Posts filed under 'Ruminations'
There has been a lot of talk in the cheese world about the business dealings of two of New York’s biggest cheese retailers- Murray’s Cheese and Artisanal Premium Cheese (Pacific Northwest Cheese Project, Serious Eats). The concept that the speciality cheese industry is growing in leaps and bounds is not new- the current rumblings are of interest because they are making us all wonder what the growth of our beloved industry is going to look like. Personally, I find both of these announcements incredibly interesting and yet not at all surprising. They are following the same trends we’re seeing in cheese production- expansion, expansion, expansion.
Both announcements come on the heels of this year’s American Cheese Society conference that had the biggest number of cheeses entered ever into it’s competition. It seems like a perfectly natural thing in our culture where commerce rules above all else that Murray’s would create a satellite store program and Artisanal would be purchased by some a large food company that no one knows much about beyond their ticker symbol. These opportunities have come to Murray’s and Artisanal because they offer great products and they are marketing machines- expert at making cheese seem both accessible and complicated enough that we also need them to tell us all about it.
To some extent, both NY area giants have garnered their reputation as cheese experts because they provided the you-can-only-get-it-here kinds of products that are made in small quantities and can be of incredible quality. Of course their cheese selections span the spectrum from precious to pedestrian but there is a focus on and touting of the precious. The interesting thing about their expansions will be to see what happens to the precious? I’m just not sure, particularly with the Murray’s setup how the kiosk at Krogers will feel like Murray’s without the presence of the precious.
Begins to beg the question- what is specialty cheese? The dillution of or alteration of that definition is going to be as big or a bigger deal than any independent retailer expansion over the coming decade. These retailers are taking advantage of an opportunity to increase their revenues, extend their brand, and to elevate the cheese experience of consumers across the country. Not so different from what is going on with cheese production- large dairy companies are stepping boldy into the “specialty cheese” market… Sargento Artisan Blends?
How can we blame them? There is an enormous opportunity in this sector of the cheese market and if it raises the bar on cheeses available to the average cheese consumer it might be a good thing. My bet is that most of us don’t have much of a problem with more Murray’s cheese counters, more online sales maybe even retail locations for Artisanal, or more “specialty cheeses”. The thing that worries me is the potential for commodification of “specialty cheese”. The fact that I feel like I have to put it in quotes doesn’t bode well but honestly I’m concerned about the motives behind the companies going first in these expansions (retailers and producers alike).
Generally I don’t have a huge problem with larger dairy companies venturing into the “specialty cheese” market. I also don’t have gripes with the early cheese-by-hand producers who have grown dramatically over the last decade. What bothers me is the creative marketing done by producers and retailers alike. the use of terms like family-run, hand selected, cave aged, traditional, etc.- all of these can be used to conjure visions of small farms with animals on pasture and craggy stone caves below the cheese house where appropriate molds linger around waiting to develop incoming handcrafted cheeses. Sometimes these terms are accurate but more often than not they are a tarted up version of what is actually happening. Mostly- in a market where it is so challenging to be an informed consumer- I want producers and retailers to be honest about what they’re doing. To be straight about what the products they are making and selling really are.
Artisanal and Murray’s have huge opportunities to help build the infrastructure of this growing business in a way that is both responsible and sustainable. They could opt to focus on getting regional specialties established and distributed within their area of origin, provide useful feedback on cheeses in development, or set standards for producers making cheese for them.
Bottom line: The companies that establish themselves as the true retail cheese experts early on will have considerable power in the market- I hope they will use it to help elevate the caliber of cheeses being produced and to support sustainable production methods. Too much to ask? I don’t think so- not for companies partnering with BIG FOOD.
August 17th, 2007
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
Tuesday afternoon I sauntered down to Saxelby Cheesemongers and picked up a couple cheeses for our Thanksgiving dinner:
First, a little ditty from one of my favorite creative forces in cheese, Laini Fondiller of Lazy Lady Farm. It is called Trillium and as Anne Saxelby described it, “It is a feat of both cheese ingenuity and engineering.” A small, mold-ripened, column with one layer of goat cheese running between two layers of cows’ milk cheese.
Second I nabbed a chunk of Grayson from Meadow Creek- not much of a stretch for me given that I ate a ton of it while I was on their farm not long ago but it was looking so voluptuous in the case that I couldn’t resist.
Third…La piece de resistance of my cheese board was the generous wedge of Jasper Hill Farm’s Aspenhurst. For those of you not familiar with Aspenhurst it is similar to a cheddar in that it has a bit of tang to it and is clothbound but technically it is not a cheddar because it is not “cheddared”. The curd is not stacked and re-stacked over a period of hours (cheddaring)- a process that allows acidity to build- but it is milled, pressed, larded, wrapped with cloth and aged for a minimum of 12 months making it similar in form and even in texture to clothbound cheddars. Aspenhurst is not widely available and I was lucky enough to get a wedge from the cheesemaker himself as a thank you for having assisted with one of the batches.
