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.

 

 

I Fell In Love With Goat Cheese at Prairie Fruits Farm

… and now you can, too!

By Deena Siegelbaum

 

The goats that stole my hear (Prairie Fruits Farm)

 

I came to work at Murray’s Cheese because of my love for slow food – and my work at Slow Food.  For many years I worked for the sustainable food-loving organization, thrilled at every chance to meet food producers along the way — cheesemakers being no exception.  A few years ago, while on a US tour with the organization’s founder Carlo Petrini, I fell in love with goats (and goat cheese) during a visit to Prairie Fruits Farm, the first farmstead cheesemakers in Illinois — whose cheese you’ll now find on our NYC and online cheese counters.

The Petrini entourage drove down to Central Illinois from Chicago on a warm May day.  Having been on the road hosted in restaurants and lecture halls for days, a farm day was a welcome stop, and we were about to be hosted by farmers who had been making and selling cheese for less than 2 years.  We arrived to meet Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell and their kids – I mean their goats – who were joyfully running and playing on the lawn safely inside of a little fence.  Named for the fruits on the property, Prairie Fruits grows apples, peaches, pears and berries in addition to cranking out farmstead cheeses using milk from their goats, and also sheep’s milk from a neighboring farm.

What I remember from that day four years ago: tasting the most exceptional, sweet and creamy chevre; cuddling with goats; touring their small, well-run cheesemaking house; and savoring a farm-fresh meal with the inspired cheesemakers.  Leslie and Wes left academia to make cheese and to help build a vibrant food community in Central IL — they were welcoming, knowledgeable, and had the cutest kids on the planet.

A gooey piece of Angel Food

Flash forward a few years, and Leslie and Wes have continued expanding their operation.  Their cheese is available in fairly limited quantities, so we’ll be selling a variety as we’re able to get ‘em.  The two all-goat, gooey bloomy rinds are Angel Food and Little Bloom on the Prairie.  Angel Food is 3 weeks old with a thin, edible white rind – it’s a ladled curd cheese.  A bit stronger, Little Bloom is a cut curd that has ripened for four weeks.  Turning to sheep, we’ve got Ewe Bloom, a Camembert-style square cheese that’s pleasantly pungent.  Black Sheep is ash-covered and soft-ripened, reminded us of Selles-sur-Cher.  Not surprisingly, Prairie Fruits picks are really enjoyable with fresh or dried fruit.  Perfect for your summer picnic of a fun way to end your next BBQ!

Murray’s Cheese currently has select Prairie Fruits cheese in limited quantities in our New York City stores and online. Not all styles are available at all times, so check back soon or give us a call if you don’t find what you’re looking for.

New Cheese! Bossa from Green Dirt Farm

By James Fairbrother

James is a summer intern at Murray’s who’ll be regularly entertaining you with cheesy tidbits all summer long. When he’s not tasting new cheeses, he is getting ready for his senior year at Cornell, where he is studying Food Science and Italian.

Having just started working at Murray’s, I couldn’t believe that on my first day I already had the chance to taste one of our newest cheeses. What was even more exciting was finding out that this particular cheese, Bossa, happens to be a rare all-sheep’s milk cheese produced within the United States at the women-owned Green Dirt Farm in Weston, Missouri. The farm prides itself on its sustainable and humane practices, allowing the sheep to roam and pasture freely in the hilly area above the Missouri River Valley, and has earned the distinction as an Animal Welfare Approved organization. This pasteurized cheese is produced in limited quantities, and we are ecstatic to be the first to introduce it to New York City.

I took a small piece home with me on Wednesday, eager to taste my first cheese from Murray’s. Unwrapping the piece of the small wheel I had procured, the first aspect that struck me was the vibrant orange color that results from the brine-washed rind during the 6-week aging process. The inside is milky-white and slightly springy, but still soft, with a funky aroma to match its taste. Cutting a small piece to finally taste it, I immediately noticed the creamy texture. The mouth feel was incredibly smooth, covering the entire palate, and so rich that I don’t think it would have been possible to eat the entire sample. Good thing I have a family that loves cheese. Bossa is funky, strong, and a little bit nutty, with a slightly smoky aftertaste.

I thought it would go well with a firm, sweet fruit, so I cut up an apple and tasted the Bossa again on top of a thin slice. If you manage to get your hands on a wheel or two, serve it this way. The light fruity flavor perfectly contrasted with the cream of the cheese, and would certainly allow you to eat even more of it! The two friends I was with loved it (and my new job, considering how much they’re going to be fed). It could be compared to Tomme du Berger, which means it would pair well with a slightly sweeter wine, such as an off-dry Reisling. Bossa is proof that happy sheep means better cheese, and a happy cheese eater.

Murray’s Cheese currently has Bossa in limited quantities in our New York City stores, check back soon to find it online.

Thanksgiving Canapes

Thanksgiving Canapes

Featuring Twin Maple Farm Hudson Red, Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, Creminelli Americano, Boat Street Pickled Raisins & Urban Oven Crackers

From Beth Griffenhagen, Murray’s in-house Entertaining Maven

Beth is revered by the Made by Murray’s customers for her excellent entertaining and hosting advice, and by the Murray’s staff for her legendary gatherings. Here Beth divulges two simple canape recipes, made with all-American ingredients, to whet your guests’ appetite before your Thanksgiving feast.

