Tag Archives: 2010 wrap up

2010 Wrap up: 5. Questions for 2011 and beyond

Because the cheese era is changing (see last entry), we are at a crossroads. The 70s and 80s cheese folks – as a whole – have a great deal of credibility and honesty associated with their work and that has reflected well on all of us working in the business today. What will happen next is unclear.

There are a lot of issues with credibility on the table right now. Companies that never thought they’d be secure have expanded beyond their wildest dreams. Despite the fact that the word “artisan” has no real definition, as a cheesemonger I can assure people reading that consumers have a lot of trust in the concept of “artisan cheese”. The loose definitions (like “artisan”) used by many small producers, however, leave these vulnerable to cynical marketing and manipulation by other, larger forces.

“Artisan cheese” is often being sold right now as if it’s an offering from the one person to another. Farmers markets — even when the person selling the cheese may never have even touched a ruminant– promote this idea whether they intend to or not. But as companies get bigger, get sold to outside interests, or start buying supplies from outside the region, the credibility earned with such hard work over the years is endangered.

Let me say briefly (since this issue has already popped up in discussions about this “2010 Wrap Up” series) that I have no issue with any company using frozen curd (for goats) or frozen milk (for sheep). I do have an issue with the marketing of a product as local when the ingredients are not (at least almost entirely) local. I think this is a huge issue for the future if customers start feeling lied to by cheese companies, especially when they buy them at a farmers market under the illusion that they are supporting a local business.

Certainly this issue only affects a subset of cheese eaters, obviously almost no customer in California cares if a Vermont cheese is using Midwest curd (as a “buy local” issue), but they do care if a company is advertising their “terroir” but are not entirely of that region.

(I use this picture to illustrate my point. I drove hundreds of miles out of my way to see the “World’s Largest Cheese”. When I found out it was a replica of the box the World’s Largest Cheese was shipped in, I distrusted Wisconsin cheesemakers for years)
cheese replica

This is kind of my hobby horse I guess… I like definitions, even if I do not necessarily feel qualified to make them. Farmers often get itchy when people start talking about certification programs, but very soon, as consumers get more educated, more questions will be asked. And not just about regionality, I just chose that because it’s an issue bubbling up all over the cheese world right now.

If a cheese is made with curd or milk from hundreds of miles away, is it local to anywhere? What percentage of non-local curd or milk makes it alocal?*

Can someone call a cheese’s ruminant “grass-fed” if they just let her graze occasionally? Or does it have to be part of an agricultural system that eschews grain-based feed?

Can dairies continue to be called “farmstead” if they have too many cows to name or if cheesemaking is not their primary form of business?

If Jack in the Box describes their fast food bread as “artisan” can the word really continue to have any meaning at all?

What is “small production”?… Could this cheese be considered “Domestic Fair Trade”?… Do the marketing images of a cheese company correspond to the look of the actual farm and the people doing most of the actual labor?…

So many questions…

I have my own answers to a lot of these, obviously. And cheese people are already working on defining some of these as well, but I think — moving forward — these are some things that need to be thought about in the coming years. Of course, these questions have their roots in the problem of success. The craft cheese business is more popular than ever as is the sophistication level of its customers. Not dealing honestly with many of these questions poses a real danger to the next era of the new American cheese.

(When I went to see “The World’s Largest Holstein Cow”**, on the other hand, the truth in advertising made me a happy boy.)

*”alocal”. I just made that word up, but I like it. Without locality. As in, “You can’t talk about that cheese’s terroir because it’s alocal”
**Such specificity! Not the “Largest Jersey Cow”! Not the “Largest Guernsey Cow”! Nope, the “Largest Holstein”.

2010 Wrap Up: 4. One era ending, another one beginning.

2010 saw the death of two important cheese people who I knew: Jim Boyce, who reenergized Marin French Cheese, the oldest continually operating cheese plant in the country and Kathy Obringer who was making great cheese at Ancient Heritage Dairy in Oregon. Though both these folks died before their time, it’s a sad fact that many of the folks who started the reinvigoration of small cheese production in this country are aging.

Cheesemaking is a vocation for the patient. Many of the folks who began reigniting this tradition of started their work in the ‘70s or early ‘80s. That means they’ve been at it for 30 years or so. A number of them, especially the goat folks, were back-to-landers who do not have children who wish to carry on their cheese legacy. What’s going to happen?

What will happen in the future is an open question. Some, like Sally Jackson will sell their animals and equipment and retire. Some, like the Gingriches of Uplands Cheese passed on the cheesemaking mantle to a younger generation. Others, like Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove will keep their legacy – and rural jobs – alive by selling their companies. That these companies may get sold to companies not rooted in the local area may change the nature of the new American cheese business.

When one looks at the pictures of the first years of the American Cheese Society conferences it’s clear that those folks were in it for the passion, obsession, love of the animals or completely by accident. There were no flighty sales reps in those pictures, no one in suits (except for possibly a European guest or dairy science professor here and there). The ACS was an organization of mutual aid in large part. The only people crazy enough to try to make small production cheese had to stick together.

