25 Years of Cheese

I’ve been trying to figure out for a while how to mark my 25th anniversary working at Rainbow Grocery Cooperative and working in cheese.  It seems like a moment in time to honor, but my day-to-day life is the same no matter what the calendar says.  It would be easy to let it slide by unnoticed as I do my regular thing: buy cheese, cut cheese, wrap cheese, display cheese, de-mystify cheese…

But it is unusual in this day and age.  To work in the same place at (basically) the same job for that long is notable.  I think the reason I have stayed in the same place for so long is because my job is incredibly intertwined with my workplace and the experiment in radical democracy it represents. I’m incredibly proud to work at Rainbow.  There is nothing else like it exactly… 200+ worker owners and no traditional top-down management. Nothing is without problems and challenges, but we work in a sphere that inspires me all the time. There is no real roadmap to follow. Other worker-owned cooperatives of our size mostly have more traditional management structure. Though the day-to-day is often typical grocery retail, the big picture always keeps me going. We are a workplace democracy in a world increasingly hostile to democracy.

roMay Day General Strike, Oakland, CA

Despite what many people in the outside world assume, I am not in charge of the cheese department. I am the buyer, which means I am empowered to make a number of decisions, but I am accountable to all people in the department and they re-vote me in as buyer during my yearly evaluation.  Feeling responsibility to be on storewide committees keeps things from ever being bored. The ability to take time off committees has enabled me to do things like write two books about cheese. Indeed, during my time at Rainbow I have been on the Donations Committee, the Grievance Committee, New Worker Orientation Committee, Anti-Oppression Work Group, the Co-op Committee, the Storewide Steering Committee, the Board of Directors and a million short-term projects not solely related to cheese.  I have learned from all of it but some of these groups were a lot more fun than others. Like mucking out the drains of a cheese cooler though, serving time on the no-fun committees is just something you have to do because the work needs to happen.

First cheesemaker I ever visited. Patty and Javier at Bodega Goat cheese. 1995? I like to call this pic, “Goat Empathy”

Cooperatives brought me to Minneapolis in 2004* where, as part of an eight-person contingent from our store we helped found the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, facilitating most group discussions at the historic, and sometimes contentious, first ever national meeting of Worker Co-ops.** Kathleen Shannon Finn, at the time the President of the American Cheese Society — and one of the people who taught me the most about cheese — tried to recruit me for the Board of Directors of the American Cheese Society but I was too busy doing co-op stuff in those years.  I still am a little sad I couldn’t do both, especially at that time when ACS was really starting to take off.

My timing in cheese was great if totally accidental.   I started going to ACS conferences when they still only had about 300 people attending.  Because of that I was able to meet most of the folks who were making the artisanal cheese movement happen before people started calling them “rock stars.”   But again, that was just luck and timing.  I didn’t get hired for the first job I applied to at Rainbow and if I did, I wouldn’t have worked in cheese. But, since I did get hired into cheese, and I lived in the Bay Area when ACS was having a conference in the North Bay, I went even though I felt weird and out of place.   And it was just one of those places where I felt weird and out of place until at some point I just didn’t.

When we hire new cheese workers I think all the time about how much harder it is for them than it was for me. After a month on the job  — and certainly after I started meeting cheesemakers – I knew more than 95% of our customers.  Partly that was because few people with cheese knowledge came into our store at that time, but mostly because customers know so much more now than they used to.  That’s a victory for the cheese world for sure, but it makes it much harder for new workers because expectations are so much higher.  Similarly, starting as a cheesemaker is much harder.  I remember conversations with customers in the 1990s who were buying local cheese even though it was inconsistent – and honestly not very good — because they felt very strongly that supporting hand-made American cheese was the only way it would ever become better.  A lot of that stuff would be flat-out rejected as unsellable now, at least in the Bay Area market. New cheesemakers have a lot less margin for error.

Cheese brought me to France for the first time, partially funded my honeymoon in Austria,*** and got me an amazing few days in Italy.  If the May 1994 Cheese Department hiring committee told me that in my job interview I would have told them to lay off the MDMA. Cheese has also brought me to places all over the United States I never would have been otherwise. Though my wife still owns part of a family farm, there is no rural in my immediate family for generations and the opportunity to meet and befriend people I would never have met otherwise is one of the things I appreciate most about my last 25 years.

Look at these little soft, baby Comtes! From my first trip to France.

