Bon Bouche

A Good Mouthful…of Cheese

Archive for the category “Expository Writing”

More than Manchego: Otros Quesos de Espana

Hold up — is it really 80 degrees and sunny here in San Francisco? It is…and it has been for the past few days. What? Suddenly it feels like we skipped right over spring and in to high summer, and all this direct heat is making me…groggy. Seriously, I’m nearly asleep on my feet, dazed, and I’m daydreaming of Spain. Have I ever been there? No, which makes it that much easier to imagine it as romantically as possible, all sunshine, siestas, sangria and, por supuesto, queso.*

When I say that, I bet you think of Manchego, no? Not I. While the sheep’s milk wheel from La Mancha might be even more well known than Don Quixote, I’m not sure it has quite as much to offer. Don’t get me wrong: Spain’s most popular cheese is a great and simple staple, one which is particularly good at complementing and enhancing the flavors of its accompaniments. But Spain is a big place — covering an area of over 195,000 square miles — with a cheesemaking history that dates back to the second century. As such, it’s safe to assume that the Spanish have a slightly larger selection to offer. So, when looking for a slice of Espana, try some of these instead.

Mahon Reserva – Raw Cow’s Milk from Minorca, Spain

Mahon Reserva

This Spanish cow’s milk cheese is almost as popular as Manchego and only slightly stronger in flavor. If you want to branch out, but not go too far, Mahon is the cheese for you. Is it fairly mild? Yes. Is it also beautiful and delicious? Yes and Yes. Hailing from the island of Minorca, a jewel of the Mediterranean, how could it be anything but? Seriously, look at this photo. This is a cheese that is made in paradise.

I just stared at this picture for 20 minutes.

I just stared at this picture for 20 minutes.

Mahon is the capital and port of Minorca and, as you may have surmised, also the name of the island’s most famous export. All of the cow’s milk cheeses produced on the island are actually called Mahon, all of which are built tough to withstand long-term storage and transportation by sea. This reminds me of Madeira, the second most delicious beverage in the world (after Dr. Pepper, of course), but that’s subject matter for a different post.  On Minorca, the dairy industry is second only to the tourism industry, and the final product is undoubtedly a result of the local terroir (or whatever that word is in Spanish). The island has a mild climate and gets lots of rainfall which, in combination with sea winds and humidity, give the milk — and later the cheese — high acidity and saltiness.

The Mahon most common here in the states is Mahon Reserva, a firm, square, orange block. To protect the cheese, the rind is rubbed with paprika and oil, then aged for 10 to 12 months. The spicy bite of the paprika certainly makes its way into the taste the of the cheese, preparing the palate  for what’s to come. With a dense, hard texture that breaks down almost instantly when popped in your mouth, Mahon Reserva is all slowly unfolding and lingering flavor. Equal parts sweet and sharp, this cheese is beautifully balanced and consistently good. I sometimes get a smoky, caramel flavor (almost like a muted aged Gouda), but I’m most partial to the wheels that read as a little bit sour. Every now and then, a bite will remind me of my favorite cocktail, an Old Fashioned, bursting with the taste of bourbon and bitter orange peel, and I instantly get a little buzz.

Ombra – Pasteurized Sheep’s Milk from Catalonia, Spain

Ombra

Oh Ombra, one of my favorite cheeses to share with customers. Not only does this cheese bring me joy by reminding me of Joey’s duel with the Hombre Cowboy on Friends but, when sampled, it can always be trusted to sell itself. It’s that good. As fellow cheese blogger Kirstin Jackson says, Ombra is a cheese “that helps to explain why people fall in love with sheep’s milk.” Like many ewe-phoric delights (get it?), Ombra is at once both mild and full-flavored, with a firm texture that melts beautifully in your mouth. Much like Pringles, once you start popping Ombra, you just can’t stop.

Produced in the Catalonia region of Spain — right next to some other makers of lovely cheese, The French — Ombra is aged for 6-8 months, resulting in a cheese that is firm but still soft, dense but still porous, sweet and buttery, yet sharp like dry grass. I prefer the more aged rounds, when the paste gets really firm and flaky, chunking off the wheel in shards that remind me of pale stained glass. These old wheels are peppered throughout with crunchy tyrosine crystals, giving the illusion that there are actual nuts hidden in this nutty-tasting treat. I dream of Ombra paired with a spicy red wine and some hearty, crunchy, fruit & nut crostini.

Oh, and did I mention that it tastes like chocolate? Nutty, sharp, grassy, sheepy, melty chocolate. Like I said, it sells itself.

Veigadarte -Pasteurized Goat’s Milk from Castilla-Leon, Spain

Veigadarte

Veigadarte: Hard to pronounce (say vague-uh-dart-ay), easy to eat. This is a relatively new cheese in my life, but it has made a very strong first impression. Anyone who has recently come in to the shop looking for a soft goat cheese — especially those particular enough to ask for a French Bucheron — has been met with a sample of Veigadarte. And you know what? They leave with some, too. Every. Single. Time. It’s so delicious, I think I sample it out frequently just so I can sneak a taste, as well.

Hacemos queso muy delicioso!

Nosotros hacemos queso muy delicioso!

