Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

For All the Milk in China

If you are experiencing sticker shock looking at cheese prices today, just be glad you’re not buying your favorite cheeses in Shanghai or here in the United States five years hence. As Chinese citizens continue to acquire a taste for western foods and beverages (read: cheese and wine) the prices for quality wines have risen; the price of many of the best known cheeses will certainly rise as well. Their per capita cheese consumption is still far lower than ours but in a country with four times the population of the United States and a doubling of cheese consumption every seven years (compared to our trebling of consumption in forty years) we expect cheese price inflation to be inevitable. Import of French cheeses and wines has been strong; eventually this will occur with other great cheese and wine producing countries, including the United States.

One might ask why China cannot satisfy its cheese appetite from domestic producers. With the growing dairy industry in that country we might assume they would be better able to fulfill demand. As it now stands, part of the problem is that milk prices are higher in China than elsewhere. There is a perception that imported cheese is superior to domestic cheese.

Sound familiar?

A huge problem with the Chinese dairy industry is the concern with quality: poor production practices, inadequate milk collection, a lack of technical expertise, and outdated technologies and equipment. This is all changing but there is a lingering perception that Chinese dairy products are inferior and unsafe. Several recent dairy related food safety incidences have hurt the domestic industry while causing a surge in imports. Granted, much of what is imported is powdered milk product and liquid milk, not cheese. As the taste for the best things in life take hold in China, as well as the rest of Asia, this will change.

Max McCalman

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Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Goats Rule

Goats Rule

A “rule” of goat cheeses use to be that they were not so great in the winter months. When we factor in the northern hemisphere lactation cycles and the relatively short durations of aging for this family of cheeses, they would come into their primes late spring then they would fade in the early winter. Many of the younger goat cheeses were best avoided in winter, like tomatoes. Around most of the country it is easy to tell that we are in deep winter now yet there are many lovely goat cheeses available today.

Part of the success of goat milk cheeses is what fresh goat milk brings to the table on its own. The fresh clean flavor of good goat milk is best enjoyed if it is not compromised by too many other competing influences. The rarity of blue cheeses crafted from goat milk should serve as a reminder: the lovely flavors goat milk can offer can be overwhelmed. Some excellent blue goat cheeses exist but they are rare.

Perhaps it is better to wait past winter and early spring for the fresher goat cheeses. In the meantime, a light bloom of Candidum can help preserve that fresh goat milk flavor so long as the milk is good milk to begin with and the cheeses are carefully made, ripened and stored. The Geotrichum rinded goat cheeses can help preserve that fresh goat milk flavor too.

For many goat cheese lovers the light yeasty note added by that mold species makes these cheeses more desirable than those coated in Candidum. An advantage the Geotrichum has over the Candidum is its permeability; the goat milk within the rinds respires more easily. Goat milk does not like suffocation. This enhanced respiration can expedite draining and drying too, which is nice only up to a point. A dry goat cheese is not to everyone’s liking, even if the flavor remains fresh and creamy.

Interestingly, those fresh and creamy goat milk flavors are sometimes more noticeable in a drier aged goat cheese than in a younger one.

Max McCalman

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Thursday, January 16th, 2014

New Year’s Resolution: Eat more Cheese!

New Year’s Resolution: Eat more Cheese!

During the first part of the year we make plans to take better care of ourselves: we try to go to the gym on a regular basis, we write ambitious to-do lists, we aim to get more sleep, we cut back on sugar and other carbs, we walk up stairs instead of taking the elevator, we schedule that overdue dentist appointment, and many people try to quit smoking. We all mean well but we can easily fall back into old patterns.

One of the easier resolutions to keep is to eat more cheese. By doing so you will be taking better care of yourself, you may even sleep better, you will likely cut back on other emptier calories. You may feel more like walking up the stairs, your dentist will notice your healthier teeth and gums, if you are unable to quit smoking it should offer some comfort knowing that the CLA derived from cheese has been shown to be an effective cancer fighter, and if you do head to the gym you will be a little more energized going in and you will recognize better results coming out. All this because you are eating a little more cheese!

However not just any old cheese.

