Tuesday, July 25, 2006

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