Made from the fatty milk of Spain’s scrappy Murciano-Granadina goats, Veigadarte is a goat cheese log on butterfat steroids. Cheesemaker Joaquin Villanueva Casado, who operates in the small and picturesque town of Ambasmestas, dusts each 1-pound log with vegetable ash then allows an edible, bloomy rind to form while the cheese ages for one month. The bloomy rind on Veigadarte helps to create this cheese’s treasured texture: Because it ripens from the outside in, the layer of cheese directly under the rind becomes extra ripe and creamy (and a little bit beige), while the inner paste remains bone white, fluffy, and freshly tangy. When tasting Veigadarte, really let it sit and form a paste in your mouth. The smooth texture is divine, but the flavor is even better. I taste salt (my favorite!), garlic, peppery greens, fresh lemon juice, and a delightful dash of beety dirt.

It’s been many years since I enjoyed a good salami sandwich (there’s no soy product that quite compares, is there?), but I imagine a thick smear of Veigadarte would pair insanely well with the fat peppery taste of that particular meat. However, veggies like me can let the cheese wow on it’s own: Spread on some bread with a side of salty, oily Marcona almonds, tart fresh berries, and a glass of fruity, floral, white wine (think Riesling, Viognier, or Albarino). I may have to treat myself to this very feast later tonight. It is the weekend, after all.

Torta de Trujillo (Mini) – Raw Sheep’s Milk from Extremadura, Spain

Torta de Trujillo

Torta de Trujillo reminds me of that scene in There’s Something About Mary where, just before being violently attacked, Ben Stiller coos to Mary’s terrier, “Are you the little guy making all that big noise?”  Not that this cheese will attempt to kill you, by any means, but it packs a serious punch for something that looks so cute and perfectly packaged.

The makers of this petite powerhouse are Finca Pascualete, a cheesemaking operation in the Extremadura region of Spain. I don’t know much about this area, other than the fact that it sounds magical and it looks even more magical than it sounds.

We interrupt this broadcast to share a mindblowingly beautiful image from Extremadura, Spain.

We interrupt this broadcast to share a mindblowingly beautiful image from Extremadura, Spain.

Back to it: Just like the lovely gentlemen at Quattro Portoni, the team at Finca Pascualete are focused on honoring traditional cheesemaking practices while, at the same time, creating new and marketable cheeses. A big part of their strategy is the use of thistle (i.e. cardoon) rennet as a coagulant (as opposed to an animal-based or microbial rennet), which is a time-honored tradition in Iberian cheesemaking.

This little Torta is a washed-rind  squishy puck of 2-month old sheep’s milk. While the cheese is covered in a slightly sandpaper-y and sticky orange rind, the pale pink paste contained within is silky, unctuous, and so creamy that it’s basically a liquid. The idea is to cut the top rind off , let it get to room temperature, and then dip in to the sweet, wooly, funky goop within. This is strong cheese, but it’s not  harsh or offensive. Where other washed rind cheeses can bring salt and bitterness to the table, Torta de Trujillo is completely round (i.e. not sharp) in flavor: the yeastyness of fresh baked bread, the sweet & savory comfort of Honeybaked Ham (again, if I’m remembering correctly), and the cozy Nutella-meets-wool-sweater taste of all good sheep’s milk cheeses. If there’s a heaven, I’m pretty sure it’s full of Nutella and wool sweaters.

Want more? Here are some that I didn’t have the space to include:

  • Valdeon – A noble goat’s milk blue. 
  • Roncal – The gamey Basque alternative to Manchego.
  • Montcabrer – An earthy, mild, and messy charcoal-washed goat.
  • Tetilla – A mild and zingy cow’s milk cheese, named for it’s likeness to “a small breast.”

*I’m really getting a kick out of revisiting high school Spanish right now. Lo siento.

Cheese & Wine…But Why?

Wouldn’t you like to travel the world, discovering and tasting the best wines that each region has to offer?  While some people can only dream of an adventure like that (for example, yours truly), others are able to make that dream a reality. You could do this on your own, of course, or with the help of expert and experienced guides. Like, say, for example, the ones at Wine World Tours. They are, as they say on their website, “dedicated to providing the extraordinary “life experience” one finds tasting, discovering and adventuring with wine,” which they do through “customized and personalized wine country adventures in the world’s most prestigious wine regions of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.” Amazing, right?

I’d cheers to that!

Don’t worry, this isn’t a sponsored post. I wish. I’m not quite that big-time…yet. Here’s a little bit of back-story: At a dinner party a few months ago, my father met a man named David Marchese, who happens to be the CEO of Wine World Tours. My dad mentioned my brand-new career and, upon discovering that Mr. Marchese is a cheese-lover himself, gave him a link to my blog as well as my contact information. Before too long I was having a lovely conversation with David Marchese. We talked about our shared passion for both curds and words and discussed the possibility of doing some work together. Like most savvy businessmen who know what’s up on the web (that’s some serious tech lingo), the people of Wine World Tours are looking to update and diversify their online content. In the minds of most, cheese & wine go together like peas & carrots, so this made perfect sense. Was I interested? Of course! I may not be very knowledgeable about wine, but I’m certainly a fan of the stuff (I’m enjoying a glass of Pinot Grigio right now, in fact — can you tell?) and, more than that, I’d love to get more people to read what I’m writing. There was only one thing: I’d need to write more about wine. No need to change my focus or anything like that, but simply add a pairing suggestion or two for each cheese that I featured. No biggie, right?

