Archive for August, 2007
Lucky for us, the Cornucopia Institute saw our post and actually sent us some additional information that will be helpful to all of us who hope to purchase dairy products that come from companies with responsible practices. You can read all the information about their study here.
I recommend reading the Understanding Brand Ratings document because it explains fully how they scored the dairies. Interesting survey to review because it reminds that organic is not necessarily more sustainable- often it means importing feed from a longer distance and also I’m not totally on board with the ‘no antibiotics ever’ rule. But- I do like the transparency of this organization’s study- you can look at both the results and the study that produced them.
August 28th, 2007
Wow. I was thinking that it was time for a post with pictures again- with cheese notes or something slightly lighter than recent fare. However I cannot resist posting about something that one of my favorite retailers of all time (Steve Ehlers, Larry’s Market in Milwaukee) has brought to my attention- serious, serious news about organic dairies. There are two articles I want to direct your attention to and they are both on this incredible website that you also should know about: The Cornucopia Institute. This group focuses on economic justice for family-scale farming. Hoo-RAY!
The home page today has a fantastic photos contrasting two distinct models of organic farming. One might call them family-style and industrial-style. Further down the page are the two articles that peaked my interest. The first is a New York Times piece from earlier in the week about the serious lack of any real oversite for the organic regulations that exist today let alone resources that would tend the evolution of organic policies as our knowledge grows. Second is an article done by the Cornucopia Institute about an ongoing investigation into the practices of an industrial organic farm that ships private label organic milk to stores that we all know too well (Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s, Costco, Target, etc.). You’ve got to scroll down a bit to get to this article on the home page- it is from August 14th.
In both articles there are a number of comments about these large-scale companies “skirting requirements” or “cutting corners” and this is the disheartening news. There has been a small triumph in the public with more people encouraged to pay attention to the production of their food and willing to shell out a higher price for organic products. Unfortunately it looks like at least some of the more broadly distributed organics- at least milk- are not being produced according to the current organic standards. This not only threatens the little progress that has been made but also, as the second article points out, really screws the smaller producers who are producing legitimate organic food.
Of course this kind of negative press has the potential to be a stepping off point for change- for improved definition and regulation of organic practices. Not sure that this will be the outcome right now given that there is a skeleton crew working at the National Organic Program Office- a team of nine people is all we have working to enforce and update existing regulations. However it will prove interesting because there are some larger scale organic producers like the quoted exec from Organic Valley who are really quite pissed off that another large producer is threatening their business. But then- how do we know what Organic Valley really does either? Ugh.
I remember talking to cheesemakers throughout the summer last year who were frustrated by so many things related to labelling their products- the terminology, the misinformed consumers, the ambiguity, cost, and upkeep to name a few. Of course it is understandable that we consumers want a silver bullet- we want a label that distills all the complexities of agriculture down into one or two words. Seems simple enough until you actually begin to explore the full spectrum of food production- both types of food being made and the scales on which they are produced. How can a dairy milking 40 animals use the same language to describe what they do as a dairy that milks 5,000?
I’m not sure that nine people alone can resolve the organic question. It might be that the best path to certainty where your food is concerned is to do what you can to know the people selling it to you. If you can’t get a farmer-direct relationship going, do what you can to get within a couple degrees of separation of that (CSA, reliable shopkeeper, etc.). Do I even need to remind you all that investing faith in stickers and pretty packaging is risky business?
August 23rd, 2007
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
When I started working at the Artisanal Cheese Center nearly four years ago, Ross Gagnon was the production manager. Ross had left his job as head cheesemaker at Shelburne Farms in Vermont, and moved to NYC to join the team at Artisanal. He was, and probably still is, a character. While listening to him critique cheeses was fascinating it was also completely frustrating because I had no idea what he was talking about. His technical knowledge of flavor and texture development in cheddars, the hallmark cheese of Shelburne Farms, was phenomenal. He had little patience for my newbie enthusiasm and lack of understanding of the cheesemaking process.
I was equally turned off by what I thought was snobbery on his part. One morning he was looking at a big wheel of cheddar and whining about how much he missed making cheese so I suggested that he make some cheese at home… He shook his head quietly and muttered something about not having access to milk. Being a pragmatist, I confidently informed him that there was plenty of milk- that he should just go buy some at the supermarket. My optimistic suggestion was met with silence.
