Tag Archives: cheese

ACS 2015

I almost didn’t go to the American Cheese Society conference this year. I often skip the East coast years of the rotation due to time and expense. Plus, this year my awesome co-worker Megan had won a trip to Vermont and would be there officially repping the store.


But then I realized two things. One, I have a book coming out in October so it would probably be a good idea to remind people I’m alive, especially since I went blog-absent for about a year and limited my social media while I finished working on it. The second reason was less tangible and more personal: I just miss the conference so much the times I don’t go.

So I worked it out. I flew across county to be there for two days. Unlike years past I have no reports from the judging room, no farm trip stories, and very few pictures. But I am still glad I went. It’s just totally rejuvenating to see so many great people all in one place, in a cheese-rich environment.

Meet the Cheesemakers is a particularly cheese-rich environment. Here’s a beauty from Plymouth Artisan Cheese to whet your appetite:

It’s also amazing to see so many people putting in so much work to make it happen. I worry about trying to list people because, when you do, you always leave people out. Since this was my first year in a long time that I was just an attendee, I was reminded as an “outsider” how much effort it takes to put on the event that can look seamless if you aren’t in the conference rooms before and after an event. Thanks to everyone involved.

As for the conference, I went to a great panel on “The Science of Artisan Cheese.”* It was so encouraging to see the linkages being created between traditional cheesemakers in different countries and the microbial science community. Most of the actual facts relayed were depressing: the FDA using ridiculously outdated testing, non-pathogenic bacteria being treated as an indicator of pathogenic bacteria, one-size (and that size is BIG)-fits-all rules. But the amount of people in the room, and the quality of knowledge of the presenters AND the audience… we have to acknowledge that we have come a long way in a very short time. Some folks left discouraged, but I left energized.

Let’s talk about non-pathogenic bacteria. (Thanks Michael Kalish for writing this)

Cheese-wise, I didn’t even get a shot at tasting the Best in Show (first time ever!). But I loved the LaClare Cave-Aged Chandoka (aged by Standard Market) which was runner-up and I have raved about the 3rd place Harbison by Jasper Hill Farm many times before.

I had a few other favorite new-to-me cheeses as well. I’ll post about them in the upcoming days.

See you all in Des Moines in 2016.

*In just one of the amazing ways in which the cheese society has grown, I used to feel obligated to sum up all my panels for cheese people and interested folks who couldn’t attend. Back in 2002 or whatever, resources were fewer. Now they are all re-capped on the ACS website. Just awesome.

Corn Porn

We went out for a fancy meal earlier this week. I wasn’t really thinking cheese when we left the house — I don’t generally order the cheese plate at local restaurants since I get enough cheese at work. However, a side dish we ordered made me realize I had to share this.

This is the roasted corn side dish at The Commissary. Best use of Idiazabal ever.
IMG_20150713_182738 (1)

I mean just look at that! Roasted corn on the cob, Idiazabal cheese, Marcona almonds… total corn pr0n! (Thanks to Lenny for telling us to order it.)

Cheddar is done

cheddar cover

cheddar cover

Hi everyone. Did you miss me?

I had to put a lot of other writing (and other things) aside to finish and edit my new book but now that it’s all in the publisher’s hands, I can return to this blog. There is fun and freedom in writing a couple hundred words unconnected to another 60-70,000.

I plan to post here regularly again so feel free to subscribe to the blog or to my revamped newsletter. I know that looking at the previous few entries doesn’t inspire confidence – is there anything more sad and lonely than a non-updated blog? But you know how it goes… with a full-time job, family, and writing a book, something had to give for awhile.

I am really excited about the book. It started as an idea (thanks Laurie) that to understand cheese in America, you have to understand cheddar. Cheddar was America’s most popular cheese for 150 years, it was the first non-regionally-specific factory cheese, it begat the popularity of processed cheese (and later, cheese food), it affected – and was affected by – America’s food safety fears, and, really, almost everyone loves some form of it.

In fact, you should go pre-order it right now.

