Okay, It’s Official, We’re Cheesemakers Too


This gallery contains 9 photos.

by Alifair Skebe Well…not exactly. Chez Voyageur du Fromage – at the home of The Cheese Traveler – some local Berne Dairy Meadowbrook Jersey cow’s milk va aigre. Young Master Traveler pulled the glass bottle out of the fridge, unhinged the … Continue reading

Weekend Adventures of The Cheese Traveler

by Alifair Skebe

After a blustery Saturday Delmar Market, The Cheese Travelers headed to Saratoga for the Wine & Food and Fall Ferrari Festival at SPAC. Just as we arrived at the gate, a late summer storm was setting in. Dark gray clouds loomed toward us. Many of the vendors from the Grand Tasting Event were packing up before the impending downpour. A gray-suited gentleman begged us to leave, his finger pointed ominously toward the cloud mass in the distance. Winds began whipping the leaves. People in their finery dashed across the lawn in various directions; barefoot women toted their shoes in hand. The hot red Ferraris that lined the manicured lawn were disappearing one by one.

As this chaos unfolded on the lawn, we ducked into the second tent to find Forever Cheese. It was nice to reconnect with our friends after the American Cheese Society Conference last month. We sampled some lovely cheeses: a star amongst them was Forever’s new Paski Sir, a Croatian sheep’s milk cheese with a buttery straw-colored paste and natural rind. The Pizzuta Sicilian Almonds were a delightful accompaniment, as was the Mitica Perata (Pear) Jam, a delicate paste with light, fresh, chunks of pear.

The rains abated in the evening, and left an intimate group for the after-party. “Italian” tacos, grilled chicken, and garlic spinach catered by Brian Molino, Executive Chef of Prime business dining, complemented some lovely Chiantis, notably the 2007 Terre de’ pari, an elegant, silky texture balanced by earthy, complex, full-bodied fruit notes and a smooth, light tannic finish. Surprisingly complex for an organic wine.

Sunday morning emerged from the storm as a beautiful sunny day. We packed up the three young cheesemongers for the Washington County Cheese Tour, our mission to visit the farms to see the animals and cheesemaking facilities. Everyone was excited about learning more about the farms whose cheeses we sell.

Our first stop: Sweet Spring Farm.

Nestled behind a pine woods on a lush rolling hillside overlooking the Argyle mountains, Sweet Spring is a small farmstead with 28 Nubian goats. Owner and cheesemaker Jeff prefers the Nubian breed to other breeds for their “higher butterfat content and rich smooth-tasting milk without the goaty flavor.” We have been longing to try his delicate bloomy rind goat cheese “White Lily” which has garnered some critical attention.

Jeff stood outside the double french doors gesturing to his cheesemaking facility on the other side of the glass. The steel surfaces were impeccably clean and fifteen young bloomy rind cheeses were just visible inside their aging refrigerators. His room was small, “cute” (according to Autumn, our young “cheesemongerette”) and beautifully organized. Jeff continued, “the goaty or ‘bucky’ flavor concentrates in the fat,” which then concentrates in the cheese and grows more intense as it ages.

Shadow of Eric of The Cheese Traveler looking in at the Sweet Spring Cheese Room.

He told us a charming story about his failed attempt at making goat butter, which is very tricky to make because goats don’t really have much fat in their milk and the butter has to be made using a centrifuge. His goats are “primarily grass fed on fresh grass and hay in the winter, and a little grain for supplement.”

What makes Jeff’s process so interesting to us is his scale of production: he milks the goats on the farm into milk cans and transports them by carriage up to the cheesemaking room. (This process is the origin of the cheese named “Carriage House.”) He then pasteurizes and processes the milk into cheese in a protected cheese room, and ripens the young cheeses upstairs and ages the natural rind cheeses in the cellar below. “White Lily” was as lovely as we expected — a dense textured paste with a clean, delicate flavor and low acidity on the palate. And we got a sneak peek of the ash-dusted, Valencay-style pyramid only available at the Saratoga Farmer’s Market.

