It’s not hard to be excited about cheese.
From the most basic pleasures of “Swiss” and Cheddar to more adventurous forays into wrinkly aged goat cheeses and dusky blues, there is something for everyone in the wide world of cheese—yes, everyone: let’s not forget nut “cheeses,” which are just now starting to break into new territories and more refined methods of production, and better flavors and textures.
You certainly don’t have to be a cheesemonger or chef to profess a deep appreciation for all of the different forms of cultured and aged milk that make cheese so exciting and versatile. You just have to eat it, work with it, love it.
A deep appreciation for cheese is really an appreciation for age-old traditions and new takes on those traditions. Because what is cheesemaking at its root, but a continuation of practices that our ancestors formed in order to preserve a high-protein source of nourishment for times when food was scarce?
If you’re like me, you appreciate cheese, cheesemaking practices, and the traditions and cultures surrounding cheese. But then, there’s so much more in the world of food to be appreciated—like animal husbandry, preservation of working agriculture, sustainable agriculture, locavore food movements, slow food, and so forth and so on.
I’ve been talking for over a year now to those around me about how I sense that tides are changing—in America, anyway—away from easy, cheap, mass-produced products and toward an affinity for products that are hand-crafted or made locally, that are easy to source, that are sustainable, and that are meaningful to keeping both traditions and local livelihoods and communities alive.
For me, that means supporting handcrafts of all types—from cheesemaking to farming, to woodworking to metalsmithing.
Yeah, you saw that right. And no, I’m not talking about medieval reenactments at the Renaissance Fair.
See, one of my best friends is a smith’s apprentice. Allow me to tell you about this friend. (I promise this relates back to cheese. Just follow me here.)
My friend’s name is Daniel, and we went to college together at The University of Arizona. Dan and I, who are both from Arizona, studied German together and became really close friends while he was finishing up his bachelor’s degree and I was just starting my master’s.
Our favorite activities involved glorious Scotch-and-cigar nights with our group of German-studying friends, cooking elaborate meals at each other’s apartments, and watching war movies while drinking whole bottles of wine. (In fact, it is Dan who first introduced me to the pleasures of Raclette melted over potatoes.)
Later, when I moved to Berkeley to begin my PhD, Dan happened to get a sales job working for a beer company in the Bay Area. This involved him camping in our living room until he finally found an apartment he could afford (no small task, as anyone who knows the Bay Area knows—even seven years ago).
We eventually rented an apartment together and continued cooking elaborate meals, watching war movies, and drinking whole bottles of wine until he moved back to Arizona.
In the last year, Dan realized he hated working as a salesman, and just wanted to work with his hands. I’ve known a few academically inclined people go that route in the past few years, too. After so much time sitting at a computer, talking to groups of people, selling yourself and your ideas, you just kind of want to DO something.
Rather than going to graduate school for history—the original plan—Dan decided to join his aunt and his grandma and learn how to be a metalsmith at their small business, Charmworks.
I cannot tell you how perfect this is for Dan. So just believe me, it is.
Dan is still learning the trade, which mostly involves watching, listening, and doing the brunt of the gruntwork, as well as photography and advertising for the company.
His grandma, Pat, taught herself how to be a metalsmith in the 1950s, and his aunt Rachel learned from her—but also went to school for fine arts, and then apprenticed with an East Coast metalsmith after college. So Dan is essentially learning the family trade in a transfer of skills that have been in the family for two generations. Neat!
Pat and Rachel make sterling silver, gold vermeil, and 14-karat gold jewelry, which they call microsculptures. These start out as charms and end up as pendants on necklaces, on charm bracelets, as earrings, pins, tie tacks, stick pins, etc.
The method they use to make their art is lost-wax casting, which is pretty neat.
Here’s a video of them casting bronze pinecones, for example:
Lost-wax casting is an old tradition, and it is a handcraft. Plus, if you check out their website, their answer to the question “why charms?” is pretty great:
“Charms have been a part of the human experience for thousands of years. Early man would pick up an interestingly shaped or colored stone and carry it with him as a talisman of protection or good luck.
“The word charm connotes magical properties. Eventually small carvings or fetishes were created by these early peoples. Carved of stone, shell, ivory or wood, these small trinkets were an important part of the spiritual world of early man. Many were carved with zoomorphic or anthropomorphic figures or geometric designs. Collections of such ‘charms’ have been found in the archeological remains of many cultures.”
As they point out at the end of their explanation, we wear charms today to express our interests or generate sentimental feelings in ourselves.
And so, in a perfect pairing of handcraftsmanship on multiple levels, Dan and I decided on a really cheesy collaboration. What better way to express your love for cheese—your ultimate Curd Nerd status—than with a cheese charm?
The PhCheese blog now has a little store in which you can purchase your very own cheese talisman.
For the month of October (it’s American Cheese Month, yo!), I’m offering a sweet deal on Charmworks’ Swiss cheese charm and their cheese grater charm, both available in either sterling silver or gold vermeil. I encourage you to check them out, whether for yourself or for that especially cheesy someone in your life.
And, just so you know, the Charmworks clan is coming up with a few new cheese charms, just for The PhCheese, so stay tuned for new developments in the coming months!
Yes, you can go buy a cheaper cheese charm on Etsy or Amazon or whatever. But unless you see the handscraftsmanship, as you can in Dan’s cool video below, how do you know where that charm really came from?
These Charmworks charms are made on the Frey family farm just outside of Sierra Vista, Arizona (where I was born, btw), and they are made 100-percent in-house, from the mold to the polished metal. Just like your favorite farmstead cheese, they are a painstaking labor of love.