Monday, March 31, 2008


by Zoe Brickley

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs from the dead earth, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

T.S. Eliot wrote that opener to The Waste Land when he was having a nervous breakdown. Perhaps the onset of this celebrated season, classically employed as a figure of hope and rebirth, was unbearable in the actuality of his despair. The typically saccharine, floral images are reworked to reflect instead the springtime of his troubled psyche. Eliot might have experienced emotional limbo, haunted by a past abandoned and fraught over the inevitability of his undoing. Or maybe he was just having trouble finding a good sheep’s milk cheese.

That’s what’s been eating me lately. I’ve been trying to hold down the last few wheels of 2007’s Vermont Shepherd from cave pillagers – the famed Vermontian reinvention of the classic French Ossau Iraty. A few valued restaurant clients still boast it on menus, audacious enough to defy a plain law of nature: lambing season.

May was in like a lion, and out like a hurricane of baby sheep careening down wooly birth canals faster than farmers can keep up with. Due to the finicky way ewes breed they are all on the same cycle – which means that for the next month or so greedy little lambs will be monopolizing our milk supply in the northeast. It follows that well aged cheeses won’t be made, cured, and ready for eating until August at least. By the time they are extra-aged with bigger, nuttier flavors – about a year from now – they are all but sold out after the holiday drain.

If you’d like to finger blame, please look past the sap responsible for sourcing your farmstead picks, and focus instead on Mother Nature’s convention of short-day breeding. While humans and cows follow a lunar cycle of fertility, a ewe’s inner Gaia revolves around the solstice. I think it has something to do with serotonin levels and pituitary glands, but the basic result is that all sheep in our longitudinal neck of the woods can only breed during the shortest days of the year. Here lies some of the pain and the beauty of cheese seasonality.

What to expect – if you’re looking for ewe’s milk cheese in the spring – Keep your eye out for the younger styles like Willow Hill’s camembert types, which show up in late spring or early summer. Larger productions with more aged varieties, especially in Europe, can guarantee availability all year round – go with Ossau Iraty from the Pyrenees if you have a hankering that can’t wait until fall.

Goats are similarly inspired when days begin to shorten. In natural nature this serves to spare newborn kids from harsh midwinter conditions. However, goats are more easily fooled by urbane tricks of husbandry like the rigged lighting used to mimic long summer days, and central heating. Also, the most popular goat cheeses we carry are the younger variety, so seasonal consequences are more immediate and predictable. Supply issues are easily mitigated because the ‘lightly-aged’ niche is pretty well saturated within the artisan market. Fresh chevre also freezes exceptionally well compared to all other cheese types, so that really helps to bolster our late winter stash.

What to expect – from the goats at this time of year: Blue Ledge farm’s Crottina, a little bloomy cheese is aged for only a few weeks, so they’ll be ready and for sale here in April. Also – Mozzarella Company’s Hoja Santa is double seasonal because of the fresh chevre involved as well as the hand-picked Hoja Santa leaves, which are harvested in the spring and used as an aromatic wrapping. All of our little goats will improve at the grass becomes greener and they spend more time outside – this is especially true of the texture and flavor of cheeses made from frozen milk in the winter.

Cows, as I mentioned, need little more than some frozen stock and a latex arm sheath to get the ball rolling. Most bovine dairy farmers use this flexibility to keep their herd on continual rotation for a more consistent milk supply. But this does not exempt them from seasonal fluctuations in milk composition, quality and supply.

One of the most impressive reflections after a year in the cheese biz is how noticeable these changes truly are between seasons, months, and even from batch to batch. How our affections shift as a pretty good cheese starts ‘hitting super-hard’ or another looses that special je ne sais quoi.

But what accounts for these fluctuations, besides our snobbery – I mean… connoisseurship? ‘Tell me what you eat, cow, and I’ll tell you what your cheese is like’. It makes a big difference. When a cow, goat, or sheep is grazing on pasture they are fulfilling their evolutionary destiny. In fact, people started keeping these ruminants, or four-bellied lawn mowers, to take advantage of that abundant green resource, which we can’t digest ourselves. Seasonal and annual fluctuations in weather affect the nutritional content of grass and other grazed plants. The diversity and type of browse also lends aromas and subtle flavors, which are proven to translate into the milk, probably by piggybacking fat globules.