Sadly, “White Lily” had sold out by the time we got there, so we bought “Carriage House” instead, a hard, natural rind Gouda-style goat cheese aged a year and specifically for the annual Cheese Tour. Typically this cheese is made in a smaller format than the one we bought and aged half as long. We wondered what the cheese would have been like in a younger version, as this one tasted fairly sharp on the finish with a lingering acidity. And contrary to what we had heard, it had a pungent “goaty” finish. Of course, that didn’t matter to the hungry cheesemongers who ripped into the cheese to nosh with Terra Chips on the way to the next farm. Luckily, I saved a small piece for a special “Carriage House” Swiss Chard Soup the following evening. (Recipe to come).

We piled into the cheese van in anticipation of our next stop: Consider Bardwell.

We know the award-winning cheeses of this farm well, as we sell several of them at market. Consider Bardwell won two second place awards this year at The American Cheese Society 2012 for Manchester and Rupert and are highly decorated in their four-year history of the contest.

We crossed the New York border and wound around W. Pawlet Street through the town of West Pawlet. Instantly , we understood the derivation of Consider Bardwell’s cheese names, so different from the types of tradition from which they come. Names like Rupert (a cooked curd Comte/Gruyere-style), and Pawlet (washed rind Italian-style), and Dorset (washed rind French-style), Manchester, and Danby come from street names, town names, and the Rupert Town Forest surrounding the farm.  This fact speaks to the vision of Consider Bardwell.

I kissed a goat and I liked it!

The farm recently received a significant USDA grant to turn the pastureland around the farm, which had been the first dairy co-op in VT founded in the 19th century, back into perennial grasslands for organic grazing. Consider Bardwell raises and milks only goats, and a few heritage whey-fed Hereford pigs, but their cows’ milk comes from neighboring farms in Vermont and just across the border in New York State. Their vision is to create both farmstead and artisan cheeses, thereby bringing the dairy farms around them into cheese production and protecting the lands from pesticide use and restoring the agricultural history of the region.

Goat Mural at the entrance to the Cheese Cave

Pawlet, Dorset, and Manchester Cave

In our socks, we toured the two new cheese caves filled with our favorites and a few experiments, such as three wheels of the goat’s milk Equinox (styled after the sheep’s milk cheeses of Sardinia and soon to be renamed Danby) rubbed with sumac, giving the rind the deep red color of paprika. The farm has grown over the years, and each year, the owners add a new project.

Rupert and Danby Cave

We spent our last moments on the farm sampling cheeses and some crispy cheese crackers made there. We bought some cool Consider Bardwell T-shirts and visited with the animals.

We fed the baby goats a mix of grasses, sweet woodruff, and clover–boy did they love the clover– and they were tame enough to let us pet their necks. Goats’ eyes never quite get represented correctly in pictures, because if they did it would probably scare folks away from them! Their pupils are black slits the run horizontally across the eye.

Across the street the bucks are kept, because they would sour the milk if they were any closer to the dames. We tried feeding one of the males who seemed very interested in smelling us. He wouldn’t eat the grasses, but sniffed and sniffed until he blew out a massive sneeze on Eric and Alifair! What an end to our day.

And while we did not visit 3-Corner Field Farm this year (we visited last year) you can read about them in The Masticating Monkey’s Two-Part article “The Washington County Cheese Tour” (Post 1) and (Post 2). You can also find their cheeses at our market stand. Come by soon!

Don’t I look cute until I sneeze on you!

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.

Welcoming the Third Annual Cheesemonger Invitational

Rodolphe le Meunier goat’s milk tomme from Jura

by Eric Paul

This Saturday, an epic cheese contest will take place—the Third Annual Cheesemonger Invitational. Fifty-two cheesemongers from around the world will compete for glory and one thousand dollars in honor. The competition will be judged by fifteen preeminent people from all areas of the cheese business and hosted by the big cheese in importing, Adam Moskowitz of Larkin. Coming on the heels of the famed Fancy Food Show, here is a place for the best and most seasoned mongers to compete for bragging rights to be called the best in the business.

