These are fine days indeed for those who love cheese.
While aficionados once had to look overseas for the new and exciting in fromage, the homegrown cheese scene is now also providing excitement of its own. There are hundreds of small-batch cheese makers in the U.S. alone -- so many, in fact that the first-of-its-kind Atlas of American Artisan Cheese, highlighting 350 of the best artisan cheese makers, was recently published.
All the cheese options can get confusing, though. So how can you best find your way through the ever-expanding cheese arena?
Trial and error is always a fine strategy, if time-consuming. You could rely on the advice of a cheesemonger, if you happen to know one. You could turn to the world of the cheese-obsessed online, where blogs like CurdNerds and Cheese by Hand lovingly track the cheese scene.
Or, you could tap the knowledge of chefs who carefully create cheeseboards for their clientele, by noting their picks, and then hitting your favorite gourmet shop or online retailer with your new shopping list.This works especially well when you're dining in one of the nation's artisan cheese centers. So for example, if you had dinner at L'Etoile, across the street from the capitol in Madison, Wis., you'd learn about the pungent stylings of Bleu Mont Dairy, Roth Käse and others -- which you can then track down to purchase at your favorite cheese shop or via the state's portal.
Another restaurant for artisan cheese sleuthing is Willi's Wine Bar in Santa Rosa, Calif., where the cheese menu changes monthly.
Tracey Shepos, executive chef de cuisine at Stark Reality Restaurants, which includes Willi's, says one of her current favorites is Andante Dairy in Petaluma, Calif. Try the Picolo, a triple crème cow's milk cheese that's made with crème fraiche.