We visited Japser Hill in late June 2005 when we made Aspenhurst with Mateo. He enjoyed taunting us (Michael, our friend Tyler, and myself) about the Aspenhurst make all day. We laughed it off and then once Mateo started milling and we began “fluffing” (gently and repeatedly lifting up the milled curds to prevent them from matting) the curd we switched from giggling to sweating. These photos are from the end of the make and the beginning of the press.
November 26th, 2006
Now I’m not particularly patriotic but I get really into the all-American cheese board for Thanksgiving. I guess I feel like all the smaller scale dairy farmers and cheesemakers in the states represent the entrepreneurial and pioneering spirit that makes me feel inspired about our country. I do understand that lines at the specialty cheese shop swell during the holidays but I’ll admit that my two favorite days to volunteer to emerge from my post in the basement and sling cheese behind the counter at Murray’s were the day before Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.
I loved these shifts because:
a. Most customers shopping on those days were willing to invest time in the line and tolerate the hectic scene because of their commitment to having cheese as part of their big holiday meals. That alone warmed the cockles of my heart.
b. Many of these shoppers reminded me of my father when he shops during the holidays: relatively good humored even in their bouts of impatience, interested in spirited banter with the “experts” on the other side of the counter, and often not incredibly tactful (this makes for better storytelling later).
c. People were under duress; they wanted their holiday meals to be excellent and were often more willing to swing out and taste new things for possibility of discovering an unknown, out of the park, home run.
d. I didn’t usually have to work until closing- just to be totally honest- this is the perk of being a volunteer and a tribute to the generosity of the managers of the store who valiantly sent us home as early as they could.
So many of the things on my list meant that I could get customer to try American cheeses and many of them were pleasantly surprised. I LOVED this… both because I am incredibly excited about artisan cheese in this country AND because I love surprising people and being right (again- brutal truth).
Enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday, whether there is cheese on the table or not (gasp!), and check back with Cheese by Hand for a review of our T-day cheese board.
Hot listed cheese of late for me are:
Twig Farm: Anything. Everything. Seriously. Michael Lee is making sweet dreams for us while living out his dream as a cheesemaker and goat farmer. Square Wheel, Goat Tomme, Twig Wheel… get what you can.
Meadow Creek: Grayson that is pudgy should not be left behind. Buy extra because if you have leftovers you can make a smashing panini with this cheese, a little bit of jam (I used fig), and some lightly sauteed shallots.
Jasper Hill: Bartlett Blue. Do not overlook this cheese in favor of Stilton. In fact, being who I am I would bring it home and tell people I had the best Stilton they’ve ever tasted… and then when their eyes roll back upon tasting I’d break the news that Stilton’s days at the top of the holiday blue list are numbered.
November 22nd, 2006
I read a post on a great blog that I recently discovered (I heart farms) and it got me thinking about these three terms, what farmers mean when they use them, and what the consumer thinks they mean when they read them on a label. The questions I encourage consumers to answer for themselves are:
What do you want these words to mean? In other words, what are you looking for when you buy cheese- specific animal husbandry practices, stewardship of the land, taste, food safety information- and why do you think one of these terms is any better than the others?
Answering these questions will do more to help you make decisions, when shopping for cheese, than any of the three unregulated terms listed above. I ask you to consider these questions because when I traveled around the country visiting cheesemakers this summer I went through the process of answering them for myself and found it incredibly valuable. I realized that there were things that bothered me a lot that had nothing to do with the volume or taste- things like the amount of petroleum it takes to get the cheese from California to New York. Not everyone wants to think about their food this much, I understand that- and I yet I would caution you against relying on any of these labels to inform your product selection.
If you think about what matters to you in cheese production, it might be less about volume and more about taste or farming philosophy. Do you want animals to be mainly out on pasture? Do you want a farm to have a strong focus on environmental stewardship? Do you want to support a small, family farm? Do you mainly care about how the cheese tastes? None of these labels answer these questions.
All three of these terms can also be used as marketing tools. I’ve included definitions below, with their sources, for each of the three terms in question and I think you’ll find that they all have holes in them. Even farmstead- the one that many of us feel great about- can be somewhat misleading because for most of us it is synonymous with bucolic and yet it can be a legitimate label on products coming from confinement dairies. Rather than relying on these labels, I encourage you to decide what is important to you and ask farmers, cheesemongers, and shopkeepers questions that will tell you what you need to know before you put your money into and your mouth around that next piece of cheese.
