Cheese Wars?

by Alifair Skebe

You’ve seen it. Gas stations crop up across the street from one another. Coffee shops on opposite street corners. A particular stretch of Route 20 in Guilderland could be renamed “Dress Shop Alley.” In a one half minute stretch, there are the three formal dress shops and a smattering of women’s consignment stores. Of course, each shop is a little different. Fancy Schmancy, for example, is a haute couture boutique owned by the couture designer Suzanne Dura, while Angela’s and Apropos are more trendy formal-fashion-type stores. Hidden in the side parking lot of a tiny strip mall, next to a pizza shop and chinese take-out, Fancy Schmancy is a luxurious little dress shop with plush carpets, lush sofas, and recessed lighting cast on wall-racks lined with all colors of lace and beaded gowns in protective covers. Wide-brimmed hats rival the imagination. Velveteen and satin platform heels, studded handbags, mirrors from floor to ceiling. Jewelry. It’s something like modern art gallery meets Lady Di’s walk-in closet. The feeling-tone here is “unique”: you could literally choose any style gown for any occasion and the look would be a show-stopper.

Of course, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with cheese. In our blog post “A Visit to the City of Cheese,” we covered the small and lesser-known cheese and specialty food shops in New York City. Many people outside of NYC are familiar with Murray’s Cheese and Artisanal’s. Two of the shops we covered were Saxelby Cheesemongers and Formaggio Essex and both are located in the Essex Street Market in Manhattan. The whole market, by the way, is not that big by upstate New York standards. It’s about the size of a quarter strip of Albany’s Lark Street, with only food-related shops and kitchens. Have they declared an all-out cheese war? Not exactly. Because they’re not only competing with each other but also with the big and best like Soho’s Murray’s and 32 other NYC cheese shops as well as the chain stores Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Fairway, the corner grocery stores, and online stores such as FreshDirect. How can a small business keep up?

Our friend James Rutter at Neal’s Yard Dairy in England offers a fresh perspective on competition in the cheese business. At the American Cheese Society annual conference last month, James spoke about the issues around competition. Coming from both the retailer perspective (Neal’s Yard operates two cheese shops in London) and the distributor’s perspective, he looks at the knowledge and skill of cheesemongers as being of the utmost importance in selling fine, farmstead and artisanal cheeses and offering a good product with a good value. After all, it is the cheesemongers who will sell Neal’s Yard cheeses to the public. So competition is not necessarily a bad thing. A good cheesemonger will educate his customers about fine cheese, it’s history, taste, and storage methods, and will deliver a superior product through the proper handling and care of the cheeses he sells. Doing this well raises the level of interest and knowledge of the population, and people can enjoy delicious cheese from North America, Great Britain, and Europe as if one were there on the farm. Having multiple good cheesemongers, even if at different retail shops, allows each to diversify and specialize their offerings. Saxelby’s developed a reputation for carrying farmstead American cheeses from Northeastern U.S. while Formaggio Essex carries a wider range from North America and Europe. A bad cheesemonger, and mind you, many cheese sections of stores are managed by individuals with little to no knowledge of cheese nor skill in handling and caring for cheeses, is one who sells cheese that has been poorly handled. This leaves a negative impression of fine cheese in the minds of the public – “Wow, we pay a premium price for this?  This whole artisan cheese thing is over-hyped!”  So bad cheesemongering which gives the cheese loving/cheese curious consumer this experience hurts the entire industry.

To remedy this problem, Neal’s Yard Dairy invites the other London cheese shops to attend workshops about artisan dairy industry in Great Britain and proper care and handling of cheeses. Murray’s Cheese also offers a crash course to the public.

Shortly, The Cheese Traveler will host classes related to cheese. In the remainder of this post, we will briefly discuss some of the best cheese practices and those less than fair.

Note the packaging.

Cheeses arrive at market shipped in whole or partial wheels. Cheeses last longest when they are uncut or cut in larger pieces. The cheese begins to die away at the cut, so the packaging a cheesemonger uses to wrap the cheese for the customer can retard or exacerbate this process. Cheeses typically need some space to breathe or the natural culture or mold will die away leaving a taste anywhere from ammonia to rubbery dullness. The best cheese shops sell cheese cut-to-order and use a paper/plastic combination  wrapping or wax-lined parchment. These types of packaging, of course, are very expensive, and likely the consumer will pay for it in the pricing of the cheese. Nevertheless, they insure the best quality of the cheese.

A paper/plastic combo works particularly well for young, bloomy, and washed rind cheeses, such as the New York washed rind cheese pictured below.

A properly wrapped and cared for washed rind cheese from central New York. The Long Island washed rind cheese in the background was wrapped in plastic wrap. Notice how its rind is beginning to die away.

The same cheese as pictured above. Beautiful!

