Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Nora at the American Cheese Society

For the past several months, I have been looking forward with fervent anticipation to an event that most people don’t even know exists. In fact, I didn’t know it took place until about a year ago, myself.

The American Cheese Society holds a yearly conference to unite cheese professionals with cheesemakers, retailers with distributors, and cheese freaks with cheese geeks (which, upon further reflection, may prove to be one in the same). This year’s conference took place in Portland, Oregon, much to the delight of all conference participants. And for good reason: Portland is home to a burgeoning food culture, based largely around local farms and a multi-weekly farmer’s market upon which most Portland residents and many of the best restaurants in town heavily rely.

And now, most importantly, some words on cheese. I eat a lot of cheese. Actually, I’d even venture to say that I eat with the best of them here at Murray’s. Running our educational facility, The Cheese Course, sometimes means that I’ll eat 3 or 4 full cheese plates a week, on top of the regular sampling, pairing trials, and tastings. The three days in Portland brought things to an all time high (or low, depending how you swing it). Periods between panels consisted of cheese breaks, that is, tables boasting copious amounts of blue-veined, soft-ripened, and uber-aged gems. Several panels incorporated tasting into their discussions. And the Festival of Cheese, the grand culmination of the weekend, featured over 900 cheeses, yogurts, and butters. Needless to say, I put it away so to speak.

My position as education coordinator was also what sent me to the conference in the first place. As Juliet Harbutt mentioned in her opening speech welcoming all conference participants, education is The Next Big Thing in the cheese world. Indeed, of late there has been a buzz in the cheese education community about the possibility of fromager certification (the cheese version of a sommelier certification). Of greatest interest to me and largely why I pursued traveling to the conference was a panel discussion on this exact topic, headed off by a group of five that has been working on this effort. We received a progress report from the committee members, which outlined a five year plan that will guide this noble attempt for professional certification and accreditation standards for educational institutions. The committee also set forth certain criteria for a tiered, three-level fromager certification, from basic to advanced to master.

The room was crowded, and housed an enthusiastic group teeming with ideas. Participants discussed who the target audience would be for fromager certification, suggested the formation of certain subcommittees—be it one to settle on a standardized vocabulary for cheese types or one to determine other educational ideals for cheese instruction— and even questioned the name “fromager” for a hot minute. This undertaking is a difficult one, and one that requires participation— for funding the certification or otherwise—from interested or impassioned parties. We all agreed that certification is an important step for the cheese industry, one that would legitimize ours as reputable and academic in addition to gastronomic. I thought of how I welcome students to Cheese 101 at Murray’s, stating that the introductory class is the perfect first step one can take in his/her cheese education. Yes, there is such a thing as cheese education, I’ll remark. I often get a couple of chuckles, but I think most people, especially after taking the class, get it. This, I told myself, is encouraging. Positive, exuberant feedback I receive from students after classes here is encouraging. The conference and the participants in the educational committee was encouraging. The five year plan for fromager certification is encouraging. All of these points, just to name a few, have validated my efforts to continue the educational program here with a renewed spunk and serious commitment.

One of the greatest parts of wandering the city was visiting the farmer’s market at the University of Portland. As artistically inclined as I wish I was, I’m just, well, not. But even I couldn’t help but pull out my camera and snap some shots (over 40 in the end, actually, I just couldn’t help myself) of this dynamic market. What surprised me most was the diversity of offerings from individual vendors. At one stand, bunches of bay leaves, gourds, and garlic, at another, bouquets of sweet pea flowers, purple long beans, Asian spinach, and blueberries, and at another, freshly picked wildflower clusters, squash blossoms ripe for stuffing, Oregon’s famed marionberries, and white cucumbers.

I couldn’t help but draw a comparison between the food cultures of the Pacific Northwest and New York: they’re much more alike than different, and both are propelling the turn that American food culture has been taking a turn towards local and for the better. Like many of us borough dwellers, it seems that our friends on the opposite coast are starting to center their diets and appetites around the freshest, most recently harvested, seasonal foods.

How fitting, I thought, is Murray’s ongoing participation in the new Real Food farmers markets here in Manhattan, which are helping to further facilitate a food culture supported by local farmers, and vice versa. And might our Real Food markets someday grow to the size of Portland’s?

Hope so.