I’m working on events, readings, cheddar tastings, and all that stuff but since it doesn’t officially come out until October, I am also looking to just have some good old cheese talk here. It’s good to see you all again.

Alpine Cheese-O-Rama

I bragged the other day on facebook about us having the best Alpine section in the city. Since then people have been asking me about what we have so I thought I would just convert my internal department notes into a blog post. I know most people reading this aren’t close enough to shop here – so this isn’t really a commercial – I am just in love with these cheeses and the holidays are the only time I can buy all this at once and be reasonably sure we can sell it all. In fact some of these are going quick.

So, Here we go (in alphabetical order):

Almkase 1 yr
This is the best deal in the Alp section. Amazing flavor – a bit more oniony that the Cousin but similar texture – for the price. This is the best cheese I tasted in Austria and it is co-op milk and co-op made.

Beaufort 18 Month -- Rodolphe Meunier

Better than the one we had last month even though it is not Alpage. This is selected by Rodolphe Meunier and is Summer milk (i.e. grass-fed) just not from the highest elevation of the Alps. About a year and a half old. Complex, buttery, nutty and grassy.

This is from Austria and is mild, grassy, milky and nutty. Mostly it’s a good price. Almost as cheap as our standard 4-6 month Comte but more buttery.

Chiriboga Blue (Blauschimmelkase)
Probably my favorite blue in the whole world. Some disdain this blue as being too mild, but they are just overcompensating for something because this is a perfectly balanced, perfectly textured, sweet, grassy, fruity blue. Seriously, you need to try this unless you think Cabrales is a good blue or something.

Comte 28 Month – Jean D’alos
This is the best Comte we’ve ever had. We tried a 3 year aged Meunier Comte at the Food Show a couple of years back but were never able to get it in. This one is right up there if not quite as aged and is the oldest Comte we have ever sold. All the buttery, nutty, grassy notes with a little more power than the Essex Street. Summer milk.

Comte -- Essex Street
We are almost out of this Comte for the year and it is usually the best we carry. All Comte has one of the best name-controls in the world: the amount of land for each cow is specified, it is required to be made at village co-ops, etc. Tasting notes like the above but subtract a year in age.
(Technically not Essex St Comte, but you get the idea)

Le Cousin
This cheese is so underrated. Made in Switzerland, aged in France – thus underlining the meaningless of borders in the Alps – this has all the flavor of a well-aged Gruyere but the texture is semi soft. Oniony, grassy, nutty, and moist!

Edelweiss Emmental (the only cheese in this section not actually from Alps)
I don’t know how he gets away with calling this Emmental – It’s made in Wisconsin – but Bruce Workman makes this cheese just like they do in Switzerland. 200 lbs wheels… copper vats… yes. There has been no distributor for this cheese in the Bay for years so we haven’t had this in awhile but it is far better than most Emmentals at this price. Oh yeah, Bruce is committed to grass-based dairy, even help for a grass-based co-op in Wisconsin.

Raw milk, bark-wrapped, like a firmer Vacherin Mont D’or. Firmer so that it can be a legal cheese here in the US. This is the actual inspiration for Winnimere, btw, not Vacherin Mont D’or. If bacon references weren’t so clichéd I would say that we used to refer to this cheese as “a walk through the bacon forest in fall.”

Hoch Ybrig
This cheese was once so hard to get I had a waiting list to call every time we got it. Aged by Rolf Beeler, it’s only 6 months old but has huge flavor. Beefy, nutty, big and a touch pungent. Very complex and awesome.

L’etivaz Alpage
Remember the L’etivaz story? Fed up with the commercialization of Gruyere this village dropped out of the Gruyere consortium… in the 1930s! This is an Alpage wheel aged about 2.5 years. Holy crap, we have never had one this aged before. This is a little more bitey than the Beufort, Spicherhalde, or extra-aged Comte. (Will be gone by the end of this weekend.) This truly may be the best Alpine cheese we have ever had.

True Alpage production is very rare, really hand-made, and amazing in its complexity of taste. This is an 11 or 12th generation cheese made by one family that is the best example of this we currently can get. Only 80 wheels made all year, how lucky are we to be able to get one 10,000 miles away in San Francisco? This is one of my favorite cheeses of all time.

