Posts filed under 'Travel'
This year I had the opportunity to be an aesthetic judge for the cheese society competition. There were more cheeses entered than ever before and thus more judges too. The cheese categories were divided among 15 teams of judges- each team has a technical and aesthetic judge. A division of labor in the evaluation of the cheese- the technical judge is looking for flaws and the aesthetic judge is looking for everything that is good about the cheese (aromas, flavor, texture, and rind/appearance). The technical judges start with 50 points and deduct while the aesthetic judges build up points to a maximum of 50.We started out the first day with a training session where John Greeley and David Grotenstein (the competition co-chairs) explained the judging protocols of the American Cheese Society. Then we did a trial run of five cheeses, comparing our scoring and comments to ensure that we all understood how to put our judging sheets into practice. The teams were announced, our white lab coats were issued and we were unleashed on our tables.
Bob Bradley was my technical partner. He is a retired professor and researcher from the University of Wisconsin. I thoroughly enjoyed working alongside him- he’s got some serious cheese evaluation skills- figures considering he was the coach of the Dairy Products Evaluation Team for years in Wisconsin. The coolest thing about Bob though was that he was that rare combination of confident and curious. When I didn’t taste things that he did, we would discuss it at length- not necessarily to alter our scores but to understand each other’s palette. Of course these conversations mostly ended in a litany of questions from me to him about the science happening in cheese when it is made and during its maturation.
Each cheese is marked with an alphanumeric code- you can see them on the stickers in the photo. This prevents the judges from knowing for certain what any individual cheese is, who it was made by, etc. Bob and I would taste each cheese together- discuss- complete our judging sheets separately and then move on to the next. A lot of people have asked me about spitting- I found that it didn’t make much of a difference because you’re not taking big bites or many bites of each cheese and spitting out a mouthful of food into a bucket just didn’t work for me. So I pretty much fully ate all of them.
Later on in the second day of judging I got a tour from the staff who had coordinated the receiving and organization of the 1200+ cheeses that were in the competition. Boxes started rolling in the Thursday before the conference and were received in cold room, sorted by shipping company, opened, and the cheeses were placed on rolling racks. [Note- the cheesemakers received their alphanumeric coded stickers in advance and submitted the cheeses to the competition without any labeling except for the sticker.] The racks were then wheeled out back to four large walk in refrigerated trailers that were labeled with groups of categories. The cheeses left their first rack to be sorted into their appropriate categories.
Any boxes that were wet, crushed, or damaged in some way went immediately to the triage station where they were photographed inside and out, internal temps were taken on the cheeses and in cases where there was enough concern they were tasted and evaluated before being announced damaged. If I remember correctly, Debra Dickerson (the woman who works her rear off on this coordination each year) said that there was only one instance where they contacted the cheesemaker and gave them the option to resubmit.
Within any given category there could be 8 oz. pieces and 40 lb blocks so the small pieces were put on trays towards the top, big blocks and wheels at the bottom and tempering charts were drawn up so that the judges would ideally have all the cheeses at the correct temp during evaluations. Totally, ridiculously impressive.
It is important to give credit to two less visible people who made this level of logistics possible- Karen and Richard Silverston. They sat down with the teams who put on the competition each year and picked their brains thoroughly to develop a database and data entry sheets and screens for every possible scenario. The beauty of this is that every piece of cheese received is tracked all the way through the process and the tabulation of scores is much faster than in previous years.
The judging culminates with the selection of the Best in Show. They used a new process this year where the first place winner in each category was set out on the tables and all 75 of them were tasted by all judges. To earn first place in any category a cheese must score over 91 points (so some categories don’t have first place winners), second place must earn at least 81 and third place must score over 75 points. So at the end of day two of tasting 65+ cheeses, the judges circulated on their own to taste all 75 blue ribbon winners and select three cheeses (ranked in their order of preference) for best in show.
In previous years there was only one Best in Show cheese- this year they decided to acknowledge 2nd and 3rd place in this overall category. My approach was to give everything I tasted either a 1, 2, or 3 and then to re-taste and consider only those cheeses with 3 points. We knew the winner about one hour after the cheeses were ready for us to taste. While all of the judges likely have suggestions about things that could be tweaked in the judging- we were universally impressed by the care and organization it took to run a tasting of this size.
Check out results on the ACS website!
August 7th, 2007
This year’s annual ACS conference kicked off on Wednesday in Burlington, Vermont. I arrived on Monday night and spent all day Tuesday and Wednesday as an aesthetic judge- lots to tell about that. We’ve been attending sessions about everything from sustainability to developing a sensory profile for your cheese and I’ve got so much to report. Yesterday morning we presented some audio pieces from the producers we visited in the Northeast and it was incredibly well received- we will post it to the site when we return to New York.
