It's the Cheese
A new book, Cheese Primer by Steven Jenkins (Workman, $16.95), while unmistakably Europhilic, has some unsnobby things to say about California cheese. Several locally produced goat's-milk cheeses, in particular, earn Jenkins' praise; he awards "American Treasure" stars to Laura Chenel of Sonoma (whose gorgeous chevres grace dishes at Rendezvous du Monde and Chez Panisse, among other places, and, says Jenkins, "are as perfect as goat's-milk cheese can be") and Yerba Santa Goat Dairy of Lakeport (whose aged chevre Jenkins finds "special ... with such rustic depth of flavor").
But not all first-rate California cheeses are chevres, or artfully exact copies of other European originals. Some are variations on an old theme. For instance, Jenkins likes the Teleme -- a white cheese that, when young, resembles Monterey Jack -- produced in Tomales Bay by the Peluso Cheese Co. Teleme is thought to have originated on Crete as Touloumi, made from goat's and sheep's milk, but Marin's lush hillsides are ideal for grazing cows, and the American version of the cheese uses cow's milk. The final product -- "nutty, chewy, compelling," in Jenkins' words -- was named best of show at the 1992 American Cheese Society judging.
And some cheeses are pure California. The most famous of these is Jack, first produced by a Scotsman, David Jacks, near Monterey in the 1890s. Jack's most familiar form is as a soft white cheese that's been ripened only a week. But it also ages well, and Jenkins especially approves of the "dry Jack" produced by the Vella Cheese Co. of Sonoma, saying that, whether for grating or eating, it "rivals Parmigiano-Reggiano in its magnificent depth of flavor and visual appeal." (Not bad. It costs less, too.)
Still, the most popular American cheese is ... American cheese, which, Jenkins says, begins as young pasteurized cow's-milk Cheddar, is "milled into shreds, then 'cooked' with added dyes, emulsifiers and assorted other 'modern technology' dairy ingredients in order to achieve a smooth, mild (yet cheesy), orange or white, odorless, meltable" commodity -- with a long shelf life -- that "often ends up machine-sliced and plastic separated into hamburger-friendly slices."
No wonder that, for a true cheesehead like Jenkins, there's no place like France.
"I have worked with French cheeses virtually every day for the past twenty years," he writes. "I coddle and caress them, occasionally inadvertently abuse them, but mostly, I am in awe of them. ... No other country even comes close to the scope of France's majestic array."