When I update my picks for Max’s Especially Healthy Plate I make sure that each cheese in the collection is crafted from milk that has not been compromised by excessive heat treatment, as in pasteurization. There are plenty of good nutrients in the pasteurized varieties but not quite as many as you will get from the raw versions. Some of the nutrients are destroyed by pasteurization while others are far less bio-available. The fat soluble vitamins are reduced  significantly. According to recent studies conducted in Barcelona up to 80% of the vitamins A and D are lost in heat treatment. Whatever vitamin C may have been in the milk is zapped, the B vitamins are reduced, and some of the minerals that would have been chelated to the milk proteins are no longer available; the proteins that would enable their transport having been denatured by the high heat of pasteurization.

Again, there are plenty of nutrients in the pasteurized cheeses too, just not quite enough to hold up to the standards of my Especially Healthy Plate.

Do yourself some good and eat more cheese in 2014.

Max McCalman

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Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

NASFT Winter Fancy Food Show, the floral components

 

Back to San Francisco for the annual Fancy Food Show; it is a nice town to visit any day of the year but for those of us living in the northeast it also gives us a chance to thaw out a little. We have several more weeks to go before we’ll see any daffodils around here so the Golden State will be a welcome sight. About the only living flowers we are seeing here in New York now are the ones that are growing on the rinds of our cheeses and sausages. Maybe not quite as colorful as an English garden but they look gorgeous nonetheless, at least to some of us.

Recently we had a customer call who was concerned about the molds (read: flowers) growing on a perfectly ripened Sainte Maure, and another concerned about the white mold growing on one of our Country Sausages. These concerns would not be voiced in most parts of the world, yet here in the States we have been cautioned to reject that that does not look uniform, perfectly cylindrical, and free of any blemishes, even barnyard aromas. How far we have gotten away from the farm!

It is apparent that our high school biology classes have skirted around the diversity-of-life studies and have instead taught us that anti-bacterials, cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness regimens, and near-sterile environments are the choices we should make. The recent research on our biomes is, to put it mildly, a little difficult to swallow, especially after having received the fear-mongering assaults on biodiversity received in basic Biology. Sadly, the same hysteria lingers into higher education. The first clue some people receive regarding biomes comes in undergraduate Symbiosis classes. Maybe it is not as bad with some of today’s Biology intro courses but the overarching fear of other living forms does seem to persist. Anti-bacterial soaps are ubiquitous, almost impossible to avoid.

You can’t judge a book by its cover.

Given a choice between a cheese that is perfectly cylindrical and white, and one that looks a bit misshapen and dotted with molds, I will go for the latter. The former cheese may be perfectly  edible but I invariably prefer the ones that appear to have some life in them. Better to have a cheese that is supporting a “garden” than one that is barely breathing.

Max McCalman

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Monday, January 13th, 2014

Master Series

The first Master Series of 2014 will be offered here at our new facilities in Long Island City, February 23rd & 24th. The series will be intensive, covering various aspects of the cheese world, all the way from cheese making to pairing with wines. This series promises to be a special one, as students will witness some of the final stages of assembly of our new facilities.
Back when we opened our old plant on Manhattan’s west side we were at the cutting edge in the industry: with our five cheese-maturing caves, production facilities, and our lovely events & education room. The industry has evolved and what was state-of-the-art in 2003 is now only sufficient, at least as far as affinage (cheese maturing) is concerned. Our production area was suitable too, yet only for the first couple of years after opening. It soon became apparent that we would require more space to work with our cheeses, larger caves, in order to keep up with the rising demand for our high-quality cheeses.
I often recommend that tight spaces are best for cheeses, up to a point. It is far easier to maintain cheeses in smaller spaces than larger one: the proper humidity, temperature, air exchange and microflora. I recall seeing the cheese caves in restaurants around the US in the early aughts; almost all of them were too large for the sizes of those operations. It is valuable to keep in mind that a little bit of cheese goes a long way. So our own fully packed cheese caves worked relatively well, the biggest problems were their ventilations. Certain parts of each cave had excessive air exchange while others were practically “dead.” The area outside those caves, the production area, was a little tight too, especially during busier weeks.
Bottom line: Now that we have been at it for over a decade, added to the years working out of the restaurants Picholine and the Artisanal Bistro, we have learned a lot about how to operate a cheese facility of this type. How to get the right product mix, find the top quality in each category, cure the cheeses to their optimal levels of ripeness, wrap them expertly, ship to our customers in good packaging, and provide the best customer service possible (which includes education).
It seems that there are a myriad of facets to the cheese industry so we will do our best to cover the essentials in this two-day series. We will also be eating quite a lot of cheese. Yum!
Max McCalman
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Friday, January 10th, 2014

Do you remember the first time you tasted Scharfe Maxx?

