Just a month ago, I was complimenting the cheese counter at Whole Foods. My, how quickly things change. On Friday, imagine my bewilderment when there, in writing, I noticed a large sign explaining a certain cheese term that was not only incomplete but also inaccurate. And all this in the wake of my praises!
The sign was meant to explain the word "farmstead," which, incidentally, I wrote about just one week after my column praising Whole Food's new pricing structure.
The definition was posted not once, but twice, and reads as follows:
"Farmstead cheese is made and aged by hand using the traditional craftmanship of skilled cheesemakers. The cheeses are more often complex in taste and variety. Farmstead cheesemaking goes hand-in-hand with sustainable farming practices."
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Not so fast, Whole Foods. Unfortunately, you're missing the main point about farmstead cheese. As the American Cheese Society defines it, farmstead cheeses are made on a farm with the milk from the animals who live on that farm. Milk for cheesemaking cannot be purchased elsewhere.
There's nothing in the actual definition of "farmstead" that supports the following statements claimed by the Whole Foods definition:
- All farmstead cheeses are made and aged by hand
- All farmstead cheeses are made by skilled cheesemakers (sad, but not true)
- All farmstead cheesemaking supports sustainable farming practices
These are dangerous assumptions to make, and they only become more problematic when the term that supposedly makes them true becomes reappropriated as a marketing ploy. If a consumer didn't know any better, she'd probably automatically conclude that any cheese flagged "farmstead" would be handmade by a talented cheesemaker, and that she could feel good about supporting good farming. Unfortunately, just because a cheese is farmstead doesn't mean that the cheese will be any of these things.
Being "farmstead" does not answer questions about animals' diet, living environment, and general well-being. A "farmstead" cheese is not necessarily more delicious just because the same people oversee its make process from start to finish. And just because a cheese is farmstead doesn't mean that the cheesemaker has been making cheese long or well enough to be considered "skilled!"
As for the rest of the Whole Foods definition, sure, many farmstead cheeses are "complex in taste and variety," but so are many cooperatively-made cheeses (or industrial cheeses, for that matter).
In the spirit of camaraderie in the Cheese World, I do plan on bringing this to the attention of the Whole Foods cheese department, and if they're as open to constructive criticism as they are enthusiastic about offering a great selection of cheeses, I'm sure they'll correct their mistake.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a Cheesemonger and the Director of the Cheese Course at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City. She is currently an assistant chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
Related: In Praise of American Cheese
(Image: Flickr member Nitro101 licensed under Creative Commons)