One of the best things about Rainbow is that the co-op enables people to stick around longer than at most places. At one point we have five people who each had twenty years experience in cheese. That made our cheese department very special but eventually the gentrification of San Francisco destroyed the possibility of us staying together. I will admit, the break-up of that group was the closest I have come to leaving Rainbow.  We were all about the same age, many of us became adults together, knew each other’s families, hook-ups, and exes.  Knew all the same gossip about our co-workers and knew all the idiosyncrasies of our weirdest customers. 

I went through a unacknowledged mourning period for a bit when I realized I was the last one left, but then an amazing thing happened.  The power of our democratic workplace exerted itself and we got a whole new crop of new members who, while I can’t have the same intimate relationships, born of decades of familiarity, can improve the department and keep the work fun in different ways.  What can we do with the cheese power we have developed over the years?  Who can we support?  How can our urban outpost support the things we want to support in agriculture and economics?  How do we maintain democracy in the workplace over the long haul?

Bricks on Brick Cheese. Widmer Cheese Cellars.

I guess what I really want to say is thanks to everyone who made this possible.  I learned, when trying to thank everyone in the acknowledgements page of Cheesemonger, that one always forgets someone or mis-spells some names, so I will not try to name everyone here.  But I am so grateful to work with so many amazing people over the years at the ‘Bow. I am also so thankful to meet so many amazing mongers, co-op people, distributors, importers, writers, book store folk and cheesemakers — some of whom have even opened their homes to me — and many more who have opened up their aging rooms and make rooms and brought me places I thought I’d never go.  If you think I might be thinking of you, I am.

So 25 years…. And counting!  What should we do next?

Look at these beautiful baby Parmigiano Reggianos!

*I wish I had pics from that week. Does anyone?
** Little known fact: before this founding the USA was one of the few industrialized nations without a national organization.  Canada represented us in International co-op circles.  Thanks Canada!
*** Speaking of weddings:

Special aged wedding cheese from Seana at Bleating Heart!

Maybe I should have order customized cheese for my anniversary!

Did you know you can get personalized Gran Kinaras if you buy enough.

Books for the holidays?

A couple of people have asked and the answer is yes.  If you want an autographed copy of either Cheddar or Cheesemonger for a holiday gift, send me an email before Sunday 12/10 and I will get them to you.  $20 for either includes shipping in the USA. (Mailing to other countries will cost more.) . Gordon.zola.edgar at gmail dot com.

Both books are great for corporate gift giving too!  I’m sure my publisher can set you up with enough for every employee/vendor/customer on your list!



Lance Hahn 1967-2007

I don’t usually put up non-cheese content here, but today is the 10 year anniversary of Lance Hahn’s death. Since I literally found out about his death on my way to my 40th birthday party, his death is forever linked to my milestone birthdays.  It’s not a burden. I kind of like that it helps me remember him when thinking of my own mortality.  I still can believe that I won’t run into him walking down Valencia St.  Not that I ever walk down Valencia St. anymore.

I feel like in the last ten years, I actually appreciate him even more as a songwriter and home-made intellectual.  I still listen to his music often.  Sometimes it makes me feel good and sometimes it makes me cry, sometimes I’m all, “that’s silly Lance…” but there is so much there to chew on.

So anyways, I was going to write something new, but what I wrote 10 years ago is better than anything I could come up with now.  We still miss you, Lance.


I never really understood Lance’s songwriting until I listened to radio in Hawai’i. Island reggae, Hawai’ian pop, and other Hawai’ian songs have a sense of history. There are lots of elements that, out-of-context, I might find sappy or overly nostalgic. But they not only work with those songs, they are crucial elements to the genre.

Lance’s songs, especially the Cringer and early J Church ones, had that same element. I’m nostalgic and sappy by nature, mind you, so they always appealed to me. But there was no real punk genre for it. His bands mirrored his personality more than most songwriters I know. Both Cringer and J Church were intellectual but friendly, political but approachable, fun but taking themselves seriously. Unlike many of the bands Lance (and I) admired, his lyrics were never preachy. He always sang as one of us, not to us.

“Sometimes I wanna go back
Sometimes to the beginning
Sometimes I wouldn’t change a thing.
Sometimes the things I’ve done, It seems like martyrdom
Sometimes it doesn’t mean a thing
Don’t wanna,
Won’t be sad
Like the sailors
Of Petrograd

Lance was a sweetheart. Everyone who’s written about his death so far has called him “one of the good ones”. He could get away with writing lyrics like those, which could easily be read as pretentious on paper, because his personality came through in his singing. He wasn’t comparing himself to the theory of the Great Revolutionary, he was connecting through history to the emotions of the people he admired and wanted to relate to. Ones who died anonymously in service to their beliefs but who were just ordinary working folks doing what they felt was right..