Look for posts starting early next week- we’re taking advantage of every minute here in Vermont and are headed to Shelburne Farm to spend time with their cheesemaker Jaime this morning. Don’t worry- we’re taking lots of photos and notes so we can share it all with you.
August 4th, 2007
BEETS, BACON, and BAYLEY HAZEN BLUE
These three items have graced my table, both lunch and dinner, many times during the last month and a half. When you eat cheese every day, it is important to continue expanding the repertoire… Each of these ingredients pulls its weight as an individual and together they make a stellar combination of salty, sweet, and creamy that results in serious umami.
BEETS: Since returning home from our Cheese by Hand trip we have focused on eating from the farmers’ market and with a handful of exceptions- coffee, flour/sugar, butter, creme fraiche- we have been successful. The success of this experiment has gone well beyond the original goal, it has inspired variety in our pantry and encouraged me to work on my cooking.
Beets- the things I wouldn’t imagine poisoning my plate with a year ago, (we had the canned variety in my house growing up) have become something that I think I could eat every single day. I love roasting them and then plunking them in tarts, laying them over the top of our salads, etc.
BACON: This pig product has been the downfall of many vegetarians. Many. And for great reason- I don’t need to sing the praises of bacon as a general category- because almost no one reading needs to be convinced that bacon is worth eating. I will run my mouth off about bacon from Tamarack Hollow Farm because it is worthy of the highest praise.
The slices are what I would call medium cut, each is well marbled and the flavor is really heads and tails above others I’ve tried. Tamarack is run by former vegetarians Mike Betit and his wife Elsa. They believe that pigs should be out rooting around in the woods and fields and have a great life right on up to the end.
BAYLEY HAZEN BLUE: There is no shortage of posts about brothers Andy and Mateo Kehler at Jasper Hill Farm. Because I’m not currently working in a cheese shop I find that I eat a lot less cheese than I used to. Since Bayley isn’t at the farmers’ market, my JHF cheese intake has plummeted. Shocking and shameful I know but between my visits to their farm and Mateo’s trips to NYC- I’ve managed to procure a few morsels.
Bayley is a milder blue and while I’ve eaten it steadily it never really captured my attention much until our visit to the farm in May. In the Kehler’s fridge there is always a marred wedge of Bayley Hazen that gets lumped up and added to whatever is on for lunch or dinner. Spring and summer are huge salad times for the JHF crew- they have an excellent, local supplier, Pete’s Greens and one of their staple salad toppers is Bayley Hazen Blue. Our visit fell within the season of greens and our salads have not been the same since.
July 28th, 2007
Interesting article in today’s NY Times Dining Out section about animal welfare and all the parties participating in that movement- animal rights groups, Slow Food, chefs, farmers, etc. One thing that surprises me about the meat debate is the absence of dairy throughout the discussion. Vegetarian dairy consumers enjoy the spoils of the animals and leave the burden of slaughter to the meat eaters when truthfully they are equal players in the production of meat.
Just to give you full disclosure, I am a reformed lacto-ovo vegetarian. Honestly, for ten full years my life felt complete without meat but I never would have made it without a constant supply of dairy products. I was the kind of vegetarian who saw my decision as a personal one- not something anyone else had to take on- based on my desire to not eat anything I didn’t think I could kill.
Unlike most fallen vegetarians, I wasn’t lured back into an omnivorous lifestyle by bacon. Instead it was the halting realization I had during the first week of our Cheese by Hand tour last summer: there is a direct cost in animal life in the production of all dairy products. There is no way around the fact that in order for mammals to lactate they must give birth. No dairy farmer, no matter how big their operation, can support this kind of expansion annually. The males are the first to go- having little use on a dairy farm, and in many cases not all of the females will stay to become part of the milking herd either. This is the undeniable reality of the dairy industry.
Given that I had been working in the dairy industry for three years, this should not have come as a surprise to me and yet somehow it did. I was more than slightly embarrassed to admit to the dairy farmers we visited that I’d been a cheese-gorging vegetarian for so long and yet I did, largely because I respected them too much to hide it. Not only did they not write me off, but often they empathized. They explained that sending animals to slaughter never gets easier for them. Never. In fact, many of them said that it gets more difficult.