Note: We posted about a number of cheesemakers mentioned in the I Heart Farms post, if you want to read more about them click the links. Carr Valley, Andante Dairy, Fiscalini Farm.
SPECIALTY: The Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute defines this category of cheese as,
“Specialty cheese is defined as a value-added cheese product that is of high quality and limited quantity. A cheese product can be said to be of high quality if it commands a premium price, is of exotic origin, has particular processing, design, limited supply, unusual application or use, or extraordinary packing or channel of sale. A specialty cheese type cannot have a nationwide annual volume of more than 40 million pounds.”
This term is not defined by anyone. The rise of its use is indeed similar to terms like gourmet and natural which are often used to convey a message to consumers that the product is special, small-batch, hand-made or traditional. Researchers in the state of Wisconsin’s dairy industry say that “Artisan cheeses involve more hand-work and use of traditional cheesemaking techniques”. I stopped paying attention to this word a couple years ago when I read an article on an in-flight magazine about Artisanal water- I’m sure it is partly legit but I just couldn’t go there.
The American Cheese Society defines farmstead as follows,
1. Milk from herds on the farm where the cheeses is produced
2. Care and attention given to the purity, quality, and flavor of the milk
3. Production primarily accomplished by hand
4. Natural ripening with emphasis on development of characteristic flavor and texture, without the use of shortcuts and techniques to increase yield and shelf life at the expense of quality.
5. Respect for the traditions and history of cheese making regardless of the size of the production
October 23rd, 2006
I know that Comic-Con is in full swing down in San Diego, but up here in Portland we have our own love-fest going on! ACS (American Cheese Society) is rocking it! Cheesemakers from all around the country are mixing it up with retailers, distributors, writers and all around cheese-heads for four days of non-stop cheese eating!! I have heard more than one person say it is like meeting rock stars!
Sasha and I gave a talk Thursday about our project and played some audio for the crowd. It was a quiet crowd… we took the silence in the room to be a good thing - that they had absorbed all they wanted and were leaving more enriched than when they entered… OR they were thinking about lunch! Either way it was great to get the message out and be able to play clips from some of the cheesemakers.
Below is a piece we edited just for ACS. Along the way we have asked the cheesemakers if there is anyone they would like to thank for helping get them where they are today. We then put together a seven minute montage of their responses. This represents around 15 cheesemakers of our trip.
For ourselves we would like to thank all the cheesemakers we have visted and will visit for opening up their operations, farms and homes to us.
Hope you enjoy.
July 23rd, 2006
Well, hard to believe but we are one month into our tour. We have seen so much yet we have a hard time believing that it was just a month ago we met with Michael & Emily Lee at Twig Farm! The cheesemakers we have encountered have been so generous and welcoming… and we are grateful to all of them. We have traveled 5500 miles, driven through 19 states and visited 15 cheesemakers… all in 31 days. We think this is impressive. Though in Dallas we were ridiculed for thinking a 10 hr drive was long! So you be the judge…
Here is our calendar for May. Not only can you see the stops (and who we stayed with) but also you will see some lovely CSS and PHP code that I used to hack my way through completing our site. Ouch.
We are now in New Mexico - making our way to Colorado. We are in catch up mode (some of the “catch up” is due to food poising by vegetarians in Georgia). So keep an eye out. We hope to have a flurry of posts for the lovely Southern cheesemakers we visited.
This photo was found on Rt 287 between Wichita Falls and Childress Texas. Did they know we were coming? Rock on cheese billboard!!
June 4th, 2006
So here are a few things we found and loved in Vermont:
1. Fiddleheads. They are in season up here and wow are they amazing. First of all they are cool as hell to look at. And they have a stunning taste - both crunchy and leafy, bitter and sweet. And up in Vermont they are all over!
2. Overheard in Vermont
“So your entree comes with a side vegatable”
“So do you want peas or fiddleheads?”
WHAT? In the same grouping of the ubiquitous mushy pea is fiddlehead?! If we were back in NY we would only see these bad boys on the menu at the “fine” restaurants. But to see it at a diner was extra special. Which leads me to number three.
3. Wayside Diner in Montpelier, VT. It has been written up by the Stern’s in Road Food so we decided to swing by and it did not dissapoint. Nothing has been changed on the inside and the food was quite yummy.
4. One place we stumbled upon was Angelina’s outside of Cambridge, VT on Rt. 15. Along the road, facing a beautiful field of grazing cows, sits the unassuming Angelina’s. Known for their Italian food, they have a respectable list of pizza and calzones and buried at the bottom of the menu is “burger - $2.50″ and what a burger!! For those from the mid-west it was like a Steak ‘n Shake Steakburger. Chopped onions & pickles, little mustard and a grilled bun. I cried a little.
May 8th, 2006