He’d also just probably read an Alexander Berkman book and wanted to write a song about it. He was always reading.

Lance was an auto-didact, a student of history, especially anarchist history. I mean geez, he even put Leon Czolgosz, unlabeled, on a J Church shirt. He was also sweet, kind, thoughtful, and quietly funny. He knew how to make people feel good but more than that, he cared about making people feel good. He carried a million details in his brain, surprising you with something you said offhand at some show or some party months before. He was a special, special man.

Lance lived above me on Valencia St, half a block from Epicenter Zone. Lance’s apartment was referred to as jokingly “The Crash Pad” after an SF Weekly reporter dubbed it that in an article.* Our apartment was already name “House of Failure” because our phone number was 552-FAIL. Oh, those early ’90s…

Here’s Lance on our back stairs watching some illegal punk show we put on in our backyard when the 1st floor tenants went out of business. 1993
failure stairs071

It seems symbolic that many of his songs remind me of our shared neighborhood. Early J Church is so time and place for me: all songs about the Mission in the early ’90s., While traveling out of the Bay Area for an extended period, and leaving from my apartment on Mission St , “November” made me cry while riding a train through Eastern Europe. I had made a Mission District bands cassette and as soon as he mentioned rain on Mission St, I started bawling.

“As the rain falls hard, it fills the cracks on Mission St…”
“No matter who you are, you feel the same when you’re wet, cold and alone…”
“We only dream to float downstream, reminded by the rain,
Tied to a tree, cannot break free, reminded by the rain”

It’s a sad song about rain making people feel alone, but it does the typical Lance thing. He empathizes with strangers and tries to find a human truth. This un-self-conscious sappiness is a unifying force in Lance’s songs. Even the punks have to admit their fuzzy feelings sometimes. It kept his lyrics, no matter how political, from being as dogmatic and alienating as a lot of the other anarcho-punks.

I think my favorite thing about Lance was just running into him in the street. I can think of hours spent on Market/14th, at 16th/Valencia, in front of Lost Weekend, just gossiping, talking about bands, demonstrations and friends. He made this city a better place by just being around, having time to hang out. He also rarely missed a demonstration. He had good priorities even if rather than being in front with a bullhorn he’s be bringing up the rear, poking fun at the sectarians and trying-too-hard anarchist kids. I think he’d appreciate that my favorite picture of him was from the San Francisco Rodney King riots. Hip-hoppers and punks were unified in their desire to liberate electronics to facilitate their communication with a hostile world. Somewhere, maybe his room, I saw a picture of Lance coming out of an electronics store with his hands full and his eyes blacked out, like any punk wouldn’t recognize his long hair, his slouch and his band t-shirt. Or maybe I just made up that picture in my head.

Lance still seems like a San Francisco icon 7 years after moving to Texas.

My oddest Lance moment was probably seeing him play guitar for Beck at Slim’s. It was near the height of Beck’s post-“Loser” glory. If I remember correctly, he knew Beck from playing at some German squat show together back in the day, but I could have jumbled up that memory. Anyways, he put me on the guest list, possibly because no one else we knew wanted to see Beck cuz he was like, all popular and stuff. It was so odd seeing Lance play and not be the central feature of the band. The first thing it made me realize that Lance could actually really play guitar. The second was that in another scene Lance’s non-traditional singing voice might have forced him into a lesser role if he wanted to be in a band. What a loss that would have been.

The third thing was seeing him walk across the club without kids coming up to talk to him. He was probably the most approachable band guy I’ve ever met, constantly talking to kids who came to SF hoping to see him working his shift at Epicenter or at some of the bars, taquerias, and cafes he mentioning in his songs, if not his shows. Occasionally he’d have to hide from a creepy one, but that was rare. Usually he’d hang out, talk about their hometown (which he probably had played), and generally treat them as a new friend. There were times he really represented all that the punk scene should have been.

I hadn’t seen Lance in awhile when I got the word he went into a coma.. My heart goes out to his partner and his friends there. To many of us in San Francisco, or maybe just to me, his bad health was a little hard to fathom. My memory of Lance is full of mellow energy, happy to see you, happy to chat, always looking for new bands and new fun. I imagine that the last couple of years, being on dialysis, not being able to go to every show, was incredibly hard for him. But I always thought I’d just run into him in the Mission or at a show one day. That he would have beaten his bad organs, that he’d be the same old Lance.

