ALL AMERICAN

Gourmands used to scoff at the idea of fine, distinctive cheese coming from America, the birthplace of processed cheese spread. But that attitude is changing, as complex home-grown cheeses earn more respect at the table.Greater availability and variety of product, along with growing awareness, are feeding demand for gourmet cheeses made in the States. Renewed interest in cheese is also helping the

Gourmands used to scoff at the idea of fine, distinctive cheese coming from America, the birthplace of processed cheese spread. But that attitude is changing, as complex home-grown cheeses earn more respect at the table.

Greater availability and variety of product, along with growing awareness, are feeding demand for gourmet cheeses made in the States. Renewed interest in cheese is also helping the American movement.

"It's about time," said Steve Jenkins, the resident cheese expert at New York City's Fairway Market and author of 1996's "Cheese Primer," an award-winning book now in its seventh printing.

Retailers have at their disposal more American product -- and more people doing a fine job making it. Three to four dozen American cheesemakers supply Fairway with a variety of soft and hard cheeses, compared to perhaps a half dozen in 1980, Jenkins said.

By one estimate, there are at least 300 cheesemakers working in the United States, including 175 who are members of the American Cheese Society.

"The number of cheesemakers has grown exponentially in the last five years," said Laura Werlin, who profiled more than 50 cheesemakers across the United States in her award-winning book, "The New American Cheese." Werlin, of Berkeley, Calif., is working on a sequel.

Many of those cheesemakers are mom-or-pop operations, Werlin said. Because they are small , these producers have limited capability to supply retailers. Those that do find their products jockey for space with a plethora of cheeses made in France, Italy, Holland, Ireland and England.

American cheeses have a place at Whole Foods Market. For years, the cheese shops have been a destination department for the Austin, Texas-based natural and organic foods retailer.

The company works directly with regional cheese producers to bring the locally made cheese into the stores. For that reason, consumers who shop at Whole Foods find different American cheeses in different stores around the country.

At the Whole Foods market in Manhattan, SN noted a handful of domestic varieties in the curving cheese aisle, including Great Hill Blue cheese ($12.99 a pound) in a self-serve case, and Coach Farm Green Peppercorn Brick ($20.99 a pound) and Harley Farms Goat Cheese, decorated with edible flowers and cranberries ($14.99 for eight-ounce portions) in the service case. A sign noted the goat cheese from California is an award winner.

In a clustered display of cheeses, arranged on wooden tables and in baskets, Pleasant Ridge Reserve's farmstead cheese from Wisconsin was singled out. A 6-by-9-inch rectangular sign in color featured pictures of the cheesemaker, a description of the product and an invitation to shoppers to sample the raw milk cheese ($19.99 a pound) by requesting a taste at the counter.

"We actively try to promote American cheese," said Cathy Strange, national cheese buyer for Whole Foods, and a member of the American Cheese Society's board. "Local interest continues to grow with domestic products. They're getting much better. People are doing a better job in cheese production."

Furthermore, she said, it helps when a fromagerie like Artisanal opens in New York City. The chic new restaurant on Park Avenue caused a stir -- and a stink -- when it opened last year. Artisanal features 200 varieties of cheese, including some American varieties like Orb Weaver from Vermont and Sonoma Dry Jack from California.

"The restaurant's smell alone, a heady lattice of 200 perfectly humidified, pristinely fresh artisanal cheeses, might very well induce you to take the first step toward [cheese] fanaticism," one restaurant reviewer noted.

Grilled cheese sandwiches, fondues and blue martinis -- garnished with olives stuffed with blue cheese -- are among the offerings.

"It got a lot of publicity," Strange said. "We love seeing that. It really helps create awareness."

Americans have moved away from fat-free foods, and that also helps the cheese movement. "People are tired of eating flavorless foods in the name of health," Werlin said. "We care more that our food has flavor."

American cheeses are mixed in with the European ones at Fairway's store on New York's Upper West Side. Ever-popular Parmesan, this one from Wisconsin ($5.39 a pound), has a place in the front of the busy U-shaped service cheese department, which carries from 250 to 400 imported and domestic varieties. Chunks and wheels of cheese are piled high in refrigerated cases and in simple round light wood containers on benches, with attractive signs on wooden stakes describing the type of cheese, price and brief description of its attributes: "Decent, inexpensive grating cheese, the Parmesan that made Milwaukee famous," reads the sign for the Wisconsin Parmesan.

Prices vary; the parmesan is inexpensive compared to some of the other American varieties, including Vermont Shepherd Farm Timson Hill ($4.99 for a quarter pound); Lively Run Dairy Goat Blue, a New York state variety ($3.89 per quarter pound); and Coach Farm Green Peppercorn Brick ($4.59 a quarter pound).

American cheeses frequently are more expensive than European varieties. While Europeans have hundreds of years of experience making cheese, Americans are relative novices, with only a couple of decades under their belt. Higher labor and transportation costs and, for many, the small scale of production make doing business here more costly. European cheesemakers also benefit from subsidies, observers noted.

"The high price at the supermarket level is particularly challenging," Werlin said.

But price is not the biggest hurdle to the widespread sale of American cheeses, she said. While a few retailers encourage shoppers to sample the merchandise before buying, they're the exception. The typically passive nature of selling is the biggest problem, she said, noting consumers need to be educated since many still have a bias against American cheese.

"The smart retailers understand to move these kinds of unknown cheeses they must provide consumers with the opportunity to taste them," said Werlin. "They tend to be more expensive and people are less willing to take a risk on something they don't know about."

Associates who work at the cheese counter at Fairway teach customers about the product, Jenkins said. So does he, for that matter. Jenkins conducts periodic lectures at the store, and they've become popular. For $45 per person, those in attendance spend more than two hours receiving an education and sampling, including three plates of assorted cheese, accompanied by chutneys, duck prosciutto, foie gras, sauteed wild mushrooms and various wines that marry well with the specific cheeses.

"It's like a big meal," he said, noting the lectures routinely sell out. "Nobody walks away hungry or sober."

"Cheese isn't something you can expect to spend chicken feed on," said Jenkins. "These swells in the United States don't hesitate to spend $20 on wine. You're already reaching in your pocket for the wine, big shot. Pay for the cheese."