Take Karen Weinberg of 3 Corner Field Farm as an example- either she or her husband drives the van with lambs and ewes to the slaughterhouse when it is time for them to go. Watching both of them tend to these animals in the fields and the milking parlor I was compelled to ask Karen flat out what those trips feel like for her. Without hesitation she said that they have gotten harder as she has gotten more organized- because she is less distracted from what she is doing. The beautiful thing about what she does on her farm is how absolutely honest it is. Karen and her family commit to giving those animals the best possible existence while they are with them and they remain present to what those animals go through right up to the end.
Many farmstead producers we spoke with echoed these sentiments- David Finney at Willow Hill Farm, Helen and Rick Feete of Meadowcreek Dairy, Alyce Birchenough of Sweet Home Farm- all of them said that sending an animal to slaughter is both an incredibly difficult decision for them and completely necessary if they are to stay in business. Their response to that difficulty is the same for them- rather than distance themselves from their feelings they focus on providing the best possible environment for those animals.
Labeling cheese as vegetarian feels like a half-truth. It indirectly perpetuates a myth that all animals on a dairy farm are allowed to live out their years until they die of natural causes. On numerous occasions at the farmers’ market I’ve watched people walk up to Karen’s booth, recoil at the site of meat (or worse, ask for it to be covered up) as they order their cheese, yogurt or milk. They don’t understand, or believe Karen when she tells them, that the meat is from the lambs that were born so that she would have milk to sell and to make cheese and yogurt.
I can’t think of a more disrespectful way to treat the people who provide food (not to mention the animals themselves), that we the consumers demand, than to ignore their sacrifices or criticize them of cruelty to the very animals upon which their livelihood depends. Not every dairy farmer out there shares this kind of regard for their herd- we know that from the news stories we see about feed lots and abuse. Lacto-ovo vegetarians should feel the same sense of obligation that they would like meat-eaters to have in seeking producers who share their values on the ethical treatment of animals. Not just the milking animals but all of the animals produced on their farms or on the farms that supply them with milk.
As a result of the time we spent on dairy farms I did decide to eat meat again but, more importantly, I felt compelled to be completely honest with myself about what it means to consume cheese and other dairy products. Whether I’m consuming meat, cheese, vegetables or grains- I’m interested in acknowledging what was involved in producing my food. You don’t have to eat meat to prove your dedication to dairy- you just can’t claim that you have no part in its production.
July 25th, 2007
One of the Mozzarella Company’s head cheesemakers, Octavia, has recently opened a restaurant in West Dallas where she is serving up fresh, authentic Mexican food in a cozy, converted old diner. Paula took us to eat at Paraiso Restaurant Taqueria tonight. It was such a treat to see Octavia there- normally her daughter runs the show at the restaurant- but the highlight was definitely the food. Still in its early stages, the restaurant opened about six weeks ago and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Paraiso is located in Cockrell Hill section of West Dallas on West Jefferson.
We went with a troop of friends and colleagues from the cheese factory and based on Paula’s recommendation we started with a round of Gorditas for the table. Soft corn tortillas made on premisis (see below) filled with various meats or vegetables, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and topped with some crumbles of queso fresco. They were accompanied by a hot chili sauce- I could put about a pinprick’s worth on mine before my tongue was on fire. Tasty.
You can see from the lineup of our main entrees that our eyes were bigger than our stomachs but also that we got a variety of dishes. Some of us had grilled chicken with various sauces like mole, our vegetarian representative had flautas- divine, many had tacos, and Paula swung out to try something called a Sopas. Sopas are like individual tarts made from corn tortilla dough and filled with meat, pico de gallo, sour cream and toppped with queso fresco. I realized that none of this is particularly revolutionary food but this is exactly what is refreshing about it- it is just the simple, authentic mexican dishes done very well. A satisfying meal for both your belly and your pocketbook. Just make sure you bring beer if you need to have it as they aren’t selling it in house yet.I watched this woman make tortillas until our food came. I’d never seen a press like the one she was using.
December 10th, 2006
Sorry to fall off the face of the earth but I am down here in arctic Texas; it was colder in Dallas than New York when I arrived last Saturday. I am here to help cheesemaker Paula Lambert, owner of the Mozzarella Company, with her holiday gift baskets. Of course I’ve also been dabbling in the cheesemaking room and today I helped make one of the most special cheeses at the Mozzarella Co.- Christmas Cheese.
There are conflicting rumors about how Christmas Cheese was born…something about a misguided batch of Queso Fresco but one decade later the recipe is definitely set (to read the official story check out the Mozz Co newsletter here). One of Paula’s most valuable cheesemakers is a spry, kind woman named Octavia. She brought me into the make room today and got me to roll up my sleeves to mix all the Christmas Cheese fixings into this tub (2ft x 1ft x 1ft) filled with crumbles of Queso Fresco curd. When I saw the orange disks I assumed they were using annatto- the standard orange coloring used for cheddars and things- and I was wrong. The creamy white curds take their color from ancho chili paste which adds nice, rich flavor.
