Posts filed under 'General'

Back on the Cheese Trail

Shoes.jpgYou may have noticed that we have been working hard to crank out the audio pieces from the majority of our farm visits. In addition to listening, editing and posting the voices of cheesemakers from our tour I have donned my shoe covers again and paid visits to a handful of dairies on the west coast in preparation for my upcoming BOOK!
I just inked the deal to create a cheese-driven reference guide to west coast cheeses.  Check out the description posted under the new “Book” tab above. I will keep you posted as I visit creameries in California, Oregon and Washington.

In the meantime we will continue to bring you the voices of cheesmakers across America.

Thank you for your continued support and interest.

Add comment April 17th, 2009

Let’s do our part to help the hungry

blog_for_food.jpgTimes are tough for many these days. We want to do what we can to help members of our new community here in Oregon and we’re inviting you to help too. It does not take much to make a difference and we can’t think of a more worthy organization at this time than the Oregon Food Bank- a wonderful and effective organization that helps hundreds of thousands of people throughout Oregon and southern Washington. The Oregon Food Bank supports a network of food distribution centers throughout the state and works to eliminate the root causes of hunger through advocacy, nutrition education, learning gardens and public education.

As the economy slides the number of people relying on the programs supported and administered by the Oregon Food Bank is steadily rising. Many of us are consumers committed to supporting local growers, producers, and chefs because we believe not only in agriculture but in the importance of healthy regional food systems. Organizations like the Oregon Food Bank work to ensure that none of the food produced goes to waste- every day they are out there recovering and redistributing food from individuals, wholesalers, retailers, and also gleaning from regional farms- this work honors the value of food and the resources that go into producing it. This is an important time to support this part of our food system and those in need. If everyone does a little bit (or a lot!) we can have a huge impact during these challenging times.

Help us reach our goal to raise $5000 for the Oregon Food Bank! To donate you can click here or on the Blog for Food logo above. When you make your online donation please enter ‘blog for food’ in the tribute section of the Oregon Food Bank page so that your donation counts toward our campaign. You can also send checks directly to the Oregon Food Bank at PO Box 55370, Portland, OR  97238- be sure to mention the Blog for Food campaign!

Add comment February 1st, 2009

Growth is good…right?

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.

Add comment August 17th, 2007

What do these words actually mean?

Specialty
Artisanal
Farmstead

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.”

ARTISANAL

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.

FARMSTEAD

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

2 comments October 23rd, 2006

Off the road…

We are back in New York city; happy to be out of the car and yet sad to be so far away from the farms and people we visited this summer. Although we are not cruising the countryside for cheesemakers anymore we will continue to post to the site weekly (at least), on Wednesdays. I am heading to Terra Madre on Tuesday and will attempt to post from Italy about what is going on in the larger world of cheese, sustainability, agriculture, etc.

Michael is focused on creating audio farm profiles from over 100 hours of footage recorded during our trip, we will let you know when we find an outlet for them so you’ll know where to listen. This is incredibly exciting- I think that cheese enthusiasts and other radio listeners will enjoy hearing from these people who are so rarely heard in person.

I am working on a book proposal about the trip and our findings. We will continue to visit farms as the opportunities arise. I’ve spent a couple Saturdays at Saxelby Cheesemongers as a guest-monger, filling in for Anne Saxelby and introducing New Yorkers to the wonders of American cheeses. If you are in New York her shop is a must-see or rather a must-eat destination. Some of my favorites from my shift there yesterday-

Cobb Hill Ascutney Mountain- represents both tropical fruit and nut flavors which seems totally illogical but is delicious. I think Kate and I sold at least 10 pounds of it yesterday.
3-Corner Field Farm Shushan Snow- a camembert-like disk made with sheep’s milk. Nails all the mushroom, earthy flavors and- it is the perfect companion to a crusty baguette.

Stay tuned…

Add comment October 22nd, 2006


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