Tag Archives: cheese

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.

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(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 — 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:

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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.

ACS Cheese Judging

Judging was great, like usual. I am in awe of the way that every year has more entries and yet the process gets smoother and smother. Think of the logistics of receiving, organizing, logging, and tempering 1843 cheeses… it’s really pretty amazing. I’m indebted to all these folks for doing the behind-the-scenes work.*

Every year, people ask me for details about the judging so this post is hopefully going to answer those questions. There were 21 teams of judges this year, the most ever. Each team consisted of a technical judge and an aesthetic one. Technical judges are almost all dairy scientists with a few other well-recognized experts thrown in for good measure. Aesthetic judges are recognized as the prettiest people working in cheese so I was really happy to be chosen again. I still have it at 48 I guess… I credit all the butterfat.

See, here’s my most recent picture. It was taken yesterday (unlike my author photo!)

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Seriously though, the aesthetic judges are people who have worked in cheese for a while, shown some degree of expertise, and usually have more retail/distributor experience than scientific training.* The American Cheese Society judging system pairs these two types of judges in order to recognize the importance of technical rigor to cheesemaking, but also acknowledge that imperfect cheeses and unexpected flavors can create amazing cheese as well. The technical judge is the bad cop, starting at 50 and taking away points for defects. The aesthetic judge is the good cop, starting at zero and awarding up to 50 points. The scores are combined for a possible, but unlikely, total of 100.

We taste about 40-50 cheeses on day one and another 40-50 at the beginning of day two in order to get through all the categories. Later in that second day, we reconvene to taste the winners from every category and decide on our individual favorites. We rank those 1-3 and they receive weighted points which are then added up to decide the Best of Show. It’s gruelingly awesome! It’s an endurance of amazement! It teaches lactose tolerance!

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A score of 100 is unlikely but this year we had a first in the history of ACS… a four way tie for 1st place in the “Open – soft-ripened cheeses – Made from cow’s milk” category. Since I got to try all four during the Best of Show process, I can attest that they were all amazing cheeses and it would have been hard to deduct or not award full points. Mountian Ash by Sweet Rowen Creamery, Ashley by MouCo Cheese, and Harbison and Moses Sleeper by Jasper Hill got the blue ribbon(s) and these are some of the best soft-ripened cheeses made in this country for sure. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to conceive of these being made in the USA. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in this cheese renaissance.

Other judges have their own methods, but when I am deciding on BoS I have a system.  First I go through the room tasting all 100-or-so cheeses taking notes on my favorites.  This usually eliminates all but about 20 cheeses.  Then I go through and taste all of those again deciding on the cheeses that I would feel good about voting for in my three BoS votes. This number varies from year-to-year.  Sometimes I have an obvious top three. Sometimes I consider about a dozen very seriously.  This year I settled in on a top seven or eight, any of which I would have been happy to see win the big title.

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(photo by Rachel Perez)

Mostly, I don’t know until the awards guide is released after the Awards Ceremony who I voted for. It’s a blind judging. However, as a monger, I regularly handle some cheeses that are very distinctive so a few times every judging I have to remind myself to judge the cheese, not the sometimes long history I have had with a cheese. I feel like I do that with integrity partly. I am so honored to be asked to judge this competition, I would do nothing less. All five cheeses** that placed in Best of Show were in my top tier so I felt pretty on par with most of the other judges, based on the result.

I love the purity of those two days before the conference starts. I know I have said this before, but the cheeses have to speak for themselves for likely the only time in their lives in that judging room. No sales pitches, no heart-warming origin stories, no brokers, no prices, no labels. I feel like it re-calibrates my cheese senses, especially being in a quiet room instead of a store and sitting next to a technical judge instead of a sales rep. Thanks ACS!

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*I was going to link to the letter from John Antonelli, Judging Chair, but it’s not online yet.  I will link to this when it’s up because I don’t want to forget anyone or not acknowledge folks who were so far behind the scenes that I didn’t see them.

**Someone asked me so I looked it up, I was asked to judge at ACS for the first time after working 13 years in cheese.

***I will talk about them, and others, in my awards ceremony post.

Steve Ehlers, unsung hero of cheese.

This is my favorite picture of Steve Ehlers (far right), taken at the Burlington ACS. Maybe not the most flattering, but one which really captured the nature of the ACS back in those days. I like to call it “The pageantry of the ACS awards ceremony.”
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Steve Ehlers was pretty much the first cheese person I met outside of California when I started going to cheese conferences. Many California folks from the slightly earlier generation of the American cheese renaissance helped me develop my practical knowledge, taste, and historical interest in cheese – people like Kathleen Shannon Finn, Andrea London, Ig Vella, Jennifer Bice, Mary Keehn, Judy and Charlie Creighton, Dan Strongin… But Steve was probably the first to show this interested but insecure Californian that he could be part of the cheese world on a larger level.

He welcomed me into the American Cheese Society. I don’t remember how we first met – probably when I volunteered to help prepare cheeses for judging at the first Louisville ACS – but I was feeling overwhelmed being at an event where everyone seemed to know each other and I was one of the youngest people there. Back in those days, the ACS conferences were only a couple hundred people and I wasn’t sure I could fit in with the group or, honestly if I wanted to.

Steve and I hit it off right away. We had common interests in the world outside of cheese, which always helps, but I don’t know if I have ever met a more friendly supportive person. Later I watched him do the same with plenty of other new cheese folks. He easily could have been too busy – running a shop, being on the ACS board – but he always made time for people. He really exemplified everything I love about the artisan cheese world: friendly, smart, willing to share practical knowledge and oral history, encouraging, disapproving of pretension, non-self aggrandizing, and always seeking out ways to help people in our community and cheesemakers having a hard time. These are the qualities that helped make me decide that I could find a home in the world of cheese. Steve is not the only person I can thank for that, but he’s on a short list.

The funniest moment I can remember with Steve, when I really learned he was one of my people, might not be funny to you. Steve and I shared an interest in history and the history of radical political movements of the ‘60s. His Facebook icon – not that he ever Facebooked (smart man) — was this iconic picture from the rebellion of Paris ’68.
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So we were hanging out at a Sheana Davis event during Fancy Food week in San Francisco and I introduced him to a local cheese sales rep. Upon learning Steve lived in Milwaukee, the rep said, “Oh, I have relatives in Wisconsin. My cousin is a weatherman in Madison.” Steve and I started laughing uncontrollably and the rep is probably still trying to figure out what was so funny, not knowing that when we hear Madison and weatherman together in a sentence, we both hear it with a capital W.

We always bonded over being some of the few people at ACS in cheese retail or distributing that stayed in the same job for more than 20 years. It’s a small club. Me, Juliana and Alma from the Pasta Shop, Helder from Zuercher, Patty and Steve from Larry’s Market and a few others… Going to Larry’s was something I did every time I went to Milwaukee. It’s a small but mighty place and it always feels like a home away from home.

I can only imagine what his family and closer friends must be going through because Steve was one of those people that just brightened up every room and every interaction. He is a real unsung hero of the American cheese renaissance. It’s actually really hard for me to imagine our community without him.

I am going to miss Steve a lot. And I know I am not the only one.

(For a more detailed obituary of Steve, please see Karen Herzog’s great tribute here)

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.

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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:
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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.
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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.