An important detail about this cheese is that all of the ingredients are mixed throughout the curds by hand. It is like giving a tub of cheese a seriously deep tissue massage. It was incredibly satisfying to watch this mass of crumbles turn from white to a light orange color. There are also fresh jalepenos mixed in and they create wonderful variation in texture.
Once all of the ingredients were distributed throughout the curd we took it in sections about the size of a tennis ball and packed them into shallow, round forms that are like cookie cutters- open on both sides. We smoothed off the tops and then popped the disks out onto a tray so that Elena (another cheesemaker here) could adorn their tops with slivers of fresh jalapeno in a little star pattern.
When I first saw the Christmas Cheese I had my reservations as I’ve gone the slightly cheese snobbish, looking sideways at colored cheeses, but this one put my snobbery to shame. Forget about lemon chocolate stilton, sage derby, or mango ginger cheddar and dig in for a Southwestern treat that makes sense. Queso Fresco has always gone with chilis this is simply an unconventional, if not more convenient, format for the pairing.
My favorite tasting of Christmas Cheese so far, other than having chunks of it while I take my breaks from gift basketing, was on a warm roast beef sandwich created by Paula’s husband Jim. We didn’t even speak while we ate them, we just mmm’d and aaah’d. I enjoyed it so much that I had a second one for lunch this morning.
Now for any of you who are out there saying, ‘Well, that is nice for someone else but I don’t like spicey things…’ this cheese is not dangerously hot rather it is well balanced with tang and a nice dose of seasoning. This time around on the Christmas Cheese make I was up to my elbows in curd but I promise I’ll get some photos of the next round on Monday.
And I’ll be sure to capture the ladies stretching out thin rope like strips of Oaxaca which might be heaven in the form of cheese when they lop a warm slice off for you that is still warm and lightly salted with a squeeze of lime on it. As my dear friend Nancy would say- “It is so good it makes you want to hit something.” I am prone to pounding a fist on the table but I don’t recommend this at holiday parties- too many pieces of fancy china and half-filled drinks lying around.
More from me next week. Enjoy your holiday parties.
December 10th, 2006
I know I promised more about cheese people from my trip to Italy but four days after I got home I was on a plane again (I’m not looking for sympathy), this time headed to Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, VA. We visited them early on during the Cheese by Hand tour so it was great to see their farm in another season and also to get a more hands on experience at their facility. What a treat it was. Not only are the cows and the farm absolutely beautiful but cheese production is also in full swing. They’ve got a great crew of milkers and cheese workers, and Helen and Rick are incredible hosts (with mad cooking skills).
The new cheesemaking room is almost finished and they will be in there before they wrap up milking for the season in about six weeks. The new, in-ground cellar that they built directly beneath the cheese house is complete (minus all of its official shelving) and has cheese maturing in it on metal racks- thank goodness because Helen and her crew have been cranking out cheese. Without the space in the new cellar they would have overflowed the upstairs aging rooms many times over. They are now making 4-5 times a week.
Grayson, the Taleggio-inspired, stout and square cheese is made with the milk from one milking and is usually made twice each week. Helen explained to me that the quantity of milk she is getting from the cows is steadily decreasing but the ratio of solids in the milk (the stuff you want for cheesemaking- fats and proteins, etc) is increasing thus the actual yield she gets from a vat of Grayson curd is not dropping too much. This also means that it is pugdy and luscious and something you should get your hands on as often as you can between now and March of next year before it takes a mini-vacation and we have the Grayson of Spring 2007.
Mountaineer is made with milk from two milkings and was an interesting make for me to observe as it involves pressing under the whey. My understanding about this kind of pressing is that it helps create that smooth, creamy texture found in firm cheeses like Gouda and an American favorite Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Just 30 minutes after the cheeses are hooped and pressed they are removed and flipped inside the hoops to continue pressing. Amazingly, after only 30 mintues in their forms, they already have the smooth exterior and sturdy shape that they maintain through their aging.
Even with all the cheese washing, wrapping and packaging that went on during the week, Helen managed to get me out into the fields a bit with Rick to talk about pasture management. The pastures look different than they did in May and it takes them longer to grow back so Rick has to ration the grass carefully to make sure the cows get enough dry matter each day and that the land will last for the next six weeks. He is supplementing with dry hay at this point, because there isn’t enough in the fields at this time of year.
