Dispatches from Cheese Camp, Part Six: Cheese Superfan Number One

tastingIt is not always easy to explain to everyone why you are so passionate about cheese. In fact, sometimes you are hit with a blazing moment of clarity that most people go whole days, weeks even months without really considering this culinary miracle. Friends politely nod their head while you work into a lather over the place of wooden boards in aging facilities. Siblings smirk lovingly as the beloved processed cheese casseroles are slowly replaced by raw milk farmstead cheeses. Parents scratch their heads and admit defeat over ever being able to predict anyone’s career path. Husbands and kids lovingly support you as you nervously flip through CCP Exam flashcards.

Cheese folk of all kinds typically work long hours, many weekends, evenings and almost no one gets rich. So why do it? Yes we love cheese- of course! But hey- I love potato chips too. It goes a little deeper for most people. When I really think about it, I love being part of something bigger- a better connection to food. I have this faith that if we all connected more to our food we would be happier, more responsible and have better lives.

IMG_5509Meeting cheesemakers at American Cheese Society for people like me is kind of like a 14 year old kid being let lose backstage at a concert. You have known their names, farms, animal breeds, herding practices and product lines. You talk about them all day to thousands of customers a year. So when Allison Hooper from Vermont Creamery is just sitting at a table checking her email or Andy Hatch is buying a cup of coffee next to you- its pretty easy to feel like fanning out like the David Bowe superfan from Almost Famous.

Of course from their perspective they are up to their necks in milk and cheese all day in a place beautiful but remote. So the idea of being a rockstar is a bit hilarious and I’m sure even a little unnerving. But in a culture that really seems to keep getting something out of the contributions that Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump this is comforting. I love that there is a place where Jasper Hill and Consider Bardwell are “trending”. I love that there exists a little tiny curd nerd community in which something that you make with your hands that feeds people makes you a celebrity.

From now on when people wonder how I could love cheese so much I can just say “Hey I met the lady that made this”. Yep- that will be a lot easier- thanks ACS and Murray’s!

Dispatches from Cheese Camp, Part Five: Cheese Nerd for Life–Taking The Certified Cheese Professional Exam

IMG_5515My first experience attending ACS began with one of the most stressful events of my cheese career: The Certified Cheese Professional exam. The CCP exam is the official ACS certification for cheese professionals, AKA cheese lifers, to validate their knowledge and status on an industry scale.

Have you worked a certain amount of time in the industry? Have you decided to give it your all and be a cheese nerd for life? Do you want to know absolutely everything there is to know about cheese? Do you want to join the group of like-minded cheese obsessed kindred spirits? Do you love cheese with all your heart?

IMG_5513If the answer is yes to all of these questions then I would suggest taking the exam.

After three intense months of Murray’s conference call study seminars, nine bodies of knowledge crammed in to one brain, x percentages, decimal multiplication and a cheese jeopardy review session with 65 cheese brains in a room, I was ready to take the ultimate cheese test. Not to mention the camaraderie, tears, hugs, maniacal laughter, self-doubt, stress, adrenaline, caffeine, alcohol (calms the nerves) and cheese. Lots of cheese.

The absolute best part of taking the exam was that it concluded with the opening reception of ACS Cheese Camp. I wasn’t sure about a conference called “Camp;” I didn’t know what to expect. Well, I did not expect and yet thoroughly enjoyed: a pig roast, sing alongs, late night storytelling, s’mores, tents, canned beer, camp t-shirts, day time activities, arts and crafts, lunch mess hall, counselor crushes and making so many new friends. And thanks to the pen pal app of Facebook and Instagram keeping in touch with ALL my new friends I made at camp has never been so easy.

IMG_5512What I did expect was cheese. I did not imagine in my wildest dreams sooo much cheese. 1700 different types of cheese at the Festival of Cheese.

I also expected cheese people yet could not imagine sooo many cheese people, every height, shape, age and milk type from all walks of cheese life. I did not expect to attend a Wooden Board Panel (aging cheese on wooden boards that is), or a Mushroom & Mold seminar, seated next to and amongst cheesemakers, cheese book authors, farmers, herdsmen, micro-biologists, retailers, importers, the Amish and cheese glitterati. Feeling one with all, asking the same questions and learning together, I did not realize I would become one of and join the community of cheese people so entirely.

IMG_5510You know they are out there, you hear stories about them, you yearn to meet them, you eat their cheese and when you finally find them and they smile and give you a big friendly cheesy hug and acknowledge you as one of their own you know you have found home. A great big beautiful cheesy home.

Thank you Murray’s, my nuclear cheese family, for supporting me through the CCP trials and sending me to cheese camp! Can’t wait for next summer.

Providence, Rhode Island, forever.

Dispatches from Cheese Camp, Part Four: A Girl and Her Truck (#mongeronwheels, Baby)

IMG_2328Stephany Munera, our badass Facilities Manager, had never worked a food truck before. That all changed last week at the American Cheese Society Cheese Camp in Providence, RI, when Steph spearheaded the debut of our #mongeronwheels, the Murray’s Cheese Truck, in all its cheesy glory.

Quick background: This year marks Murray’s Cheese’s 75th anniversary, and we celebrated by slinging cheese, charcuterie, melts and merch from our brand new and shiny cheese truck at ACS Cheese Camp. The American Cheese Society conference and contest is a grand celebration of all things American cheese—here’s a lowdownIMG_2318

Steph was the woman for the job. She took a crash course in all things food truck. Every morning, she woke up at the crack of dawn to get to the parking park and pick up the truck. Every single part had to be strapped down, or else it would rattle around on the roads of Rhode Island.