Wrong. In truth, this condition gave me more pause than you’d expect, because it came just at a time when I was already dedicating a lot of thought to wine…and not necessarily in a favorable light. I enjoy wine just as much as the next guy (who enjoys wine), but…I’m not sure how I feel about having it with cheese. Over the past few months, I’ve dedicated a LOT of time to learning about cheese. Through my work at The Cheese School, my own research and writing, and now at Cowgirl Creamery. And I’ve discovered a theme. While almost every notable expert in the field dedicates a chunk of time, energy, or writing to the pairing of wine and cheese, they always do so with a disclaimer. And this disclaimer explains, in essence, that cheese and wine don’t really pair well together! They tend to get in each others way, overpower one another, or simply clash. I’m not kidding. Everyone I’ve read or talked to says that, as a rule, cheeses are more easily and harmoniously paired with beer, liquor, or other accompaniments…and then they go on to talk more about wine.

WHY? WHY?? WHYYYY???

That all-caps level of emotion is no joke and I can remember the exact moment in which I reached peak frustration. During a brief moment of downtime while working a class at The Cheese School, I grabbed a copy of Max McCalman’s beautifully authoritative Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best and began to flip through the pages. Sure enough, at the very beginning of the section titled ‘Cheese & Wine’, I found the all-too-familiar refrain: cheese and wine are, in fact, not a marriage made in heaven. Right now, I’m looking at my notebook, and under the date of that class (8/5/12), there’s a massive, angry scrawling: “Cheese & Wine…BUT WHY? Why force the need to marry the two?”

Since then, I’ve been on a quest to find answers of any kind. The origin of this marriage, an impassioned defense of the tradition, or even just the proof of one pairing so good that it justifies the entire pursuit. So far? Not much luck. The closest I’ve come to discovering ‘the answer’ is from the introduction of Janet Fletcher’s book, Cheese & Wine: A Guide to Selecting, Pairing, and Enjoying. As Fletcher explains, both cheese and wine became everyday dietary staples in Europe during a time when preservation was the name of the game.

“Over the centuries, humans have learned to preserve nature’s seasonal bounty for the times when nature is not so generous. The abundant milk that a cow gives in summer becomes cheese for the winter months. Fresh grapes, which last only days, become wine for future enjoyment.  In the temperate climates that nurture both grapevines and dairy animals, it is not surprising that cheese and wine are savored together. Both have long been the daily sustenance of farmers in Spain, France, Greece, and Italy, who think of wine and cheese not as fancy foods for entertaining, but as the wholesome heart of an everyday meal.”

Hmm. Sure, the section in question, titled ‘Cheese and Wine: A Time – Tested Marriage’, sheds light on the history of the pairing, but does little to justify (at least in my eyes) why it persists as the standard. Fletcher suggests pairings based on complements and contrasts (in texture, intensity, acidity, and region of origin)…but, again, with a disclaimer.

“Whether you are choosing wine to accompany a platter of cheeses, or selecting cheeses to enjoy with a favorite wine, the objective is the same: to ‘do no harm’ to the taste of the wine. When we talk about a successful wine and cheese match, we mean that the cheese or cheeses do not diminish our pleasure in the wine. The wine tastes just as good with the cheese as it does on its own. Occasionally, but not often, a cheese may even enhance a wine.”

Okay, am I seriously the only one who thinks this sounds just a little bit crazy? Still, the passion with which Fletcher, and so many others just as intelligent and accomplished as she, pursue this particular pairing, gives me hope. I’m entering an entirely new field, but it’s only new to me. Cheese — its making, its selling, its enjoying —  has existed for centuries, a history longer and richer than anything my mind can even really fathom. And you know what’s been there right along side of it? Yep, wine. With that in mind, I’ll continue to try and ‘get it.’ I’ll do more reading, more eating, more drinking (ugh, what a tortured existence!), and I promise to share with you what I learn.

But I won’t be sharing, at least not officially, with Wine World Tours. As much as I admire what they’re doing, and as much as I would love the extra attention (just being honest), catering to that audience, right now, simply wouldn’t feel right. I’m busier these days than I have been in a long time. I’m working at The Cheese School (where I’ve been hired to do some extra work beyond my internship) and Cowgirl Creamery, getting some amazing hands-on cheese time. I’ve also received my first freelance writing assignment, doing some short profiles of ACS award-winners for Culture magazine. This is all great – so great! – but I’m quickly realizing that the moments I’ll be able to dedicate to working on my own blog will be few and far between. And when I do have that time, I just want to write about cheese. Or maybe I’ll want to write about beer. Or maybe I’ll want to write about bread or fig jam or pickles or… Justin Bieber. I don’t know, and that last one seems unlikely, but the point is that I want to write about what I want to write about and, often, I don’t think that will be wine.

Which is ironic, since I spent a lot of time on it just now.

Yeehaw!

Do I seem a little bit country to you? That might be because I’m officially a cowgirl. I got word today that soon I’ll be slingin’ cheese (and other goodies) Cowgirl Creamery’s Ferry Building outpost. And I’m pumped! I went in last Friday and had a trial shift that went really well, but I didn’t want to say anything and risk jinxing myself. Well, can’t jinx myself now! Once I get back from vacation, we’ll sort out starting date and schedule, and then they’ll fit me for my very own Cowgirl Creamery cap! Not really but, with a head so big, they might actually have to!

