Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Saxelby Cheese on WBEZ

More dispatches from the cheese side!

Listen in to WBEZ Chicago Public Radio as Anne dishes on goat cheddar with Bob, veteran cheese dude from Wisconsin...

WBEZ Stream

Monday, July 28, 2008

And the Winners Are

It’s 7:30 am on a muggy July morning in Chicago, and I am standing outside of Union Station looking about confusedly and trying to hail a cab. The pool of seasoned veteran commuters streams off the suburban commuter trains and expertly eddies and flows around as I try to negotiate my way toward the taxi stand. I am already a bit late for my date with, no joke, about 1,000 cheeses. For this year’s competition, the American Cheese Society has picked me and my taste buds to judge the spread of cheesy comestibles brought forth from farms ranging from California to Maine. Gulping the rest of my coffee, and cursing myself for not leaving more time to walk to the judging site (I am going to be eating cheese for the next 7 to 8 hours after all) I jump in a cab and putter off west, towards an imagined Everest of dairy products.

The judging of this years’ competition is to be held at the plumbers’ union, an imposing fortress of a building located in the wholesale market district, a not-too-showy neighborhood west of downtown. The location of the judging was a much sweated over affair, as the size of the competition balloons a bit more with each passing year. The Chicago Hilton, where the rest of the conference is to be held, is a grand old edifice on South Michigan Avenue with ballrooms aplenty, but even they couldn’t stomach all that cheese. Being a union town, Chicago is blessed with many large, ornate buildings for the congregation of the brothers and sisters of the trades. However, as far as I could fathom from the Plumbers’ Union, nowadays these grand pieces of architecture are used mainly for the collection of member dues and perhaps the occasional polka dance party in their grand auditoriums.

The cab glides to a halt out front, and I make my way around the building to the loading dock, guided by American Cheese Society signs hastily scotch taped to the windows of the main entrance. As I amble around, following the Xeroxed paper trail, I am greeted with a hearty good morning by a random man on his way to work, and am reminded of why I love the mid-west the way that I do. I also wonder what these plumbers could possibly be thinking as they glimpse the signs announcing the existence of a cheese competition in their midst on their way in to take care of union business. Would they write it off as some sort of practical joke, perhaps played on them by their brothers in the local 130? I for one find it irresistibly funny that the judging should be held there, in a temple to the digestive mechanisms of the city which by association is linked to the digestive system of every cheeser, which over the course of the next 48 hours might be subjected to any number of, ahem, inconsistencies.

The staging area out back is abuzz with cheese professionals, culinary students, and cheese dorks come to graciously donate their time to help out with the judging. (This is no disparaging remark, by the way. I unequivocally count myself among the legions of cheese dorks out there in the world.) Three portable refrigeration units the size of shipping containers are humming away, filled to the gills with over 1,100 cheeses, yogurts, butters, and just about every other dairy product you could imagine. The exteriors of the coolers are plastered with poster-sized lists of cheeses written in good old-fashioned permanent marker, encrypted in a code legible only to the ACS team that composed it. I would challenge any Pentagon sleuth to try their luck at dissembling the jumble of letters and numbers representing so many butters, triple crèmes, swiss cheeses, cheddars. Over the course of the next two days, it will be up to the 30 or so judges assembled from the world over to whittle those cheeses down to a handful of blue ribbon winners, and finally to one single cheese that will receive ultimate accolade of Best in Show.

Despite all my scurrying around and incompetence at hailing cabs in Chicago, I have somehow managed to arrive early, and am ushered inside to wait for the other judges to arrive on the shuttle bus from the hotel. I sit down next to another early bird, a kind woman from Dallas named Helen who, like me, is a first time cheese judge, but a seasoned veteran in other kinds of food judging, from cakes to pies to other baked goods regularly featured at county fairs. She advises me to eat a good breakfast, which registers as a stark contrast to my own plan, an inventive combination of fasting, fiendish water drinking, and shameless prayers and entreaties to the cheese gods for extra intestinal fortitude. Her logic, which was echoed by the other judges, was to fill up so that you aren’t tempted to really eat the cheese, rather just taste it. Glancing out into the grand salmon-colored auditorium, I note that the judging tables are topped with small arsenals of paper plates, spoons, and plastic buckets, which to my chagrin Helen informs me are in fact spittoons. I hadn’t really pondered this option, the spitting out of cheese (what a terrible waste!) but it is apparently common practice for those accustomed to judging ridiculous numbers of cheeses in uncommonly short periods of time.