Old Epicenter workers crashing the Epicenter closing party 1999. I believe this was right after Lance’s first brush with hospitalization. (Thanks Jeff Heermann!)
goodbye epicenter

In one of his best known songs, Lance wrote:
So where’s my sense of humor?
My life is a disaster,
No one has a future,
So let’s all get there faster

But it was a cautionary tale. He wasn’t a No Future Drunk Punk.. He was writing about going to the local bar and looking at what he might become if he let himself. He didn’t want to get ground down like other working class people around him there: unhappy, overworked, underpaid. The narrator in the song reacts to those thoughts by deciding to blow off work the next day and take time doing something important for himself.

Lance organized his life to be a writer and artist. He recorded what… 300 songs? His bands put out albums faster than the Minutemen in their prime. He wrote for MRR and was trying to document the obscure bands of the ’80s Peace Punk scene. Bands that meant a lot to people like us even if almost no one has ever heard of them. He was one of the people who make all these alternative scenes and obscure political movements possible. People in every city with a punk scene, or that once had a punk scene, are mourning him

He worked his whole life for it, never getting famous or rich, but doing it anyway. It’s something a lot of people promised when they were 18 but few actually did. He meant it, ya know? All of it.

Bye Lance. You are missed already.

Hott cheese of ACS 2017 (or at least the ones of which I happened to take in-focus pictures)


Oh chocolate chevre…  you are so tasty, like a little goat milk cheesecake.choco chevre acs 2017

And you with your little fuse…. you look like something an 1800s anarchist would throw at the ruling class! little bombs acs 2017

You may be bathed in wine, but you could be a ska band logo.brigid bender acs 2017

I don’t remember your name, one-night-cheese-stand but your party on top, scaly on the side, rind is very unique.  I’ve never met anyone just like you.cheese to judge 2017

The Minutemen had a song about “Jesus and Tequila.” 164 KN 01 brings you cheeses and tequila. Oh yes.tequila cheese acs 2017

The beauty of the thistle, thanks to Lark’s Meadow Farm.You need to copyright the word “Thistlicious” right now.larks meadow acs 2017

American Cheese Society conference, 2017

CheeseCon Withdrawal

I think a lot of us go through withdrawal after CheeseCon is over. Mongers always have access to great cheese, so it’s not that. It’s the community that comes together once a year that’s impossible to duplicate. Even as it often energizes me all the way through the holidays, it’s always hard to leave.

cornerstone 2017(Cornerstone from Parish Hill Creamery)

Here are five things that I will miss:

Randomly Bumping into American Cheese Society Lifetime Achievement Award Winners and Other Amazing Folks. This is a reminder that we are living in what will be looked upon as a significant era of cheese history. It’s easy to take for granted because almost all of these folks are down-to-earth and easy to talk to but we cannot let ourselves do it. On the morbid side of the equation, when I last saw Daphne Zepos and Steve Ehlers I didn’t think it would be my last. On the less morbid side, people move on. When I first started attending, I could not have conceived of a conference, or an ACS, without Kathleen Shannon Finn and Ricki Carroll, but here we are.

By the way, congrats Peg and Sue!  Well-deserved. Well-deserved.

peg and sue 2017

Normalization of Cheese Obsession There were 1300 people at this conference. How many more cheese-obsessed professional — not just widget movers — actually exist in our business? Double that number? Quadruple that number? No matter how you cut it, we are a community of less than 10,000 people in a country* of 320 million. It’s a very special time when we can come together and be the majority in a small geographical space.

It’s why I always think that the best Cheesecons are in small cities or places. I’ve had many fantasies in my lifetime about winning the lottery and setting up a town of political activists or punks and artists, but this is our little temporary zone of cheesies, Cheesetown USA, that we create every year. It likely wouldn’t be as fun — or intellectually stimulating — if we really lived this way all year long, but it’s awesome as an curd oasis in a year of whey.

awards ceremony crowd 2017(Awards Ceremony, Denver Sheraton)

The High Level of Cheese Talk It’s not anti-customer to say that I have explained what the crunchy bits in cheese are roughly 10,000 times. I enjoy doing it. But going to a panel that discusses the advances in our understanding of these crystals over the last decade is a once-a-year opportunity. I mean, in 1996 I called them salt crystals because that was the best explanation of anyone I had access to at the time. We are in an artisan cheese-science explosion!

crystal chart 2017(Thanks to the amazing Paul Kindstedt and Pat Polowsky!)

PETA Protests I have spent a large part of my life being a protestor in uncomfortable situations. I am here to tell you that no one protests insignificant people. Look how far we’ve come that we are protestable! Also, PETA is stupid.