Where an animal is in terms of her gestation cycle, physical activity and nutrition causes drastic changes in the levels of fats, proteins, sugars, minerals, microbes, and aromas that can be measured in the milk. In winter the cows are more sedentary and are probably getting dried hay or supplemental grain to make up for grass shortages. Also, cows give richer milk just before they are given a 2 month rest from milking – which is often mid-winter. This results in a fattier winter cheese, often with a rich and creamy texture.

When grazing animals are in their tawny summer mode the milk is leaner of fat and protein but higher in sugars and volatile aroma compounds – so the cheese may be a little less unctuous but surprisingly more complex, floral, and flavorful. For most cheese types, ‘summer milk’ and ‘grass-fed’ are the hot-button terms.

Why then, does Classic-Sharp-White from the grocery always look and taste exactly the same? Measures have been taken to ease your suffering and stifle your joy. Very 1984. The cows behind that milk probably live inside and eat cereal all day, all year round. The milk never picks up that pretty buttery yellow color, which comes from the beta carotene involved in a pastured diet. Don’t confuse this with that lovely cheddar-orange color, which would be annatto- a flavorless vegetable-based dye. (And don’t worry, goats convert all that beta carotene into vitamin A, so their cheese will always be milky white, even when pastured. Sheep’s milk cheeses are usually off-cream colored no matter what.) It goes without saying that commercial milk never gets those volatile aromas from a varied, seasonally-evolving diet either.

The last key difference is breed. The indoor uber-yeilding cows are the iconic black and white spotted Holsteins that have come to symbolize dairying in the US. They are prized for giving lots of clean tasting milk on a diet of just about anything. Well, that’s not exactly true; the breed has been selected to grow so fast and give so much milk that for most of the year they need supplemental grain; grass alone is not enough to fuel these SUV’s of the bovine world.

Other ‘heritage’ breed cows are more traditional and, around here, typically include Brown Swiss, Jersey, Guernsey, or Ayrshire. These varieties tend to give less milk, but richer, more flavorful and colorful milk. They can subsist on pasture and hay in ideal conditions just fine. If you don’t believe me try and find a pint of Evan’s Farmhouse milk. And buy the whole milk too – its way more delicious, and the only way your body can absorb all the vitamins, minerals and calcium which are naturally packed into this luxury-grade product.

What to expect - from the larger cud-chewing contingent in April – Expect shortages from smaller producers who practice total seasonality (see the must-eat below) or even those who keep the herd on seasonal rotation. Jasper Hill Farm up in VT has a small herd of Ayreshires whose total number of milkers fluctuates from 30 - 46, with the lull at the start of each year. We’ve been tragically low for a few weeks now, but bigger batches are underway in newly expanded aging caves and supply should be back to normal by May.

So celebrate, with T.S. and me, the ups and downs of life. The tribulations that make humans human, and sheeps sheep… In the dead of winter when fresh-mown grass is a wistful memory you can take solace in the nurtured fruit of that happy season with a well aged cheese. But now, that too is a fading memory. A warm day here or there beckons pre-emptive jean shorts wearing only to leave us with exposed knees on a drafty subway platform. And summer’s intense grass-fed offerings are still weeks or months away. Our appetites for spring are sharpened after catching a whiff and chasing a wakeful dream. April – you devil you.

Go Big or Go Home Reading Assignment: The ‘Cheese by Hand’ project website: Check out interviews and farm visits with artisans across the country. See why seasonality affects more than just a cheese-maker’s wardrobe.

Cheese You Must Seek Out and Devour: Meadow Creek Dairy’s Grayson. I know last month was also washed-wonder from the East Coast, but here’s a fun activity: Hurry up and buy a hunk of Grayson right now. Then, grab another hunk of Grayson when it comes back in season this summer. The entire small herd of Jersey cows took a break from milking, as per tradition and inclination, early this year. The cheese is aged around 60 days – so that means we’re getting our last batch from last season this week! The herd of ladies are on the same page so that all of the associated tasks surrounding their breeding are consolidated and happening at the same time. Also – the more southern climate (Galax, VA) means that grass is available for 10 months of the year – so their recommended two month dry spell is timed perfectly with the absence of greens! That way, only the best milk is used for cheese, and it shows. The crew just started making again this week so it won’t be ready until June. Take notes both times and compare. Then do it again in August, and then October and…

Thursday, March 13, 2008


by Zoe Brickley

Imagine that your breakfast of champions is a little different today. Instead of hitting your crunchy-o’s with an ice cold splash of milk you decide to go with black gold; oil that is. Maybe grab a petrol latte, double-tall, on your way to the office.