This event is more than a grand fete for cheese or “curdocopia,” as Adam calls it. This is a gathering for cheesemongers, a place for those who wield knives, wheels, and cheese paper, to revel in cheese and the craft of mongering and to show off their skill. Should you think that cheesemongers are simple folk, there are a battery of difficult questions and divisions in the contest that evaluate their skill set. It is something of a “Top Chef” for cheese sellers who, in order to monger well, must demonstrate with precision deep and wide knowledge of world cheese types, textures, and tastes through blind tasting and identification, physical acumen which includes cutting precisely to the ounce requested, and artistic sensibility in plating the cheeses with style and grace. With wheels of all different shapes, sizes, and types, both tasting and cutting precisely by sight and sense can be a Herculean task. Some of the contest divisions include:

1)      Does the monger have a breadth of cheese knowledge?

2)      Has he honed his sense of taste?

3)      Can she move people with wit and charm?

4)      Does he have passion for the craft?

5)      How precise in cutting to order?

6)      How fast and neat can the monger wrap and label?

7)      Can she create magic in just one bite? and can she duplicate this sixteen times?

The inaugural Cheesemonger Invitational took place in 2010 as a closed competition where ten of the most renowned cheese shops in the United States competed against one another. Matthew Rubiner, owner of Rubiners’ Cheesemongers and Grocers in Great Barrington, MA, was awarded the esteemed winner.

Last year was my first year attending CMI. The competition was opened and expanded to include an application procedure and additional divisions of the contest. Proven cheesemongers in the business were open to compete in four contests, and forty mongers from around the world answered the call. Though I was not competing, I drove down from Albany on a sunny afternoon in great anticipation, eager to see my former co-workers from Formaggio Kitchen and mongers I met at a workshop in Philadelphia. I arrived in New York City about an hour before the competition started and I met some people with whom I had only been in contact with over the internet and read about in cheese magazines. It was a rockstar event for me, seeing the best in the business gathered for a celebration together to share what we love.

Once I arrived, I checked in past the long lines.  Next to admission table, at the patio, they were grilling raclette and serving it on a graham cracker with a tablet of dark chocolate and a cornichon. The warm raclette melted the chocolate. It was warm, gooey, and cheesy with a good balance of a sweet and meaty cheese with the sour vinegar pickle with earthy chocolate. After a delicious opening bite, I entered into the warehouse mob scene where folks milled about. To the far left of the open warehouse space were the mongers gathered in anticipation before the big event. I ran into Ian Peacock of Di Bruno Brothers and exchanged greetings, remembering my tour a few months back of Di Bruno Brothers’ original store on 9thStreet, a little shop packed to the brim with cheese nearly overflowing the counters and cases and specialty foods filling the walls. Then I saw Tripp, my best buddy at my short-lived stint at Formaggio Kitchen. I grabbed a beer from Six Point Brewery and noticed Rodolphe le Meunier’s table full of mounds of uncut wheels of cheese. Rodolphe is a fantastic cheese affineur (see our blog post A Visit to the City of Cheese). Rodolphe was off in the judging room, so his counter was understaffed with a single, older French gentleman. Sensing a need after a brief conversation with the Frenchman, I jumped behind the counter, broke down the wheels, and cut samples for the crowd. I intimately tasted some of the most delicious hand-selected and aged wheels from France that could be found anywhere in the U.S.

Side view of Rodolphe le Meunier cheese

Side view of Tomme du Jura

The competitors proclaimed their love of cheese in the first contest over a cheering crowd. Rodolphe’s table held a great view of the competition and we watched the forty mongers set with the task of tasting unlabeled cheeses and identifying country of origin, type of milk, and length of age. The event was a little messy, I must say, with the judges judiciously recording each monger’s answer and forty mongers shifting about the stage. But the thrill of the crowd kept the contestants enthusiastically progressing through the round.