Clearly I have made progress- I now understand that what he missed was a vat filled with pristine, high quality milk from Shelburne’s herd of 125 pure-bred registered Brown Swiss cows. Even with the stories that Ross and many others told about Shelburne- it never hit my radar as a place I urgently needed to visit. Seems strange now considering how many people have told me over the years that it is by far the most beautiful and one of the most impressive farms they’ve ever visited. During my week in Burlington- I made up for lost time and visited Shelburne twice.
The opening reception on the first night of hte ACS conference was held in the breeding barn at the farm- sounds rustic right? Think again- this is Shelburne Farms the former summer residence of Dr. William Seward and Victoria Vanderbilt Wells. In its heyday the farm was considered a center for agricultural innovation. The breeding barn was actually used for horses- specifically to create a sort of super-breed of workhorses for farmers. This fell apart with the invention of the internal combustion engine that lead to the use of tractors. The building is as long as a New York city block and is absolutely gorgeous inside and out. Turns out it was designed by Robert H. Robertson in the late 1800’s- he was considered one of the best of his time. The land is not privately owned any longer- it is now an environmental education non-profit. Check the Shelburne website for more history.
When we arrived most, if not all of Vermont’s cheesemakers were set up inside, sampling their cheeses at tables around the perimeter. Between the cheese and ice cold beer I didn’t stray too far from the barn and thus decided I would need to figure out a way to come back and check out the rest of the grounds before returning to NY.
Luckily I had met Shelburne’s current cheesemaker, Jaime Yturriondobeitia, at the Terra Madre conference put on by Slow Food last October. She is incredible- one because she is a female cheddar maker (there aren’t many) and two because she has a background in microbiology so her understanding of cheesemaking and aging is thorough and impressive. I bumped into her at breakfast on Friday morning and she told me that I was welcome to come out and spend some time with her on Saturday when she made cheese. Michael, Alyce Birchenough (the legendary cheesemaker from Sweet Home Farm in Alabama) and I played hooky from the conference on Saturday morning and drove out to the farm.
We found Jaime in the cheese room preparing to add rennet to the vat. Immediately I am impressed- I looked at the vat of milk like it was the biggest pot of dinner I could imagine making and thought about how nervous I would be to make a mistake with that volume of milk- Jaime moved so confidently around the make room. As it should be, she has been making cheese there for three years.
After the rennet has been added, the agitator (those metal poles that stir and go back and forth in the vat) is turned off so the curd can begin to set. Jaime talked to us a bit about her formula for timing the cut of the curd- and she taught us about something called floculation- which is the very beginning of the formation of solids. To look for this early indicator she dipped a long knife into the milk gently and let a thin film of it rest on the blade in the light- so that she could examine it for small particles that were visible to the eye (early, tiny solids).
We hung around for the initial cutting of the curd- totally cool to see two women work a cheddar vat! Jaime took a little break to take us on a short tour of the buildings surrounding the dairy- talked to us about the educational programs- and then insisted that we take a drive around the grounds before heading back to the conference. So we swung by the bakery- just a hop skip away from the creamery to get a snack and then drove round to all the points Jaime had laid out on the map. A perfect excursion that unfortunately did not come close to sating my desire to spend time at Shelburne Farms- hoping to head back in September…
p.s. There is a great step-by-step visual of the cheddar process on Shelburne’s site right here (that’s Ross in the photos).
August 12th, 2007
One of the general sessions this year was about cheesemaking in the Northeast. Clark Wolf who has a NYC based company that does restaurant and hospitality consulting was our moderator and did a great job of synthesizing information from the three presentations and posing broader questions to us all at the end. Louis Aird of Saputo in Montreal shared the history of cheese production in Canada with us and Jeff Roberts, author of the Atlas of American Artisan Cheese shared some facts and statistics about cheesemakers in the Northeast that he’d collected during his research for the book.
My ten minute talk was based on findings from our tour last summer. Below is a basic outline of my talk with audio pieces laid in where I played them. Have a read and a listen.