The cheese paper is very thin, almost the width of tracing paper or a heavier tissue paper which keeps the plastic from touching the paste of the cheese. The outer shell of the paper is a “crystal” plastic, a stiff thin plastic that keeps the moisture and culture inside so the cheese does not quickly die off, leaving an unpleasant taste.

Superior quality cheese paper

Another excellent option for cheese paper is a wax-lined parchment, suitable for keeping the cheese stable and the flavor fresh. This is the paper that works best for the greatest number of cheeses, and The Cheese Traveler has chosen this product for wrapping our cheeses.

Wax-lined parchment

These two methods of wrapping cheese signify best practices and show both knowledge and skill on the part of the cheesemonger. The Cheese Traveler recommends buying cheeses wrapped in this way.

The least desirable packaging for cheese is plastic wrap, especially touching the cut face of the cheese. Many commercial stores use plastic to simplify their operations and to cut down on labor costs. The plastic-wrapped cheeses will sit in plastic for weeks and sometimes months. The taste and smell of the plastic soaks into the cheese and alters its flavor.  It suffocates the cheese and within a few days will kill off its natural characteristics replacing them with unpleasant flavors.

Moreover, the paste of the cheese, like meat, readily absorbs toxins from the plastic, making it an unhealthy long-term packaging option. Young cheeses will very quickly deteriorate in plastic, and the ammoniation from this process that is a byproduct of the dying mold will be released. The longer the cheese stays in plastic, the more ammoniated the rind will become, eventually affecting the entire paste of the cheese. Should you notice a bloomy rind cheese beginning to get hard to the touch and the rind turning from white to a grayish brown, the cheese is probably not going to taste very pleasant, let alone be in its best condition. Bloomy rinds should stay soft to the touch. The best packaging for bloomy rind cheeses is a two-ply paper which has a layer of perforated plastic on the outside and a layer of thin paper underneath it so the mold can breathe. A solid plastic will suffocate it.  A perforated plastic without the paper will also suffocate it because the mold grows into the perforation preventing air passage. A hard or natural rind cheese may hold up better to sitting in plastic wrap, but up to a half inch of the face of the cheese will be lost in flavor.

Plastic wrap from a cheese

Yikes! Let’s get this one rewrapped straight away.

If you choose to buy a cheese wrapped in plastic wrap, there are a few  things you can do when you get home that will help to preserve the cheese. First, only buy a cheese that has been cut, at most, within a few days of the date on the package.  Unwrap the package immediately when you get home. Gently scrape off a thin layer of the exterior of the cheese to remove any unpleasant flavors, aromas, or toxins that the cheese may have incurred. This is what is called “facing,” which a good cheesemonger will do everyday to every cheese to insure each cheese is in good condition to taste.

Cleaning the cheese with a knife

Let the cheese come to room temperature before you enjoy eating it. If you will not eat the cheese right away, rewrap it in parchment paper and place it in an airtight container. Refrigerators preserve food by keeping the environment dry. Cheese likes humidity. You can even place a wet paper towel folded in the corner of the container to add moisture.  An airtight container will keep the humidity in and unpleasant refrigerator odors out of your cheese.

Having consideration for all aspects of the sale, from storage to cut-and-wrap, we notably store our cut wheels of cheeses in the “diaper wrap” method. At no time will plastic touch the face of our cheeses. We cut a piece of wax-parchment paper to wrap the face of the cheese and then place it in plastic wrap, thereby sealing the humidity of the cheese. While the plastic may touch part of the rind, it does not touch the “cut face” of the cheese.  In our retail display we wrap our cut wheels in plastic; however, every morning before we open we unwrap and “face” each cheese and if we feel a cheese has been sitting in plastic too long we face it throughout the day before sampling or cutting your cheese.

In all, competition when it comes to cheese is not about having too many stores with too many options. It’s about caring for the cheeses and delivering to the public a superior product in excellent condition fresh from the cheesemaker and aged to perfection. It’s about both breadth and depth of cheese knowledge. And it’s about skill. Our mission is to bring to you great tasting small production cheeses in the condition and flavor profile that the cheesemaker intends from their efforts.

And more often than not, you can find some of the best things in life off the beaten path, hidden from plain sight.

The Cheese Traveler’s booth at The First Unitarian Universalist Society Nov 2011.