And hey, how come I didn’t know there was an anti-DeVos protest in Denver when I was there? I would have been with The People in the streets for that.

3303857_a46bba2581_z (1)

(Yes, I am in this picture of an anti-Reagan protest in 1984.  Can you find me?)

Cheese Surprises On such a stage, surprises are magnified. This year had them in abundance. As a judge in the competition, I ranked two companies I never heard of** in my (personal) top five: Idyll Farms in Michigan and Shepherds Manor Creamery in Maryland.

Speaking of judging, the top two Best of Show winners were farmstead!***  Best of Show: Tarentaise Reserve by Farms For City Kids Foundation/Spring Brook Farm. 2nd Place: St. Malachi by The Farm at Doe Run. 3rd Place: Harbison by Jasper Hill. I mean holy crap! 150 years of industrialization of cheesemaking left farm-made cheese practically extinct before ACS was formed. We’ve come a long way when the two best cheeses in the competition – our largest competition ever with over 2000 cheeses entered– are from single-farm sources. That is truly something spectacular.

idyll farm 2017(Idyll Farms cheese at Festival of Cheese)

So I know it’s hard. Personally I try to hold onto the conference feeling as long as possible. Organize those pics so you can remember the contexts. Hold on to those hand-outs for future reference. Re-write those notes so you can understand them layer. Write about your experiences. Share what you learned with your co-workers. Call and email those business cards you collected, even/mostly just to talk.

It is an amazing thing to be able to have in our lives and these things are not necessarily permanent, historically speaking. Savor it, spread the cooperative nature of the event, and, hopefully, see you next year.

cheese judges 2017(some of the cheese judges from 2017)

*I know ACS technically includes all of the Americas and we also have international members from other continents but clearly it draws mostly from the USA.

**Judging is anonymous so I didn’t learn this until the awards ceremony.

***Farmstead means cheese made only with the milk from one farm produced on that farm. I edited this paragraph because someone not from Jasper Hill gave me some bad info.  Harbison is never farmstead ( I had thought this batch was an exception) and this batch was a blend of Jasper Hill milk and that of another farm in Greensboro.  Sorry.


Italy Trip — Water Buffalo and Thistle Rennet

I know this is a public post on my website but really I am doing this series old-internet style: Basically, it’s my diary so that I can look back and remember this trip years down the line. But hey, there are pictures for you!

Except at Fiandino, which was the next stop on our trip. No pictures allowed! Le Fattorio Fiandino specializes in thistle rennet cheeses – including a Grana (Gran Kinara). The Fiandino family has actually been making cheese since the late 1700s, which they say may make them the oldest family cheesemaking company in Italy. The also make the Lou Bergier which we’ve carried on and off for years. Sometimes too subtle for the American market it’s a great, mellow, grassy, milky cheese probably most comparable, taste-wise, to a young Tomme Crayeuse.

Oh, I took a picture at their store.  That should be ok.

fiandino cheeses

The next cheese place we went was Quattro Portoni. I was super excited to visit because 1. Water buffalo! And 2. Casatica, the bloomy-rind buffalo cheese I love so much. While we sell a ton of water buffalo mozzarella, especially in tomato season, probably the most requested cheese in the last few years is “anything with buffalo milk that is not mozzarella.” Quattro Portoni has that for sure.

And just look at these beautiful beasts!


Look at that beautiful cheese!


and these!

buffalo caciocavallo

Some of the cheese even looked like artistic loaves of bread:
bread or cheese

When I think of water buffalo cheese, I usually think, “luscious.”  Not Jesse Luscious from Blatz, but luscious like the richest, milkiest, grassiest cheese that just melts on your tongue like a chocolate truffle. There are exceptions to this of course, there are more and more styles of cheese made with buffalo milk and many of those don’t lend themselves to that kind of description (another water buffalo cheese I tried as a work in progress elsewhere was described to me as, “a struggle in the mouth”) but the Quattro Portoni Casatica meets those high demands.  And their (Taleggio-style) Quadrello di Bufala is all that with an extra kick of pungent.

On this stop of the trip, the full beauty of cheese and animals were on display.  I didn’t want to leave.



I should note that this trip was made possible by Michele Buster at Forever Cheese and Brad Dube at Food Matters Again. Ethics require me to say that you should take everything written here with a grain of salt since they took me on the trip. Of course, I also carried these cheeses for decades without getting a trip to Italy so keep that in mind too.