Do you remember the first time you tasted Scharfe Maxx?  Or the first time you tasted Sharpham Rustic? Those “first-dates” with great cheeses are memorable. I recall the first time I tasted Tarentaise, and Roncal, Ocooch Mountain, and many others. I admit that my first impressions with some cheeses were less “impressive” yet they were no less memorable. For some that I did not fully appreciate the first time I would later fall head-over-heels with them; I just needed to give them a second chance.
Fine cheeses may have qualities that may be a little confusing at first. They’re simply unfamiliar, like the way some people approach sheep or goat cheeses; their flavors may seem a little gamy compared to cow.
This is not to say that cow cheeses cannot have their own barnyard aromas and flavors.
We may be tempted to write off disappointing first impressions or perhaps blame them on the cheeses: “That was not one of its best specimens.”  With artisan cheeses we do well to recognize that each wheel will be a little different from all the others. Expect the unexpected. So long as cheeses are not wildly different. Of course there will be those occasional outliers – a wheel that was not a good specimen. This is one reason why it is better to sample another wheel, especially if the cheese has been recommended.
Each time I taste one of the cheeses mentioned above, as well as hundreds of others, I am reminded of those first tastes. If I haven’t had one for awhile I may think that I was not all that enthralled with it to begin with. However I usually find that I had simply forgotten how nice it was; I had only forgotten, or perhaps it was one of those lesser specimens.
This phenomenon can be a challenge for a cheese judge. We aim to give every cheese the benefit of the doubt and be open-minded. When a judge tastes dozens of cheeses in one sitting it can be a bit more difficult to taste multiple samples from the same producer. After all, cheese deserves contemplation. If you go through the process of tasting too quickly it is difficult to take in all that a fine cheese can offer.
Give cheese a chance! And then give it another!
Max McCalman
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Monday, January 6th, 2014

Fondue Weather

 

The weather we’re experiencing around here these days suggests fondue. For other parts of the country even more so! Nothing warms you better than melted cheese and currently there are several specimens here that dissolve beautifully into simmering white wines. One of the original fondue cheeses is Fontina d’Aosta, always crafted from raw cow milk, as they have been for over a thousand years. The so-called “mountain” cheeses are the ones to seek out, especially the cow milk varieties.

Why cow?

It seems that cow milk cheeses are better at melting into a fondue than sheep, and certainly better than goat cheeses. Many of these mountain cheeses are delicious on their own at room temperatures, yet Fontina (though delicious at room temperature) simply does not hold up so well when left out. A wedge of Fontina will start to slump, the butter fats will leach out, and the wedge will dry out quickly. The cheese seems to demand that it be melted down, which is one reason why it makes an excellent cooking cheese.

A similar cheese from across the border in eastern France is Morbier, more of a smear-ripened cheese than Fontina but equally nice at melting. The Morbier has the same disposition when set out at room temperature as the Fontina d’Aosta. The harder cheeses that are closely related to these stand up better when left out, such as Comté, Gruyère, Uplands Pleasant Ridge and Tarentaise. When I first started snacking on these types at room temperature I was admonished, as though that was the only way to fully enjoy them, melted.

Maybe that is true for today’s weather but when it warms up in a few months, I would prefer to leave the fondue pot in storage and instead shave off several thin slices of these marvelous cheeses, invariably some of the most popular in cheese competitions.

Max McCalman

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Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

How do you like your chèvres?

How do you like your chèvres?

There was a time about a decade ago when we were able to acquire some young unpasteurized goat cheeses from France, some of the AOC varieties. And of course, no one became ill from consuming them, though their legality here was lacking. It was kind of like “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Back then we would recommend that customers follow the seasonal fluctuations: those chèvres being much better during the second half of the year, actually some of them beginning to show well as early as May.

With the implementation of more stringent adherence to the outdated FDA regulations, those young goat cheeses were summarily banned. Seems that we are due for updated immigration reform. What French goat cheeses were available from then on were mostly insipid and banal. This descent has been taking place for many decades anyway, even within the French borders themselves. Fortunately, the overall quality of the Loire Valley chèvres has remained relatively high, if nuances and depth in flavors have been missing.