Being the Cheese Man’s Daughter

by Ava Champion

You may know that we are a combined family, originally Autumn living with my dad Eric, and me living with my mom Ali. Dad has been a cheese-kind-of-guy ever since I can remember, which is when I was five, when my Mom married my Dad.
From a very young age, cheese has been a part of my life, but for Autumn, my stepsister, she has been around it all her life. You would think being around it so much, you might get annoyed with it, and you guessed right.
I remember one time, Autumn and I were talking about how we wished we were normal. Now, mind you, we were around seven or eight, and normal doesn’t have a very good definition for little kids. Our idea of normal included: not eating healthy, not going organic, eating at McDonalds, and most of all, NOT EATING CHEESE. Now you can probably imagine how heart-breaking that must have been for my Dad. How could any kids of his not like cheese?
But it turns out, we at eight were the only ones who thought like that. My brother Terran loved and still loves cheese. I used to think that Terran only did that because he wanted to be like Dad, but now I realize that he genuinely likes cheese.
I once asked my Dad why cheese makes people so happy, I mean it smells! He responded by saying, “Cheese tastes great and it reminds people of their travels and trips. They have happy memories of cafes they went to in France, and restaurants they went to in Italy, so naturally, they want to remember.”
Now I can understand that to some degree. You see a cheese from France, you want to remember your honeymoon. (At least my parents do, having gone to Paris for theirs.) Or you see an Italian cheese, and you remember going there on a trip with your school. (Of course you want to remember that because you spent a lot of money to go!) But when I see people buying cheese, I don’t think everyone has been traveling before. Not everyone has the time.
I see people being engaged in conversations with my Dad, and they seem drawn to him. I don’t know what it is, and I am one of his daughters! But since people love talking to him, and he loves cheese, naturally people end up liking the cheese just because Dad does, and talks about it. He seems to draw people in with his own fascination with the cheese, and I think that is what makes people the most happy to see our cheese stand. Someone who is happy with their job is one big step towards happy customers. The next step is local, and then the third is the variety. All that alone seems to make people like cheese if it isn’t my Dad.
When I was younger, there was this book in our house called The Old Man Who Loved Cheese. Autumn would always ask my dad to read it to her, before I came into the picture, and boy did he hate it. In it, it talked about this guy who loved cheese, the stinkier the better, and everyone was overwhelmed by the smell. Eventually he gave up cheese altogether because it was pushing everyone away, which is not a great moral, because the man was giving up something that he really loved. Why my Dad hated that book, I can hazard a few guesses: because not all cheese is stinky, because the guy in the end gives up cheese, and because Autumn had him over-read it, but most likely because the cheese was ‘stinky.’ And although my Dad hated it, let me tell you, it is a well worn book in our house. That and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. The Stinky Cheese Man runs around the pages of the book like the Gingerbread Man, bragging about no one being able to catch him. In the end the fox tricks him and eats him up, which is very nice for the fox, and not so much for the Stinky Cheese Man. It’s pretty encouraging for the people who, like the fox, like to eat stinky cheese!

One day, after market, Dad asked Autumn and me which one was stinkier: Cheese or Fish. We both said FISH at the same time, automatically. You might think that because we live around cheese, we are immune to the smell and we should know better, having read all those stinky cheese books, but it seems that most people who come up to our booth are there originally because of the smell. Some people say they are just smelling all the cheese when I ask them if I can help them, and others say that they smelled it and wanted to see what it was. If cheese is so stinky, then why does the smell draw people over? It is not so much as stinky, as just a strong aroma. And even Autumn is not immune to the worst of the strong cheese. There are smelly cheeses. Just not all are.
Cheese is good, but my Dad selling it makes it even better. Autumn and I used to (and still do) like to brag about how our Dad started the cheese department at the Honest Weight Food Coop. People would look at us like we were all cute and little kid-ish, then turn to my Dad and ask, “Really?” It was almost as if they were praising him for how well it is going. Or it would be a ‘really’ as in ‘hmm, let me check out The Cheese Traveler. It must be good if this guy started it at the Coop.’ Those ones would and always will make my heart swell.

Ava Champion is a Junior at The Doane Stuart School and a novelist.


Your regularly scheduled post will not be seen today. Instead I bring you some exciting breaking news. I suppose if you wanted to be technical about it, I broke the news on Sunday. But today I have all the details.

There are exciting things going at at Mingle restaurant on Delaware Avenue in Albany, or as popularized by slilly, in the DelSo. Yesterday I got an email from Jose at the restaurant. It seems like All Good Bakers has turned them on to local and sustainable produce, as now Mingle is getting theirs locally from the Honest Weight Food Co-op. And that’s big news on its own.

However with The Cheese Traveler moving in next door as well, the three DelSo taste makers have now collaborated on an appetizer special that is going on the menu today. It’s called The Flavors of DelSo Cheese Board, and it…

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Spotlight on Cheese: Burrata

by Alifair Skebe

Classic Burrata by Maplebrook Fine Cheese Bennington, Vermont


The first of the heirloom tomatoes are ripening on the vines. The luscious red clusters are ready to pick. What better to pair them with than the delectable cream-infused mozzarella “burrata,” fresh basil, and crusty bread?

