Viva Italia! Murray’s Italian Adventure

Not to brag, but we at Murray’s are pretty lucky.  Sometimes you find yourself in Northern Italy, halfway between tasting Prosciutto di Parma smack dab in the middle of Parma and joining thousands of cheesemakers and cheese lovers in the cradle of Slow Food in Bra, zipping along an autostrada lined with wide open fields to one side and craggy mountains to the other.   The sun shines, the Italian pop blasts, and your conversation cycles on repeat, coming back again and again to the singular, wondrous thought:  this is work.  We are at work right now.

I may be biased—part of my heart lives in Bologna, where I lived as an undergraduate—but there is no better place to immerse yourself in food culture than Italy.  Even if you aren’t there specifically for food-related purposes, like we were, it’s nearly impossible to avoid how deeply the roots of Italian culture are related to the kitchen.  In the past few days, however, this love of food—and the impact is has on our world at large—went deeper still, with a confluence of events that warranted a tour, Murray’s-style.

We began our journey in Milan, where the 2015 Expo is winding down a several month stint outside the city.  With an emphasis on sustainability and biodiversity and a special focus on how food and food systems support our global future, the Expo was like an educational Epcot Center on steroids.  Each country, invited to participate and given no specific instructions other than the overall focus and spatial constraints, brought their A-game in representing themselves.  Architecture buffs would marvel at the absolutely extraordinary structures built to house each country’s variation on a theme—the straw lotuses flanking the Vietnamese pavilion, the dry stucco of the Middle Eastern countries, and the rah-rah Americana of our own.

Expo 2015: Milan, Italy

The American pavilion emphasized the methods our country will focus on in the coming years in order to help create sustainable food systems.    Our friendly guide, an intern with the state department, shared the emphases:  food security and farming and policy and industry, nutrition and cooking an research.  Food trucks parked outside serving regional American street food.  A series of short, fun videos walked folks from around the world through the American food traditions that perhaps go unnoticed in the rest of the world, in favor of our more popular food brands (there was, in fact, a whole McDonalds pavilion, as if they were their own sovereign state of fries).  The coolest feature, and indicative of the future food trends sprinkled throughout the content of the Expo, was an entire exterior wall devoted to a patchworked vertical garden, great swaths of kale and hot peppers and cherry tomatoes, the seeds sent from Michelle Obama’s garden and grown there in Italy.  Here’s to small footprint farming with great potential for the future!Expo 2015: Milan, Italy

No rest for the weary when you’re in Italy.  In the early morning mist, we passed from Lombardy to Emilia Romagna, our sights set on two out of the holy trifecta:  Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma.   To watch Parmigiano Reggiano be made and aged is like a glimpse into history.  Copper cauldrons lined up in the make room, the hanging smell of whey in the air, great triton-like tools with a wired globe on the end, carefully thrust in an out of coagulating curd at just the right time, with just the right amount of force.  And then, wheels on wheels on wheels, just casually sitting there on row after row of shelving to the ceiling.  Tens of thousands of them, like ingots in a vault (and the perfect backdrop for many a hairnet-clad selfie). Giant crumbles of a cheese that hasn’t seen the light of day for two years—there’s no better breakfast.

Parma, Italy

But what is formaggio without salumi?  Onto our friends in meat, and a tutorial on the alchemy that is aging Prosciutto di Parma.  Just two ingredients, pork and salt, perhaps even simpler than cheese in its processing, but equally magical.  Great haunches of pear-shaped pork legs hang in room after room, hand-covered in sea salt in one, pork fat in another, all quietly hanging there and biding their time as they transform from raw meat to slices of silky, rosy Prosciutto di Parma.  Eating a plateful of it with a glass of Prosecco:  this is work.  We are at work right now.