Slowly the breakfast area begins to fill up with judges as the bus arrives from the Hilton. I spot some of the usual cast of characters, and begin to get a little bit nervous about the business of eating all this cheese. After all, who could have taste buds on par with the likes of Bill ‘walks-on-water’ Wendorf, a UW dairy science guru in his sixties, who in a gesture of sheer tenacity, is drinking milk for breakfast before the orgy of cheese even begins? And in the opposite corner there’s Steve Jenkins, another personal cheese hero of mine, who has run the cheese counter at Fairway for the past twenty-odd years at Fairway with a fierce and unwavering dedication to delicious dairy. I finish my egg and sausage sandwich (thankfully, the caterers omitted the ever-present third ingredient) with butterflies in my tummy and head out to the main hall to see whom my judging partner will be.

The auditorium of Journeyman Plumbers’ Union looks a lot like a high school gymnasium, sans the basketball hoops and flags announcing the laurels of sports teams in years past. There is a stage up front, and rows of tables set up for the judging flanked by red and white curtained screens that remind me of a polling place on election day. The environment is cheerful but serious as people bustle around, wheeling speed carts laden with racks of cheese to all the tables. A command central of computers, scanners, and copy machines, cords all a-jumble, backs up to the stage, ready to import the litany of scores and other information generated during the judging. Off to one side, there is a heap of white lab coats on a tabletop, which are to be our official uniforms for the next 48 hours of cheese immersion. I don a lab coat, stick a nametag on it, and take my spot at table 15.

Soon enough, a pleasant white-haired gentleman named Bill approaches and announces that he will be my co-judge for the duration of the competition. He looks to be in his late sixties or early seventies, trim and fit as a fiddle after a life of tasting and grading cheese and butter for the state of Wisconsin. ‘Eat your heart out, cholesterol-phobes!’ I think to myself as he settles into the seat next to me. In the auditorium, the air conditioning is blasting, and half to combat the cold, half to show off just how dang cool he is, Bill pulls a white cap out of his bag emblazoned with the words ‘Wisconsin World Cheese Championship 2005’ and plops it down on his balding head. Once again, I am faced with my cheese green-ness in the ranks of lifers such as these. Lucky for me, Bill is a generous and kind soul, who over the next two days ends up teaching me much about the cheese business: from the changes in cheese production methods over the course of his life to how to tell the difference between a good and bad eye in a wheel of Swiss cheese.

We take a look at the list of categories we are to judge for the day, and my eye skips down almost immediately to the line that reads ‘cheeses with pepper.’ Oh agony and woe! I was forewarned by a friend of mine who had been a judge in years past that at the American Cheese Society, that was how the cookie crumbled. You are assigned some lovely and delicious categories, and then you get some of the dregs like flavored cheese. Or worse, low fat cheese. (I happened to get both of those categories… call it beginners’ luck!) I guess it’s just like the rest of life… if it were all roses and triple crèmes all the time, we’d just get bored and freak out. Or morbidly obese, as it were.

So, Bill and I spend the morning slogging through a veritable zoo of cheeses, from the silky and refined triple crèmes, to bread cheeses (a new one to me… this kind of cheese is literally a slab that you can put on the grill and eat like a chicken wing) to pepper cheeses (I reiterate, yuck), and fresh goat cheeses. For each cheese, we taste and contemplate… Bill always spits his cheese out into the little spittoon, while I reserve that insult only for the lowliest of the pepper cheese. Then we compare notes, and finally give it a score along with some helpful comments to the cheese maker. Bill being the dairy science dude that he is, points out the technical flaws, while my job, much more fun in my opinion, is to award points for positive attributes found in the cheese.

And so it goes, through the afternoon and then starts up again the next day at 8:00 am sharp. The American Cheese Society doesn’t mess around. And they have good reason not to, because there’s a lot of cheese to be tasted. After the morning round of tasting on the second day, all the judges are left to roam around for an hour or so while the team of volunteers and cheese society intelligentsia assemble what amounts to a bonus sudden death round of cheese judging: the Best in Show showdown.