With two contests and twenty mongers left, the third round featured a precise cutting of a ¼ pound of cheese from an unlabeled wheel, and to then cut, wrap, and label two cheeses in a minute. The wheels varied in heights and densities, so each contestant had to intuit what was in front of her. The crowd was reeling with the sounds of a DJ mixing in the back, the clock ticking, and the contestants’ actions projected close-up on a large screen. Each time a contestant weighed in his cheese, the weight was shown from a gigantic digital scale, and the audience went wild. But finally, could they label the cheese with legible handwriting in so little time?

Then the last ten contestants moved into the final round. They each had to create the perfect pairing bites for sixteen judges from items they brought with them, including cheese and accompaniments such as chutney, nuts, vegetables, fruits, bread, beer, and wine. The beauty was in each person describing his pairing to the judges. My buddy Tripp of Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, I believe would have won this round because food pairing was his specialty; however he had been taken out in one of the former rounds. Brooke who worked at Formaggio Essex in Manhattan, Tripp’s distant “cousin” in the Formaggio family, moved into the final round with Tripp’s pairing – Challerhocker with a cockle and wild fennel pollen and a gherkin. However, another great monger, Steve Jones won with another pairing featuring Challerhocker with caramel-bacon popcorn, and a Belgian-style ale. Everyone fist-pumped and cheered and congratulated each other in the end. At the time the winner was announced, I was “wedged” between the last year’s winner Matthew Rubiner and then winner Steve Jones. What a place to be in!

After the contest we partied into the night, celebrated our enthusiasm for cheese and cheesemongering, and retired to Brooke’s place to get some shut-eye. I am eagerly looking forward to this year’s event held on Saturday, June 23.

My cheesemongering family will still be at market this Saturday, so come down to get your cheeses for the weekend at the Delmar Farmer’s Market, 9-1pm. I’ll be back the following Saturday at Delmar, and this Tuesday, 4-7pm at the Delaware Farmer’s Market in the parking lot of the Delaware Branch of the Albany Public Library at 331 Delaware Avenue, Albany, NY.

Cheesemongers, not Cheesemakers

by Alifair Skebe

Around town when we get asked what we do, we say with enthusiasm, “We’re cheesemongers!” Eric has been a cheesemonger and cheeselover for 14 years and founded the cheese department at Honest Weight Food Coop in 1999. But frequently the follow-up question is “How do you like making cheese?” or “Where do you make your cheese?” Sometimes, we are confused with local cheesemakers: “So you’re the ones who make the goat cheese,” referring to R&G Cheesemakers from Cohoes, NY. Our most recent favorite came from a brief conversation at a From Scratch Club food swap. Alifair, the wife of the cheesemonger, was dubbed the “Mistress of Cheese” by one community member and another responded, “So you make the cheese and he sells it!” A classic case of mistaken identity, we have ascertained some basis for the confusion.

As the economy turned from small retail shops to large supermarkets and industrial-made products, terms like cheesemonger, fishmonger, and butcher (or its earlier form fleshmonger) fell out of use. “Monger” derives from the Latin mango– and Germanic suffix –er to mean a merchant, dealer, or trader of a commodity. Cheesemonger, by extension, means one who deals or trades in cheese. In the U.S., cheesemongering is on the rise. Large supermarkets are reimaging themselves as shops within stores and calling for cheesemongers to manage their cheese departments, and individual retail cut-to-order cheese shops are popping up in cities large and small. A staggering 1,600 domestic U.S. and Canadian cheeses were entered into the American Cheese Society’s annual competition in 2011, the largest number to date. With so many amazing fine cheeses produced in the States and abroad, a consumer needs a cheesemonger to help steer the palate toward individual interest. To meet the growing industry, demand, and to standardize practices, this year The American Cheese Society inaugurated a Certified Cheese Professional Exam for both practicing and aspiring cheesemongers.