I know that you think I’m about to launch into a rant about carbon footprints and the Alaskan wilderness, but stay with me here.

I just want to make the point that nobody in their right mind would do such things – and not just because gasoline is unpalatable… it’s also super expensive these days. Gas prices are no joke. But get this – we would actually be saving money if we were treating ourselves to gas-cream-cones. Milk has become more expensive per gallon than gasoline; the commodity cost is up nearly 50% from last year.

Granted, you need a lot less milk to power your life – but that isn’t the case if you’re a cheese-maker. See where I’m headed now?

We’ve had a few comment cards lately reflecting the public’s unrest with the climbing price of cheese. Some have even speculated that we are hiking our margins to reflect the premium ambiance in our fancy new store or to *gasp* finance our underground lair.

We promise, folks, that our margins are the same and that as an importer and retailer we are feeling the heat right along with you (I catch my share of flack as the mistress of the money-pit downstairs). So, I did a little digging and found that there are a few more factors at play than the most obvious culprits, which are transportation costs and the strength of the Euro.

The biggest: grain prices. They’ve tripled from what they were two years ago. Since the dollar is down, more people are importing our amber waves of grain – so demand is up. Also there’s been a drought in the Midwest, and a significant amount of production has shifted to corn for ethanol and livestock feed or to other crops like barley and soy, which are fetching more per bushel as well – so supply is down. Both of these factors contribute to climbing prices.

The most interesting factor affecting demand for grain and milk powder, perhaps, is what researchers are calling ‘diet globalization.’ The apparent conceit of the following statement in light of how much ridicule we garner from the international community makes me shudder, but as it appears, people in developing nations - the increasingly affluent and urbanized - ‘want to eat like Americans.’

We are bringing about this phenomenon by campaigning for our classic processed foods abroad. Who could resist those jingles? And wheat marketing headquarters have been established in places like Nigeria, where newer staples like bread are replacing the more traditional, locally available and affordable options. Hey – if you could make donuts out of cassava root, maybe we’d be importing from them.

Due to skyrocketing export and less competition from other countries, like severe-two-year-drought stricken Australia, grain stocks are at their lowest in a quarter-century.

And guess what dairy cows eat? Yep, it costs more to buy milk because it costs more for the grain to feed the cows. And picture the cheese-making process as a way to concentrate or shrink the volume of milk –it takes about 10 square inches of milk to make one square inch of cheese. Geez.

This doesn’t just apply to our commodity type ‘American’ cheese like block yellow cheddars. The same phenomenon with milk prices are happening overseas, too. In Europe, along with their climbing grain and milk prices it’s easier to export finished products to neighboring continents (by proxy), which are becoming wealthier and more interested in dairy products – especially all my peeps in Asia. Europe’s demand is higher than it’s ever been and their cheeses are much more expensive- even before transportation and currency conversion are accounted for.

Our impressive new shop can’t do much about these facts – but there is one thing: every three months or so we get a memo from the consortium that Parmigiano-Reggiano prices are about to jump again. To shield you defenseless consumers a little longer, we buy a mind-boggling amount just before the spike. My morning workout those days consists of shelving 15 or more eighty-pound kegs of that indispensable condiment. You’re welcome.

With everything getting more expensive, we start thinking about ways to tighten the purse-strings: postponing that trip to Dubai, putting the jet-skis up for sale, moving back to Bushwick… But pause here and take solace in the fact that for less than a ten spot you can take home a wedge of that luxurious triple-crème and feel like a queen for the night.

And here’s something to keep in mind when you’re spending half as much on the cheese for your dinner party as you are on the wine: Quite a few experts out there will contest that milk, grain and most of the food we buy has been grossly under-priced; compared to other countries of the world- at all points in history- we spend a much smaller percent of our income on food than most anyone else.

In fact, milk prices have been so low in the last decade that many smaller farms have been foreclosed or consolidated into bigger operations. Others have managed to get by through a shift of production and the addition of value on-site. In other words, they are making their own dairy products on the farm instead of wholesaling the milk to a consolidated production plant somewhere.

Here lies an alternative to the ever more expensive imported cheeses, and the not so cheap American commodity-types. As a nation we are experiencing a renaissance of sorts within the world of artisan cheese. If you look through Jeff Roberts’ new Atlas of American Artisan Cheese – you will notice that more than 70% of the farms listed started making cheese no earlier than the year 2000.