Name means “Shooting Star.” This is from Evelyn Wild at Kaskuche Isny in the Bavarian Alps this is an unusual cheese with a heavy wash (including local wine and herbs). Big mushroomy flavor, not much of this available in the USA.

Vacherin Fribourgois
Most Vacherin Fribourgois is nasty by the time it gets sold in the states so I special ordered this. More French Tomme (lighly cooked, lightly pressed) than Gruyere, this is super rare, once extinct cheese that should be buttery, grassy, and beef soup-y. This cheese was once extinct, but was brought back by a traditional cheesemaker about 20 years ago.

We also have a few others that are more well-known and that we have year-round: Bodensee, Comte (4-6 month aged), Challerhocker, Gruyere 1655, Krauterschatz, Maxx Extra, and a little Tete de Moine. Plus the American Alp-style cheese: Tarentaise Reserve (ACS 2014 winner! The only wheel in the Bay Area?), Alpha Tolman and Pleasant Ride Extra Reserve (almost out). Oh, and in a week or so we are having Tomme de Abondance on our damn sample table.

And geez, have you folks tried Kinsman Ridge this year? These batches right now are amazing: the best ever. I’d buy these over the best Tomme de Savoie any day.


Almost time for ACS

I will be in Sacto on Saturday morning — judging curds of all things — so it seems like it’s time to re-post my “Humble suggestions for getting the most out of the cheese conference”. So, here ya go!

I’ve lost track of how many ACS conferences I have attended. I pretty sure I have attended every one not on the East Coast since 1999. Almost universally, they have been awesome experiences that have taught me innumerable things about cheese and introduced me to people I otherwise might never have met.

Back when I first started going, there were only about 300 people attending the conferences but still, I didn’t know anyone except for a handful of California cheesemakers. While I am sometimes good about faking it, I am actually kind of shy by nature, so I am humbly going to attempt to produce a guide that I would have found useful back in the day… (click link to read the whole thing)

Also I will be doing a cheese event at the Co-op ($20 includes a $5 off coupon and cheese and wine!) on Saturday evening, signing books at the conference on Friday morning 8/1 (which can be very lonely and sad if no one comes to say hi, hint hint), and moderating a panel later in that afternoon. See you there.

Sacramento event July 26

Hey, anyone up in Sac? In town early for the cheese conference? I’m doing a cheese event at the co-op. Tickets include a $5 coupon that could be used on buying a book. Just saying…


Also, I somehow — in all the craziness of that week — forgot to post this summation of the FDA’s ruling, un-ruling, and clarification about the use of wood boards in cheese aging. Look Mom and Dad, I got quoted in the New York Times.

And check out the FDA’s apology here.

People care about cheese wood, FDA issues new statement

Wow. Talk about a groundswell. This is the kind of issue that scares the cheese world because, while crucial to us, the surface a cheese is aged on might be seen as too esoteric or boring to draw public attention. Clearly this has not been the case here.


I feel like it may be important here to rehash the chronology since, suddenly, my blog is being read outside the insular world of the cheese-obsessed. First, who uses wood to age cheese? The answer is more cheesemakers than you probably think.

According the the American Cheese Society, almost 75% of cheese producers in the three largest American producer states age at least some of their cheese on wood. Wisconsin alone ages almost 30 million pounds of cheese on wood. Over 60% of cheese makers surveyed use wood boards for aging. In Europe, 1 billion lbs. of cheese a year are aged on wood boards including some of the most popular in the US like Parmigiano Reggiano and Comte.*

So, why did this become an issue? Recently the FDA cited three New York cheesemakers for using wooden boards to age cheese. Since the advent of the FSMA,** the FDA has been more active in regulatory activities relating to food production. The NY State Department of Agriculture asked the FDA for clarification since they approve of the use of wood under the right circumstances– like all other states I know of that produce large amounts of cheese. (see Gianaclis Caldwell’s great piece on this here)

An official at the FDA replied that since “Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized” their use for cheese ripening or aging is considered an unsanitary practice by FDA, and a violation of FDA’s current Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations. Furthermore they consider this an existing policy, not a new one that would need public comment and review. (See this article by Greg McNeal for an opinion on whether this should be considered a change of policy)

Let us pause for a second and ask, how many food borne pathogen issues have there been where the culprit was wooden aging boards? The answer: none. Indeed, food safety-wise, especially when one excludes cheese that would never be aged on wood, cheese has a very good track record for food safety.

