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to have separate chapters in each state, so I became the leader of Northern New England. I was also a member of the American Cheese Society and attended my first meeting in Santa Rosa, CA, in 2000. Because we could honor so many cheesemakers and their products, we had some of the best, and it opened doors in ways I would never have expected.

CC: Describe the first U.S. Slow Food Congress.

J.R.: It was an interesting spin off of Italy’s Slow Food event. In 2001, Slow Food USA convened its first Congress hosted by noted chef Alice Waters. The event in Salinas, CA, was spectacular and included small-scale producers such as Point Reyes Farmstead Cheeses. It basically proved that we were at a tipping point with American farmstead cheese and could make a statement in Europe.

Earlier in 2001, Patrick Martins, then president of Slow Food USA, asked me and a colleague from Oregon to co-chair the U.S. presence at Slow Cheese. By the time we completed our work, we had 85 cheeses from 52 producers and 17 states: 1,000 pounds of cheese! These numbers will most likely appear on my headstone. We raised $15,000-$20,000 to underwrite the U.S. presence, and it remains the largest assembly ever of American artisan cheese in Europe. Lisa Bass, the U.S. Embassy minister counselor for agriculture affairs and promotion in Rome, worked with the Italian Heath Minister to ensure smooth sailing, since no one knew anything about American artisan cheeses.

Our participation almost didn’t happen because of September 11. We debated for several days whether to go or not. One key factor was that participating cheesemakers shipped product on September 10 to Crystal Foods, a Boston import/export business owned by John Ciano, who served as our packer and shipping manager to Italy. I was able to get through to them early the afternoon of the 11th. We gave the cheesemakers three days to ship overnight priority, and we’d help underwrite the cost if needed. Most cheese shipped on the 10th and was on trucks to the warehouse. We decided to go; it was our way to commemorate the people who died on 9/11 and celebrate America.

The festival began on September 20, after 9/11, which is the date American cheeses had never gone to Europe. It was a challenge for the Italians, especially the customs people. We were told we couldn’t sell our cheeses but could charge for tastings. All of the money we collected after covering expenses went to one of the New York City relief funds. Since the local health inspector planned to confiscate any leftover cheese, I told my colleagues to trade any extra product for Italian wine or other foods they desired. And we made baskets for the mayor of Bra and Carlo. 2001 was also the year Uplands Cheese Co.’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve won ACS Best in Show, and we featured it in several tastings on American artisan cheese.

CC: How did you begin working with ACS?

J.R.: My association with ACS began in 2000 at the convention in Santa Rosa; just imagine my thrill when Vermont Shepherd won Best in Show! Over the past two decades, I organized a number of tasting workshops and presentations about a variety of cheese topics. My Slow Food work also intersected with the Cheese Society. In 2000, Slow Food created an international program called the Ark of Taste to celebrate and protect endangered foods around the world. I served on the Slow Food USA Ark committee, and one key issue was the potential loss of traditional aging techniques for raw milk cheese. Both federal and state health inspectors wanted to eliminate the use of wood boards to age cheese. Since scientific research suggested this was nonsense with aged cheeses, we needed to figure out how to preserve the practice. I wrote a successful nomination to the Slow Food Ark program to preserve traditional practices, and it worked. One of the outcomes was Slow Food now considered me an expert.

CC: Discuss your work with the University of Vermont and how the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese came about.

J.R.: In 2002 and 2003, Dr. Cathy Donnelly (professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont and an internationally recognized expert in cheese microbiology) talked to me about work they were doing with small-scale specialty food entrepreneurs, including cheesemakers. UVM, in collaboration with Cornell University, had vigorous research and public outreach programs and she wanted me to work as a consultant to develop the next phase. Cathy, Paul Kindstedt (professor of food science and nutrition) and I saw the challenges faced by small-scale dairies and farmstead cheese producers. We came up with a one-day program, entitled, “Milk: From Commodity to Cheese” and asked the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund to support the conference. The jobs fund director said they didn’t like supporting conferences. During our meeting with him what emerged was an idea for an entity devoted to teaching, research and public outreach and service in support of small-scale cheesemaking. We argued such a program would reflect the best attributes of a public university and might model the UC Davis wine school. The funding for the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese came from people who saw value in this. The three of us— Cathy, Paul and I—co-founded the institute and, over its lifetime, we achieved its goals.. In 10 years, the institute attracted international recognition with faculty and people attending from all over the world.