Please take a moment to pause and imagine this… you’ve been eating cheese for nearly 24 hours straight. You’re trying to nibble the occasional cracker, pineapple, lettuce leaf, anything that doesn’t look like dairy and chugging water (or coke) like a novice nomad in the Sahara. You’re liberated for an hour of sunshine, napping or strolling around as you please, and then you are summoned to the real contest. A couple of deep breaths and side stretches, and we’re back to the races.

Now the blue ribbon winners of all the categories (somewhere between 80 and 90, I refused to count…) are splayed out like so many pieces of meat on the judging tables. This is the cheese judges’ moment of truth. Will everyone make it, I wondered? I for one was starting to feel a little cheese worn and thirsty. I took a quick ocular survey and appraised the looks on my colleagues’ faces. ‘Walks on water’ Wendorf didn’t blink an eyelid before digging in, so far as I could tell. David Lockwood, a veteran cheese judge who works with Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, began the task with an easy zeal, wandering from table to table and munching and chatting as he went. Some folks had a strategy (save the flavored ones for last! Start out with butter and crème fraiche!) while others just dove right in, knowing that when it came right down to it, there were 80 odd cheeses to taste and it would be ridiculous any way you sliced it.

I tried to subscribe to the latter strategy, but was bamboozled by a cumin-laden piece of gouda somewhere around table 7. After that, all bets were off. I tore around the tables, making notes in my little notebook and making frequent trips to the garbage can to spit out the morsels of cheese once I got a read on the flavor. I am not proud of this. The spitting out of cheese. But you must understand, at a certain point, it simply must be done. Wine makers and consumers alike spit during tastings or else they would end up stone drunk. From the slight headache I was starting to develop, I feared what might become of me if I actually ingested all that cheese. Images of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory flashed through my head. If Violet Beauregarde ate the blueberry candy and burst, surely I was on my way to a dismal fate.

But the toughest part of the entire process was yet to come… having to choose a winner! All jokes about pepper and cumin cheese aside, the array of cheese up for offer on that day was truly astounding, and there were many candidates that I would have loved to award Best in Show. Coming into the judging, I figured that at the end of the day the choice would be obvious, that there would be one shining knight of a cheese that would out-cheese all the rest. But there wasn’t. There was delicious goat butter, succulent sour crème fraiche, mushroomy camembert-style cheeses, rustic clothbound goat cheddars, caramelized and crumbly cows’ milk cheeses, cheese rubbed with coffee grounds, and tangy, citrusy fresh sheep cheese.

In the end, and I can say this now that the official results are out, the winner was a gallant goat cheddar from Carr Valley Cheese in Wisconsin. The cheese was a sight to behold. Burly and bandaged, the cheese weighed in at about 40 pounds, the true size to be called a cheddar. (more cheese trivia I learned thanks to Bill) It was musky, sweet and just plain wonderful. A week later, I can still remember what it tasted like, and how the rich and creamy paste (cheese dork word for the interior of the cheese) lingered and sang a little ditty about goats as it coated my palate. As a cheese ages, its flavors coalesce and concentrate, revealing more of their flavor with each potent little tidbit.

My hat goes off though, to all the cheese makers and all the folks who organized the astronomical feat that is the cheese judging. After more than a week of gathering cheeses shipped to the conference, recording their provenance, labelling the samples, and making sure they were coddled along to perfection, all we judges had to do was show up an eat! I hope to go back next year, cheese trier in hand, and taste the bounty of cheeses that are changing the face of American cheese. And the self-imposed cheese vacation that I planned post-conference didn’t last too long… come Saturday, fresh off the plane and back at my shop, I found myself munching as delightedly as ever. Some habits just die hard.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Calling All Cheese Geeks!

Saxelby Cheesemongers pays a visit to the American Cheese Society!

Well, it's that time of year again. Somewhere in the far off hinterlands, a bugler or a yodeler or some kind of caller sounds a cry and all the cheese dorks in this great nation descend on a particular city for a week of festing and feasting on American cheese. (and I don't mean the Kraft singles kind) That American cheese isn't allowed at the American Cheese Society so far as I know, though that might be a sore spot given that this year's ACS Conference is taking place in Chicago, which among other distinctions, can call itself the birthplace of Kraft foods.