The recorded use of the term monger dates back to the 16th century, when its meaning synonymously referred to “a person engaged in a petty or disreputable trade or traffic.”[1] This is the meaning Shakespeare’s Hamlet uses in his famous line to Polonius, adviser to the false king. In the second act, Polonius asks, “Do you know me, my lord?” and Hamlet replies, “Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.” They go on for a while about honesty and the state of the world, until Hamlet underhandedly castigates Polonius for peddling his daughter Ophelia. Polonius, ill understanding Hamlet’s satire and wit to play off the multiple meanings of words, thinks Hamlet clearly mad…or madly in love. He says in an aside, “How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter. Yet he knew me not at first; he said I was a fishmonger. He is far gone, far gone.”[2] Polonius only understands the one use and not the other, and the audience sees him as a doddering fool for his omission. Laughing at a clownish old man is great for drama, but not for polite society, of course. In today’s society, the derogatory tone of the slang meaning may persist in our thinking about the word monger and could explain our aversion to its use.

For better or for worse in the cheese business, words can contain multiple meanings. Unlike the English, the French fromager is used interchangeably for both cheesemonger and cheesemaker.[3]  What confusion this may naturally engender! To top it off, an affineur buys cheese, ages cheese, and resells the wheels at their aged perfection, holding many different types of cheeses in his cellar at any given time – is he a cheesemaker or a cheesemonger or both? At a small producers market, a cheesemaker might purchase space at a booth to become both a monger and a maker. In the city, larger cheese shops can store a wide variety of wheels and types of cheeses in their own caves or aging facilities. The American Cheese Society in its blog tagline breaks down the concepts into the following categories: Cheesemakers, Cheesemongers, Cheeselovers; and says, “All are welcome here as we celebrate all things cheese!” Not only does ACS note the difference between mongers and makers, but also includes the cheese enthusiast, the aficionado, or the curd nerd. While The Cheese Traveler falls into the cheesemonger category, we are beholden to the relationship we share with local cheesemakers, such as R&G, who make our business possible. Conversely, cheesemakers appreciate cheesemongers because their shops can reach a wider audience of cheese lovers for their product. All in all makers, mongers, and lovers form a trio around cheese and its importance to culture.

Cheese etymology portrays a unique way of seeing the difference between cultures – no pun intended. The word for “cheese” throughout the modern European languages can differ slightly as well as to a great extent independent of regional proximity. The words fromage (French), formage (Medieval French), and formaggio (Italian) derive “from the Latin word for the basket or wooden box in which compressed curds were molded to make cheese, forma, which itself came from the earlier Greek term phormos (This is also where the English word “form” comes from). For their part, the English word cheese, the Spanish word queso and the German word Kaese all come from the Latin word caseus, the foodstuff itself.”[4] Ultimately, a cheesemonger or maker focuses on the “cheese” while a fromager focuses on the “form.” A food so simple in its ingredients – milk curd and rennet, a coagulating agent that separates the curd from the whey –  develops into a vast number of different types of cheeses. Some cultures have grown to see the final product, the cheese itself, of the utmost importance while others see the form that initiates the cheese as the item of note.

In the States, and more locally in Albany, NY, we have oodles of local farmstead and fine artisan, specialty cheeses to choose from at The Cheese Traveler. The storefront is coming soon to 540 Delaware Avenue in the heart of Albany right off I90 and 787. Look for us in the coming weeks at the June 2 opening of the 2012 Summer Delmar Farmer’s Market at the Bethlehem Central Middle School in Delmar, NY.

Planing a morsel of cheese. Perfect for tasting.

[1] Oxford English Dictionary

[2] Act II, scene ii, lines 177-190. London: Oxford University Press, 1914. New York: Bartleby.Com, 2000. http://www.bartleby.com/46/2/22.html

[3] Oxford French Dictionary

[4] Etymologically Speaking http://www.westegg.com/etymology/

A Visit to the City of Cheese

by Alifair Skebe

Let’s go visit the cities of cheese. I’m very disorganized but I keep seeing things this way. I said, I am not close to objects and this is my way of talking to myself. We set sail for Port Salut, we will spend our summers in Gruyere. Nordost is a northern port. Tillamook is in this country, not a place we would visit.

from Margaret Johnson’s A Visit to the Cities of Cheese

On March 15, Eric Paul and his wife Alifair traveled to New York City, the city of cheese, to visit some of the finest up-and-coming small cheese shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn. This is not the same kind of imaginative trip Ms. Johnson writes about in her fantastic 1985 book of poetry.

