Archive for October, 2006
Steve Ehlers from Larry’s Market in Milwaukee, Wisconsin sent me an email with some info I did not find yesterday when I was trolling the internet looking for specific definitions for all of our terms. These are from the ACS website- shameful that I missed them I suppose- such is my life with the web.
Specialty cheese is defined as a cheese of limited production, with particular attention paid to natural flavor and texture profiles. Specialty cheeses may be made from all types of milk (cow, sheep, goat) and may include flavorings, such as herbs, spices, fruits and nuts.
Artisan or Artisanal Cheese
The word “artisan” or “artisanal” implies that a cheese is produced primarily by hand, in small batches, with particular attention paid to the tradition of the cheesemaker’s art, and thus using as little mechanization as possible in the production of the cheese. Artisan, or artisanal, cheeses may be made from all types of milk and may include various flavorings.
In order for a cheese to be classified as “farmstead,” as defined by the American Cheese Society, the cheese must be made with milk from the farmer’s own herd, or flock, on the farm where the animals are raised. Milk used in the production of farmstead cheeses may not be obtained from any outside source. Farmstead cheeses may be made from all types of milk and may include various flavorings.
October 24th, 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
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.
October 22nd, 2006
Now I know that animated gifs are not the “hottest” thing on the web (unless it is 1996 again?) but after taking so many photos - we decided to build a few flip books:
(click on the image to load the animated gif)
This is the extruder at Vermont Butter & Cheese - it pushes the goat cheese curd into a plastic mold to form the cheese they call Coupole. His knee controls the extruder, once the Coupole form is filled with curd he salts the bottom and pops it out onto the rack.
At the Mozzarella Company the entire staff helps make the mozzarella. Here they are forming the stretched curd into balls of various sizes and dropping them into cold water to help the cheese maintain its new shape.
At Rogue Creamery the team fills the metal forms with curd and then transfers them to draining racks, flipping the newly formed cheeses them as they go.
At Crave Brothers they use a mozzarella maker that stretches the curd and forces it into the proper size and shape. The stream of water is used to encourage the newly formed cheeses to plop out onto the table to be collected up and packaged.
At Oakvale Farm Dale scoops curd out of the vat and packs the forms before placing them on the hydraulic press.
Mariano at Fiscalini Cheese takes slabs of recently cheddared cheese and runs it through a mill leaving a pile of neat rectangle-shaped pieces of curd that will be salted and eventually scooped into large forms.
At Haystack Mountain Peter flips and wraps the freshly formed cheese in cheese cloth.
At Goat Lady Dairy they wrap each and every cheese by hand.
Here are the sheep at Shepherd’s Way at dusk.
Finally at the end of our trip we stopped just south of the Fingerlakes of NY and took a walk into the gorge at Watkins Glen…
October 10th, 2006
Name: Cato Corner Farm
Owners: Elizabeth McAllister and Mark Gillman
Location: Colchester, CT
Animals: Milking 18-25 Jersey cows
Cheeses/Products: Dutch Farmstead, Hooligan, Brigid’s Abbey, Black Ledge Blue, Bloomsday, Vivace, Vivace Bambino, Womanchego. These are their most regularly produced cheeses- to see the list of seasonal or less frequently made cheeses check their website.
More info: www.catocornerfarm.com
Elizabeth began farming in the late 70’s when she bought the land that Cato Corner Farm stands on today. She started out raising sheep and goats for meat. This was a largely seasonal business cycle- the animals were born, raised and then slaughtered in the spring and summer. Seasonal is not ideal economically and unfortunately it doesn’t mean that once your season is over you get to take the rest of the year off as there are always things to be done on the farm and the ewes, does, rams and bucks have to be fed throughout the winter. So after a decade of producing meat Elizabeth began thinking about other ways of farming. In the early days she was working with 150 sheep and 40 some odd goats who produced lamb and kids each year. She talked to us about her meat farming days while she was waiting for their vet to show up to do some routine checks on their herd. A neighbor who has goats pulled into the drive to wait for the vet as well and Elizabeth couldn’t resist asking them to tell Mark (who was at the hardware store when everyone arrived) that these were goats that Elizabeth had bought for them to begin milking. None of us could hold a straight face longer than about 20 seconds when Mark showed up and restrained from freaking out about the goat kids in their driveway.
After this introduction Mark took us on a tour of all the cheese areas. It is very common on our visits for us to go through all the cheese areas before taking a step out into the field with the animals- simply for sanitation reasons. Mark started us out in the cheesemaking room- a space that seemed small when I thought about the volumes of cheese Cato sells at NYC Greenmarkets and various regional retailers. But clearly it is getting the job done. Mark and his cheese crew are making cheese four days a week now (up from 3) and batches are typically around 1250 lbs of milk. Its not that the cheesemaking and maturing rooms are shiny and new but they are satisfyingly clean and organized. Maybe I was preparing myself for the return to New York sized spaces but there was a certain efficiency to both the make and maturing rooms. The cellar was fascinating to me because it is one large room that holds all of the styles they produce from rough-edged tommes to washed rinds and blues. There is enough space to separate cheese types “geographically” if you will but they are still all sharing the same air. You can imagine that with the range of cheeses the aroma in the cellar is complex- the heavy air reminds you of milk and a damp basement at the same time.