Burrata has been recently coined “the new brie,” “the meta-mozzarella,”  or “the postmodern version of mozzarella.” An invented tradition, this cow’s milk cheese (originally made from the milk of Podolian cattle) is a variant on the pasta filata (or stretched curd) mozzarella and filled with the tender, creamy scraps left over from the cheesemaking process. Its name refers to the “buttery” salted fresh cream curds inside its thin skin. Originated nearly 80 years ago and made in Apulia and Basilicata of Southern Italy’s Puglia region, burrata is difficult to find outside of Italy; it is literally a farm to table cheese, produced and eaten the same day.

Saving the cheeselover the cost of air-freighting and still offering the old-world tradition in North America, some fine U.S. farmstead and artisanal cheese producers have begun to make the cheese at home. Maplebrook Fine Cheese of Bennington, Vermont recently hired the Italian cheesemaker Domenico Marchitelli, who has been making the cheese for 25 years in Puglia. His Maplebrook burrata was named one of the top five cheeses of 2011 by Food & Wine editor Kristin Donnelley who writes: “Burrata is like the molten chocolate cake of cheese…this Vermont version, made by a Puglian cheesemaker, is as good as it gets.” The Cheese Traveler is excited to announce that we just got in a few of these lovely cheeses, and they are available for purchase at market.

Slicing open a burrata, the creamy center begins to spill out like a double or triple cream cheese, but the texture and flavor are like none other. The texture is soft, delightfully fragrant and light on the palate. At one time a purely economical cheese because it used what had been considered the “waste” of the process, burrata is now highly sought after and prized for its uniquely decadent taste, mouthfeel, and rarity.

Cheesemaker in Italy holding a burrata pouch ready to be filled

Mr. Marchitelli of Maplebrook “does not believe in sacrificing old world techniques in his cheesemaking.” To make burrata, the curds from the mozzarella-making process are recycled into a fresh, salted cream and poured into a little mozzarella pouch, then closed and wrapped in asphodel, a native wildflower. New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams immortalized the flower in the modern imagination:

Italian Asphodel

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,

like a buttercup

upon its branching stem-

save that it’s green and wooden-

I come, my sweet,

to sing to you.

More often today, you will find the cheese wrapped in plastic or preserved in salt brine. In early 2011, cheesemaker Richardo Olanda of Andria, Italy took viewers on a tour of his family’s cheeseworks in CIANetwork’s video feature “Burrata: Puglia’s Molten Mozzarella.” You can see how Olanda makes the cheese here. Compare this to Domenico Marchitelli’s process here. For a step-by-step description of the entire burrata-making process, check out Serious Eats‘ article from the series “Snapshots from Italy” by correspondent Carey Jones.

After you have purchased your burrata from The Cheese Traveler, consider this fine recipe for “Caprese salad with Burrata” served at the Wine Bar in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. (You can substitute the dried tomatoes for garden or farm-fresh ones!)

Vintage 338′s Caprese salad

Chef Blaze Correia

1/4 burrata cheese ball

3 ounces mesclun mix

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

2 ounces diced fresh tomatoes

1 ounce sun-dried tomatoes, cut in matchsticks

1/2 ounce fresh basil leaves, cut in matchsticks

2 tablespoons balsamic reduction

Chopped fresh parsley (optional)

In a bowl toss mesclun mix with half the olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Arrange on a plate.

Top with diced tomatoes, cheese. Throw a pinch of salt and pepper on top and drizzle with the remaining olive oil. Add the sundried tomatoes and basil. Drizzle the balsamic reduction either over the entire plate or on the side. Garnish with chopped parsley. 1 serving.
Balsamic reduction

1 liter aged balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar (optional)

In a saucepan over high heat, bring the balsamic vinegar to a boil, then turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer. Stir to prevent from burning or scorching. Cook down by half or two-thirds until the vinegar is syrupy and coats the back of a metal spoon.

As the vinegar reduces it will naturally sweeten. If you wish it to be sweeter, add the sugar during the cooking process, stirring until it dissolves.

Pour ice and cool water into a bowl. Remove the reduction from the heat and pour into a squeeze bottle, secure top, and place in the ice bath. After about 20 minutes, the reduction will thicken and be ready to use. Makes 1/3 to 1/2 liter.


Jenkins, Steve. Cheese Primer. New York: Workman Publishing, 1996, p. 252.

Jones, Carey. “Snapshots from Italy: Making Burrata The Meta-Mozzarella.” Serious Eats. April 1, 2009. online.

Zeldes, Leah. “Eat This: Caprese Salad Making the Most of the Tomato Season.” Dining Chicago. September 15, 2010. online.

Food & Wine, Special Contributor. “Best Cheeses of 2011.” The Daily Meal. December 30, 2011. online