The Cheese by Hand lens: Our project only looked at producers making cheese by hand. We made every effort to cover the major milk types- cow, sheep, goat- and to represent the density of cheesemaking in certain regions (i.e. we saw more dairies in Wisconsin, Vermont, and California than anywhere else).
In the Northeast we visited the following farms in this order: Jasper Hill Farm, Twig Farm, Vermont Butter & Cheese, Willow Hill Farm, Appleton Creamery, Westfield Farm, and Cato Corner Farm. All are first generation cheesemakers, two are farmstead, three use milk from their own herds and buy in milk to supplement, and two are purchasing all of their milk.
These producers are, in many ways, representative of those we visited around the country- they come from diverse background and face many of the same issues as their colleagues in the Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and even the South. I’ll cover three larger topics that came up everywhere and explain to you how the Northeasterners had a unique perspective on each.
First: The loss of landscape. This includes not only the land but all the services that support farms- large animal vets, mechanics, and slaughterhouses). The audio clip below features Michael Lee (Twig Farm), and Willow Smart and David Phinney (Willow Hill Farm).
Loss of Farms
The terminology- working landscape- is something we only heard in the Northeast. Maybe their connection to the landscape comes from an awareness of the rich history of dairying and farming in the region? Ultimately on this issue we felt that the producers in this area were ‘on message’ meaning that everyone had similar thoughts and desires to see the land back in use for agriculture.
Second: An eye towards their competition (Europe). Cost of Business clip starts with Allison Hooper (Vermont Butter & Cheese), Caitlin Hunter (Appleton Creamery), Michael lee (Twig Farm). Educating the public starts with Caitlin (AC), Debbie Stetson (Westfield Farm), Mateo Kehler (Jasper Hill Farm), Michael Lee (TF).
Cost of Business Educating the public
Cheesemaking is expensive everywhere but the reference point for NE cheesemakers is always Europe- whether they are discussing healthcare, cost of infrastructure, or subsidies. This may happen because the two big markets are NYC and Boston, both of which have a bounty of imported cheeses. One stinging factor is that there is a perception that most European cheeses are made by hand- Michael Lee pointed out in another part of our interview that EU cheeses that are made in the way he makes his cheeses in Vermont would not be cheaper. There is a serious educational component for these cheesemakers- not just about cheese but about the state of agriculture in our own country.
Third: The concept of local. This word is as loose as “natural” or “artisan”- listen to how differently it is used by these producers. Some call their products local when all the inputs are local and some use the term local to define the inputs and the market where it is sold. In this audio clip you will hear Michael Lee (TF), Mateo Kehler (JHF), and Mark Gillman (Cato Corner Farm).
The NE region is going to push the word local and possibly force it to be defined. Again, this has a lot to do with the two big metropolitan markets within (NY, Boston) because clientele there can support the reclaimation of the working landscape. NE was the only place where we heard producers talking about AOC cheeses- about products that must be created in a specific place- maybe also a result of the proximity and comparison to European products in the market.
In closing- some thoughts from NE producers about unifies them and what they imagine is in store for the future of artisan cheesemaking… You will hear Willow Smart (WHF) and Michael Lee (TF).
August 9th, 2007
Some interesting things we’ve stumbled on recently that discuss or report on agriculture in our country. First up- this group I had never heard of which looks like they are doing great work- called Food and Water Watch. They’ve put together a great interactive map and accompanying report on all kinds of factory farms in the U.S. Check it out here.
That is just one of the interesting things to explore on their website- they’ve got all sorts of campaigns related to dairying in the U.S.- one of which is targeted at getting Starbucks to stop using milk with rBGH hormones.
There was also a great piece in the NY Times┬áMonday about food miles and the public discourse on carbon footprints. The author raises many interesting questions and points out that issues of agriculture in the global economy are much more complicated than we’d like them to be. Rather than glomming on to one specific term or concept he is encouraging consumers to think holistically about our larger system of agriculture.
Double whammy in the NY Times yesterday with a piece about rising prices for agricultural real estate as a result of the ethanol boom and an article singing the praises of raw milk. Curious to know what you think about both of those topics- I’ll post my thoughts on them in the next couple days but wanted to point you to them now.
August 9th, 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
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