Dear Foodie: What is “Artisanal” Cheese?

Dear Foodie,

I love cheese. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of references to “artisanal” cheese. How is that different from just regular cheese? – Cheese Head

Dear Cheese Head (from Wisconsin?),

The love of cheese is growing. As a result, marketers are seizing upon descriptives like artisanal because they assume they are appealing to something that drives a consumer to choose their cheese over another. Artisanal has crept into the local food movement vernacular because it is a natural term that conjures up warm and fuzzy images. Artisanal technically refers to “handmade” and at one time referred to jewelry, clothing and items of “artistic” endeavor. Of late, it applies to food, particularly bread, beverages and cheese. And if you want to add the marketer’s dream phrase – these items are made by kindly old grandmothers in the back room of your favorite big box grocery store (are there any other kind these days). The term is being used quite loosely and there is no law against saying you are artisanal even if technically you are not.

Regarding taste, it is humbling to note that big corporate Kraft cheese cheddar recently won a taste test over several artisanal varieties so you never know about taste buds. Again, there are wonderful artisan cheesemakers springing up locally across the country. You can find quite a bit of variety and blends and you can support locals while you are at it. Look off the beaten path at farmers markets and other outlets – they even give you a taste. That is good since I make it a point to show up at the “putting out the sample” time at my local big box grocery store. Yay for the local food movement getting the attention of the big guys.

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