She drove the truck, with lots of finesse and style, to its starting point, where the Murray’s crew met her to prep for the day. Cheeses and meats had to be sliced, the grilled cheese press revved up, ice stocked, coolers refilled and the day’s goods organized and route planned. Then our team began the hard work of handing out samples, chatting cheese, and selling our delicious wares.

Sound easy? Ha! The truck was hot. So hot that “every surface was scorching.” Steph said. It was so hot that “stepping out of the truck into the 95-degree air felt cool.” IMG_2390

After a long, busy, on-her-feet, super sweaty day and night in the truck, everything had to be cleaned until it sparkled. Then Steph drove back to the parking lot (the truck’s hotel), plugged it in, checked the generator, refilled the gas and oil and emptied the 40-gallon water tank. A cheese truck is a lot of work!

Having never run a food truck before, Steph was justifiably “nervous and scared that something would go wrong.” But things went really right. “We sold a lot of melts,” Steph said, “It was a total adrenaline rush.”

“At the end of the week, I missed the truck. I had come to love it.” Steph sometimes wakes up at night, dreaming of the cheese truck. So do we. Thank you, Steph! You are a true cheese truck hero.

Dispatches from Cheese Camp, Part Three: Our Mojo

11831657_10204748218484809_8955110350048666479_nAmerican Cheese Society Cheese Camp was a great experience for me for a multitude of reasons. We got to hang with our fellow mongers in a relaxed setting focused on American cheese and the community. It did feel like summer camp in a weird way, one that involved sweating, crafts, cheese trucks and beer! I volunteered on Thursday to cut lots and lots of cheese for the cheese sale after the show on Sunday–all proceeds were donated to local charity.

My focus was on the more technical classes for affinage and food safety. Murray’s is a leader in these areas and really doing a lot to promote both. I was able to get a lot of time in with several of our producers and connect with them on our programs and our cheeses. I got the very real sense that we have our Mojo back and are well regarded amongst our peers and our producers.

We entered seven of our own CaveMaster cheeses into the judging, and sadly we did not win a single ribbon. It was nice to see our cheeses on the table at the Festival of Cheese, and we have high hopes for next year and winning some ribbons.

11702858_10153493817372010_5595037122890855136_nThe cheese truck was a challenge and a success and a buzz! It was very much like setting up a shop on wheels for a week and it was a challenge on many fronts from logistics to the incredibly high heat that the city experienced. (Editor’s note: stay tuned for more truck tales!) 

Dispatches from Cheese Camp, Part Two: Cheese Camp is the Best Camp

photo 2The theme of this year’s American Cheese Society conference, held annually in the hottest part of midsummer in a slew of rotating small cities across America, was Cheese Camp.

A wink and a nod to the affectionate nickname used by many to describe this weeklong coming together of friends industry-wide, mixed with a hefty dose of the nostalgia associated with that childhood escape to the woods in the summer, Cheese Camp 2015 made it official. A giddy, dizzying deep dive into the world of American cheese in all forms and fashions, this was a time focused on—in fact, heralded in the tagline for the conference itself—our community.

photo 3 (1)Cheese people are funny. I don’t doubt that many industries have their own quirky qualities and cast of characters, but I truly believe that we represent the most colorful of them, all passionate and geeky and whip-smart and party animals. It never ceases to amaze me how multifaceted our crew is, able to shift, chameleon-like, from early morning sessions with the FDA—the Goliath to our David of small artisans hell-bent on protecting their traditions—to a deep dive into the microbiological similarities of those happy, fuzzy molds that grow on the rinds of our beloved bloomy cheeses with mushrooms—complete with a fungal tasting indeed—to the pink-lit, swampy-hot karaoke rooms of a local, trendy hotel—cheesemakers, importers, mongers, and skeptical onlookers alike belting out their favorite 80s power ballads. (Note to Northeastern readers: should you find yourself in Providence, get thee to the Boom Box at the Dean Hotel. Order a cat-shaped tiki drink. Sing. Repeat. You’ll thank me.)

As a co-chair of the conference this year, I spent Saturday night winding down with other coordinators and American Cheese Society staff. We agreed this year had been better than ever, undoubtedly—hopefully!—what we’ll say each year, but all muddling why this year felt so spot-on. For some, it was the educational seminars. For others, the number of new attendees adding new energy and drive to the industry, and shepherding in a new generation of future cheese rock stars.

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For me, it was the insane energy of my week, packing each day with setting up our truly badass cheese truck—perhaps the first pop up shop on wheels—educating our nearly 60 students from across the country, preparing to take the Certified Cheese Professional exam, speaking on a panel in a seminar on careers in this industry I hold so dear, and heading daily into the constant meet-and-greet of seeing 1200 of your favorite caseophiles. But for all, it was this celebration of community, woven together like a camp lanyard from the many people who gather and eat and learn and teach and discuss and argue and drink, all tied by—quite frankly, we think the coolest thing to hold people together— cheese. 

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As a child, I would spend my summers at camp among the pine trees and clear lakes of Maine. After several weeks of rec hall theatre, bug juice and arts and crafts, I would say goodbye to friends seen only once a year and promptly burst into exhausted tears for the long drive home. My mother would dutifully listen to story after story of the fun I had and gossip that meant nothing to her, patient and indulgent of my emotional response to leaving this magical place. Leaving Cheese Camp felt the same, and I found myself hugging colleagues and new friends tightly as I slipped away on Sunday morning, unwilling to shed a tear, but instead looking ahead to the next summer, and hoping Des Moines in 2016 can handle this bunch.