CC: You also collaborated with Irish cheesemakers.

J.R.: In 2003, Cathy and Paul received a USDA international grant that brought Irish cheesemakers to Vermont. Paul and I went to Ireland, as the opportunity for collaboration was there. We welcomed faculty and people coming from the UK as well as colleagues from Italy, who came to teach traditional cheesemaking methods. There also were folks from Canada and the French National Dairy Industry Schools. It was a who’s who of artisan cheese professionals who came to teach and attend the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. Although UVM ended the institute, the relationships we established continued.

CC: Your life took yet another turn in the mid-2000s.

J.R.: In the mid-2000s, I urged the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) about opportunities to collaborate with Slow Food International. While this didn’t happen, NECI asked me to teach the history and culture of food and cuisine. I taught there for 15 years, and my experience opened new doors and taught me about global food culture and history. In 2011, I was going to Italy to visit my colleagues at the Slow Food cheese festival and convinced my NECI colleagues to explore possibilities with Carlo. He and I spoke about possible collaborations, especially because he wanted a connection with a culinary school. Although a NECI initiative didn’t happen, Carlo asked me to come teach at the Slow Food University (UNISG, the University of Gastronomic Sciences), which I did for five years. It was a blast, and I learned a lot. I taught about American craft beer, held classes on cheese and the Columbian exchange and its global impact. These were all Masters programs with very smart students from all over the world, and they pushed me to up my game.

CC: You’re still very active in the artisan food community today.

J.R.: While I’m not a cheesemaker or distributor, in 2012 I was nominated and awarded first tier of the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers, which was quite an honor. My 2017 book, “Salted and Cured: Savoring the Culture, Heritage and Flavors of America’s Preserved Meats” grew out of a 2012 project I did to see what might be possible to expand the market and production for cured meat in Vermont. I’m interested in fermentation and food preservation, without which as humans, we might not be here. Although now out of print, my 2007 book, “The Atlas of America Artisan Cheese” is still a resource for cheese professionals. I am speaking in June at the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association Show, doing two tastings, and in July presenting at the ACS convention in Portland OR.

CC: You’re also involved in tours now.

J.R.: Several years ago, I met Cristiano Bonino from Torino Italy who for many years ran bike tours in the U.S. and Europe. A few years ago, he expanded his repertoire with an increased focus on all things cultural, including great food; today, he operates guided tours in Italy, Spain and Portugal. We collaborated on fascinating tours in Molise and Piedmont, and this October, we’re doing a tour in the south and southeast corner of Sicily. We already have a waiting list for 2023. I’m always looking for interesting people and things to do.

CC: What do you see as the current state and future of artisan cheese?

J.R.: There is no magic wand to solve our climate dilemma, but my concern is heat and humidity will compromise much of what we do. Last year in Vermont it was so humid for so long we had issues with too much moisture in aging caves; in a few instances, unwanted microorganisms showed up. With changes in the environment and more humidity and heat, what do you do to age your cheese? What will show up and mutate? We need to pay greater attention to a whole new set of diseases that can impact our animals. I anticipate an emphasis on more animal health and genetics research. Another concern is adequate feed for animals. Although Vermont and Maine can grow reasonably good grass, other areas will not have the same advantage. My sense is we’ll continue seeing demand for goat cheeses and, therefore, goats. There are creameries bringing milk in from Canada because there are not enough animals to provide milk in the U.S. Those are questions we have to ask now. And goats may be more tolerate of warmer temperatures and may play a greater role in artisan cheesemaking. In my opinion, ACS has to educate us and create a dialogue to get people on the same page and start talking about these things. Publications like Cheese Connoisseur will play a critical role in educating the community of cheesemakers to understand implications. We need to pull people together to provide informed direction, as the climate is changing so quickly.

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