Those days are long gone, as days tend to be, but a lot of the original folk are still around right now. You can still meet them at conferences and bask in the oral tradition of craft cheesemaking history around the bar! However, the way the math works out, we are looking at the last remaining years of this generation actively working in the business. I have my worries about the future,* but either way this era of the cheese world is ending and a new one beginning.

I just want to take this opportunity to say thanks to all the original cheese visionaries in this country. You’ve changed our agricultural world.

mansfield cheeese

*I am a worrier by nature. That’s why my girlfriend insisted we get a terrier because we’d be so well suited for each other.

**ha. My auto correct changed a typo in the title from “another beginning” to “nothing beginning” . I wasn’t trying to be so negative! I corrected it above.

2010 Wrap Up Part 3: Recalls

Food borne pathogens in cheese have always been a worry, especially for raw milk cheesemakers and consumers. Cheese is safer than most foods — in general — however, 2010 was a banner year for recalls.

2009 actually had some of the biggest food problems in recent memory, mostly with produce and meat contaminated with salmonella, listeria, and/or ecoli. This helped lead to the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 and, seemingly, a future of increased concentration on monitoring certain segments of the food system by the FDA.

This year some of the big names in the world of raw milk cheese have been associated with food borne pathogens. We have sold cheese from three of the four dairies currently affected by FDA-encouraged recalls, so it hits close to home. The “telling the story” of the cheesemaker that people love to promote sometimes leaves little room for critical analysis, and distance often precludes realistic assessment of a dairy’s HACCP program.

The issues for retailers and consumers are pretty clear here… we don’t want to sell or eat anything that can make people sick or dead. Yet, one minute we can hear about a producer with “traditional”, “artisan” methods and applaud the commitment to real food, the next minute recoil in fear and anger at the lack of modern food safety guarantees.

In fact, I often find myself in a bind when talking to customers about cheeses I don’t carry. One cheese company I stopped carrying because the cheesemaker was drunk – and not just a little bit – every time I saw him. There were some issues with some cheeses as well – nothing serious – but I dropped them because I was afraid something really bad could happen. However, I am not going to say to a customer, “I don’t carry XXXXX cheese because the cheesemaker is a drunk and I have food safety worries because he’s making raw milk cheese.”* ** I dropped another cheese for awhile after visiting the farm and being appalled at their food handling practices.

On the other side of customer concerns, I got into a huge fight*** with a customer because we weren’t carrying a cheese that had just recently been recalled (a new un-recalled batch was out but I was waiting for some questions to be answered before giving it back its shelf space). In their eyes I was giving in to the “Big Ag conspiracy against small farmers” by giving credence to the FDA.

“No,” I said, “I’m just trying to not kill people here.”

(Here I am composting bad bocconcini. This is the closest thing I have to a graphic for recalled cheese)
bad bocc

The problem with recalls, from a small producer point of view, are numerous. Is enforcement fair? Are easier targets chosen for publicity purposes or biases against certain kinds of production (like raw milk)? If your cheese does get recalled, how do you get your reputation back? Can your company/farm withstand the financial hit of destroying inventory and having no income? Can you ever get insurance again?

Because there is something to a “Big Ag conspiracy against small farmers”. They are easier targets with less resources with which to fight back. I firmly believe that the USDA confiscated and murdered the Faillace family sheep for no good reason other than they needed a press release to show that they were handling the “mad cow” issue. I believe that something was very odd with the process when a different cheese company went out of business a few years ago partially do to a recall for a food borne pathogen that could never be found in their facility or in any of their cheeses, save one bad test of one wheel that had left their premises.

However, most FDA inspectors I have met – in cheese-friendly settings to be sure – did not strike me as jack-booted thugs of Big Dairy, or a test from a vengeful God, but as quiet, science-oriented guys trying to keep people from getting sick. The problem is that one recall can kill a family business, and one non-recall can kill many consumers, so the stakes and emotions run very high.

I have a number of questions about the current recalls including, in at least one case, whether the cheesemaker was actually responsible or whether it was post-production contamination by another party. I will say though, that when I read the documentation behind a different recall, the things cited would, if true, get someone fired at our workplace.**** That’s pretty damning especially for a producer of a higher risk food like young, raw milk cheese. Other parts of the citation are less convincing, including the age-old cheesemaker vs. inspector battle over shelving in the aging room.

And perhaps part of the issue is the publicity and panic around recalls. In the interest of safety, ceasing sales from a relatively high risk food can make sense from a public safety point of view, but it is hard for a small dairy to lose that stigma even if they were not directly implicated, and extremely hard to make back the money in lost sales and higher insurance. Of the three companies currently dealing with these issues (that I deal with) one already decided to go out of business (Sally Jackson), one is in full-compliance mode, and the other is in fighting back mode. None are currently selling cheese as far as I know. Will folks buy their cheese again when they do? I know a lot of folks whose cheese we sell that went through recalls that no one remembers now, but most were much bigger operations.