It's been 25 years since the American Cheese Society banded together, rooting and fighting for the little guys in the cheese world, those laboring in relative obscurity and in seeming isolation, churning out great cheese despite lack of resources, supplies, and support in general. The Cheese Society was founded with the aim of connecting anyone and everyone interested in the world of American cheese, from consumers and enthusiasts to cheese makers, restaurateurs, and retailers. Bringing together such a formidable flock of turophiles encourages not only some raucous parties, but the dissemination and sharing of knowledge, from cheese making tips to knowing what kinds of cheese pair best with the local Chi-town microbrews.

I was picked to be a judge at this year's conference, a great honor to be sure, and I will dutifully report to all of you the details of my gluttonous next few days! In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, the cheese judging this year is to be held at the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers' Union. And while I sincerely hope that this choice is not some kind of cruel joke in reference to the judges' collective digestive systems, I can't help but giggle and wonder about inviting Christopher Guest to follow along and make his next movie about the underground cheese movement happening in our midst.

But seriously, The American Cheese Society has come a long way over the past 25 years. What started out as a small-ish, motley but earnest group of cheese makers has blossomed into a grand organization that last year, during its conference in Vermont, featured over 1200 different kinds of cheese. The number of farms producing wonderful, unique, and individual cheeses continues to grow with each passing year, expanding our palates and our hunger for local cheeses at an exponential rate. And while the conventional, industrial dairy landscape looks bleak, there is a flicker bordering on a brush fire of excitement when it comes to farmstead cheese and value added dairy production (cheese, yogurt, ice cream, you name it).

This brushfire is fueled by farmers, of course, but is fanned and spurred onward by you, all the wonderful cheese eaters out there! It is with this knowledge that I thank you from the bottom of my cheesy heart for all the enthusiasm and support you provide to these wonderful cheese makers. And you better believe we won't come back from Chicago empty handed... There'll be plenty of new cheeses to share!

So let's hear three cheers for American Cheese, and may the tastiest wheel win!

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Cream of the Crop... or Our Crop of Cream

This past Saturday, while strolling through the Greenmarket, it took much effort and restraint (which seems to leave my mind as quickly as the dollars float out of my wallet) not to pick up one of each and every kind of fresh fruit and berry available for sale. Peaches, apricots, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cherries (sour or sweet!) Sigh. Sometimes I wish I was like a cow and had mutiple stomachs so that I could parcel out these cravings and get more bang for my gut. But constrained as I am by my human digestive system, I settled on blueberries and made a beeline for some fresh cream to round out a delicious breakfast. Yes, breakfast. What's so wrong about having a jolt of butterfat in the morning to really get things rolling? Some folks have their coffee fix, and some folks skip the coffee and go straight for the cream. We don't judge.

In the cream department, the Evans Farmhouse Creamery is tops. Based in Norwich, New York, the Evans milk a herd of about 90 Jersey cows and are one of the only certified organic producers in their area. Dave and Sue Evans are passionate about their cows and their cows' munchies, and insist on grazing their herd as much as possible. The summer cream is thick and golden-hued, and is the perfect sweet accompaniment to all the good things mother nature is throwing at us these days. And while they are required by law to pasteurize their milk and cream, the Evans use a gentler, low temperature method of pasteurization, letting the nuances of grassy, cow-y flavors shine through.

So go ahead and spoon it over a bowl of fresh fruit, whip it up and give your pie or cobbler a proper dollop, or put that ice cream maker to use and make some fantastic frozen confection! Your tummy will thank you.

Monday, July 07, 2008

T is for Cheese... That's Good Enough for Me

T is for Cheese, that's good enough for me! (Feel free to sing along...) T is for cheese, that's good enough for me. T is for cheese, that's good enough for me, Oh cheese cheese cheese starts with T!

Alright. Cookie Monster and the creators of Sesame Street might be appalled by my flagrant misuse of the alphabet, but it seems that a great number of the cheeses stacked atop the shelves in our cave are 'T' cheeses. This week's email celebrates the arrival of Trefoil, a stinky little number from Tennessee (I didn't plan that I swear!) and cheeses from Twig Farm, back from a long winter's respite.