So, that’s my good news! I’m so excited and for so many reasons. I had a great time working there last week, and I’m already looking forward to seeing my new coworkers again. I’ll learn tons, have lots of fun, and get to commute to and from the beautiful San Francisco waterfront. Get ready to learn right along with me, as always, via Bon Bouche!

The counter at Cowgirl Creamery in SF’s Ferry Building. I’m ready!

I Don’t Always Eat Dairy…

Sometimes I read about it! I’m currently on vacation and, while I do plan to knock out some long-planned blog posts, my main goal is to do lots of reading. I’ll be finishing up The United States of Arugula (review to come) and continuing to work my way through The Cheese Primer, but I’m also checking out articles online. Here’s one that really caught my eye: The Surprising History of the Milk Carton chronicles the role that changing technology has played in the design of, you guessed it, the milk carton.

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And I’m not the only one interested in cheese readings. Check out this post from It’s Not You, It’s Brie: Cheese Lit. Kristin Jackson, cheese blogger extraordinaire (and sometimes Cheese School instructor), picks her recent non-fiction fromage favorites. I’ve only read ONE of her recommended readings, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the others. In case you were wondering, I just had a birthday (7/27) so, if you didn’t get me a gift….well, hint hint.

Bonnie Blue?

Let’s take a minute to talk about soup, shall we? It may sound crazy to you, but until 2012 (yep, this year), I didn’t like soup. “What?,” you’re probably saying. “Who doesn’t like soup?” Now, don’t get me wrong: Like all sane humans, I enjoy a grilled cheese dunked in tomato soup from time to time and, before I went veg, I frequently fed a cold with some chicken noodle (I have tendency to get sick). But…that’s about it. To me, soup was always just an excuse to eat something else: a delicious bread bowl or croutons and cheese. I would proudly proclaim that “I like to chew” and end any discussion. That makes it sound like I lead an exciting life full of soup discourse but, really, it’s only come up from time to time. Anyhow, this year, something changed. I don’t know what prompted the decision but, at a local salad and sandwich spot, I ordered the soup. It was carrot dill, and it changed my life. Dramatic language aside, it was so delicious, I can’t even tell you. The ingredients tasted so wonderfully fresh and the soup was so flavorful, I didn’t dunk anything in it! Since then, my eyes have been opened to the world of soup. Potato leek, lentil, minestrone, corn chowder, and on and on and on. My point is: There’s a whole world of soup out there, and to think that I didn’t like all soup, just because I didn’t like some soup, was crazy! And, if you think there’s a wide variety of soup out there, just wait until you start to learn about cheese.

Ah, yes, cheese. Back to the point. I have a coworker who is a self-professed cheese lover. There’s only one problem: According to him, he doesn’t like goat’s milk cheese. He insists and, still, I refuse to believe it. “I didn’t like soup,” I say. “Now, I love it.” Is this making sense? What I’m trying to say is that there are literally thousands of different kinds of goat’s milk cheese. My coworker has had some he doesn’t like, that’s all. One day, with my help, he’ll find the ones that he does! It’s not like he’s lactose intolerant. This guy eats brie almost every day. And if you think that I don’t know what I’m talking about, let my own story be a lesson.

Before about, oh, 6 months ago, I would have sworn to you that I don’t like blue cheese. If I saw anything on the menu that came with blue cheese, I automatically passed. If I saw blue cheese at the grocery, I grimaced. Just the thought of “blue cheese” offended me. Now, I realize that I was wrong. I didn’t like some blue cheeses, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like any of them. My limited experiences with French Roquefort and salads decorated with Gorgonzola had misinformed me! While I appreciate these cheeses and what they (pun intended) bring to the table, I’m still not a fan of that peppery cheese taste and I prefer not to have rich goop weighing down my lettuce (unless, of course, that goop is Ranch dressing). The difference is that now I know there’s a whole world of blue cheese out there, and I’m basically determined to try every one. In fact, my past ‘distaste’ makes each new delicious discovery even more amazing, and it’s taken less than a year to realize that I’ve been a blue lover this whole time!

First, I found the delightfully sweet and sour Bohemian Blue. Then, I became quite fond of the rich and tangy Colston Bassett Stilton. I realized I’d been converted when I tried the smooth & savory Fourme d’Ambert and, when I had that washed rind Tilston Point, I briefly considered never eating anything else. Well, there’s another breathtaking blue to add to that list.

Strachitunt Val Taleggio (raw cow’s milk from Lombardy, Italy)

The first class I worked at The Cheese School last week was ‘Cheese & Wine of Lombardy’ with Italian cheese expert Andy Lax and wine aficionado Naomi Smith. We tasted an incredible variety of Lombardy’s delicacies (one ticket to Italy, please!*), but nothing stunned the crowd (or my senses) like the Strachitunt. This cheese is often called “The Jewel of the Val Taleggio” and it’s not hard to see why.

Where to start? Well, Italy! And the alpine valley of Val Taleggio, to be exact. Strachitunt has been made in this part of Lombardy since the late 1800’s using raw local milk taken only from the Bruna Alpina cows that live at an altitude of nearly 3,000ft. (or, as they say there, 900 meters).

This guy’s just chillin.