We embarked on a visit to the city that houses dozens of old world traditional cheese shops throughout the city and surrounding boroughs. This trip followed on the heels of the prior weekend’s trip to the Berkshires and Central Mass to see Rubiner’s and Provisions, a new market in Northampton.

Since our travel to New York was a one-day trip, we limited our scope to those shops we felt most resembled The Cheese Traveler’s interest in small production, local and regional handcrafted cheeses, and size of retail space. We have had our eye out for just-the-right retail space for eighteen months and were settling on an eclectic neighborhood in downtown Albany close to the highway and other fine food establishments. Since our short stint at the Delmar Farmer’s Market last year, we wanted to stay committed to the “traveling” part of the business while also securing a space for the everyday customer and a prep area for events and composing gift packages within easy distance of Downtown Albany.

Our first stop was Saxelby Cheese Mongers in the Essex Street Market, New York’s premier, indoor “open air” market in the Lower East Side. Featuring purely regional Northeastern cheeses from small farms with herds of less than 40 animals, Saxelby’s is very similar to The Cheese Traveler in its commitment to selling regionally made, artisan cheeses. Moreover, Anne Saxelby was just named Manhattan’s Small Business of the Year. You heard that right: a cheese shop was named business of the year. In The Big Apple, a cheesemonger is The Big Cheese.

Entering the corner corridor off Delancey Street, we emerged into a light, sound, and smell-scape of ethnic foods and specialty shops, Saxelby’s being the first stall through the double glass doors.

Anne Saxelby and a cheesemonger cutting cheese to order.

As we discovered, a truly world-class, “American” cheese shop need not take up much space and there was even room to make prepared foods. We were very impressed by Saxelby’s custom-made walk-in cooler with an insulated window cut into the side. This window provided a extra display case in a compact design. So intelligent, so elegant. For cheeses, we picked up some old favorites: Shushan Snow and Brebis Blanc, two fresh sheep’s milk cheeses made at 3-Corner Field Farm in Shushan, NY.

Next, we stopped at the other side of the market to visit Formaggio Essex, a branch location of Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, MA.

Formaggio Essex is a scaled-down version of its original, where Eric worked for a short time in 2010. Though small and packed, Formaggio Essex hosted a wide array of specialty foods including charcuterie, condiments, and sweet treats. We bought Vendéen Bichonné by affineur Pascal Beillevaire, a Loire valley cheese whose name means, “the pampered cheese from Vendée.” It is a creamy, sweet, nutty, semi-firm, natural rind cheese that coats the palate in a lovely way.

All this cheese research was beginning to make us hungry, so Alifair stopped by the Brooklyn Taco Company to order a quick lunch.

Little did I know that when I stepped into the black and white tiled taco stall, I was embarking on a unique taste journey rivaling the best neighborhood eats of the city. I ordered a Guaco Taco made with chunky avocado, raw sweet corn, tomatoes, red onion, cheese, crema, hot sauce and a yummy Black Bean Tamale. Once we were back at the car, Eric and I scarfed them down, not realizing just how hungry we had gotten.

Then it was across the Williamsburg Bridge and into Brooklyn to visit the Bedford Cheese Shop. Mind you, this is the cheese shop where we found the difficult to procure Swiss sheep’s milk cheese for our 2011 “all-Swiss” themed Annual Wine and Cheese Tasting fundraiser at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany. This was a wing-dinger of an event, considering that our choice of theme made things really hard on ourselves. First, Switzerland is a very small country, secondly, the country produces very few wines, and lastly, what they do produce, they export for a pretty penny. So trying to pair Swiss cheeses with Swiss wines was difficult to say the least. But we like challenge! Bedford provided us with the semi-hard sheep’s milk cheese Brebis de Rossinière, but that is a story for another time. We were excited to see the place that we admired for so long.

Oh my goodness, is that a dress apron made of cheese cloth? Why yes, I believe it is!