The Jersey coats change considerably as the weather cools down. Rick explained to me that Jerseys don’t have a thick layer of fat under their skin like some other breeds do, so their coat really bulks up to keep them warm through the winter. This was visible on the the young calves I met in May who are now out on pasture together and about 9 months old. Helen and I took a walk out to see the them on a non-cheesemaking afternoon. Along the way were signs of Rick’s preparations for the winter, non-milking months; hay storage in two areas that will allow them to feed the cows in various pastures without having to haul hay from their main storage area next to the milking parlor on a daily basis. Continuing to move the cows around on the pastures is important so that you don’t get manure build-up in one area rather you get an even spread of fertilizer on the land.
One of the pillars at Meadow Creek is Dixie. He has worked with Helen for years and is her right hand in the cheese room. If you order from Meadow Creek then you have definitely talked to Dixie. It was nice to work along side him through the week and hear his familiar drawl, “Meadow Creek Dairy, this is Dixie…” as he took calls from customers. On Saturday morning, after we loaded up and sent out the biggest order ever at the dairy, Dixie presented me with this gorgeous, baked Grayson. Homemade puff pastry of course, with decorative leaves and a golden “S”. If you want to please and surprise your guests during the holidays- ditch the brie and make some melty, gooey Grayson. Don’t be shy about slathering a layer of your favorite Grayson companion jam- fig, apple or even honey on top of the cheese before enrobing it in pastry and baking. This was an excellent way to round out my week at the dairy. Can’t wait to go back in the spring.
November 17th, 2006
This is where we cheese lovers belong.
I spent a lot of time here over the last few days while I was participating in two SlowFood events in Torrino, Italy this past week: Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto. Food Olympics… Gustatory Tour de Force… neither of these come close to explaining these simultaneous events. Terra Madre is a conference designed to bring food producers, chefs, academics, food documentarians and press together to discuss large issues like food freedom and biodiversity, food safety, and food communities. The lineup of speakers is amazing and includes not only food visionaries (Carlo Petrini- founding father of SlowFood, Vandana Shiva- , and Michael Pollan- author of Omnivore’s Dilemma) but also many individual producers and food community organizers from around the world.
By the second or third day of Terra Madre, you are so entrenched that you aren’t even fully present to the miracle that is the entire event. You wander from a session about Honey where you hear producers from Russia, Italy, and Africa talk about their challenges and production methods to the session on GMO’s where you hear from Polish, Spanish, Central American and Italian experts. And all the while you are sporting a headset that magically translates every one of these speakers into English (or any of the 7 other languages avaialble on the dial).
At some point you take a break and meander across the walkway to Salone del Gusto. This is a serious food show with smaller scale producers from around the world offering their products for tasting and purchasing. It is totally overstimulating and forced me to really focus on just a few things rather than trying to see the entire show. It isn’t even overeating that slowed me down rather it was the throngs of people whose elbows seemed to get sharper as the days progressed.
The cheese aisles are incredible- yes there are multiple via dei formaggi. It was insanely pleasing to see such a broad range of Italian cheeses as this is one country whose cheeses I think are not done justice in the American market. We’re used to the basics- Gorgonzola, Parmiggiano, Mozzarella, Taleggio- and we miss out on the range of Robiolas (discs wrapped in all kinds of leaves), and the incredible mountain cheeses like Bitto and Bagoss, not to mention the three layered cheese called Montebore.
My favorite part of Salone (after cheese) was actually the SlowFood Presidia section. Presidia are small groups of artisan producers who come together to help restore food traditions and protect food production that is at risk. There were presidia from around the world sharing their wares. It was incredibly enjoyable because each booth had educational materials about their product from how it is made to who is making it. A number of booths focused on cured meats made from breeds of pig that were near extinction and are now being raised in traditional ways- out on pasture and not slaughtered until 14 months (pigs that make industrial prosciutto are slaughtered at 6 months). There were also black beans from Basque country, producers of wines made from rare grape varietals in France and Italy, and vanilla and red rice from Madagascar. In the cheese department there was no shortage of variety beginning with mixed milk (cow and sheep) cheese that is aged in a sack made from sheep skin in southern Bosnia, traditional cheddar producers from the Somerset region of England, thistle renneted Serpa cheeses from Portugal, Morlacco del Grappa- a cow milk cheese made during summer months in the mountainous areas and is one of the most divine things I’ve ever tasted… the list goes on.
I’m going to do another post later in the week about the American farmers and cheesemakers I met while I was there- some of them old friends and some new faces. Stay tuned.
November 1st, 2006