- Nora Singley,
Director, The Cheese Course

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

For the Love of Cheese: Diane at the ACS

Before the actual ACS conference begins, the cheese judging competition takes place. Let me begin by explaining the gigantic feat accomplished before the judging starts. Nine hundred different cheeses are sent by over 150 cheesemakers to Portland. A forty foot long refrigerated trailer is rented by ACS and attached to a loading dock at the Oregon Convention Center which is a ‘light rail’ ride away from the conference hotel. The big 3, Competition Chairman David Grotenstein, Chairman Emeritus John Greeley and all around amazing cheese Receiver Debra Dickerson arrive the week before, to begin receiving the cheeses. The cheeses fall into 22 main categories like Fresh Unripened Cheese, American Originals, Flavored Cheeses, and our favorite Farmstead Cheeses which are then split into sub-categories yielding 91 categories in all. The cheesemakers are invited to send their cheeses with no identifying characteristics (well, they must be in their usual form - so maybe we cheese people recognize our favorites - but I for one certainly can’t tell one block of large cheddar from another.)

These cheeses come in and are labeled with secret codes (identifying the cheese maker, sub-category and cheese #). The refrigerated trailer - a dark, spooky, cold (41 degrees, lit rather poorly by hanging industrial light bulbs) - is set up, stuffed to the gills with speed racks - rolling shelves with removable aluminum trays often used to wheel around food in the business. The speed racks are organized by sub-category and hopefully in alphabetical order. One must keep in mind also that never before have this many (more than 900) cheeses entered the competition (the last few years hovered around 750). And each new location and year presents its own unexpected challenges. (One this year was the inadvertent miscommunication of the deadline for cheese arrival.) The one thing I saw over and over was that the people running the show are supremely dedicated to fairness and inclusion: to presenting all 900 cheeses in their proper category and in the most pristine condition possible. No corners cut, no decisions made with expeditiousness outweighing these high standards.

I arrived on Monday morning, one day before the judging would begin. We wished all the cheeses had arrived but of course many were, as yet, undelivered. As I learned the system and saw the scope of the task I just gaped, eyes wide: how can this all get done? May I add that almost everyone is a volunteer. Only the Executive Director of ACS , Marci Wilson, new this year, enthusiastic and excellent, and some wonderful FSA people are getting paid for this project. While some people are, of course, sent by their companies, this intense work is done mostly for the love of cheese.

So, as Debra received more cheeses, mostly from local cheesemakers, Elizabeth Kooiman (wife of conference co-chair Tom) and I spent hours double checking about two thirds of the 900 entries to see if they were checked in, correctly marked with no identifying labels or boxes and all pieces of one lot on the same tray. The choice was to do this in the freezing cold and dark trailer - with the AC going on and off and blowing on our soon to be stiff necks - or, our choice, wheeling the heavy and cumbersome speed racks in and out of the trailer. I had arrived a bit late at 10:30 in the morning and when we finally finished at 7:00PM I was sure I would need a shoulder operation in the morning. I was vastly relieved when the computer whiz Silverstons claimed me for the less physically demanding task of adding up the judges score sheets for Tuesday and Wednesday.

This year there were 12 pairs of judges- up from 10 to accommodate the increase in cheese. For a more in depth description of scoring see my last year’s blog on the competition when I was a judge. But this year what amazed me was the organizational feat: getting the right cheeses out of the truck through a 5 minute walk through the bowels and then carpeted halls and passageways of the convention center to the judging room to the table of the right set of judges (pre-planned) in the right order at the right time. As a judge last year, I had no idea what chaos might be going on behind the scenes. I didn’t give a thought to how the cheeses miraculously appeared on my table. This incredibly complicated task was again supervised by Debra D., assisted by the esteemed Daphne Zepos and three steadfast cheese angels sent from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Seattle, and a woman named Sabra from Seattle. The judges have their first categories and now I’m in the front of the room with the Silverstons who have streamlined the computer system from last year. These people are amazing volunteers because they are not officially cheese people - they are a retired couple from Texas who absolutely love cheese, having stepped up to fill this need and have continued to refine the system. So now come all the opportunities for more glitches - which ALL must be dealt with, figured out and satisfied in a way that will assure the highest quality of competition. The score sheets have to be checked, mostly by me, and later verified again by Karen Silverston, to make sure every cheese has been properly identified and evaluated by both judges. Missing cheeses must be tracked down. Ties for first place in any category must be re-presented and broken. The judges train early on Tuesday morning so things don’t whip into gear for us score keepers until lunch time. We have a significant number of cheeses to complete that day. Apparently everything went quite swimmingly compared to last year. My backlog file rarely got out of control and Michelle the young and energetic woman from FSA pitched in everywhere.