Italy Trip — Parmigiano Reggiano (Morning)


parm regg

Before I write more about Parmigiano Reggiano I want to make a pledge. For years – even after I knew it was wrong – I referred to the number on the wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano as the “farm.” This may be true in some cases – if the cheese is farmstead, but most Parmigiano Reggiano is made from locally pooled milk, often from cooperatives. The correct term is “caseificio” or cheese factory. In our case “cooperative” would also be ok because the milk for our Parmigiano Reggianos all comes from a seven-member co-op in Reggio Emilia.

The “509” on the top is the number I am talking about. Each wheel has a caseifico number and if you want, you can even trace yours here. The other interesting thing about the picture below is that you can see it does not yet have the “export” brand in the big empty space between the caseificio number and the date.  At less than a year old, it is not yet known if this wheel will be good enough to age long enough to earn that marker.

509 parmigiano reggiano no export brand

Even though I have sold Parmigiano Reggiano for almost 23 years, I learned a lot by actually visiting. There really is no replacement for being in the actual place where something is made. Literally breathing in the milk-heavy air… really seeing – step-by-step – what it takes to make such an amazing thing as Parmigiano Reggiano.

parm regg vat ready to cut

Because when you see what it takes it’s hard to believe — and I probably shouldn’t write this — that you can get a very good Parmigiano Reggiano so cheap! I mean, I know that it’s still a relatively expensive thing to buy when the average person is figuring out their shopping list, but the process – limited region, copper vats, specialized tools, hand-production, only two wheels per vat – is painstaking. And then it has to be aged (for high quality cheese ) for two years before you can sell it. The few nods to modernity, like a machine to lift the cheeses, are understandable to anyone who uses their body to make a living.

cutting parm regg curds

This is so beautiful, I really had to keep myself from diving in!

I would say this picture below is of the person who makes our cheese, but that’s not technically true. He’s the person who makes the cheese we will buy in the future. Because he’s only been the master cheesemaker at this plant for about two years, we have yet to try his cheese even though we’ve been carrying the #509 Parmigiano Reggiano for years!
adriano parm regg maker

Right now, this caseificio is only making 18 wheels per day.  All are made in these copper vats that fit two wheels per make.  This means that we buy about four days of their production every year.  This really feels significant when you are standing in the make room, meeting the people who make your cheese, and who depend on their high quality standards being recognized so that they continue the traditions that grew up over the last 900 years or so in the region where they live.

tying off parm regg


I mean, there’s a reason that “parmesan” has been industrialized and cheapened.  It’s a great cheese with little risk of spoilage that provides nutrition and flavor. But every time I try (or sell) a “parmesan” alternative to DOP Parmigiano Reggiano I cringe a little at endangering the tradition that creating a truly epic cheese.  I mean, I get it, I really do.  I get that half the price for a domestic parm is a necessity for a lot of people, but it’s also about 1/10 of the flavor of a truly good Parmigiano Reggiano with it’s complex fruity, sharp, nutty flavor.
parm regg wheels

I like to concentrate on one caseificio because it usually ensures that we are selling great Parmiginao Reggiano that’s worth the price.  Parmigiano Reggiano quality does have some potential problems on both ends of the age spectrum.  Some Parm Regg that advertises its long age is old simply because it’s been sitting in someone’s warehouse for awhile.  Due to a change of export rules, Parmigiano Reggiano is now allowed into the US at 18 months.  It’s still good cheese, but not really what most folks are looking for in terms of texture or depth of flavor. Also, pre-grated tubs tend to be from less highly-rated wheels and include rinds, just so you know…

Anyway, getting to actually visit the maker of our Parmigiano Reggiano was a highlight of my life in cheese.  The smell, the taste of the curds from the vat, seeing the whole process from milk-to-cheese was a pilgrimage of sorts, recognizing that there is something very special that is produced here and has been for hundred of years before Italy was even a unified country.  Visiting makes you question, once again, how people figured out this whole cheesemaking thing.  One can envision an intuitive jump that gave us fresh cheese, chevre or feta, but visiting Reggio Emile makes you admire those actual artisans who figured out the mystery of curds that would allow something perishable to be transformed into something less fleeting,  ensuring there would be food to eat months and years down the line. There’s a vision implicit to every wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano that makes it a triumph of human spirit as well as amazingly tasty food.

509 parmigiano reggiano aging

I should note that this trip was made possible by Michele Buster at Forever Cheese and Brad Dube at Food Matters Again. Ethics require me to say that you should take everything written here with a grain of salt since they took me on the trip. Of course, I also carried these cheeses for decades without getting a trip to Italy so keep that in mind too.