Strachitunt is the product of a unique making process: The cheese is made with the combining of two different curds, worked (i.e. produced) 12 hours apart. Meaning, una Bruna Alpina is milked once in the morning and then again that night. The curds from these two milkings are then combined to make this treat. But, first, it’s aged in limestone caves for over two months. Trust me, it’s worth the wait!

As you can maybe see in the picture above, the Strachitunt doesn’t even look that blue. There are some eyes and clustered pockets, but not too many. The piece that I had was completely cream colored! If it weren’t for the appearance of the rind, I wouldn’t have known that it was a blue…until I tasted it. Oh, that taste! This is an aromatic cheese, and you get a good informative whiff right before you pop it in your mouth. The texture is a delightfully confusing mesh of soft and firm (perhaps as a result of the mixed curds?) with an insanely wonderful creaminess on the palate. Known as a ‘dolce-amaro’ (sweet & sour), I found it to be more of a sweet & salty cheese, but in a very delicate and balanced way. Does that make sense? This cheese is hard to describe, it’s magic is so elusive. Here’s an idea: Get some for yourself and let me know what you think. I bet it would be great for dessert, paired with port or some fruit and honey.

*I’m sure my father is ready to kill me at this point. We took a family trip to Italy in 2005 or 2006, which marked my last summer as a meat-eater. I spent the whole trip downing steaks. Now, I’m a vegetarian cheese enthusiast – I should have been eating formaggio instead!

Daphne Zepos

This past Tuesday, July 3rd, an important member of the cheese community passed away. Daphne Zepos was founder of the Essex Street Cheese Company and, closer to home, co-owner of The Cheese School of San Francisco. More than that, she was a cheese enthusiast, advocate, and educator. She was a teacher, a writer, an importer, a cheesemonger, and – from what I’ve heard – a wonderful and passionate friend. There’s no way I could write anything about her that would add to what has already been said.

Daphne died at home, in my neighborhood of The Mission, at the age of 52. Lung cancer. I only met her once, maybe 5 months ago, at a Cheese School master class. I stood, talking to two other attendees, when she approached to welcome us and, specifically, to congratulate me on my upcoming internship. A fleeting, but genuine, interaction. Later, she introduced the instructor, Cowgirl Creamery’s Peggy Smith, and simply glowed as she spoke about her friend. That was it. I can remember her face, a little bit of her voice, her hair pulled back. That’s it.

On Tuesday, when I read the Cheese School’s facebook announcement  (accompanied by a beautiful photo of Daphne & co-owner Kiri Fisher), it hit me like a hard blow to the chest. I had to catch my breath, steady myself. I felt dizzy. I couldn’t explain why. I hardly knew this woman, beyond what I had read and heard of her. And still, I felt the loss. The loss of Daphne’s family, the loss of The Cheese School, the loss of the community. I felt sadness, and anger, and regret. Regret that this great teacher, this potential mentor, was gone so soon. And then I realized – that’s a familiar feeling.

2 months ago, Mike’s father Mark died of esophageal cancer. He was 58. I knew him for a year and a half, let’s say. Time spent knowing someone is certainly hard to calculate. He was in my life briefly when he was well, longer when he was sick, and then…he was just gone. It’s awful, and a cheese blog is not really the right place to get into it. But, more than I’m capable of missing him, I regret not getting to know him. I’m sad and I’m angry for many reasons, but mostly because I won’t get that chance. In losing a person you barely know, you find yourself grasping at memories. The best jokes that person made, your brief conversations. What their hand felt like in yours, the first time you shared a knowing smile. That’s what I did Tuesday, too, replaying and replaying Daphne’s welcome in my head. Remembering the feel of the hand she placed on my shoulder, attempting to recall her height, her smell. Holding on to the slip of a relationship, no matter how small.

Now, I love when Mike shares a story about his dad. He’ll mention how he would have said or done something, he’ll teach me something Mark taught him, and I listen more attentively than I’ve ever listened before. That, after all, is the legacy he leaves. And in that same way, I’ll devour what I can from those who knew Daphne. I won’t learn directly from her, but from those whom she taught. I’ll make my place in a community she did so much to support and enrich, in the same way I now make a place for myself in Mike’s family. Mark carries on in Mike, in this incredibly special person he helped form, and I get to know him that way. I’ll do the same with Daphne, through The Cheese School, the ACS, and her friends and colleagues. I only wish I had more of an opportunity, to thank them both, for enriching my life in such profound ways.

“Go Milk a Goat!”

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Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to enjoy a whirlwind of a phone call with esteemed chef Frank Pace. Pace is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy who was formerly a line cook at Aqua and then chef de cuisine at Carnelian Room, both SF fine dining establishments that are now closed. These days, Frank lives in Burlington, Vermont, where he’s recently taken on the role of in-house butcher for Catamount Hospitality and where he runs his own catering business. On top of these noteworthy credentials, Frank also happens to be a relative of my dear friend Jay, which makes him all the more impressive (and, most importantly, all the more accessible). Once Jay and his mom heard about my new cheese course (I can’t believe I haven’t used that before now), they insisted I talk to Frank, and I was delighted that he agreed!

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He may look calm in that picture (perhaps he loses himself in the meat?), but on the phone he was a big, enthusiastic, and inspiring ball of energy. His advice? Get to it. That quote up there — “Go milk a goat!” — that was his. And while I may not be able to get my hands on a hoofed creature as soon as I’d like, some of his other advice might be easier to follow.

