Interview: Laura Werlin

Laura Werlin is a cheese expert and author of several books about cheese, including The New American Cheese, The All-American Cheese and Wine Book, and Great Grilled Cheese. Laura was in Seattle recently speaking at the Seattle Cheese Festival . . . I was able to talk with her for a few minutes about artisan cheese in the Northwest and her forthcoming book Laura Werlin's Cheese Essentials. The New American Cheese | Laura WerlinYour book The New American Cheese broke new ground in its celebration of domestic cheesemakers.  How did that book come about?

I’d been in TV news for quite awhile and had had enough, so when I quit TV I started making moves toward food writing. Shortly after making that transition to writing, I realized that it was cheese that I wanted to write about because I was really fascinated about it.

I decided to write about American cheese specifically in large part because I was inspired by the great cheese being made in Northern California where I live. And I realized that what was happening there was happening all over the country. . . . I knew I had to write about it.

I called the book “The NEW American Cheese” because we think of American Cheese as individual slices wrapped in plastic and I wanted to highlight that there’s much more to it than that!

In the last few years there’s been a sort of artisan cheese renaissance going on, both in the Northwest and all over the country. How do you see that evolving over the next few years?

I think that cheesemaking is kind of a chicken and egg situation, in that there is more and more desire on the part of the consumer to shop for artisan cheese -  and so if that desire continues in that direction (and that move is really still in its infancy) then the need for more cheesemakers will grow and so on.

As we hear the phrase ‘carbon footprint’ bandied about more and more, we want to go closer to home to get our food. And certainly cheese falls into that area.

There’s certainly a lot of fuel expended to get French cheese to the US…

Right. And even if you live in Oregon or Washington and you want Vermont cheese, it’s the same issue.

Cheese Essentials | Laura WerlinYou have a new book coming out later this year called Laura Werlin’s Cheese Essentials. Can you talk a little bit about it?

The basic premise of Cheese Essentials is to simplify cheese. I believe that all cheeses fall into one of eight categories. I set out to define those categories in very simple terms…I think that if you know the basic characteristics of, say, a soft ripened brie-like cheese you know how all brie-like cheeses are going to taste. Not exactly, of course, but you won’t be surprised either.

Likewise, I defined a category that you don’t see defined too often by cheese retailers and that’s the surface ripened or “wrinkly rind” cheeses. Those are a little different than soft ripened cheeses in flavor, character and texture, and there are cheeses that fall into that category and fall into no other - kind of like umami.

It’s much the same way with wine. You can try a California Cabernet for example; you taste it and you get an idea of what cabernet tastes like. But I’ll bet if you tried one from Washington it will be a bit different, and this winemaker from California will be a bit different from that winemaker and so on. You can’t know exactly what a particular cab is going to taste like until you taste it, but you do know what to expect from cabernet in general. So that’s what I’m saying about cheese.

Also, I like to use recipes because Americans in particular are very practical. We want to know how to use our cheese, we don’t necessarily sit down and enjoy cheese on its own. Also, there are lots of dishes that are meant to have cheese in them, and why not use a good cheese if it’s going to make a difference in the final dish?

Were you ever formally trained as a chef?

I wasn’t, I was just an avid home cook. That’s why I wanted to write about food, I just love food and I love to cook it. I was lucky in the sense that a passion and a trend collided.

Are there any particular cheeses/cheesemakers from the Pacific Northwest that strike you as particularly good or worth mentioning?

There are so many new cheesemakers up here that I am not familiar with some of the newer ones. I think Juniper Grove Farm makes amazing cheese. I learned of a new one just recently - Ancient Heritage Dairy in Oregon. They’d only been in business five weeks when I tried their cheese but it was just delicious. I have liked what Willamette Valley Cheese Co. has done, I really like their milk source, it really comes through in the cheese. I really like the Beecher’s Flagship Reserve as well, and I will always like Cougar Gold. The Port Madison Chevre is really delicious too, very light and fresh.

I think the most remarkable thing is that artisan cheesemakers everywhere are getting better and better, they’re not just putting out cheese. Americans are becoming less and less tolerant of mediocre cheese.