Monday, August 11, 2008

In Rob's Opinion...

by Rob Kaufelt

[This post is in response to Kim Severson's recent article in the New York Times. Read it here.]

There were only a couple of Americans in town when I arrived in Bra, Italy, back in the fall of 1999 to teach classes on American cheese at the biannual Slow Food Cheese Festival that year. The week I spent there was transformative, both for the cheese and the company.

The Slow Food offices were above a little courtyard, attached to a ristorante, and we’d gather to talk of the events of the day with Slow Food’s visionary founder Carlo Petrini. What had begun as a bit of lark had evolved into a real movement, and round the table, with good food and wine, Carlo would explain his philosophy.

He said we were in the ‘Third Wave’ of civilization, and as it related to food the notion was simple enough. For ten thousand years – the first wave-, since the beginning of civilization, mankind has suffered plagues, droughts, and other natural disasters that made life itself precarious, including our food supply. The slow foods were traditional foods, often preserved, meant to get us through the winter or hard times: wine, beer, cheese – peasant foods, really – nothing fancy about them.

Next came the industrial revolution and the Second Wave, including industrial foods. These were good and necessary at the time, as people flocked to the urban areas to work in mills and factories and needed a cheap, safe source of foods in an area where transportation was slow and refrigeration undeveloped. Distillery dairies in New York, for instance, were producing unsafe milk by feeding cows whiskey mash, a fermented grain fed to overcrowded animals with tuberculosis and other diseases rampant. Though at first reluctant to admit it, I began to think that perhaps James Kraft was doing a good thing in 1906 when he invented his processed cheese.

But the industrialization of the food supply had gone too far. By our time, the old ways were being lost. Standardization was the norm and the uniqueness of artisan producers out of favor. Modern foods were loaded with chemicals and preservatives, corn syrup and transfats, which led to not only to the rise of heart disease and diabetes but worse, the loss of flavor. Ripe fruits straight off the vine, grass fed beef; aged raw milk cheeses and fresh unpasteurized milk were not to be found on modern supermarket shelves anymore. Nature was lost amidst fertilizers and industrial farming, craftsmen disappearing, animals treated with contempt.

Thus was the Slow Food movement born. Today, we may know it by other names: real food, local food, seasonal foods, organic foods, sold mainly at greenmarkets and small specialty food shops, but a growing movement across the land. We celebrate the last of the old time butchers and the young people returning to small farms. More and more, people want clean food, healthier food, tastier food, from farms that are sustainable, and where we not worry so much where our food comes from, or if it’s safe, or what it’s made of.

On 9/11 I was at ground zero, and afterward came back and closed my shop. But there wasn’t much happening when I volunteered at St. Vincent hospital, and our dear old downtown Manhattan was closed for business. So I hopped on a plane the following week and spent a few days in Bra at Cheese 2001, working the booth with my cheese pals in our first ever American Farmstead cheese booth. The outpouring of goodwill to our little band of Americans from those attending the festival that year was a highpoint of my life, America was a good place to be from. So who knows? Perhaps only Slow Food, by whatever name, will help us regain that goodwill once again.

Monday, July 14, 2008

NEW Blog Site

To you, our loyal fans:

Murray's Cheese will now be posting our blogs on our own blog site.
Want to read more from Zoe Brickley, the mistress of the cave?

Love Chris Munsey's recommendations for perfect wine and cheese & beer and cheese pairings?

Perhaps you've missed the inspiration you feel from reading about our Featured Producer?

Find them all here, updated each week.

Yours in Cheese,
The Murray's Bloggers

Monday, June 02, 2008


On Saturday, May 24, Rosie Blau, the "Book Doctor" columnist for Financial Times had a great response to a forlorn fromage lover. What is worth more: a toasted cheese treat or a date with the man who makes them? Afterglow from a good sandwich can last longer than from a good date but nabbing the man who makes them is akin to teaching a man to fish...

Read the response here.

KING CABRALES: An imposter is unveiled; contention for the throne persists

We’ve been calling our Valdeon by the name Cabrales; we’ve seen the error in our ways and now we’re casting a limelight on the rivalry...

Cabrales has become synonymous with blue-cheese-from-the-North-of-Spain. It's the name that came with the burgeoning specialty, imported cheese market in the early 1990s. The name clung to the style like a foil wrapper on the sticky blue cheese rind. At the time, the name was more of an importing alias than what some could interpret now as a false front. It seems that as we enter Act II of America’s fascination with fine cheese, the specifics are of growing importance.