2010 was the year of the raw milk cheese recall on the West Coast. Whether this will increase and spread throughout the US in 2011 is open to question but I hope that cheesemakers, especially raw milk cheesemakers, are reevaluating their HACCP plans and thinking how they can be even safer. More scrutiny is surely ahead.

*I said something vague about quality control
**I would have had similar worries about pasteurized cheese, but that made it scarier to me.
***With actual screaming and yelling! I felt like I should be working in NYC for a second
****Which is not an easy workplace to get fired from. Though actually, we’d probably just take away their cheese shifts and let them not wash their hands when receiving pallets of packaged grocery.

2010 wrap up part 2. Oregon Cheese

The emergence of Oregon cheese For years – at least to those of us outside the state — Oregon cheese was synonymous with Tillamook Cheddar. In terms of cheese states, the big three people tend to think of are California, Wisconsin, and Vermont. I would say that this year has made it obvious that people should start thinking of adding Oregon to that list – especially when considering blue cheese and goat cheese. I don’t think any state except California is making the variety and quality of goat cheese made in Oregon.

First off, the Rogue Creamery makes some of the best blue cheese in the country. The Seasonal Rogue River Blue may be my favorite American cheese, but the Crater Lake, Caveman, and Echo Mountain are on the next tier of amazing. Rogue has gotten a lot of attention among cheese folks in recent years, but they are just the tip of the iceberg that the rest of the country hasn’t discovered about the Pacific Northwest cheese community.


River’s Edge Chevre (no connection to the Crispin Glover/Dennis Hopper movie classic) is making incredible ripened goat cheese and one of the few smoked cheeses – “Up In Smoke” (no connection to the Cheech and Chong movie classic) that I heartedly recommend. Tumalo Farms makes amazing caramel-like aged goat cheeses; Pholia Farm is an amazing off-the-grid cheese company using Nigerian Dwarf goat milk.* Juniper Grove creates great goat tommes. It seems like every time I go to Oregon I find new cheese, this year La Mariposa and Briar Rose impressed me.

When I visited the Pacific Northwest on my book tour, I was actually amazed that they were even more locavore-centric than the Bay Area. Some members of the audience even seemed a little put out that not only did I bring California cheeses to sample, but some from Wisconsin! While I have my criticisms of the locavore idea, I do understand that in their region, you can get many of your needs met locally and be happy with the choices.

(BTW, I was going to make this “Pacific Northwest” instead of “Oregon”, but since two of my favorite Washington State producers have shut down recently due to FDA/food borne pathogen issues, (see entry later this week) I figured I’d just play it safe and leave it at Oregon.

*I should take this opportunity to again plug Gianaclis Caldwell’s Farmstead Creamery Advisor if you are thinking of starting your own dairy project!

2010 wrap up: 1. The continued emergence of American-made cheese

There are five more days in 2010 and I will be giving you five end-of-the-year posts. Starting today I will be posting the five trends I’m seeing in the cheese world right now. Just my opinion and all that, but I feel pretty strongly that these are the big issues right now.

The continued emergence of US-made cheese When I started as a cheese buyer more than 16 years ago, the idea that US-made cheese would ever challenge the European classics was laughable. Sure, some fanatics would always buy local, but it would be a sacrifice of taste for politics.

That’s simply not true anymore.

For example – and I say this knowing that it is practically cheese-sacrilege — the best regularly-available-in-the-Bay-Area ripened goat milk cheese is Bonne Bouche from Vermont. Most long-time cheese shoppers still resist this idea – looking for the (pasteurized French export versions of) Valencay, Selles sur Cher, Chevre D’or, Lingot – but side by side, Bonne Bouche does not only equal those export versions, it surpasses them for complex, tangy goat taste. I know most of you reading won’t believe me. Try it for yourself and get back to me

bonne buche

But that’s not the only place where US cheeses are encroaching on the considered-unassailable Euro- cheeses. Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Ascutney Mountain and Spring Brook Tarentaise are up there with Comte and Gruyere, Mountina and Edelweiss up there with Emmenthal, Marieke Gouda with the best Dutch aged Goudas, Winnimere with Forsterkase, and –though this is premature to say – Rush Creek Reserve may even someday challenge the Vacherin Mont D’or.

Even though many of these cheeses were being made five or ten years ago, they are only now getting to the point – in terms of consistency and depth of flavor –where this is true. Cheesemaking is not for the short-term planner.

Additionally, a number of American originals are becoming staples in their own right. Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk, the seasonal Rogue River Blue, the Dunbarton Blue (like a Montgomery Cheddar with a cracked moldy rind!) and the Vella Golden Bear Dry Jack are unmatched. Sure, as yet there is no American challenge to Parmigiano Reggiano, Brie de Meaux, or the best Gorgonzola Dolcelatte, but at this point challenging those cheeses just seems doubtful instead of impossible.

(I am re-emerging from my holiday cheese hole. Hi Everyone!)