The Terroir of Cheese

By Jonathan Alexander, the cheese wizard at Driver’s Market


Modern foodie culture has, in recent years, elevated such professions as baker, cheesemonger and whole-animal butcher to near-rockstar status. As a former cheesemonger at arguably the most famous deli outside of New York City, and the resident cheese buyer at Driver’s Market, it’s easy to get lost in the sheer nerdiness of it all. We have annual conferences, festivals, and Iron Chef-like competitions – all just for cheese! Tasting notes on new cheeses are traded like baseball cards, while others debate on the ripeness of camembert, or their favorite Loire Valley-inspired goat cheese. But how did these beautiful little pyramids and cylinders and wheels start out as milk and end up as a delicious bite at your dinner table? How did this cheese’s long and complex journey end with you buying a wedge at your favorite cheese counter (Driver’s obviously!) and sharing it later with friends?


It all begins with terroir. Don’t be intimidated by that word; terroir simply means the collection of environmental conditions that inform a food or a crop’s unique flavor and characteristics. Anyone’s first encounter with the word terroir almost certainly is in relation to wine. The very word itself carries a certain reverence and respect for the craft that it describes, while simultaneously evoking the image of an all-too-serious sommelier telling you about things like elevation and whether the Rhone had a mild summer that year. But terroir need not be the sole provenance of that expensive bottle of pinot noir; it can also apply to that bottle of grass-grazed milk, or the wheel of raw sheep’s milk cheese at your local market.


That celebration of where a food originates forms the seed from which my passion sprouts. My first brush with the idea that American (no, not the yellow stuff!) cheese can have a regional identity came with selling the cheeses of visionaries Andy and Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont. Their motto is A Taste of Place, and I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more succinct encapsulation of their mission as both cheesemakers and stewards of Vermont’s agricultural landscape. To Andy and Mateo, and countless other farmers and cheesemakers in Vermont, theirs is a rural landscape worth preserving and protecting. A hunk of Bayley Hazen Blue is not just a deliciously savory and crumbly blue cheese; it’s the dairy equivalent of a taste of northeast Vermont. That wedge of Cabot Clothbound Cheddar you picked up at Driver’s is not only perfect for your dinner party – it’s making a political statement. In Vermont, I learned that incredibly high quality milk could be leveraged as a value-added agricultural tool – i.e. transforming milk into something more valuable (cheese!) before it even leaves the farmer – in order to diversify and sustain the working landscape, and help to create a growing regional identity. Fast-forward to me stuffing and packing all of this passion into my red Corolla and moving two-thousand miles to San Francisco, where I quickly found my agricultural analog: the farms, dairies, and creameries of West Marin. The crusade for land conservation and agricultural sustainability (and identity!) was not just happening in Vermont; the concept of A Taste of Place was also being fought for on the opposite coast, here in Marin County.


Let’s pause for a second, and briefly return to that word, again: terroir. Because I can talk endlessly about missions, and visions, and place-tasting, but at the end of the day, really good cheese is the crux of the matter. In my role as cheesemonger – the retailer – I’m the very last step of an incredibly long and complicated relay race in the life and evolution of a cheese that started out somewhere as a pasture and a grazing cow (or goat, or sheep, or water buffalo). I’ll even let you in on a little secret: the quality and all around awesomeness of that hunk of cheddar or gooey round of goat cheese I’ve just wrapped in origami-like fashion with butcher paper? It doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with me. And to be fair, I’m not trying to sell my role short; the job of the cheesemonger arguably has as much importance as any within the cheese life cycle. I’m the final obstacle that eventually facilitates a cheese – weeks, months, years in the making – reaching the consumer and enacting its manifest destiny: to be eaten. And to be eaten and enjoyed in a manner that both upholds the reputation of and pays respect to the farmer and cheesemaker. But I can’t stress enough that overall cheese quality is due to three primary factors: milk quality, soil quality, and land quality/pasture management. The success of a cheese will always derive from these three inextricably linked things.


Recently, we hosted an event at Driver’s entitled A Taste of West Marin. We invited two dear friends and colleagues – the inimitable Debra Dickerson of Cowgirl Creamery, and Tristan Conway of local non-profit MALT (Marin Agricultural Land Trust) – to weave a tale of local agricultural history framed within a broader narrative of West Marin’s dairies and creameries, land conservation, and future agricultural sustainability. I highly encourage a visit to MALT’s website to learn more about who they are and what this great organization does, but what I will say is that MALT is a member-supported non-profit that permanently protects working farms in Marin County by purchasing agricultural conservation easements on farmland. In other words, MALT and the landowner (e.g. a farmer or rancher) negotiate an agreement by which the farmland is guaranteed to never be developed, and to remain in working (and sustainable) agricultural use for perpetuity. MALT-protected land then continues to be owned by the farmer or rancher. Since its founding in 1980, MALT has permanently protected nearly 48,000 acres of Marin farmland. In fact, by the time you’ve finished reading The Terroir of Cheese, a couple more acres were protected.


In MALT, and the highly motivated dairy farmers and cheesemakers of Marin and Sonoma Counties, I’ve found my analog to Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm. At Driver’s Market, we celebrate our local dairy terroir – this taste of place – by celebrating cheeses of the highest quality that embody a specific regional identity. I hope this message comes across in our cheese case, which, on any given day, features selections from Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.*, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.*, Barinaga Ranch*, Tomales Farmstead Creamery*, and Cowgirl Creamery, which uses Straus Dairy* organic milk. But don’t be surprised if you still catch me peddling that unctuous, woodsy round of Jasper Hill Harbison with just as much fervor as the buttery, funky Cowgirl Red Hawk, born out of the salty Point Reyes National Seashore air.


* = dairy/creamery located on MALT-protected land