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