Tag Archives: cheesemonger

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!

12570923553_0dbac858bc_z

 

Why I write cheese books

Since I am in that limbo-land between the time of my book being finished — in terms of writing and editing – and the book actually being printed, I’ve been thinking about why I write cheese books.

I am more of a brooder than a quick, witty retort kind of guy. I like to mull things over for awhile, ask questions, read things… and for me the most effective way of thinking things through is to try and write about them. True, some half baked thoughts, missteps, dead ends and embarrassments may come first (in 2015 we usually call these “facebook posts.”) But eventually – at least I hope – coherency emerges, thoughts crystalize, I can start to say something that makes sense.

While I suppose I am a professional writer – I’ve sold two books (once twice) and numerous articles – it is not my main source of income. That gives me a lot of latitude with what I choose to write. Very, very early on with
Cheesemonger — only about 50 draft pages done — I sent it to an agent (not my current agent) because of a personal connection. I wasn’t really ready, and I should have waited, but the response I got was telling. Basically, if I would remove all the monger stories the agent would possibly be willing to sell it as a photo-based coffee table book.

That’s cool. Heck, it probably would have been more profitable. But it’s not why I was writing. My cheese writing “career” started by accident. I had a LiveJournal* and only sporadically mentioned my day job. However, I realized than whenever I would make a cheese post, my comments section would explode. One day I made the mistake of asking if people had any cheese questions. Within about a half hour I had more than 50 questions. I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t have the time to answer all those! I deleted the post.

But this outpouring of cheese questions showed me that there was need for more cheese writing. This was 2003 or so. There weren’t many cheese books back then. Indeed, I remember actually knowing the release dates and going to the book store to buy multiple copies of books by Steve Jenkins, Janet Fletcher, and Laura Werlin when they came out. It was tradition in our department that when someone found a new cheese book they would buy as many as they could and donate one to the department and then share them with everybody else. Even with these books though, there was still a thirst for cheese knowledge online. I started writing some LJ posts for fun and to learn more. I sought to answer the questions I was continually being asked, and I craved having a longer conversation about cheese than was usually possible over the cheese counter.

Surprisingly, and this is why Cheesemonger was written the way it was, I also found there was almost as much interest in the job as the cheese. Relaying the workplace realities of someone working 40-some hours a week with cheese was my point: the conversations, the stories, the ironies, the compromises, and putting realities to the mysteries of cheese — not just the specific factoids and statistics that others could provide (and that might be out of date within a year or two) — made writing the book interesting.

I was taken aback when Cheesemonger came out and I found out that wasn’t the way a lot of people write. In the food world especially, I was asked more than once how I went about hiring a ghostwriter.** It seems there is a non-insignificant minority of “readers” who think you would only “write” a book in order to brand yourself. I was just happy someone wanted to publish it.

cheddar w cheese

Fast forward to the last few years. The cheese world has changed a lot. So has the internet. You can actually find reasonably good information on most cheeses online if you know where to look. So many readable, yet technical, books exist now*** that I am absolutely relieved of any responsibility to write at great length about the technical details of cheesemaking. Best of all, people started using the word cheesemonger unironically!

On a road trip with the smartest person I know (my wife Laurie), we started talking about cheese and I realized that there was another cheese mystery I wanted to unravel. Why, when I started working in cheese in 1994, was American-made cheese the object of ridicule? I knew that there had been regional traditions of cheesemaking and long time cheese families. Why did they make the cheeses they do? Why did people who wanted fancy cheese demand imports? Why couldn’t Americans produce cheese as good as the Europeans? Is liking fancy cheese just too snobby for the regular American?

So many questions… I realized that the key to understanding American cheese would be understanding cheddar, America’s most popular cheese for 150 years. Cheddar lead to the industrialization of cheese, it took women out of the make-rooms, and it is beloved just about everywhere in this country in one or more of its many forms: the traditional cloth-bound wheel, the plastic-sealed block, or processed, emulsified, “American” single.

