American Cheese Society 2011: My Voyage for Fromage

Aaron Foster works in the Buying Department at Murray’s Cheese and is always on the hunt for the next delicious experience to share with our customers. This year Aaron attended the American Cheese Society conference to learn about what it takes to make the nation’s best cheese, and to taste a few dozen himself.

As a first-time American Cheese Society Conference attendee, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I’ve worked in cheese for over 9 years, but somehow I’d never actually made it to the main event. The conference is a moving target, one year in Louisville, another in Chicago, the next in Seattle, and so on. Having resolved to finally attend, as a representative of Murray’s Cheese, I lucked out with this year’s destination: Montreal. Now, I hear you say… isn’t it called the American Cheese Society? Indeed, it is. This is the first year that the conference was held outside of the continental US. I’m guessing Canada gets a pass because of a parenthetical “north”, as in (North) American Cheese Society.

Harbison aging in the Cellars at Jasper Hill

In any case, I was excited to travel to Montreal to meet some of the great minds of our industry, and to introduce myself to the cheese luminaries whose books I read and whose names have been synonymous with American dairy since before I was born. I arrived in Montreal late in the evening on my birthday, August 3rd, and joined the crew from the Cellars at Jasper Hill for dinner. Part of what is so amazing about the conference is that it pools together cheesemakers, retailers, distributors and enthusiasts, to share their views and insights with one another. Dining with the cheesemakers from the Cellars, I was able to explain how their cheeses are received by actual people, customers who buy Bayley Hazen Blue or Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from our cheese counter. It’s almost silly to imagine, but cheesemakers rarely interact with the people who are eating their cheese most of the time. On the flip side, we as retailers and cheese consumers often don’t fully understand the challenges and work that happens at the farm.

The American Cheese Society conference is made up primarily of lectures, seminars and panel discussions which happen throughout the day. Some are very technical, geared towards cheesemaking minutiae. Others are historical or cultural, say – the history of monastic cheese in the US. And still others concern themselves with issues of regulation and safety. As a retailer and a diehard cheese-lover, I made sure to attend as many different seminars as possible.

I started with a lecture on starter cultures… the beneficial microorganisms added early in the cheesemaking process to help acidify the milk and develop flavor in the cheese. Suffice it to say the bulk of this talk was way over my head, but I took away two points – that cheesemaking is usually more science than art, and that even small variations or inconsistencies can make for wild variations in the end product. Cheesemakers need to keep extraordinarily detailed records of their process, and need to replicate that process to the T; a make at 92 degrees F might yield a cheese with perfect texture and depth of flavor, whereas a make at 88 F could result in a cheese that’s barely recognizable. I don’t envy cheesemakers – that’s a pretty narrow margin for error.

I attended another talk on food safety from farm to fork. From a food safety perspective, cheese is a relatively safe, although perishable, product. But from cow to cheese vat to aging room to distributor to wholesaler to retailer to consumer, a given piece of cheese passes through many hands. We all have a duty to take every precaution to ensure the safety and preserve the quality of the cheese.

My next seminar was a tasting workshop, on identifying flavor in cheese. It’s not as easy as you think! We practiced by tasting candy while holding our nose. What tasted only sour and sweet with our noses pinched was actually a very strong mint once we could smell again. This exercise was meant to demonstrate how much taste is actually a function of smell. We also smelled covered containers of six different scents, and had to guess what they were. I got three out of six (butter cookies, black pepper, onion powder), but missed a gimme like sauteed mushrooms. The point is that we unwittingly depend on visual cues to help categorize what we’re smelling and tasting, and to be more conscious of this when evaluating flavor in cheese.

Aaron Foster with Sister Noella, “The Cheese Nun”

But the best talk I attended was on the microbiology of cheese rinds, called Growing Mold Gracefully. Led by cheese rockstar Sister Noella Marcellino of Connecticut’s Abbey of Regina Laudis and Harvard microbiologist Rachel Dutton, the panel treated the diversity and complexity of micro-biomes in cheese rinds. The rind of a cheese is an exceedingly complex conglomeration on molds and bacteria that exist in a delicate and unique symbiosis. Every cheese in every batch is different; and while cultures may be added to guide rind development, Rachel and Sister Noella agree that the influence of indigenous microrganisms is far more important. Rachel is using state of the art gene sequencing techniques to develop a taxonomy of organisms found in cheese rinds. She has already discovered that cheese rinds exhibit some species that have also been found in Arctic sea ice, Norwegian fjords, and Etruscan tombs!