  • Really, the #1 theme of the conversation was that I need to get busy and get my hands dirty. First up: Get a job! Get behind the counter somewhere, and start (literally) cutting some cheese. This one, Frank, I’m already working on! I’ve been in talks with various members of the Bay Area cheese-selling community, and I continue to try to ‘network’ my butt off (which is a good way to counteract the butt-padding all this cheese is doing). I can’t wait to start my internship at The Cheese School and, hopefully, at some point, get a job.
  • Next step: Make some cheese! Now this, this is good advice. And doable!  I’ll be at The Cheese School for two cheesemaking classes, but there are other curd-creating opportunities in this delightful city of mine. I recently learned of the SF Milk Maid, a well-trained and well-traveled cheese-maker who teaches private and public courses in the city. And, thanks to SF Milk Maid’s facebook page, I discovered the wonderfully intimidating blog Milk’s Leap, which chronicles the amazing at-home cheese creations of another SF local. With these resources at my disposal, how could I go wrong? (I’m sure there are many ways, all of which I promise to document)
  • Another piece of advice? “Go to Europe. Go to Italy, go to France, go wherever cheese is made and learn how it’s made there, why it’s made that way, and how it tastes.” (I’m paraphrasing) Oh Frank! Oh life! If only it were this easy. But, I assure you, one day (and hopefully not one too far away), I plan to do just this. I’d be lying if I said that the thought of traveling the world in pursuit of cheesy bliss wasn’t one of the many reasons a curd nerd life called to me. Neal’s Yard Dairy? Yes, please. Fruitiere de Saint-Antoine? Yes! Fromagerie L’amuse? Yes, yes, yes! One day, you guys. One day.

Speaking of traveling: How about a trip back East?  Frank may have started his career out here in San Francisco, but he’s now a serious Vermont enthusiast. While he mentioned a few connections he has here in California, he made it clear that his real hook-ups are with dairies in Vermont. Luckily, this assertion was followed by a welcome invitation to visit any time. Not only has Frank offered to show me around Vermont, but he said he’ll take me up in to Canada, too. Awesome! I’ve already corresponded with Jay (currently far away in Buenos Aires), and we’ll probably spend the next few months conspiring to actually make this happen.

So, that’s what I learned from Mr. Frank Pace. In all sincerity, I’m really grateful that he took the time to speak with me, and I’m really looking forward to keeping in touch and learning from him in the future. Thanks, Frank!

Sorry I’ve Been A-Whey…

Hi readers. As you may have noticed, there’s been a serious lack of action on this blog recently. 2 weeks back I went out of town for a week and, since my return, I’ve been catching up with work, friends, and cheese! I just haven’t had much time to actually write and, when I did find myself with some free time, I was too tired to do anything but turn on The Food Network or HGTV (both almost as addicted as L’Amuse Aged Gouda).

Now, I plan to turn that around from here on out, but I wanted to spend a little time getting everyone up to speed. So, some brief words (I toyed with the idea of calling this post ‘Curds of Wisdom’ but it didn’t feel quite right) on recent happenings, and then we can get back to normal blogging.

First: I am thrilled to report that, this summer, I will be an intern at The Cheese School of San Francisco. Not too familiar? Check out their awesome website, which features information about the school, the courses, and even the internship program. One big plus? It’s paid! Starting in July, I’ll be spending roughly 15 hours per week in the beautiful building at Powell and Francisco in Nob Hill, SF. I’ll be setting & cleaning up before and after classes, helping out during the classes and, I believe, doing some light administrative work. Last week I sat down for a drink with one of the school’s current interns, Devon Foster, who is also a cheesemonger at Cowgirl Creamery in The Ferry Building. Devon and I had a delightful conversation about all things cheese. She told me a little bit about the CA cheese community and did a lot to reassure me that it’s a really welcoming circle. Lately I’ve been nervous about jumping into the unknown and starting out as a newbie, so her stories of acceptance did a lot to lessen my fears. Devon also praised The Cheese School internship experience, which left me very excited. I’ll get to learn a ton about different cheeses, how to cut, plate, and serve, and I’ll be introduced to so many inspiring and experienced cheese professionals. I’m starting to sense that I may have a future in cheese-related catering and event-planning (we’ll see), so all of this really appeals to me. I can’t wait!

Speaking of The Cheese School and inspiring cheese professionals: On March 13th I took my first Master Class at the school, Identifying Cheese Flavors with Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery. Yep, THE Peggy Smith of THE Cowgirl Creamery. For me, it was a big deal. It was such an incredible experience that I spent the next week gushing about it to anyone who would listen. As such, I want to write real blog entry about the class, the cheeses, and Peggy, so this is just a brief mention and placeholder until that time. The big take-away from the evening is that I left completely at peace with my decision to leave publishing for cheese. While I was a novice compared to almost all the attendees (mongers, farmers, cheesemakers, chefs, etc.), I felt able and understanding of almost all of the concepts covered and excited to embrace and conquer those that I didn’t. Every single person there was friendly and wonderfully weird (just like me!), and I had some great conversations with two mongers from Mission Cheese (my nextdoor neighbor/dream employer) and even with Peggy, herself. I felt like I was floating on my way home that night, filled with a relief that I can’t fully explain. So, keep a lookout for a full post on that class, it’s coming soon.