And did I mention - aside from keeping the judges happy we also must hurry up and finish categories (resolve ties, select first place) so the speed trays can go back to the cool truck because the cheese reigns supreme. Some of the same cheeses must come back the next day for the second round to select the “Best in Show” but also this is the cheese for the crazy Festival of Cheese which is the culminating night of the conference where we cheese heads plus some paying customers go to a cocktail party staring these very same 900 cheeses. So not only does everything have to be right and fair, it’s got to be quick. Kathleen Shannon Finn managed the “triage” table in the back of the room preparing to send the correctly marked and organized cheeses back to the truck. We worked from 8AM to 7:30PM that day, though the pace didn’t pick up till lunch time. I was supposed to eat dinner with a friend from Portland who insisted he show me a glimpse of the Gorge before sunset so I didn’t eat some Kobe beef sliders at the Rogue Brewery until 10PM (and Portland closes down early on weekdays!) and I was famished. I’d eaten almost no cheese all day, just one wonderful judge had left large leftover plugs of cheese on her paper plate in case she needed to revisit her scores. And that was luckily my favorite category - farmstead cow. I was involved in some necessary discussion over her score sheets and got to sneak a taste. A room redolent of cheese and not a drop to eat until then.

The second day was initially more of the same. I knew not to show up at 8AM because there wouldn’t be score sheets for me till the judges finished their first categories, but by now we were all in the groove, which was good because the first round needs to be completely finished, judges sent on a much deserved but short break and then quickly figure out all the first place winners, any stubborn late ties, and bring back those blue winners to the twelve tables for round two, where every judge tastes every category winner, grouped somewhat logically on the 12 tables, to pick the very best to line up for the final round for Best in Show. There were 74 first place winners. A fair amount of categories had no firsts because a cheese must score 91 points out of 100 possible to place in the highest range.

Now we’re talking excellent cheeses, but in all shapes, sizes and flavors. From Bittersweet Plantation’s new White Chocolate Praline Butter to Redwood Hill’s Garlic-Chive Chevre to Wilamette Valley’s Cumin Gouda. And in the more traditional categories: the Cowgirl’s Pierce Point, Blue Ledge Farm’s Crottina and Leelanau’s Aged Raclette. Out of this amazing batch - no offense but we all know that the low salt or marinated categories ain’t gonna win- you can sense or smell a winner. Even if you are the non-hired help and are not officially tasting. Well, at this point, when we were cleaning tables preceding the final round, Nicholas from La Brea Bakery, Dany Schutte from San Francisco’s Whole Foods and I are darting about for some succulent crumbs.

Best In Show this year was awarded to Cabot Creamery Cooperative for their Cabot Clothbound Cheddar which was aged at Jasper Hill by those Kehler brothers, and has been carried at Murray’s for some time and has been a staff and customer favorite since it hit the case. It’s a great cheese! My co-workers attending the conference tried their best to elicit the secret winner from me, but my lips were sealed until the awards ceremony Friday night, two days hence.

- Dr. Diane Stemple

Stacy at the American Cheese Society

Many thanks to Rob Kaufelt for sending our Murray’s crew, Amy, Nora, Diane, Tom & myself to Portland for this year’s American Cheese Society Conference. We wore many hats, as all are wont to do at Murray’s Cheese, NYC. The experience was, inspiring, rejuvenating, humbling, affirming, bonding, and back-breaking (Big Cheese!).

Overall Observation: Cheese people are very cool.
We met so many people with moving stories, great ambition and real excitement for cheese and all that it entails.

Cruise of the Willamette (wil-LAH-mit) River:
‘City of Bridges’, docks of houseboats, jetskis of waving folks, it was sultry and sparkling out there on the water at sunset. Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB) set up a serious spread for Wisconsin cheese lovers like us.

Opening Ceremonies:
Allison Hooper - ACS President and Juliet Harbutt - culinary author and educator were engaging, funny and real. Lewis and Clark discovered Oregon and these happening ladies kicked off the rediscovery of the wide world of cheese in a big way.
Cheese from W(h)ales…that story killed!

Up Close and Personal:
People of the cheese have full and interesting lives and are not afraid to let you into them. We had a lovely dinner with Marilyn, David, Stan, Sid, and the rest of the WMMB team at ‘Wildwood’ in the Pearl District. The atmosphere was very shui, tough-guy chefs on stage, and excellent food and drinks. Bartenders in Portland seem to genuinely like to make artisanal cocktails! Refreshing.

Fromager Certification - I want to live in a world where I can evaluate my knowledge, give it a fun title and validate my choice of the retail cheese industry. There are levels of expertise proposed, Certified Cheese Specialist, Fromager, Master Fromager, and Mac-Daddy Cheese Guru (I kid). Investors in the future of this excellent proposal welcome.