The farm and foodie window dressings really drew us in.

And let’s just say that the wide angle camera shots make the place look big, but only on the internet! The feel of the décor, royal red wallpaper, and dark custom shelves warmed the retail space and welcomed us in. Five cheesemongers busied themselves behind and in front of the counter making the whole place feel bustling and exciting. Bedford has no additional warehouse or cooler space beyond the retail floor, so all their cheeses are stocked in the abundant cases. We felt like cheese geeks in a cheesy store—that’s cheese-ease for “kids in a candy store.” But seriously, Bedford was no laughing matter, well, beyond the irreverent, over-sexed cheese descriptions enticing us to partake in tasting cheese as an illicit event. The fromagers were knowledgeable, unique, hip, and young—what else might anyone expect from Williamsburg? The stereotypical brown Oxford corduroy jackets with elbow patches tacking up their tatters crossed the street. In through the front door, little bell chiming, young “collegiates” professed their undying love for cheese over and over again. A dramatic place. High time to buy some dark chocolate-covered almonds, me thinks.

What set Bedford Cheese aside from the other shops that we saw was a commitment to selling cheeses from esteemed French affineurs – Rodolphe Le Meunier, Jean d’Alos, and Hervè Mons to name a few.  These are some of the most gorgeous cheeses that are usually only offered in the villages or the fine cheese shops of France. For our “research” we picked up a fancy little Lavort Goat, a spicy, raw goat’s milk version of a rare, Cheese Traveler’ favorite sheep’s milk cheese from Auvergne, and a luscious, creamy washed rind cheese that was tangy, slightly sweet, and nutty.

Last but not least, we packed up for our final destination The Bklyn Larder, between Park Slope and Prospect Park neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The shop is owned and operated by Sergio Hernandez, formerly of Provisions International, a regional specialty food distributor for the Northeast located in Vermont. Being cheese lovers as well as cheesemongers, we could no longer hold back our enthusiasm for buying as much good cheese as we could and trucking it back with us to our family back home in Albany. After a good long conversation and dinner at franny’s, a city-famous wood-fired, upscale pizza parlor, we returned to the Larder for our provisions. By the way, franny’s supports local farms and environmentally-friendly business practices. Here’s the back of the menu:

And the front:

This was Alifair’s appetizer: to-die-for erbette chard with ricotta salata. Creamy goodness and greens cooked al dente. The onions were sweet little mouth bursts.

And that was Eric’s appetizer: crostini of wood-roasted pancetta with cicerchie beans. This dish was delicious, so wonderful in fact, that we wished we had more. That’s right, two crostini on the plate. Can’t we have just one more? Pretty please?

After appetizers, we split a ricotta, buffalo mozzarella, garlic, oregano, and hot pepper pizza between the two of us and a few glasses of wine.

Returning to Bklyn Larder, Alifair purchased a T-shirt—they are so cool—for Eric’s cheese T-shirt collection and hid it in a bag to surprise him later. Among the cheeses we bought Tomme Brebis et Chevre, a semi-soft mixed milk tome made of raw sheep and goat’s milk in the Pyrenees and aged by Savoie affineur Joseph Paccard; Dunbarton Blue, an award winning raw cow’s milk blue “cheddar” that is creamy like a cheddar with sparse blue veins, gentle blue spicing, and a good salt balance; a beautiful, lusciously creamy, ripened chevre log from Andante Dairy, with a delicate natural rind characteristic of French goat cheeses from the Loire region; and Green Hill, a soft ripened, camembert-style cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy whose bulging paste was buttery and mushroomy, with vegetal undertones. We also took home various charcuterie and two pints of coveted Bklyn Larder house-made gelato.

Then we stopped at a nearby flower shop outside a quickie mart to buy an enormous bouquet of lilies to make the table lovely at home tomorrow.

As a final huzzah for our enjoyable trip, here’s a short video by Adam Moskowitz, President of Larkin, proclaiming New York’s finest cheese shops. Some of the shops we visited are on his list.

bon appétit!