What else? Oh, well, it had to happen eventually: I had my first semi-embarrassing cheese celebrity awkward encounter. I thought for sure it would happen sometime with Gordon Edgar, but the world likes to keep us on our toes. A few weeks ago I went to the Winter Artisan Cheese Fair kick-off event at Cheese Plus in Nob Hill. It was a great little ‘party’, just some cheesemakers giving out samples around the store, and then a small ‘buffet’ of samples out front. I was just getting started in the buffet line, testing out a delightful Alpine fondue, and slightly eavesdropping on the girl in line in front of me. I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was tasting a Vermont Butter & Cheese Coupole for the first time, and I was happy to hear her exclaim the deliciousness of the cheese and to ask more about it. It was at that point that I heard the not-yet-seen person behind the counter explain that it was a cheese made at her creamery in Vermont. Without thinking, and with a mouth slightly full of bread and cheese, I blurted out “Oh my gosh are you Allison Hooper?” It was not a smooth, casual, cool moment for me. It was dorky and borderline creepy. “Yes” she responded, “Who are you?” At that point, I explained that I wasn’t really anybody (yet), just an aspiring cheese professional and a major fan of her cheeses. She was flattered and friendly but busy and those in line behind me were growing inpatient, so I simply thanked her and moved on. When I got home and told Mike what had happened, he made fun of me for being a spaz and not telling her just HOW much of a fan I was, and said that I should at least send a follow-up email with a link to my blog (which is, after all, named in honor of one of her cheeses). Soooo… I think I’ll probably do that, so that something more than embarrassment can come of that encounter. To be fair, I did share that story with Peggy Smith, and she got a little chuckle out of it, so…it’s not for nothing.

Okay, that seems like enough for now! I’m slowly making my way though Steven Jenkins’ classic Cheese Primer. After Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge, it is quite a change in attitude and approach, but there’s a ton of information in there and I’m learning a lot. I’m even taking notes and doing some color-coded highlighting, so I feel like a student again! On the radar: Tomorrow evening I’m meeting with Anthea Stolz, the buyer for Bi-Rite who also taught the Desert Island Cheeses course that I took, and I’m really looking forward to that.  I’d like to solidify the relationship and, of course, talk about future employment options, but I’m also thinking of doing small profiles/interviews of local cheese professionals and posting them on this blog. I have no journalism experience, so they wouldn’t be anything amazing, but I just like the idea of spotlighting those who inspire me. What do you think?

 

On Books & Libraries

“Books and libraries? But Bonnie, I thought you were moving AWAY from publishing!!”

— You Guys

 

While it’s true that I’m leaving publishing (at least for now), I could never really leave books behind. And, really, I don’t think I could shake my editorial bent, even if  wanted to (which I do not). I’ll always love reading and analyzing what’s been written, so I’m lucky that there is no shortage of books on food and, specifically, cheese. As you already know (or at least you already know if you’ve read my earlier blog entries), my first foray into reading cheese (as opposed to eating cheese), was with Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge by Gordon Edgar, and we all know how that worked out. While I’ve already given that book my clear endorsement, I can’t get rid of my compulsion to ‘make something’ out of the rows upon rows of margin notes with which I sullied the book’s pages. See, my nature can’t be tamed! I’m like the ‘Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken’ girl (okay Sonora Webster, I’m not going to pretend I don’t know her name), but instead of blind horse diving I’m just commenting on books. Similar.

In my job at Berrett-Koehler, I am often asked to write manuscript reviews on projects we have signed but not yet published. This usually results in about four page of comments on the work, broken down in to two tried & true categories: ‘Things I Liked’ and ‘Things In Need of Improvement/Suggestions.’ (Tip: Never tell an author that there’s something about their work that you “don’t like.” After putting their heart, soul, and money into what’s on paper, they are sensitive beings and rightly so.) In the case of Edgar’s book, there really wasn’t anything that I felt “needed improvement” (okay, maybe there was one story about a toothpick and a lot of blood that I could have, um, cleaned up a little bit), although I certainly wouldn’t argue against an illustrated second edition or, better yet, a video & image-enhanced e-book (think about it, Chelsea Green).

So, that just leaves us with what I DID like. Now, because none of you are paying me (yet), I’m not going to give you four pages. But, I will touch on the things I found most important.

TONE: Now, this may seem like a weird place to start, but given what I know about non-fiction writing on somewhat-daunting subjects, I cannot stress the importance of tone enough. Cheese is actually very complex subject matter (after all, science is involved) and one rife with cultural and socioeconomic implications. Basically, it can be easy to get snobby, but getting snobby doesn’t add anything for anyone. Gordon Edgar never gets snobby, and actually makes a point of deriding that tendency in others. Instead, he infuses his personality and his passion into all aspects of the book (both the more traditional memoir accounts of person experiences and the hard and fast detailed cheese info), making it as accessible and enjoyable as it is informative. If it hadn’t been done this way — if the book had been intimidating or even annoying — I might not have made the decision to try my hand at this whole endeavor.

INFORMATION: For a memoir, this puppy is jam-packed with serious and seriously helpful information. From cheese consumption statistics to the historical significance of American and other cheeses, the cheese-making and aging processes, and even the rough costs of particular cheeses, I learned more from this book than from anything else I’ve read in recent history (and that’s saying something). If you are interested or intrigued by cheese, at all, this book will be a revelation.