Truly, Valdeon and Cabrales are two distinct cheeses, but there are some strong similarities lending to a history of interchangeability: The mixed milk (mostly cow, with additions of sheep and goat’s milk depending on the season), the rich blue veining within medium sized wheels, and the sharp and hefty flavors.

If it helps, think of Valdeon as a theatrical understudy to the more famous Cabrales. In effect, many have kept the headliner on the marquis, but have chosen to open with the alternate, who boasts consistent performances and a younger more handsome visage. Valdeon just seems to be a little easier on the eyes, palate and pocketbook.

It’s like how Isadora Duncan rose to fame under the tutelage of legendarily esoteric Loie Fuller, only to rebuke her influence during the peak of her own celebrity. A striving Valdeon just wants the credit due for his own achievements, yo.

It’s become clear that one name ‘Cabrales’ doesn't capture the whole story. There are several cheeses from the area, each with their own distinct protected designation of origin (DO), subtle variations of flavor and enormous distinctions in texture and appearance.

Here are the clear differences between these two: Specific locale. Valdeon is made in Castille-Leon, while Cabrales hails from the magical island of Asturias. Valdeon tends to have a smoother quality to its flavor profile, and a more uniform color and texture. Cabrales is a little more rustic and challenging in appearance and taste. While both cheeses are really best suited for dedicated lovers of blue, it should be understood that Cabrales really packs a punch.

I know you’re wondering… ‘If the cheese-making process is so similar, what could account for these noticeable differences?’ Some believe that the slightly higher humidity and indigenous microflora within the natural limestone caves of Asturias are responsible for a more intense interior mold. The caves are essentially ancient sink-holes along the rainy, sloping coast-line of the island. They are deep enough to maintain a cool, consistent temperature while a persistent sea breeze keeps them damp and oxygen-rich. This complex and mysterious ecology is held in contrast to the finely calibrated, man-made aging spaces used for Valdeon.

The easiest way to discern the two once they hit your local shop is by their respective outer coverings: Valdeon is enrobed by real sycamore or chestnut leaves, while Cabrales must be cloaked in green foil, as per the federal decree employed to protect its origins. It’s a good thing the DO police are relegated to their own territory.

Retailers that have supported Valdeon, the treacherous McDuff of the cheese-world, have been deemed complicit in dispatching the real-deal Cabrales. And Macbeth is staging his return from the grave. A regal challenge of this kind is bound to have a delegation of loyalists up in arms – no matter how promising the new regime may appear.

We’ve come to a point where critics claim that the more approachable Valdeon is being used to mollify a culinarily sophomoric American public under the guise of Cabrales’s famed rusticity. But fairly, who hasn’t asked for a ‘Kleenex’ only to be placated by the lotion tempered softness of a Puffs?

What this all comes down to is that we’re bringing in the real Cabrales for a lifetime achievement style victory lap of a special promo, and keeping on our darling Valdeon. But now, we’re finally recognizing him for what he is: a gorgeous and well made cheese that our increasingly savvy customer base can discern and enjoy. We figure that anyone adamant enough to seek Cabrales out by name can presumably tell the difference and would prefer the original, while one merely searching for a heady Spanish blue cheese might choose Valdeon for its own stated merits.

And the nominees for best Northern Spanish Blue Cheese are… Who’s it gonna be?

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Pairing Zone: Fin du Monde & La Tur

by Chris Munsey

The Pairing Zone.

Advice for Lovers of Cheese for choosing the beverage that goes best with them. Enter a world a bit different than the one we normally live in. A world where Wine and Beer joyously match with cheese creating an unparalleled taste experience instead of brusquely destroying the complexities and nuances of that $20 a pound piece of cheese you just bought.

Enter the Pairing Zone.

Twice each month, Chris Munsey of Murray's Cheese, hardened veteran of beer and wine with cheese pairing will present an outstanding match between fermented curd and grain or grape. It's a hard job, but someone has to do it. Right, let's get to it shall we?

La Tur and Fin du Monde: a truly decadent dessert.