Coast-to-Coast Canape

1 lb Twin Maple Farms Hudson Red
1 jar Boat Street Pickled Raisins
1 Baguette or 6 oz box of Urban Oven Crackers

Place a healthy portion (approx 1/2 oz) of room-temperature Hudson Red (cut or spread) onto thinly sliced baguette or an Urban Oven Cracker. Just before serving, top with a few Boat Street pickled raisins.

Yields 30-35 Canapes

This simple canape is the perfect thing to greet your guests with if you’re hosting a Thanksgiving celebration. Sweet and tangy pickled raisins complement the buttery richness of Hudson Red to create an unexpected harmony of flavors. Best of all, easy assembly means you have more time to spend with friends and family, or to put the finishing touches on the rest of the meal. Enjoy with a Riesling or a festive bubbly.

Americano As Apple Pie

1 lb Cabot Clothbound Cheddar
1 Creminelli Americano Salami
3-4 Fresh Local Apples

Cut a crisp variety of apple (we like Honey Crisp or Winesap) into thin, half-moon shaped slices. Toss apple slices lightly with lemon juice to prevent browning. Place a thin slice of Americano beside a few large crumbles of Cabot Clothbound Cheddar on top each apple slice.

Yields 30-35 Canapes

We’ve combined all the things that are great about American food today into one delightful bite – fresh, seasonal produce, artisanal cheese from a well-known American producer, and salumi that celebrates one of America’s favorite flavor profiles. If you plan ahead and prep the components in advance, you’ll only need a few minutes to put everything together before guests arrive.

Learn more on Holiday Entertaining from Beth on November 23rd

ACS 2010: Celebrating America’s Cheese

Photo Credit: Vermont Butter & Cheese CreameryPhoto Credit: Vermont Butter & Cheese

by
Michael Anderson

 

Many of you out there may have been gearing up for the Emmy awards this past weekend.  The red carpet, the glamour, the production numbers – sure, it’s flashy enough.  Around these parts, though, there was considerably more anticipation for a slightly more workaday awards ceremony: the 2010 American Cheese Society Conference & Competition.  Held this year in Seattle, Washington, this annual event is an unparalleled opportunity for cheese professionals (and more than a few enthusiastic amateurs) to congregate, celebrate, and consume all things cheese.  It lasts five days, and nearly every moment is stuffed with cheesy goodness.

A number of seminars and panels are available for attendees each year, and the most difficult part of going to the conference is probably selecting from all of the fantastic & fascinating choices in each time slot.  The list of panelists is full of names familiar to the cheese enthusiast – industry giants like Mateo Kehler (Cellars at Jasper Hill), Mary Keehn (Cypress Grove Chèvre), & Steve Jenkins (author, Cheese Primer); European liaisons such as Hervé Mons, Roland Barthélémy, & Raef Hodgson; and a host of others: cheesemakers, retailers, scientists, authors, even an entire panel devoted to artisan cured meats.  Endlessly fascinating, continually stimulating, and very nearly overwhelming.

Behind closed doors, however, is where the real monumental task is taking place: the tasting & judging.  This year, the judges had to contend with a record-setting number of entries: over 1,400 different cheeses were sent by their makers to be critiqued, and hopefully to be recognized as among the best.  From all over the United States (as well as a few Canadian and Mexican entries) cheeses in this competition run the gamut.  Sorted by style for the judging and awards, there are entrants from producers of every size in every conceivable style: classics like Cheddar, Gouda & Brie; American Originals like Brick, Dry Jack, & Liederkranz; as well as butters, yogurts, chèvres, and every other cheese style under the sun.

At the end of the day, though, there has to be a winner. The top three spots are chosen by the judges from the blue ribbon winners in each individual category.  This year, we were thrilled to see three world-class American cheesemakers (and good friends of ours) ascend to the stage to collect their accolades.  Jeremy Stephenson of Spring Brook Farm collected 2nd Runner-Up honors for his Tarentaise, a superlative alpine-style 100% Jersey cow’s milk cheese from a farm & education center in Reading, VT.  Fellow Vermonters Allison Hooper & Adeline Druart earned 1st Runner-Up for their Bonne Bouche, from the pioneering Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery.  And the climax of the entire weekend – the coveted Best in Show ribbon – went to Wisconsin original Pleasant Ridge Reserve, from Uplands Cheese Company.  This is actually the third time this incredible cheese has won this award; no other cheese has won more than once.  It was a nearly poetic moment, as cheesemaker Mike Gingrich and his wife Carol are about to enter semi-retirement, passing the torch to heir apparent (and cheesemaker since 2007) Andy Hatch.  It’s downright heartwarming to see Pleasant Ridge (a cheese a lot of us would consider a national treasure) in such good hands for the next generation.

We’ve got the top three winners in the store, as well as a slew of other fantastic cheeses that were recognized in their individual categories.  We’ll taste my own personal favorites of these in a class I’m leading on September 14th, as well as a very special treat: Andy has sent us a couple of wheels of his blue-ribbon batch of extra-aged Pleasant Ridge, a batch that he’s been guiding to perfection for over a year.  Believe it or not, it’s in very high demand after taking home the gold, so get it while you can.  And look forward to next year’s winning cheeses – they might be in a cheese case near you right now.