INSPIRATION: Like I said in the tone section, if this book had been handled differently, I might not be writing this at all. But, instead of being scared off or intimidated by the book and by Edgar’s experience, I was inspired. If a no-nonsense punk-rock dude with more of an interest in co-op work than a career in cheese can become this much of an expert, then a cheese-loving word nerd with a desire to get her hand’s on the food system can at least give it a shot, too. Learning that, like me, Edgar sucks at geography (semi-important in the world of cheese), was only icing on the cake.

So, while I could go on and on, I won’t. The point is that I loved this book, and I’m so relieved that I can pair my passion for reading with this new career path. That being said: What should I read next? Please share recommendations, if you have any, in the comments section.

 

Now, moving on from books to libraries. But, probably not the kind of library you’re thinking of. Before I carry on with this blog, I have to give credit where it is and will continue to be due — to the Cowgirl Creamery Library of Cheese. While I was already pretty familiar with Cowgirl Creamery (after all, I do follow them on Facebook), I discovered their incredible online cheese library completely by accident. Every time I tasted or read about a new cheese, I did a Google search to learn more. It wasn’t until I had done this 5 or 6 times that I realized the 1st or 2nd listing was almost always a link to Cowgirl Creamery. “But this isn’t a Cowgirl cheese!!” I exclaimed (dramatized for illustrative purposes), while clicking the link. Well, whoops! The Cowgirl Creamery Library of Cheese isn’t just a library of their cheese, but a library of all the world’s great artisan cheeses, searchable by Farm/Maker, milk type, country, and milk treatment (raw, pasteurized, etc.). The information provided on each listing is informative without being overwhelming, and is usually accompanied by a picture. As I do more writing about particular cheeses (i.e. hopefully in my next post), I have no doubt that I will continue to use this as a resource. Just wanted to put that out there.

Cheese, Please: What’s This All About?

I’m leaving a life in publishing for a career in cheese and documenting here for posterity, purpose, and proof.

So, yes. I am now an aspiring cheese-seller and specialist. Gordon Edgar, in his book Cheesemonger, strictly warns that you should not call yourself a cheesemonger until you’ve really earned your stripes. Since I basically have this guy’s book to credit for solidifying my decision, I don’t want to overstep my/his bounds. (Though, if we’re being totally honest, I am an aspiring cheesemonger).

I am writing this after 4+ years in book publishing. Those years have been good, but they haven’t been great. When they have been especially not-great, I’ve always rewarded my efforts or soothed my frustrations with some nice cheese and some decent wine (I have lower standards for the wine than I do the cheese). And, while I’ve always passionately eaten and explored cheese, I never really thought that I could make a career out of it. I am now so happy (really, I can’t emphasize the ‘so’ enough) to see that I was wrong. I can make a life out of selling cheese, and that’s exactly what I hope to do.

While San Francisco isn’t the best location for a life in book publishing, it certainly seems to be the place for cheese. In the past months I’ve gotten more and more serious about making this career change, and I’ve been genuinely amazed at the opportunities and resources I’ve discovered in that time. First, The Cheese School of San Francisco. How could I take the presence of such a one-of-a-kind institution as anything but a sign that I’m on the right path? Just learning of this community and of the classes offered (I’ve already signed up!) has filled me with added drive, encouragement, and confidence. I’m also very lucky to live in the mission, where I have access to the friendly and informative cheese-sellers and experts at Mission Cheese, Bi-Rite Market, and Rainbow Grocery. All of these cheese professionals have been so encouraging and helpful, even further steeling my determination and inflating my excitement. One Bi-Rite employee kindly recommended the aforementioned Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge by Gordon Edgar, and I haven’t been the same since.

Now, like I said, I’ve always loved eating and learning about cheese. I love tasting new flavors, experiencing new textures, and experimenting with wine, beer, and condiment pairings. The idea of spending my life doing something so fun — and bringing such fun into the lives of others — is what first attracted me to a career in cheese. It wasn’t until I read Edgar’s book that I realized how some of my other great passions are directly involved in cheese-making and selling. A longtime vegetarian (shhh — I try to pretend there’s no such thing as rennet), I’m passionate about animal rights & humane treatment, especially as relates to farming. For a long time, I thought I’d one day be editing and publishing books on humane and sustainable farming and eating practices. You can, and perhaps should, call me naive, but I had never directly connected this interest to cheese and dairy farming. How foolish! Once Edgar’s book brought to light the ‘politics’ of cheese (forage vs. feed, animal health, land use and suburban sprawl, climate change, etc.), I became even more convinced that I’d made the right decision. What first brought me to publishing — the idea of making a difference in the world — can also be directly applied to cheese-selling. I’m sold!

Now, I just need help in making the switch. My amazing colleagues at Berrett-Koehler publishers have worked with me to create an ‘exit strategy’, whereby I will be leaving the company sometime this summer (exact date TBD). In the time between now and then, I plan to learn as much as possible about cheese and the SF cheese community, meet as many people as I can, and suck up gloriously to those people in the hopes of a job or an apprenticeship. This change is as exciting and invigorating as it is terrifying. I’m starting this blog for me as much as for anyone else, to keep track of my efforts and education. Enjoy!

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