Creamy, dense and intense- what is not to like about La Tur? A cheese from the Robiola family (small round or square Italian cheeses from the regions of Piedmont and Lombardy) La Tur is made from a mixture of cow, sheep and goat milk and is a study in simple addiction (so easy to eat, yet so naughty: like eating mascarpone with a spoon). This rich creamy curd cupcake is even more delicious (if that is possible!) paired with Fin du Monde a Belgian style Trippel (strong golden colored beer) from the Canadian Brewery Unibroque. La Fin du Monde is no pushover, weighing in at 9% alcohol with a robust, frothy champagne effervescence and a deep weighty flavor reminiscent of wild honey. I actually find the beer a bit much on its own, but it truly finds its match with La Tur. The fudge-like richness of the cheese melts away with a sip of the beer, the malty sweet flavor of the beer mellows and becomes less cloying. This pairing would make a wonderful dessert. If you can wait until after dinner to try it!

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You Gonna Eat That?

by Zoe Brickley

You can't judge a book by its cover, but a cheese rind reads like a gossip column. That's one of the things that make cheese better than wine; I can spot a Taleggio from across the park, but I might not know a Merlot if I were swimming in it. That pudgy square shape, sticky orange exterior, and tell-tale impressions are dead giveaways to that notorious gooey Italian.

So what are the options here as far as cheese rinds go? At Murray's you can always have a taste of cheese before taking the plunge. But what if you find yourself in some nightmarish situation? What if you must invest in a load of cheese and your fascist cheesemonger won't spare you a nibble? A basic understanding of the few possible cheese wardrobes will help you narrow the field, focus on a concept, and allow your imagination to do the tasting for you.

For most people the biggest mysteries of the cheese rind are: What's it doing there, and can I eat it?

Let's get that one out of the way forever. Go ahead. Eat it. Do you like it? Then eat more. Do you have wax and shreds of cloth in your teeth? Don't eat that one. Sometimes you might have to switch on your 'food-not-food' radar and figure it out.

Barring man-made materials, it's always OK to sample the cheese rind or to leave it aside. Rule of thumb - if it looks similar to the skin of a fruit, like a tomato or kiwi (yep, it can be a little fuzzy) then definitely give it a try. If it more resembles the crust of a bread or rind on a pumpkin, then try it if you like, but it probably won't be flavor packed or palatable. The reasons behind these handy clues lie below.

What's that mottled rind doing there? Is it just for earthy appeal? Wouldn't it be easier to make 40lb blocks of cryovac'd cheese with a bunch of different recipes? Yes - the answer is definitely yes, but the rind is important for more than just rugged good looks.

I've divided cheeses and their outfits into not so air-tight but conceptually functional groups. There are two main headings: surface ripened and internally ripened.

The rind is key for the creation of surface ripened cheeses. These are known for their softened texture and skin-like rinds. They are usually flat or disc-shaped, to give the rind an easier time of ripening to the center. Picture this bunch as little individual gardens, cultivated by the cheesemaker or affineur. Instead of roses or mums, though, the aim is to create a solid lawn of micro-organisms. The lawn, with its specialized enzymes, changes the curdy, feta-like texture just below ground to a creamy and more pungent version of itself. The type of the yeast, mold, or bacteria chosen to seed that lawn determines the sub-family it will belong to: washed, bloomy, or natural.

WASHED: Some like it hot - and some like more on the balmy side. 54 degrees F and 95% humidity to be exact. If you create just the right balance of pH, moisture, and salt in a fresh cheese - put it in just the right cave climate, and give it frequent sponge baths with a 3-5% salt solution - then you too can be a gardener of stink. Specific conditions are necessary to cultivate Brevibacterium linens, aka B. linens. This bacterial culture effectively ripens the cheese from the outside towards the center. This is the basic principle of all three surface ripening types, but the washers get a more pungent flavor and brighter orange appearance as the B. linens develop. Think glowing Epoisses or that hunky Taleggio for classic examples.

BLOOMY: : The customer concern that makes us snicker the most in or lofty control room: "My cheese has mold on it!" Especially if they are worried about a bloomy choice; these cheeses are encouraged to grow a full coat of fuzzy mold before they're deemed saleable. There are a few strains at play cave dedicated to mold gardening and they culminate as either fluffy white and dimpled, or off-white and brainy looking coats. The molds are functioning in a similar way to B. linens, but at a slightly cooler and less humid environment. A good bloomy rind should be super thin. Like less than a millimeter. So if the thick and chewy supermarket Brie rind is the only one you've endured - give our Brie de Nangis a shot - c'est magnifique! It really showcases the buttery mushroomy thing that bloomy rinds boast at their best.