And then I spent a couple of years, working on this idea, on and off. Reading and visiting. Chatting and interviewing. Writing and deleting. And after awhile I realized that not only was cheddar important for the reasons mentioned above, but cheddar also helped usher back in the cheese renaissance we are currently enjoying and which will forever change the reputation of American-made cheese. Good idea Laurie!

There’s a lot more than that in Cheddar (the book) – cheese road trip stories, tasting notes, cheddar factory poetry – but it started because I realized that even though I have worked with cheese for most of my adult life, I didn’t know enough about the most important cheese in the country. I also feel that writing is, in many ways, my duty. I am rooted in the realities of the co-op in which I work and the city in which I live. In a country that can be very divided along rural/urban lines I am lucky that my job gives me the opportunity to interact with people who live in very different places. If I am going to sell cheese from these places — which is where food comes from after all – I also feel the need to add what I can to the complexity of the issues and not just participate in trendy consumer shorthand that comes easily – and can sometimes take over – in a busy, urban grocery environment.

Writing is my offering back to the cheese community that has nourished me in many ways. Writing is about answering my own questions while hoping those questions are interesting to others. Writing is my attempt to have a longer conversation than is possible over the cheese counter during the realities of a retail interaction. This is why I write cheese books.

*LiveJournal was a community-based, semi-private, blogging platform that was state-of-the-art, pre-facebook.
**Now, none of these people had read my book. I assume they just looked at me and decided I couldn’t write one and must have hired someone. I consider this a slight against the honorable profession of ghost-writing. How did they know my book wasn’t terrible?
***Max McCallman/David Gibbons, Gianaclis Caldwell, Paul Kindstedt, etc. just to name a few authors, all with multiple books.

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.
DSC01227

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.
DSC01196

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.

Bergkase
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.
IMG_1787

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)
IMG_1842

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!
DSC01292

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.

Forsterkase
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.”
DSC01299

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.
IMG_1839

Spicherhalde
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.

Sternschnuppe
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.
DSC01290

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.

DSC01228

Master of Cheeses

You all saw this thing about “clever” cheese signs in the NY Times, right? I have mixed feelings. (I love Martin Johnson’s work though) At what point are we calling attention to the cheese and at what point are we just calling attention to ourselves as cheesemongers (and faux self-deprecatingly showing off “our” useless liberal arts degrees)? Does it take away from the cheese to force witticisms upon it?

I’m asking… Seriously.

Can I just remind you that if you do not read Cheese Underground, you are missing out? And not just because she dubbed me the “Barbara Mandrell of the Cheese Counter”

Finally, I got interviewed for the “Masters of Cheese” series at Rumiano Cheese’s website. That, of course made me go listen to this:


Master of puppets
I’m pulling your string (cheese)
Twisting your rind and smashing your Brie

And I know you all already read about the Norwegian cheese fire so I won’t even bother with that one…

* Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter

Nashville, here I come

I have not been to Tennessee since 1986.  We actually did — I think — go through Nashville on the way to Graceland but, to be honest, the trip was a bit of a blur. 

However, I will return this weekend for the Southern Artisan Cheese Festival. I am doing a class, doing a reading at the “Makers and Mongers” dinner, and selling books.  It should be awesome, so if you are in the South, come on over!

BTW, here is proof that 1.  I have been to Tennessee and 2. I have gained a couple of lbs in my 20 years in the cheese business.  (I am fine with that, btw. One needs a belly to keep the Parmigiano Reggiano in place while cutting it)

tennessee 1986-2

Wisconsin Day 4: I love Milwaukee

I love Milwaukee.

I have loved Milwaukee since I went to the ACS conference there. Sheana and I stayed in the Presidential Suite, put on a party, went to the Spy Bar, we saw the pre-scandal John Edwards, I got food poisoning from someone’s bad cheese the night before I had to be on a panel… Good times!