Italy Trip — Parmigiano Reggiano (evening)

Next up after Pecorino Romano was Parmigiano Reggiano. We arrived near Modena at twilight and visited a Parmigiano Reggiano producer and ager. This was not the caseificio we buy from but it was still interesting to see. Much bigger and more modern than our caseificio, this factory makes about 100 wheels a day.

parm regg vats

Cheese professionals hold on for a second because I know you know this — while 100 wheels doesn’t sound like a whole lot, you have to remember that these wheels are 85lbs each when sold and this is a lot of cheese. Even the biggest producers don’t make much more than double this amount per day. While there a number of producers who’ve recently gone out of business– especially post-earthquake — Parmigiano Reggiano, despite being sold all over the world, is still a cheese (mostly) made with very traditional methods in the region where it was born.

(Here are pictures of an aging room after the earthquake that was posted on the wall)

parm regg earthquake

Still, most of our Parm sightseeing would wait until the next day. That night we just watched the the milk truck to come and deliver the milk for tomorrow’s cheese. Why is this important? Because the milk has to be stored overnight and then skimmed in order to make Parmigiano Reggiano the right way. There wasn’t a lot of action going on, but there’s no Parm in the morning without the milk from the night before.

And that’s kinda beautiful:

parm milk



I should note that this trip was made possible by Michele Buster at Forever Cheese and Brad Dube at Food Matters Again. Ethics require me to say that you should take everything written here with a grain of salt since they took me on the trip. Of course, I also carried these cheeses for decades without getting a trip to Italy so keep that in mind too.

Italy Trip — Fulvi Pecorino Romano

Flying to Italy from SF for only four nights — this was the most jet-setting thing I have ever done. While it was exhausting, it was also amazing, finally watching some classic cheesemaking in action and visiting people whose cheese I have bought for decades. Sure I only got a total of twenty hours sleep in five days, but it was worth it.

You can see it in my eyes though:

me at fulvi

After 18 hours of travel and an airport espresso* we were off to our first cheese factory (in Italian: “caseificio”). Buonatavola, makers of Sini Fulvi Pecorino Romano Genuino, the last Pecorino Romano still made in the region of Lazio and exported to the USA. Yes, you heard me mention this cheese in the Great Romano Kerfuffle of 2017.  It’s because it is the best Romano available in the USA and has been for a very long time.

buonatavola factory

Pecorino Romano is a great cheese if used properly.  Certainly Cacio e Pepe is the signature dish, but it goes well in almost any home pasta dishes if you adjust the recipe. Because Pecorino Romano is a saltier, sharper, earthier, and less sweet cheese than Parmigiano Reggiano is can’t be used interchangeably.  The most important thing is to cut down on salt elsewhere and be prepared for a more assertive cheese.  If you don’t wanna do that, that’s cool too. Despite paranoid ramblings of some food writers, no one is forcing you to.

But if you wanna talk about taste in relation to region, Pecorino Romano is crucial to Southern Italian food. Again, the trick is buying a good one. This is why I am at Caseificio Buonatavola, not in Sardinia.

The first striking thing here is the volume for a 100% sheep milk production.  It’s incredible to an American.  Lack of genetics and support are huge factors but these Lazio sheep are special even in Europe.  We were told that they produce as much as three times more than some other milking breeds.  Either way, this is a lot of sheep milk! This is the yield from one morning’s make and each of these wheels are about 60lbs when ready to be sold, about seven months down the line.


As with any hard aged cheese, the Pecorino Romano make is all about moisture expulsion and tiny curds.  The Romano is notable for its extra dry-salting step in addition to brining.  Sorry about the bad pic, but check this out between the cheese and the form.
romano salting

I should mention right now that upon arriving at this caseificio, I realized I had brought my old, broken camera to Italy instead of the the one that actually works.  All these pic are from my phone which is much more susceptible to humidity distortion.  And the Fulvi plant is a humid space.

And underground, there is a lot of cheese.

romano at fulvi

Fulvi makes a few other cheeses but are probably best known for the Romano.  The ricotta, not currently available in the US, was amazing.  We ate one of these for lunch.


Anyway, this was my first morning in Italy.  We never went to Rome proper. Instead, off to Modena to visit Parm producers and agers.

Goodbye Fulvi!
fulvi cans

*People who know me may be surprised at this because I do not drink coffee at home. But when, literally, in Rome…. what are you gonna do? Plus, I needed some caffeine really bad.



