Central Point, Ore. » Back in the summer of 1955, American cheesemaker Tom Vella received a gift in a manila envelope while touring France -- a sample of the mold that goes into Roquefort cheese.
More than 50 years later, that mold is returning home with fanfare as the Oregon cheese plant Vella founded, Rogue Creamery, leads the way in an unlikely revolution of culture -- a growing number of American cheesemakers are exporting raw milk cheeses to Europe.
Raw milk cheeses (which are made from unpasteurized milk) have long been the provenance of European dairies. But now American artisanal cheeses are demanding -- and earning -- respect here and abroad, showing American cheese is not just for cheeseburgers any more.
"In the wine world it has taken a long time for the Europeans, particularly the French, to recognize the quality of New World wines," said Randolph Hodgson, owner of the Neal's Yard Dairy cheese shops in London. "We are only at the beginning of that with cheese. But that is what this is, I think."
Raw milk cheeses generally are recognized as superior in taste, but account for less than 10 percent of production, even in France, largely because the same aging required to make it safe to eat also makes it pricey to produce.
American wines had their breakout moment in 1976 with the Judgment of Paris, when a blind tasting rated Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons over better known French Bordeaux.
The turning point for American raw milk artisanal cheeses came during the 2003 World Cheese Awards in London. Rogue Creamery's Rogue River Blue beat out hundreds of competitors for best blue cheese.
"That really put not only that cheese on the map, but also put the American artisan cheese movement in the spotlight," said David Gremmels, who with Cary Bryant took over Rogue Creamery from the Vella family in 2002.
After overseeing that blue cheese judging, Hodgson put in an order for the winner. But it took until 2007 for the cheese to arrive at his shop because raw milk cheese from the States had never been exported to the European Union before. There were forms to fill out, certificates to obtain, which made the process cumbersome.
By 2006, American cheeses had won 140 international awards, and the U.S. Dairy Export Council went to work to cut through the red tape, said council Vice President Diane Lewis.
A year later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued the required certificate, and Neal's Yard Dairy and Whole Foods Market in London started carrying Rogue cheeses.
Later this year, French cheese distributor MS Selection will show 10 American artisanal cheeses, including Rogue selections, at the Anuga Food Fair in Cologne, Germany, to kick off distribution in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Each distributor was approved for European export, including, such notables as Cypress Grove, Fiscalini and Marin French from California, and Vermont Shepherd from Vermont.