As much as I love Milwaukee, I was worried about my reading there. The only two people who I am good friends with in the whole town (besides the folks putting on the event) couldn’t come so I was resigned to it being Steve and Patty from Larry’s Market and whoever would be trapped in the store when I started reading. I was counting on the Midwestern Nice thing to obligate people to stay and watch me so as not to be rude. After all, Madison was good, but there was only one person there who wasn’t a friend, or friend-of-friend.

Instead, Milwaukee was one of the best book events I’ve done.

Good product placement or editorial comment?
garbage only

Steve and Patty did a great job of promotion and lots of local food writers came out for it. Lucy Saunders, Jeanette Hurt (and her lovely child), Pam Percy and Martin Hintz were there. I got a nice blog post from Thomas Geilfuss. Arthur Ircink from Wisconsin Foodie interviewed me about Wisconsin Cheese and taped my whole reading (Boy I hope those California cheesemakers don’t hear what I said about them!).

US Champion Cheesemaker Katie Hedrich was even spotted in the audience. Someone managed to get a grainy paparazzi-like photo of her and her brother Greg.
Katie and Greg Hedrich @Larry's

But the whole crowd was fun. They asked interesting questions and laughed at all the right places. Since I had pretty much decided this would be my last reading, I just read the funniest parts of the book. I figured they could read the more narcissistic and political bits in the privacy of their own homes.

I can’t think of a better way to end my year of self-promotion.

Wisconsin Day 3: Fromagination reading

I’m pretty much at the end of promoting my book via readings – one can only milk this kind of thing for so long – but I really had to do some Wisconsin events before calling it a day.* I mean c’mon, Wisconsin… those people love their cheese. It means a lot to me when Wisconsin like me book.

Because really, I’m a Californian. Being a California cheese person among Wisconsin cheese people is like being a Californian in Oregon. At any gathering, someone in the Wisconsin dairy crowd will mock the “happy” California cows, a Californian will bring up the fact that California leads the nation in milk production, and it can get all West Side Story. Can’t we all just get along?

One person who I always get along with is Jeanne Carpenter of Cheese Underground and a million other cheese projects. She’s one of my favorite cheese people. How could she not be when she referred to me as the “Barbara Mandrell of the cheese counter”?** When I arrived at Fromagination for my reading she gave me an autographed copy of the Wisconsin Cheesemaker calendar. At the Cheddar Maker roundtable I had complained that we had been trying to get everyone’s picture signed at Rainbow but because we actively use the calendar, it had already gotten trashed. That’s the kind of person she is!

Fromagination is right on the Capitol Square in Madison, the site of all the huge protests against the coming corporate fascism. I spent the day in Madison walking around and having an old friend show me around the battlegrounds. “That’s where we snuck into the Capitol Building through the window…”***

My reading was full of friends and friends of friends… worker-owners of Union Cab? Hello! … WMMB acquaintance? Good to see you! … Quince and Apple? Welcome! … Writer friend of my ex’s sister? Great to meet you! My old cheese friend Steven was there too, working the counter. That was really special since I got to find out he worked for a company whose cheese book I mocked during my reading. It’s a small cheese world.

Oh Wisconsin, I love you.
reading at Fromagination

(If this entry seems a little out of date since I’ve been back form Wisconsin for a few weeks now, let’s just say that between losing multiple unposted blog entries and installing a new operating system on my computer, I’ve got a backlog of stuff. Timely writing is overrated in my opinion anyway. 😉 )

Written while listening to Flamingo 50

*Just for the record, I’m not seeking out more book events – 40+ is a lot – but I’m still happy to hear offers. I’m deeply sad that I can’t do this year’s Southern Festival of Cheese, for example, so Nashville, I owe you one. And NYC, I wouldn’t turn you down either.
**If I have a tombstone someday, this is what I’d like to have on it, please.
***It goes far beyond this – in every state in the union – but the Recall elections are coming. Do the right thing, Wisconsin.