Although Mark grew up on this farm, he didn’t stay here all the way through the evolution from meat to cheesemaking. Elizabeth was manning the meat production when she found out about a value-add incentive program being offered by the state of Connecticut and she sought more information. Interested by what she had heard, began the transition from meat to milk producer in the mid-90’s. She sold her livestock, purchased cows, and invested some capital to add on a cheesemaking room, an aging and cold storage area, and an updated milk parlor. Her cheesemaking officially began in 1997. The switch to cows was both for personal taste reasons (she isn’t wild about some varieties of goat cheeses) and for the versatility of cow milk. The decision to make raw milk cheeses was an easy one for Elizabeth because she grew up eating fine cheeses- her father was a food enthusiast with a passion for cheese- many of them raw. You can see the influence of her cheese-infused childhood in the variety she chose to produce. The in-ground cellar that we toured with Mark was an expansion they did a few years ago as their production and variety increased beyond what they could do in the small space allocated for maturing upstairs. The former “cave” upstairs now serves as greenmarket cold storage- it is lined with the standard, gigantic coolers that many producers to haul their goods to market.
Elizabeth basically ran the farm on her own for a few years; she moved the cows around in their 40 acres of pasture, milked, made and aged the cheeses. Meanwhile Mark was working as a schoolteacher across the country. He found that his interest in farming was increasing and that although he enjoyed teaching he was feeling a pull to return home and reacquaint himself with the land he knew as a boy. It was 1999 when Mark came home and partnered with Elizabeth in her ambitious operation. Through a series of events, Mark and Elizabeth’s roles on the farm became more defined. Mark had a natural interest in the cheesemaking and gradually began spending more of his time on that than out with the animals. Elizabeth focused her energy on the herd.
A couple years ago I had the pleasure of hearing Elizabeth speak at an event in New York and the one thing I distinctly remember her saying was, “we make the cheese because it allows us to keep the cows.” I know for a fact that, although she is a big fan of her cows, she also enjoys making and eating Cato Corner cheeses. Their operation illustrates the miracle of cheesemaking- through the same basic process milk can be transformed into so many different tastes and textures. Beyond their cheeses, something I appreciated about Mark and Elizabeth was the bold moves they each made to get to their current positions. Elizabeth took her farm in a totally new and yet sustainable direction and Mark allowed himself to follow his gut which was pulling him back to the farm. Their farm feels like family- the good part of family that his close enough to make you feel comfortable and still loose enough to give you room to grow.
I’m looking forward to stinking up my tiny New York city apartment refrigerator with a wedge of Hooligan.
October 5th, 2006
There was an excellent opinion piece by Nina Planck in the NY Times last week about the e. coli 0157 outbreak caused by contaminated spinach. What does this have to do with cheese? It is related to cheese in that Ms. Planck makes a connection between the spinach problem and the current commercial dairy and feedlot situation. I thought the piece did a fantastic job at outlining some of the serious issues happening in agriculture and the importance of understanding the root cause of an outbreak like this.
I do feel like a little extra information would arm consumers with a more complete picture about the use of grain on dairy farms. Every dairy except one that we visited this summer feeds their herds some percentage of their diet in grain. Because I wanted to have my facts straight before I started blabbing on the blog, I emailed one of the herdsmen I interviewed this summer with my questions about cows and grain and he sent back a response that I found incredibly useful. Below is a link to the NY Times piece and also the information I received from Andy Kehler at Jasper Hill Farm where they milk 35-40 cows.
Andy Kehler’s email to me:
“While Nina’s piece about ecoli and its connection to the dairy and beef industry was informative, I believe that there is crucial distinction that needs to be made. As a dairy farmer that does feed grain, I was disturbed that I am being lumped into a category of farming where I don’t feel that I belong. There was no distinction made between herds that are fed grain as a supplement to balance a ration and herds where the majority of their diet is grain based. Nina says turn your attention to the dairy and beef industry,but I believe the culprit is actually corn. It wasn’t until farms started feeding large ammounts of corn that 0157 started becoming a problem. It is cheap and easy to grow and the government will pay you to grow it. You have to feed enough corn to create ruminal acidosis in the animal- the ph in the rumen drops creating an environment where 0157 can can exist- this also leads to laminitis (where layers of the hoof start separating) and other metabolic problems in dairy cows.
Dairy cows have been bred over the last 100 years to produce more and more milk. They have gotten farther and farther away from their “natural state” where they could calve in the wild and forage. Most dairy cows can’t consume enough grass to meet the energy demands that their bodies require after they calve. This is when they are under the most stress- recouperating from calving, growing if it is their first or second calf and producing the milk that they are genetically predisposed to make. As a dairy farmer I feel that it is my responsibility to formulate a healthy ration for my herd and I believe that grain is a very important part of a healthy diet. As a farm we are lucky that we have been able to get away from pressures that fluid milk producers have, and can put the health of my cows and the quality of my milk at the forefront of what we do. I also have a herd where I can treat each cow as an individual and adjust each cows diet on a daily basis. This is impossible do on a large dairy.
The real problem here is that as a society we have made the choice that cheap food is more important than food safety. If we look where agricultural subsidies go, most of them go to the production of corn. In order to take advantage of these a farm must be of a certain size, for handling corn takes a lot more equipment. It is hard to justify the investment in equipment if you are milking less than 80 to 100 cows. Nina is asking us to look at the culprits- dairy and beef farmers. Comercial dairies need to squeeze as much milk out of each cow as possible in order to remain competitive. What ends up happening is they are trying to get as close to ruminal acidosis as possible- feed them as many calories as possible, without crossing that line where the rumen becomes too acidic. The industry creates a scenario in which a farmer has to push their cows as much as possible to produce more milk per animal.
There are around 3000 large farms in the U.S. There are tens of thousands of small family farms that are really struggling right now to stay alive because as a society we have chosen to ecourage and subsidize cheap milk and cheap beef. This is why this distinction is so important. I applaud Nina for shedding light on this issue, for I do feel that there is a serious threat to food safety here. I do, however, think the issue is more complex than she alludes and that the last thing that our small family farms need is to be blamed for making people sick.”
October 3rd, 2006