Hand-crafted cheeses prove to be a popular delicacy in state.

ROCKPORT (AP) – Franklin Peluso uses his hands to squeeze and press heaping mounds of curds and whey to get the moisture content and texture just right as he makes up a batch of his brie-like cheese in a region best known for its cheddars.

Peluso is making a soft tangy specialty cheese called teleme, which is sold at cheese shops and restaurants primarily in California and the Northeast.

A decade ago, just a handful of people made cheese in Maine. These days, the state has more than 20 cheese makers crafting varieties such as French and Tuscan herbed curd, Camembert, chevre in olive oil, and dill and garlic goat roule, in addition to traditional cheddars and Monterey Jacks.

The growth isn’t just in Maine.

Artisanal cheese makers are popping up nationwide, making hand-crafted cheese for consumers who are demanding more than Velveeta and cheese squirted from a can.

Not long ago, it was difficult to find even a simple goat cheese in most stores, said Peluso, who is 60 and a third-generation cheese maker. He started the Mid-Coast Cheese company last October after moving to Maine from California.

“There’s been a tremendous change in the past 15 to 20 years. It’s a crowded field with specialty cheeses now,” he said. “Some of these stores remind me of Paris with huge piles of cheeses.”

U.S. cheese consumption grew from 11 to 31 pounds per person between 1970 and 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sales at supermarkets and mass merchandisers exceeded $10.7 billion in 2005, according to the ACNielsen research firm, but that doesn’t include sales to restaurants or as ingredients to manufacturing companies.

Besides eating more cheese, Americans are eating more types of cheese. And they’re willing to pay a premium for it: Specialty cheeses can cost $10 to $20 a pound or more, a far cry from the $3 or $4 consumers pay for a package of American cheese slices at a supermarket.

Offerings at the Appleton Creamery in Appleton, for example, include chevre, feta, sheep milk cheese and Caprino di Vino, a wheel of aged cheese soaked in Maine blueberry wine.

With Americans well-traveled and better-educated about food, the national palate has become more refined, said Caitlin Hunter, the creamery’s owner and president of the Maine Cheese Guild.

“People are getting more sophisticated about the foods they eat,” Hunter said. “It’s reflected in artisan breads and artisan beers and artisan wines. Twenty years ago there weren’t artisan breweries or vineyards or lovely local bakeries like there are now.”

In Maine, at least five cheese makers have opened for business in the past year, and a large plant under construction at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester plans to begin production this spring with a capacity of roughly 300,000 pounds a year.

Some of the cheese makers are seasonal and sell their products at farmer’s markets and shops, but others run year-round and distribute to restaurants as far away as California and gourmet food stores, including Fairway Market and Zabar’s in New York.

At the Portland Public Market, K. Horton Specialty Foods has a refrigerated case filled with blocks, wedges and tubs of Maine-made cheeses.

On a recent afternoon, Faye Pertuis of Portland looked over the selection and explained how she thinks Maine cheeses stand up against those from Europe.

“It’s nice that people are beginning to make traditional cheeses instead of cheese that is plastic-wrapped and single-sliced,” Pertuis said.

Maine represents only a small slice of the market.

The biggest surge of specialty cheese makers is happening in places like Wisconsin, California and Vermont, said Allison Hooper, owner of Vermont Butter and Cheese Co. in Websterville, Vt., and the president of The American Cheese Society.

The American Cheese Society has about 1,000 members, or nearly double what it had a couple of years ago, Hooper said.

If you had told Vermonters 20 years ago that they would be eating goat cheese instead of traditional cheddar, they would have laughed, Hooper said.

“But now there’s such an interest in high-quality foods, the source of the ingredients, the integrity of the ingredients and eating well that specialty artisanal cheese fits in with that trend,” she said.

The biggest retailer of specialty cheeses nationally is probably Whole Foods Markets, the Texas-based natural foods chain with 181 stores. Each Whole Foods store sells anywhere from 250 to more than 700 types of cheese, said national cheese buyer Cathy Strange.

“The only cheese growth happening domestically is in the specialty cheese sections,” Strange said. “We’re not seeing growth in big cheese production.”

The specialty cheese growth is reminiscent of the boom in microbrewed beers in the 1990s, with small breweries and their traditional ales, porters and stouts going up against the mainstream beers that dominated the market.

But the growth slowed to a trickle and hundreds of breweries and brewpubs went out of business before the specialty beer industry found its footing.

Specialty cheese makers think there’s still plenty of room for growth for them.

Peluso moved to Maine from Los Banos, Calif., and began making the cheese his grandfather started making in the 1920s. He made teleme cheese – pronounced TELL-uh-me – for 25 years in California before moving to Maine in hopes of gaining a foothold in the East.

On a recent February day, he filled an open stainless-steel tank with 750 gallons of milk, added cultures and salt and heated the tank to about 100 degrees to cook the concoction. As the mixture curdled, he stirred it with a rake and worked it with his hands to make sure the final product would turn out just so.

By the end of the day, he had 700 pounds of cheese that he formed into 6- and 12-pound square blocks and dusted with rice flour.

Peluso knows he has work cut out to break into the New England market in a big way. This region, after all, has a long love affair with cheddar.

“I’ve never seen an area – except maybe England – where people consume so much cheddar,” he said.

On the Net:

Maine Cheese Guild: www.mainecheeseguild.org/

The American Cheese Society: www.cheesesociety.org

AP-ES-02-26-06 1030EST

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