Dessert Wines Paired With American Artisan Cheeses – Definitely my favorite session. The speakers on the panel were thouroughly enjoyable, particularly Max McCalman who led a rousing round of applause for full-figured gals; historian Donnal Mixon who schooled the group on the ever-elusive topic of ports and dessert wines; Jessica Little from Sweet Grass Dairy; and Jill Giacomini Basch from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. Her story of four sisters making their 48-year-anniversary-celebrating parents’ dreams come true was so touching; I forgot to eat my cheese! Family and being kind and respectful to each other are concepts that are alive and well in the cheese community. Especially refreshing.

Education is the key to the rise of cheese in the proverbial and literal food chain. I know I’m going to study harder and teach smarter.

Cell phone abuse was surprisingly minimal. Except when it wasn’t. The “Who Killed My Cheese” aka “Rumble Cheese” session was a challenge. Jingling neighbor, barely air, soft-talkers, and late-comers in the back made the interactive dialogue a little hotter than the panel expected. And FYI Seattle Chef, there is quality affinage in the US and you’re a ‘HOME’ click away. Also, I appreciate that you like French cheese, I do too. But to say it’s better than American cheese at the American Cheese Society conference?! Interesting choice.

Our Night Off:
Paley’s Place – Former NYC modern dancer Kimberly and James Beard Award winning chef Vitaly Paley gave us a fabulous dining experience. The place was overrun with cheesers enjoying (word of the week) their boards. Nice knockers Kimberly! (doorknocker collection people…behave)

Juggling – The International Juggler’s Association had their conference simultaneous to the ACS (coincidence or does the street performance set love cheese too?). To the ‘Renegade’ finale on the rooftop we went. It was a freakish diversion with swords and marshmallows, but the only thing in the air was Matt Hall’s balls and 90% humidity.

The Pool:
Nora and I took a heatwave break one day. Sorry, no cameras allowed in the grotto.

What the FOC:
The Festival of Cheese – So much time, muscle, and talent went into the beautiful displays. Sculptures, pyramids, cheesefalls and henges looked almost as good as they tasted. Congratulations to all the participants and winners that created such a stunning event!

Cheese Sale:
The proceeds from the cheese that didn’t get inhaled at FOC go into a college education scholarship fund. Cultivating future mongers, one pound at a time.

Moral of the Story:
Spreading education, excitement, love, and energy of the cheese and the people of the cheese is what the American Cheese Society conference means to me.
Thanks again for the adventure!

‘Children of the curd
Shall be heard, Feds can’t foil
Fruit of the soil.’

Eat It Raw!

Stacy Van Voorhees
Murray’s Cheese

Tom at the American Cheese Society

Oregon, July 2006. - The view out the plane window was of the snowy peaks of Mts. Hood, Rainier and St. Helens. The USA Today weather map in my lap was all red and orange as the nation baked. It was about 95 degrees on the ground when we landed. America is a dynamic place.

I was bound for the American Cheese Society’s annual conference and “cheese-off”. 680 people gathered to review the state of various unions and consider myriad possibilities; 950 cheeses entered for consideration. Cheesemakers, distributors, retailers, authors, chefs, and foodies came together for 4 days of stinky business. I was traveling with my wife and colleague, Stacy. We’d be joining 3 more co-workers from Murray’s; Amy, Nora and Diane. Here are some thoughts about the organized events.

We saw familiar faces as soon as we landed. Andy from Jasper Hill and Jonathan from Taylor Farm plus Jamie and Steve from Shelbourne Farms were all at the hotel-shuttle counter. Turns out, we’d been on the same plane. Nice.

Our friends from Wisconsin organized a wonderful cruise of the Willamette River the first evening. We acclimated to our new surroundings in good company enjoying good cheese and good beer. Also, very nice.

Next morning, the conference kicked off with a rousing keynote speech from
Juliet Harbutt relating her experiences sourcing and selling cheese in Europe. Her passion for the products assured us that we’re not lunatics and we’re not alone.

The first seminar I attended was on aging (cheese, not me). It was geared towards cheesemakers and focused on what happens in that magical period between milk and mature cheese. Golly, the science part is complicated. I love these lessons because they remind me just how fragile and alive this stuff is.

Then came a discussion on “selection” involving the folks from Neal’s Yard and Appleby’s Cheshire. I questioned the English-ness of it, but rose above it. We compared 4 samples of the cheese highlighting differences due to age, starter or both. The practical example at the end was a taste of ‘Oregon Rarebit’ – local chef Vito Paley prepared an Appleby Cheshire/Rogue Chocolate Stout rarebit over Dungeness Crab bits (neither age nor starter mattered much at this point). Very nice indeed.