NATURAL: A little less common - but definitely worth investigating. These natural rinds do the same thing as a washed or bloomy, but the composition of microorganisms is much more random. They typically have quite earthy, musty and complex flavors, resulting from the diversity of molds, yeast and bacteria, which are allowed to populate the surface at will. Instead of being carefully selected or applied, they come from raw milk or the ambient micro-ecology of their original caves. It's a much more laissez-faire approach to affinage. Try St. Nectaire for a classic example, or my favorite, Tomme de la Chataigneraie for a more obscure demonstration.

The internally ripened members of the cheese world are generally more aged, drier curd cheeses that form a crustier and less palatable rind over time. The purpose of the rind is very different here. Instead of actively ripening the cheese, it's usually there just to hang out and protect the cheese from moisture loss and contamination while it stews to perfection. Ripening enzymes are still breaking down proteins and making flavor - only they are doing it anaerobically, deep within the paste. These types are generally taller, or have a greater ratio of paste to rind. There are several formats to look out for.

WAXED - the easiest way to set a rind for long aging. Just dip in or brush on, and rest assured knowing that those anaerobic little bugs are working their magic. The same can be accomplished with those shrink-wrapped jobs. Look to many Aged Goudas, like Boerenkaas.

CLOTHBOUND - Traditional British Cheddars are made into a hulking 60lb keg of a wheel, wrapped with linen, and then rubbed with lard to seal the deal. What doesn't lard make more delicious?

WASHED ALPINE - These cheeses were designed to keep for lean winter months in blustery mountain regions. A drier curd cheese is almost impossible to over-ripen to rancidity, like a wet and gooey one could do within a month. The tight, elastic protein structure in these sturdier cheeses also resists excessive softening. So, washing them to develop B. linens really just adds flavor and aroma, while essentially building a rind from layers of expired B. linens. This is a much trickier feat of affinage, but the hard work pays off in the punch of a heady Gruyere or Comté .

MOLDY - Again, a drier cheese will keep its shape, no matter how much mold collects around the outside. The buildup of surface cultures eventually creates a crusty casing for a developing cheese. Blue cheeses like Stiltonthat aren't wrapped in foil, and mottled looking wheels like Garrotxa are good examples of this bunch. While the mold's enzymes aren't the most important factor for texture and flavor development - they do lend a special 'Je ne sais quoi' that you'll never get from a plastic bag. BRUSHED CLEAN - Picture a Parm! These wheels kind of look naked and straw colored. The goal is to eliminate all types of surface cultures through frequent brushing and rinsing. Eventually a casing of dehydrated cheese forms and thickens over time. A Parmigiano-Reggiano rind is about ¾-inch thick after two full years in a cave.

LEAF OR FOOD COVERED - Self-explanatory. We've got 'em rubbed with tomato paste, coffee/lavender oil, wrapped in bourbon soaked maple leaves, buried in walnut leaves or coated with balsamic must. You name it - and somebody has tried to stick it in or on their cheese. It's actually a pretty clever way of making an instant protective rind, while adding an aromatic boost to developing flavors.

So the next time you're perusing the case, play the classification game and see if you can determine the genus, species, and sub-species of your favorite cheeses. The more practice you get, the better you can order with your eyes closed…

Go Big or Go Home Reading Assignment: The Cheese Plate - crammed with full-color glossy pin-ups of the fanciest cheeses from home and abroad. Hone your identification skills without leaving the house!

Cheese You Must Seek Out and Devour: Bucheron - This is a great example of a surface ripened cheese with an intentionally thick cream-line. It's a fun exercise to try the gooey ripened part just below the surface of the bloomy rind, next to the 'fresher' crumbly chevre near the center.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008


by Zoe Brickley

FAQ #1: ‘What’s your favorite cheese?’

FAQ #2 ‘How much cheese do you eat on a daily basis?’

Subset of #2 - ‘Why aren’t you super-fat?’

FAQ #3 ‘Where do you guys get all this cheese, and how do you decide which to sell?’

By now I’ve done my fair share of cave tours, fromager events, and ‘Cheese 101’ classes for enthusiastic Murray’s patrons. It is absolutely true that somebody asks at least one, if not all three of these questions every time. And they are still hard to answer.