Parma, Italy

And finally, onto the main event:  Slow Cheese  a biannual celebration of all things cheese.  We’ll dive deeper into this massive, town-wide festival in the next few days, but a few key trends from walking the show:  we’ll see more and more water buffalo milk cheese coming from less traditional areas than the historic area around Naples, and even some hints of camel’s milk cheese to come!  I was pumped about the burgeoning artisan cheese of Scandinavia, with great new options from Denmark and Sweden.  Not to mention the exploding craft beer scene in Italy, often neglected in favor of noble grapes and aperitivi.

Bra, Italy It’s the third time I’ve been fortunate enough to attend Cheese, as it’s universally called, and each time is better.  I revel in guiding newer colleagues through the madness, introducing them to cheesemakers from around the world, getting lost in my own translation, surrounded by the burbles of Italian.  On my first trip, six years ago, I dorked out at the list of attendees from just the American side:  the rock stars of American cheese.  Now, they’re friends, and this trip is yet another chance to share my own passion with our world with those who are newer to it.  Because even this many years later, I too will look at my pictures, now back on terra firma and home in New York, and marvel:  this is work.  That was work, and isn’t that amazing?

Congratulations to our New Certified Cheese Professionals + Why the Cheese Test Is A Big Deal

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Wine has sommeliers, beer has cicerones, and now…cheese has Certified Cheese Professionals (CCPs). Today we’re congratulating eight Murray’s cheese whizzes and 20 Kroger Red Jacket team members for becoming CCPs and achieving the ultimate in cheese recognition. They join four Murray’s folks and 20 Kroger employees who hold this distinguished standing…for a total of 52 CCPs in our Murray’s community.

“The opportunity to work with and learn from who I consider to be the best minds in cheese today has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me,” says Connor Pelcher, who works in our Wholesale department and just got the news of his CCP status. (Congrats, Connor!).

The exam was first given in 2012, and it reflects a recent groundswell of professionalism in our world – cheese land. According to a 2012 report from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, cheese is the largest specialty food category in the US. Murray’s is at the forefront of establishing, growing and supporting a career path (a multitude of career paths!) in cheese.

“The ACS CCP Certification is a mark of excellence and achievement that reflects a commitment to the best possible care for cheese and service to those that love it,” says the American Cheese Society. Passing the American Cheese Society’s CCP exam is no small feat. Before being allowed to sit for the exam, cheese people must have 4,000 hours of work and/or formal education in the cheese-field under their belt.

ACS_CCPE-logo_Final_smallThen, they’re tested for three hours on the ins and outs of all things cheese: chesemaking and aging, storage and handling, nutrition, history, distribution, categorization…whew. It’s a rigorous test of cheese knowledge across all areas of our field. This is the very highest standard for cheese professionals.

“When I started on the counter at Murray’s 25 years ago, the job of cheesemonger didn’t formally exist,” says Rob Kaufelt, Murray’s Owner and President. “And if it did, it was certainly not at the level of a butcher, let alone a chef or sommelier. That is, we were not a profession at all back then. Now I’m proud to say that Murray’s, with the help of the ACS and Kroger supermarkets, is well on its way to establishing a proud, new, traditional line of work in the food industry. We are leading the country toward a new and respected profession with a formal certificate of recognition.”

I feel connected to a larger community of cheese nerds like myself,” says Summer Babiarz, one of Murray’s wonderful trainers and part of the newest class of designated CCPs. “Plus, it’s fun to learn things you don’t know.”

“It will be nice for people to have a more systemized way to learn their industry, rather than getting their info from word of mouth,” Summer says. We’re proud of instructing and empowering passionate, knowledgeable and inspiring cheese professionals – by the end of this year, we will have 3,000 Red Jackets in 250 stores around the country. We’re deeply committed to spreading the curd, and supporting and training those who make it their life’s work to do so.

“I truly hope that I am able to pass down what I’ve learned to our next generation of CCPs with as much grace and passion as my peers have shown me,” Connor says. Congratulations to the new CCPs, and best of luck to our many, many future cheese stars.




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 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 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.