Next session was on pricing. A producer, distributor, and retailer sat on a panel revealing the factors that go into pricing the cheese every step of the way to the consumer. It’s a wonder they’re not all $100/lb.!

Slow Food USA presented the American Raw Milk Cheese Presidium - a voluntary protocol among like-minded raw milk cheese producers setting the bar very high in preparation for the next round of regulation by the FDA. Also at stake is the raw milk cheese tradition in the EU! The lesson for everyone: run a clean operation from cow to customer. We’ve come too far to let one careless outfit set us all back, whether it’s a producer, distributor, retailer, or chef. We all have a responsibility to care for these cheeses when it’s our turn.

The Judging Committee took everyone through the steps involved in evaluating a cheese entered in competition. Most interesting are the number of categories added as the years pass because Americans keep inventing new cheeses.

I also attended a delightful session by Mary Keane about Cypress Grove Chevre. The development of her business over the years is an example of figuring out how to do a thing as you go along. Cypress Grove has evolved from a single cheesemaker and some goats into one of the nation’s largest artisan creameries, operating here and in Europe. Particularly revealing was seeing how the people involved in an operation give it its identity and wherewithal.

Finally, imagine discussing the pairing of 6 cheeses with 6 wines and 6 beers with an audience of 100 people at 10 in the morning. No doubt, the most ambitious session of them all: “Traditional Pairings Challenged” will be re-tooled before it’s attempted again. This one needed a bouncer not a moderator. Not so nice.

It was a good week for the industry, the people, the cheese, and for the Murray’s crew. We’re all very glad we went. We found new cheeses, made new friends, and got a good sense of where our company stands in this business – right out front where we want it. Time together away from the shop helps folks work better when they’re back together on their home turf. We’re re-energized in the American cheese department and have a shared adventure under our belts.

Before returning east, Stacy and I got a quick sip of wine country by visiting a few Willamette Valley vineyards. We took in beautiful views of rolling hills on a hot afternoon. Luckily, Mt Hood was “out” that day with its big, white top and, sure enough, I saw someone checking his skis at the airport. Yep, America’s got a lot of good stuff going for it.

- Tom Van Voorhees,
Store Manger, Bleecker Street

Nora, Amy, Tom & Stacy

Amy at the American Cheese Society

What a way to spend a birthday--eating my way through 900 cheeses with a few of my favorite co-workers!

My objective as the American Cheese buyer at the American Cheese Society conference this year was to find cheeses that will add a new flair to our counter. What I realized is that Murray's is so cutting edge, that we have representation from so many states, all milk types and from dozens of producers. We are on the cutting edge! For example, we now carry 22 of the winners and more at different times of the year!

However, you can be sure that in the coming weeks, you will see a few new ones that we all agreed were outstanding among the mountains of cheese we tasted.

I was honored to be asked to represent Murray's on a panel called "Effective Packaging." Based on the success of Murray's By Mail, we were selected to represent the retail-to-customer options. The session was given to a standing room only crowd of interested participants.

Dining in Portland was top notch! The staff at Murray's was invited to a dinner sponsored by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board that included some of the state's established and up-and-coming cheesemakers. It was great to sit down and discuss the cheeses made by these lovely folks.

Next time you are in Portland, be sure to check out Wildwood, a great restaurant that features lots of local specialties like halibut, salmon and hazelnuts and wine of many local varietals. The undulating wood ceilings made conversations flow in a magical way. Have you ever been to the whispering wall outside the Oyster Bar in Grand Central? If not, you absolutely must (and visit Murray's Grand Central while you are there!). This restaurant uses the same mastery of acoustics to carry words right to your ear. Keep an eye out for new cheeses from Wisconsin on Murray's counter.

One of the most interesting and informative sessions I attended was regarding the progress of the Cheese of Choice Coalition.

The CCC was formed when there was a threat that the laws against raw milk cheese might tighten. I recall when I first started working at Murray's in 2002, we had a list of signatures of people who supported CCC's efforts. Your voice of support was heard!

At this point, the law that states that any cheese intended for sale must be aged for 60 days or longer if it is made with raw milk. The CCC has enlisted the expertise of Dr. Catherine Donnelly, professor of Food Microbiology and specialist in food-bourne illnesses to help make a case to the FDA about the value and safety of raw milk cheese aged 60 days or longer. Not surprisingly, bureacracy has slowed progress. Dr. Donnelly's publications will be available to the public in the coming months. Stay tuned, though!

- Amy Sisti
Director, Murray's By Mail