I should note that this trip was made possible by Michele Buster at Forever Cheese and Brad Dube at Food Matters Again. Ethics require me to say that you should take everything written here with a grain of salt since they took me on the trip. Of course, I also carried these cheeses for decades without getting a trip to Italy so keep that in mind too.

Cheese isn’t trendy

It may be counterintuitive, but even though I work with a food that is seen as trendy right now, I strive not to be. Sure, it helps our store when some food website or newspaper article promotes an obscure cheese, but one of the most beautiful aspects of cheese is its history and regional evolution. When a cheese like Comte can humblebrag “1000 years of artisanal production,” it’s more about sampling it or suggesting it than hawking it like a used car.

This, unfortunately is the opposite trend of some clickbait food writing these days. I go out of my way not to criticize other food writers. Partially this is because – though I have written two books – I am only a part time food writer. I am a full time cheesemonger and I always figured the odd OMG-you-have-to-try-this-now-it-will-change-your-life is the equivalent for a writer of the commodity block cheese that fuels any grocery store cheese department. It pays the bills.

I felt like even a relatively recent cheese book that was so clearly “I’ve-already-spent-my-advance-so-I-need-to-turn-this-manuscript-in” could be read in a positive way as a meta-statement and cautionary tale about overly metaphorizing food. The very act of trying to write about the production and eating of one cheese into a book-length universal statement about the way-we-live-now made the narrator an Ahab chasing his artisanally-produced white whale. Other writers beware!

However, I think I hit my limit with this article: “Why Parmesan is Better than Pecorino Cheese” Let’s just start with this straw man:

“For the past ten years (more or less), a message about pecorino has been pushed to unsuspecting eaters like me: Pecorino is the new Parmesan, and anybody who knows anything about food (chefs, cookbook writers, etc.) knows it.”

Not only is this a dubious statement – I rarely see interest in Pecorino Romano at the expense of Parmigiano Reggiano unless it’s a sheep/cow issue – something very different is true. Anyone who tells you Pecorino Romano is the new Parmigiano Reggiano knows nothing about cheese.

bammer 415

(Here I am repping the 415 Parmigiano Reggiano. Don’t gimmie no bammer brie!)

There is no need to choose one over the other as some kind of rule. Both have their history and uses that date back to long before there was a united “Italy.” I do feel bad for any “unsuspecting eaters” who may have heard – somewhere — that they are inferior garbage people if they like Parmigiano Reggiano more than Pecorino Romano, but maybe those folks should invoke a little more critical thinking in their food reading. Especially if they are the editor of a popular trendy food website.

To his credit, the author, David Tamarkin editor of Epicurious, does admit in this trashing of Pecorino Romano that he is partially correcting his own “lie.” One of his first acts as editor of Epicurious was to write the following:

“Parmigiano is great. Pecorino is better. Sharper, funkier, more flavor-forward—and, generally cheaper. Use it wherever you would use Parmigiano (AKA Parmesan), aged gruyere or manchego”

To you folks out there who are not cheese professionals: if you want a tip-off to whether a writer knows anything about cheese here it is… if a writer says “pecorino” instead of defining what kind of pecorino it is (Pecorino Romano, Pecorino Sardo AOP, pecorino fresco etc.) read no further. Also, if a writer says “use this instead of…” and names three cheeses from totally different regions and with different taste and textural properties, read no further.

The author here is referring to Pecorino Romano, but even if this was defined, there is more variation on Pecorino Romano* available in the US than there is with Parmigiano Reggiano. Much Pecorino Romano is no longer made in the region of Rome, but rather in Sardinia. Some, not all, of this is suitable only for use as salt licks for deer hunting or perhaps melting snow in certain climates. Here’s another tip for gauging whether an author knows cheese: if they suggest subbing “pecorino” without telling you to adjust the salt level in your food, stop reading.

Tamarkin does apologize to America for promoting “pecorino” but he cops an insanity plea while doing so. It’s the voices in his head (of Brooklyn hipster chefs) that made him do it! Yet, his ode to “pecorino” remains online in the Epicurious list of “essential” pantry items. In this way Tamarkin is still, in effect, bullying himself, maintaining the straw man that he so bravely tries to destroy in his current article.

Anyways, I am writing this instead of updating our new worker handbook so I am going to get back to that. We have to make sure that when people come in to accuse us of forcing “pecorino” on them, new workers know how to respond. First rule: tell customers not to believe most of what you read about cheese on trendy food sites. The cheese will remain after the hype is gone.

* BTW, I would recommend two brands of Pecorino Romano in particular: The Fulvi Pecorino Romano Genuino and the (relatively new to the USA) Pondini imported organic Pecorino Romano