The conference ends, as always, with a tense announcement of the winners of the cheese contest, punctuated by the Best in Show award. This year, there were 1,676 entries across 99 different cheese categories. I certainly don’t envy the judges for their tasting duties… the judge who tasted the least amount of cheese still tasted nearly 100 varieties. This year, Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon took Best in Show. A lovely leaf-wrapped, raw milk blue, this seasonal beaut of a cheese will be available from Murray’s in a few short weeks. And finally, comes the Festival of Cheese – the attendees’ opportunity to taste the myriad entries, and to get a true lay of the land for the American cheese industry. I probably made it through 50 different cheeses before giving up… perhaps I’m not quite fit to be a judge yet.

All in all, the American Cheese Society conference was a fascinating and rewarding experience, enormously valuable to cheese professionals and enthusiasts alike. I won’t miss another one any time soon.



James Is Not A Chef: Meatless Mondays

James Stahl is a cheesemonger and may or may not have a thing for the original male cast members of ER. This blog invites you to take a peek at his most recent creation and dares you to try this at home.

Beef-Free Beefish Mushroom Bolognese

For one teenage year I was a vegetarian. This decision was not motivated by ethical or health concerns; I stopped eating meat for approximately three hundred and sixty five days because I wanted to be as cool as my older brother. I’ll give you one guess as to how that worked out for me. But because my father is a compassionate man, he developed a vegetarian red sauce that tasted like it had meat in it for me and my brother to eat. Desperate for anything that tasted vaguely beefish (and no, fake beef doesn’t taste even remotely beefish), I consistently finished my first, second, third fourteenth plate whenever he made it. I even loved that sauce after I stopped being a bad vegetarian (Cheetos don’t have meat in them, right?). Now I’m sure my dad has the recipe floating around somewhere, but I decided that I’d rather try to recreate it myself and see what happens. The results are below.

The Recipe

1 pound cremini mushrooms, finely chopped
1 28 oz can peeled tomatoes, diced and sauce saved
1 large white onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup tomato paste
1/2 cup vegetarian broth
2 tbsp aged balsamic vinegar
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp dried basil
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
grated Parmigiano-Reggiano , for topping
salt and pepper to taste

In a large pan, heat 1/4 cup olive oil to smoking. Drop garlic into olive oil and cook until browned, only about 90 seconds. Add onions and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook for about 6 minutes.

Add tomatoes and sauce, paste, broth, vinegar, oregano, basil and cayenne into pot and stir until thoroughly mixed. Salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.

Spoon over cooked pasta of your choice, garnish with Parmigiano-Reggiano, and serve.

mmmm… beefish….

What Went Well

Quote The Girlfriend: “If you make this again and change the recipe I’ll break up with you, kick you out of the apartment and keep both cats. Yes, even the one you’ve had since you’ve been twelve.”

So yeah, I think she liked it.

Broth. Again, a good broth comes through and balances out a dish. This time it added a real depth and heartiness that, in tandem with the mushrooms, provided the meaty flavor that I was looking for.

What Went Less Well

Wait, did you say DRIED basil? Unfortunately, I did and I apologize to every Italian mother in the city, but the local grocery store was not carrying fresh basil and I had to make do with dried. While I don’t think the sauce was ruined or anything, the pop of fresh basil would only have helped.

Olives. In retrospect, I think adding a 1/3 to a 1/2 cup of chopped kalamata olives* would’ve really helped the dish. I have no rational explanation as to why I feel that way, but I do. (Girlfriend politely disagrees.)

The Verdict

It was really good and really easy to make. I stopped using jarred tomato sauce a long time ago and haven’t looked back. I’ll definitely make this again.

Best Song Played by Internet Radio While Cooking

November Rain by Guns ‘N Roses. The live 12 minute version that starts off with a completely superfluous 3 minute Axl Rose piano solo that has no real connection to the actual song other than to prove that Axl Rose can, in fact, play the piano.

Embarrassing That’s What She Said

The girlfriend and I are watching the Falling Skies premier and it’s pretty good. It’s basically the Revolutionary War with aliens taking the place of the British. Lest you forget that Steven Spielberg produces the show, at the end of the first episode they celebrate a little kid’s birthday despite the fact that two thirds of the human race has been wiped out. I direct an eye-roll towards the girlfriend only to find that she’s tearing up. She notices my look and blurts out, “I know! I’m easily manipulated!”

Embarrassing That’s What I Said

The girlfriend: You and my best friend, Vicki, share a lot of the same celebrity crushes.

Me: Noah Wylie (main star of Falling Skies) and who else?

The girlfriend: George Clooney.

Me: [shockingly defensive] What’s not to like about George Clooney?