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

Shelburne Farms at last

View from Shelburne cheese roomWhen 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.

Jaime adds rennet to the vat
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).

Lesson  on floculation

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).

Add comment August 12th, 2007

Sasha’s presentation on Cheesemaking in the Northeast

American Cheese SocietyOne 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).

Local

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).

Wrap up

Add comment August 9th, 2007

Non-ACS tidbits

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 Monday 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.

Add comment August 9th, 2007

In the beginning there was judging…

Sasha's TableThis 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 thoroughlyBob's Table 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 thatBob with cheese trier 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!

Add comment August 7th, 2007

Cheese by Hand at the American Cheese Society

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.

Add comment August 4th, 2007

The 3 B’s in my kitchen all summer long

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.

BEETSBEETS: 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.

My favorite baconBACON: 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 BlueBAYLEY 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.

Add comment July 28th, 2007

Bringing Moos and Baas into the Dairy Equation

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.

Add comment July 25th, 2007

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