I’m not going argue that the growing selection of these boutique products will be much less expensive as an alternative. Fuel, labor and facility costs still make profits a challenge for the little guys. But I will say that they are a much better value.

The cows from which our favorite ones are made don’t stand around their whole lives eating Wheaties™. Nope. They eat grass and hay – the diet they were designed for. The good people on these farms craft the cheese by hand, instead of pouring milk in one end of a factory only to plop out yellow cubes from the other. And U.S. cheese quality is better than ever – gaining a real competitive edge on their European inspirations.

Above all, you know your buck is backing the good fight at home, instead of feeding inflation, fueling combines and ocean liners, or bolstering that incorrigible Euro.

Be sure to check out Liz's blog "From the Front Lines" (below) for her thoughts on the subject after a recent visit to several family farms.


by Liz Thorpe

On the heels of Zoe's entertaining, but sobering look at the increasing costs of food production in our current world, I wanted to add

my two cents. I've been in Wisconsin all week, visiting cheesemakers while Rob eats gross amounts of cheese as a judge at the World Championship Cheese Contest. I spent Tuesday morning with George and Debbie Crave of Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, and the topic of milk increases came up. George summarized the macro-level for me this way:

The cost of milk, and cheese, is based on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Board's valuation of block cheddar. That's where "value" begins in the U.S. Now, if the demand for powdered milk increases (as is the case in our current market, since the greatest demand is occurring in 3rd world countries that can't generate their own milk, but can buy powdered from anywhere), the demand for block cheddar decreases. If the demand for block cheddar decreases, then the
valuation decreases. So, larger cheesemakers have 2 options: 1. They can make powdered milk, a sure sell, in the current market or 2. They can gamble on block cheddar, not knowing how the market will value that cheese in the future, after it ages.

For the dairymen who own and milk cows, but may not (are often not) making cheese, a decrease in the demand for block cheddar means more animals are sent to slaughter. Why pay to feed animals whose milk is devalued as cheddar is devalued? So, cows go to slaughter, and then,
guess what happens? Less cows a'milking, so less supply, so milk shortage, so milk becomes a premium commodity and increases in value.

The demand goes up as the supply goes down. Regardless of larger market forces. So there's a vicious cycle that gets spun each time block cheddar is devalued.

As George said, the cure for high high prices.

To deflate the price of milk doesn't mean it's any less expensive to produce. Instead there's an artificial goose to the market as milk is more or less available. I know this is basic economics, but we simply don't think about our food this way. Add to this cyclical rhythm certain unknowns like weather: if it's bad, farmers grow less food; if there's a severe drought, Australia cows produce less milk; plus other unknowns like what people in India and Nigeria want to eat.

At Murray's, we (and you too, most likely) we don't really think about block cheddar. It's not part of our world, right? Only, of course, it is part of our world. And being here in Wisconsin I am aware of it at every moment. From the tiny, off-the-grid sheep cheese maker I met on Wednesday, to the cheddar producer who makes 5,000,000 pounds of cheese a year (which, folks, is small by national standards), this cycle of supply and demand, fuel for transport, grain for feed, corn for ethanol, and national consumption here and abroad. They're intrinsically connected in a frighteningly abstracted web that doesn't acknowledge how expensive and laborious it is to make good food, real food, food without a lot of shit in it. Food from cows' fluid milk, not reconstituted powdered milk; food from cows that sniff air and see sky, not to mention cows that might actually eat hay or grass and not just grain; food from cows that don't milk 4 times a day thanks to extended lactation courtesy of rBST and other growth hormones; food
that gets made by hands, touched by people, turned on racks, or shelves, brushed, washed, aged, tended, packed and then shipped, at best, in trucks or planes running on gasoline that costs more than it ever did.

I'm no expert in this stuff, but being here this week makes me worry more than I already did about how we produce food, what we pay for it, and what's happening to family farms in America. They're getting crushed. Even as they make more money off their crops and their milk
than they have in 25 years. The whole thing bodes ominously.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Check This Out! World Cheese Championships

Cheesemakers and buttermakers from around the world have submitted a record 1,935 entries in the world's premiere cheese and butter competition, the World Championship Cheese Contest, all with the hopes of being named the next Big Cheese.

This year, our very own Rob Kaufelt is one of the judges.

You can watch a live broadcast of the Championship Round via the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association website. How intense will it get? Which flavored cheddar will sway the judges' opinions? Can Rob really eat almost 2,000 samples? See it all live!

It starts at 8:30AM CST (that's one hour behind Murray's time) on Thursday, March 13.