From ripe brie to moldy blue, they're producing hundreds of award-winning handmade cheeses that increasingly are edging out the imports at supermarkets and on restaurant menus.
"In my opinion," said Roberts, widely regarded as the leading expert on America's burgeoning small cheese-making industry, "most top-quality artisan American cheeses can stand on the same stage as their European counterparts."
A Temple grad who formerly was director of development at the Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill, Roberts is back in town this week for a series of cheese tastings. To him, the growth in the nation's handmade cheese movement isn't just about good flavor, it's reflective of a fundamental shift in American agriculture.
"What we're seeing is that more and more people are looking for authentic food products," said Roberts. "It's being driven largely by the organic and slow-food movements. . . . The growth in the past 16 years is phenomenal, in places where not everyone would think of for handmade cheese."
Like in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Tucked among the subdivisions outside West Chester, Chester County, Shellbark Hollow is attracting national attention with its creamy chevre "biscuits."
Near Washington's Crossing, Bucks County, and in the shadow of a country club, Ely Pork Products makes robust, washed-rind, Trappist-style cheese.
And a short drive up the Northeast Extension in Telford, Montgomery County, Hendricks Farms and Dairy makes more than a dozen different styles, including a Bavarian Swiss that won a gold medal in 2006 from the American Cheese Society.
Enter the Hendricks Farms aging room, and you're hit with a funky, welcoming whiff of cheddar, Gouda and Gruyere. The Munster is coated with Chimay Belgian ale, to promote the growth of mold. The Cheddar Blue shows a dull grayish coating. The Telford Tomme smells like that old Bucks County farm your folks used to drag you to for pumpkin picking.
Today, while much of the surrounding area is covered with asphalt and McMansions, the Hendricks farm is a strident step back to traditional agriculture. Trent Hendricks, who owns the farm with his wife, Rachel, believes it shows in his product.
"Anybody can make cheese - it's not that complicated," he said. "To make a really premium quality cheese, you've got to have passion."
For the Hendricks family (including four kids with one on the way), that's meant adapting an entire lifestyle of self-sufficiency and tradition while striving to excel. Trent Hendricks quit his job as a trucker ("It seemed pointless"), bought a cow to produce raw milk for his family, and the next thing he knew he was sitting on 60 acres with goats, chickens, horses and 75 head of grass-fed Ayshire cattle.
The children are home-schooled, his wife makes soap, the farm is organic, the livestock is free-range and the operation is sustainable to impact the environment as little as possible.
"I don't want to be labeled," said Hendricks, 34. "We just wanted to have a positive impact on the life of people. . . . It's all about slowing down, cooking your food with your family, enjoying meals with friends."
Not that Hendricks is averse to modern convenience.
His farm features a nifty robotic milking machine that uses a laser guidance system to track the cows' teats. (I'm not kidding!) Cows wander into a pen at will; get a quick, automatic cleansing; chow down on some feed and - mooooo - the milk is in the bucket quicker than you can make a latte.
From there, the milk is warmed and its lactose fermented. Curds form, the whey is separated (and used for feed), and the remainder is poured into forms. Hendricks uses old-fashioned Dutch presses to create large, firm rounds of cheese about the size of a flattened basketball.
They're ripened and aged on racks for up to eight months, some brined to promote the growth of mold.
Everything is neat and clean, but it's obviously hard work. Cattle must be tended, fences mended and wood cut for a giant furnace. And all that aging means dairies endure the costs of a high inventory.
Because it is so labor-intensive, domestic artisan cheese prices tend to be steep. Emilio Mignucci, co-owner of DiBruno Bros., notes that small U.S. farmers do not enjoy the level of government subsidies that the French and Italians receive.
Thus, while a decent imported gorgonzola might run $14 a pound, an American version can easily reach $20.
"American cheese makers have to come up with something interesting to catch the customer's eye," Mignucci said.
Often, that's a catchy name.
Take a look at the selection at Whole Foods or Genuardi's and you'll see brands like Fat Cat, Pipe Dreams, Misty Morning, Hooligan and the extremely popular Humboldt Fog.
More importantly, there's the matter of flavor.
Aficionados have always scoffed at American-made cheese because state and federal laws forbid the sale of raw-milk cheese unless it has been aged at least 60 days. That kills the flavor that makes a fresh Camembert from a street market in Paris so distinctive.
But Mignucci believes American cheese-makers have finally learned how to work with pasteurized milk.
"It was just a matter of taking old world techniques and adapting them to our milk," said Mignucci. "Americans went back to France and Italy to learn how to make cheese, and they're taking it to a whole other level." *