The opposition to the prohibition of wooden boards does not mean that cheesemakers are against Good Manufacturing Practices or regulation. Indeed, as evidence of the seriousness with which it is taken, I am including the entire ACS press release below. ***

Due to the hard work of affected cheesemakers and the American Cheese Society, the FDA released a new statement today:

The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.
In the interest of public health, the FDA’s current regulations state that utensils and other surfaces that contact food must be “adequately cleanable” and properly maintained. Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings. FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.

The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving.”

We’ll see where it goes from here. Stay tuned everyone; the Comte babies like these are depending on you:
comte babies

*according to “Wooden Tools: Biodiversity Reservoirs in Cheesemaking” (a chapter in Microbes and Cheese edited by Catherine Donnelly of the University of Vermont) 500,000 tons = 1 billion lbs, right?
** Here is a good background piece on the FSMA, which, btw, came out of Bush administration anti-terrorism policies.

 POSITION STATEMENT ON THE SAFETY OF AGING CHEESE ON WOOD Issued in Response to the Recent Food & Drug Administration (FDA) Statement on the Use of Wooden Shelves for Cheese Aging
Released June 10, 2014

For centuries, cheesemakers have been creating delicious, nutritious, unique cheeses aged on wood. Today’s cheesemakers—large and small, domestic and international—continue to use this material for production due to its inherent safety, unique contribution to the aging and flavor-development process, and track record of safety as part of overall plant hygiene and good manufacturing practices. No foodborne illness outbreak has been found to be caused by the use of wood as an aging surface.

The American Cheese Society (ACS) strongly encourages FDA to revise its interpretation of the Code of Federal Regulation (21 CFR 110.40(a)) to continue to permit properly maintained, cleaned, and sanitized wood as an aging surface in cheesemaking as has been, and is currently, enforced by state and federal regulators and inspectors.

It is ACS’s position that:
• Safety is paramount in cheesemaking.
• Cheeses aged on wood have a long track record of safety, and have long been produced meeting FDA standards.
• Wood can be safely used for cheese aging when construction is sound and in good condition, and all surfaces are properly cleaned and maintained using sanitation steps that assure the destruction of pathogens, including but not limited to:
o All surfaces are free of defects;
o Any wood preservatives used are safe and acceptable for direct food contact; o Inspection and cleaning procedures are followed that specify:
•Frequency of inspection and testing
•Frequency of cleaning and sanitizing
•Methods used that adequately clean boards which might include:
• Kiln-drying
• Air-drying
• Heat-treating
• Sanitizing with acceptable products
• Inoculation to create and maintain positive biofilm
• Raising the core temperature of the wood above pasteurization 
• Ongoing monitoring and verification of the effectiveness of all procedures per the 
Hazard Analysis and Risk-based Preventive Controls (HARPC) provision of the 
Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)
• Corrective actions to address any issues
• Discarding of wood that is deteriorated and/or in poor repair 
Furthermore, ACS believes:
• Traditional methods of cheesemaking can and do meet food safety standards.
• U.S. consumers should have access to a wide variety of domestic and imported cheeses, including those safely aged on wood.
• State and federal regulators and inspectors must work collaboratively with cheesemakers to understand how traditional methods and materials can comply with current food safety standards.
• Many of the finest and most renowned cheeses from around the world are at risk of disappearing from the U.S. market if regulatory and enforcement changes under FSMA eliminate traditional materials and methods.
• FDA should provide timely notification, hold proper listening sessions and comment periods, review all available scientific data, and include consideration of industry stakeholders before modifying long- standing interpretation or implementation of its regulations which impact American businesses.