Monday, February 12, 2007

How I fell in love with cheese. (The long version.)

Perhaps the most common question I get asked at the cheese shop is, ‘how in the world did you end up selling cheese?!’ It’s a question tinged with a bit of ‘she’s obviously a bit nuts, but we’re going to see exactly how nuts…’ So here I will attempt to provide an abbreviated answer as to how my love affair with cheese began.

Once upon a time…

Ok, seriously now. I always liked cheese. From the time I was a wee Saxelby I liked to make myself American cheese sandwiches on Wonder Bread. (no butter!) I called these delicious creations crumpets. Still not quite sure why, but it seemed perfectly logical at the time. I also remember distinctly enjoying going to the grocery store with my mom and getting white American cheese, which was super fancy, because you had to wait in line at the deli counter while the man sliced it for you right there. And sometimes, to add to the glamour and excitement of it all, he gave you a piece to snack on.

Fast forward a few years, and I moved up the cheese-food chain, but only slightly, to Cheddar, Blue, Mozzarella, and pretty much every other garden variety of supermarket cheese available in the greater Chicagoland area. And while I was game to try pretty much anything, I certainly had no idea what I was missing in the world of tasty and amazing cheese. That is until my sophomore year of college, when I went to visit my friend Kenzie who was studying in Florence.

One week in Italy ruined me for life. In a good way. At the time I was an art student, and while I did enjoy the bamboozling variety of great art in the city, I was truly captivated by Florence’s Central Market. For the duration of the trip, I subsisted solely on good cheese, bread, cured meats, and pasta, with a little bit of fruit and vegetable fodder thrown in for good measure. When I came back to New York, dazed with my first real good food hangover, I immediately set out to find cheeses like the ones I fell in love with (and was beginning to obsess over) in Italy.

Somebody at some point, probably some friend wanting to transfer some of my cheese-fueled energies elsewhere, told me to go to Murray’s and get over it already. I did go to Murray’s, and went back again and again (and again…) until I bugged them enough to consider hiring me. The summer after graduation from college, I devised a scheme to work for the summer at Murray’s, and then arranged an internship at Cato Corner Farm, a small family dairy in Connecticut, for a six month stint as a cheese maker. I mean, I had just graduated, and like any other self-respecting young person had NO idea what the heck I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Dairy farming seemed as viable an option as any!

Well, what started out so innocently quickly became my sole preoccupation in life. I loved selling cheese at Murray’s, and thanks to the generosity and (extreme) patience of Mark Gillman and Liz McAlister at Cato Corner, I learned to love making cheese too! It’s funny but in many ways, I found that making cheese was not so different from making art. If anything, it demands more rigor and of course, cleanliness, but the sensibility is the same. And the bonus with cheese is that the art happens to be edible, something I think we can all appreciate.

After two years at Murray’s, I got bit (hard!) by the bug named travel and set out to explore a bit more about cheese making and farming in general. I set up internships on three different goat dairies in the Loire Valley in France, making AOC Selles sur Cher, St. Maure de Touraine, and Pouligny St. Pierre. Poor families… they thought they were getting some good free labor, and believe me I worked hard, but I think I packed away more fresh goat cheese than even most French people would consider proper in the month and a half I was there.

So, fatter and happier and armed with new goat cheese making knowledge, I moved on to Italy for the Slow Food Cheese extravaganza in Bra. Yes, it’s true. For those of you who are more normal, well-balanced cheese loving folk, and may not be familiar with the cultish world of cheese celebrations, every other year Slow Food hosts a five day International cheese fest/smorgasbord/general dairy bonanza. So it was there I went, and it was there that for nearly a week sampled all different manner of cheeses, from Tibetan Yak Cheese to Norwegian caramelized goat cheese, to innumerable delicious morsels from France, Ireland, Italy, England, Switzerland… you get the idea. Mucho queso.

The week or so after the Slow Food event was maybe the only time in my life I didn’t want cheese. I didn’t want to see it, smell it, or even THINK about it. But that quickly passed, and before I could say boo, I was back in France working as an affineur in Herve Mons’ caves in the Auvergne. It was there that I learned to tend and care for all of the lovely little cheeses that graced the cave shelves, patting down mold and flipping and turning hundreds, sometimes thousands (I'm not exaggerating!) of wheels every day. I also took a brief stint as a cheesemonger in France, something which is no easy task for a Yankee. The moment the cute little grandmas detected my strange American accent, their eyes got all panicky and began to look for the nearest French cheesemonger. For me, that truly was the gauntlet. If you can recommend cheeses and cut a 250 gram piece of butter with a piece of curly wire for a French grandma, you get a some kind of imaginary gold star in the world of cheese accomplishment.

So, after six months of traveling and eating and loving life in general, having visited cheese shops all the while and spying ruthlessly on them, I returned stateside with the intention of opening up my own little cheese shop. Which brings us just about up to speed! And the love just keeps on keeping on…

2 comments:

Sarah & David said...

Wow! Really impressive stuff! That's a great story; I had also been wondering how you got to where you are, so thanks very much for sharing!

megan said...

Wow.... I am even in your family and I did not know the long version of how you fell in love with cheese. Very exciting stuff