Trefoil is a dignified, slightly pungent sheeps' milk cheese from Blackberry Farm, a relative newcomer on the American cheese scene. The dairy was started in 2004, with a small flock of East Fresian sheep. The folks at Blackberry Farm have taken on an interesting and inventive approach to artisan cheese making, crafting different cheeses from the milk of their sheep as the seasons change. Trefoil is made during the late spring and early summer, when the sheep are grazing on the lush and aromatic pasture found in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. This young cheese is washed as it ages, first with saltwater brine and later with Calvados, which brings out a bright and tart acidity to balance the sweet and barnyardy richness of the sheeps' milk. Trefoil is a little flash in the pan in the sheep cheese world... be sure to snap some up while it's still in season!

Twig Farm, one of our perennial favorite farms, has at long last released their crop of cheeses for the year. Hooray!! Now's the time to dig the Twig, as the cheeses that are currently ripe have been made from the first spring milk of their herd of Alpine goats. What does all this 'spring milk' nonsense mean, you ask? Well, very early spring milk tends to be a bit higher in fat, due to the fact that the does have just kidded and are packing in the nourishment (in the form of added calories of course) for their young ones. The cheeses made from this milk tend to be dense and heavy on the palate, with notes of green grass and minerals issuing forth from within the butterfatty depths. We've got Twig Farm Squares (a super-dense, field stone-looking cheese), Goat Tommes (earthy cylinders of aged goats' milk), and Soft Wheels (rich and soft washed-rind cheeses with a fruity funk) all ripe for the picking. Don't be shy, come on in and get your goat!

Or your sheep...

Don't have any riveting plans this Sunday? Need a mini-trip to help ease you back into normal life after the long weekend? Don't despair! There are still a few spots left on our next Day A-Whey trip to Valley Shepherd Creamery this Sunday, July 13th. The weather's looking fine, the sheep are looking fluffy, and the cheese is always fetching. Visit www.saxelbycheese.com for more information, or to buy tickets!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Cheese and Fireworks

This Week at Saxelby Cheesemongers

It's tough to believe, but fourth of July weekend is upon us. Time for that age old American tradition of strapping a wheel of cheese to a firework, lighting the fuse, and....

Wait, wait! Hold on just a second. I wouldn't have the heart to do that to one of our cheeses. Plus, I'm sure the sulphurous smell would be less that pleasant atop a juicy burger or in a big old cheese sandwich. Let's try this again, sans pyrotechnics...

This fourth of July, Saxelby Cheesemongers is here to outfit you with all your dairy needs for a weekend of food, fun, friends, and fireworks. So, in honor of good times, we've taken the liberty of composing a long weekend grocery shortlist, separated into the three quintessential categories: the red, the white, and the blue.

Grayson (the red.)
It's back and better than ever. We're having a welcome home party for this heralded cheese from Virginia, back in season after a little wintry respite. Grayson gets to be the red for it's pungent washed rind, which ranges from orange to red depending on the batch. And just a bit of Independence Day trivia for you: Did you know that more US Presidents were born in Virginia than any other state? Stinky cheese and politicians... a match made in heaven.

Evans Farm Whipping Cream (the white.)
When I think of picnics and barbeques, right after I think about the burgers and dogs, I start dreaming of the sweet stuff. Churn up a bit of the Evans' whipped cream for an absolutely decadent dessert, or even better yet, toss it in the ice cream maker with some fresh fruit or herbs (basil ice cream anyone?!) for an amazingly rich and fat-tastic treat.

True Blue (the blue. a bit obvious, but hey, why not?!)
A real gem of a blue cheese from Woodcock Farm in Vermont. One of the tangiest and most barnyardy cheeses in the case, with a piquant, gorgonzola-esque bite. Give your cheese plate a little gusto and toss in a wedge of True Blue, or keep a slice near the grill if you (like yours truly) are of the blue cheese burger persuasion.

Cheese lovers be warned! Saxelby Cheesemongers will be closed this Friday July 4th, Saturday July 5th, and Sunday July 6th! Be sure to stock up on cheese by Thursday eve. If there's anything we can do to help you get ready for the weekend, give us a call at the shop at 212-228-8204.

There are still a few spots left for our next Day A-Whey, coming up on Sunday July 13th! There'll be lots o' sheep, cheese, picnic-ing, and cavorting in general. For more information or to buy tickets, check out www.saxelbycheese.com