As for the first two, I suppose that upon seeing where our 200 cheeses live, or hearing my full spiel, the only question left surrounds how we feel about them. After swimming in cheese for a couple of years, do you get sick of it…lose the ability to enjoy run-of-the-mill types or to suspend judgment for the sake of a snack (or breakfast sandwich)?

Yes and no, but mostly no. If we didn’t love cheese, then we’d work next door at the fish place. Or the sausage or bread or guitar store. Or Bear Stearns. Nope – dairy is our jam. We even like bad cheese because it makes us feel smart.

So it’s impossible to name a favorite. It’s like asking an artist what their favorite color is to paint with. One color just isn’t enough for a work of art – and isn’t as meaningful without contrast from the others. (Unless you are a crazy monochromatic mosaic painter or worked at that all-Comté store down on Essex).

But maybe that full-spectrum painter could name the right color blend for a February oceanscape. In the same way, I know of the perfect sausage eating cheese (Piave) or the best for blue cheese dressing (Mountain Gorgonzola) or my favorite walking down the street eating cheese cheese (Boerenkaas). To impress the in-laws? Tomme Crayeuse. Book Club? Constant Bliss. Fall Picnic? Vermont Shepherd. The best dessert cheese when served with peppered strawberries and truffle honey? Monte Enebro of course.

So, FAQ#1 = unanswerable! Customers rightly use any and every excuse to come pick out cheese and after helping them for a couple months you start to develop your own set of stock answers, read: favorites.

If there is one thing that tries our undying love for queso, it lies in the answer to FAQ#3. The tasting committee is not for the weak at heart – or tummy. Between all of the samples we invite from cheese-makers, distributors, and importers- and all the ones they submit for our consideration, it adds up to hundreds every year.

One of my jobs here is to collect the samples on a weekly basis, slice them up and present them with all pertinent production and pricing info, make sure they get tasted thoroughly (with proper respect and enthusiasm), commented upon from all five sensory elements, rated on a numerical scale, considered by all four departments and finally logged into our master database.

As much as we love to help our cheesemaking friends out – we just can’t pick-up every tasty and well-made morsel that comes along. If we did, our five thousand cheeses would crowd out all the customers. Instead, we must deliberate about how a potential new guy fits in; we can only have so many semi-soft cows. No more than a quarter should be washed rinds. Eight goudas, tops. One Limburger is fine.

So when we evaluate we try to assume that we have all the styles we need covered – like a set menu outline- and that a delicious cheese will have to compete with the niche and price of an existing Murray’s choice. It’s like King of the Cheese Hill. We try to keep our total number the same and slowly improve over-all quality and value over the years.

The role of stenographer for these meetings has been pretty fun. You start picking up adjectives you never would have thought of: ‘This tastes like pencils!’ Canned corn and pineapple are mentioned. Fishy, earthy, grassy and dirty – but in a good way- aren’t uncommon.

And as our company grows, so too does the committee’s appetite for cheese. Our collaboration with Kroger supermarkets for instance, brought about an unprecedented tasting. To determine the best brands for our test locations in Kroger, we had to squeeze a lot into a single meeting.

A spread of five cheeses is a lot for a meal. Ten is plenty for a party. Twenty is pushing it for a product-line sampling. But a SEVENTY cheese tasting is enough to put you down for the count.

It started with just 30 or so possible picks: a reasonable fraction of what the total number might be. But to be fair we also got 30 or so alternatives from other producers; it became a grueling six category Ultimate Throw-down for the Murray’s seal of approval.

And still, this is nothing compared to actual on-the-books award ceremony style competitions, like the World Championship Cheese Competition. Rob just returned as a judge for the coveted titles and actually put 250 different cheeses in his mouth, more than we carry in the store, over the course of a weekend. And there were more than 1500 others that he didn’t get around to. A few cheeses we carry made the cut that weekend, but I think Rob is the real winner here.

Events like this do tend to make recreational enjoyment a little less likely – but not out of the question. And all other parts of my job ensure that I unpack, flip, scrub, heave and otherwise physically move cheese around more than I actually consume it. So that’s why I’m only a little bit fat.

So if you don’t know, now you know… But if you’re still curious - FAQ #4 is an easy one: ‘Do you ever eat American singles?’ Yes. On Eggs. But that’s technically not a cheese question; it’s a food-dyed-milk-powder-and-hydrogenated-oil question. As my definition of cheese cannot be extended so far, I can enjoy it (with a little ketchup) in the food pyramid apex category of ‘other’.

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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.