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.

4 thoughts on “Cheese Wars?

  1. Pingback: Cheesy Link Roundup | Words and Whey

    • Regular parchment paper is typically better than plastic; however, it is limited because it can lead to the cheese drying out. The two ply paper (one thin layer paper with a thin layer of non leaching plastic) or single ply paper (paper on one side poly on the other) allows for the cheese to breath and holds in humidity, especially if you add the wet paper towel. These papers imitate the cave environment that cheeses typically age in. We will sell cheese paper in the store when we open. In the meantime, you can special order paper from us.

  2. Pingback: Cheese Store Wars « FUSSYlittleBLOG

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