These imitations of the original AOC cheeses have continued to enjoy popularity here, to the point that most of them are routinely called by their cherished names such as Valençay, Sainte Maure, and Selles-sur-Cher. The newish “substitute” cheeses don’t dare use those names when they depart France but we use those names here anyway. The names practically roll off the tongue. Considering what I have tasted in France recently, these replacement Loire Valley cheeses are not that different. Some of the goat cheeses without AOC status produced in other parts of the country are closer in flavor profile to what our Loire selections use to be!

The affineur has a few tricks he can apply to help those cheeses reach their greatest potential. As in the old days: a little sechage in the haloir is invariably part of the process (drying in a dry environment). These cheeses arrive in plastic wrapping and dripping wet, and virtually flavorless. Not to be too much of a cheese snob here, I try those “fake” cheeses from time to time, curious as to why their popularity seems not to have diminished, but only after they have dried a little and after they have acquired some of their beautiful multi-colored mold coating. It could be partly that they don’t offend, either mold-covered (though the appearance seems to bother some) or the younger ones (with no mold coating) with far less character. Sadly, this is what many consumers expect from cheeses – that they be flat-flavored, bland and lifeless. With a little careful ripening these pitiful things can become more interesting.

Think of those molds as the “flowers” growing on the cheese surface. Some “flowers” blossom in the interior of cheeses! Almost all of these mold species are beneficial. They contribute flavors to the paste within and also enhance drying. Those “flowers” themselves may not be particularly tasty but the cheese’s flavor will be enhanced. For those that do want flavorless cheeses they may want to specify this via a phone call. We may have some fresh arrivals pre-affinage we can send along.

I fear that the assumption from some consumers is that if the cheese comes from France, it must be great. And our obsessive hysteria regarding mold, well, don’t get me started!

A recent shipment of “Sainte Maure” (cheese-on-a-stick) came in so fragile that one of the logs broke the day we took it out of its packaging. We set the poor thing in with its sisters anyway and I took a little taste after its few days of drying, ripening and molding. It was very nice, mold included.You may want to try some of these now, even though it’s January. A little TLC goes a long way with the chèvres.

Let it grow!

Max McCalman

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Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Calling all Fromagers!

photo 2 e1384293166957 Calling all Fromagers!

The American Cheese Society is accepting applications for its third Certified Cheese Professional exam but you had better apply soon because the application deadline is coming up. That exam will be administered at their annual conference in Sacramento next summer.

Before you get too excited about becoming a CCP let me caution you that there are some eligibility requirements that must be met. This is not a certification for everyone, as great a cheese lover as you may be. In some ways however it is for everyone, at least everyone who has been in the cheese business and still is. In other words, the test is broad-based – it is not only about cheese making.

There are many facets to the wide world of cheese, so if you have been in the business for a while you have probably had at least a little exposure to other areas outside your day-to-day tasks. This is precisely why the certification is so broad. A CCP should have knowledge of other domains within the cheese world, for if she does she will have a better understanding of her product, inside and out.

This is a fundamental goal of the certification: to ensure that cheese is better understood, better cared for, more accurately described, better transported and packaged, more safely handled, more successfully marketed, and that those who work in the industry are more knowledgeable about the new challenges cheese will be facing in the near-future with the full implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act. Better understanding of all these points will help serve the cheese industry well.

This is not an exam for which you can simply pick up a book, read it through, retain all that you read, then pass the exam. Not even my Mastering Cheese will give you everything you need to know, not even close. No one book will be the one study guide you will need to pass. Hands-on experience counts toward eligibility, both paid and unpaid: work at dairies, creameries and retailers; as well as attending cheese classes and the ACS conferences; writing about cheese; etc.

Many people have applied to take the exam, paid the $35.00 application fee, then fail to take the process seriously. It is a tough exam, very thorough, 150 multiple choice questions, with three hours to take it, yet it is not overly difficult. Just don’t expect to be spoon-fed the entire content of the exam. It is up to the individual to prepare herself for the test. Many applicants have formed study groups and have reported that the process was satisfying and enjoyable.

By the way, once you become certified this does not make you an ACS CCP permanently. You will need to re-certify after three years. Not too difficult to do, so long as you maintain regular involvement in the industry.

Just make sure that you have your eligibility requirements first, then sign up, start studying, and then we’ll see you in Sacramento!

- Max McCalman

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Thursday, November 7th, 2013

The Mediterranean Sun

photo 1 e1383866904359 The Mediterranean Sun

Just got my cholesterol levels checked. HDL 106, LDL 51. Great genes, certainly, yet all the cheese I am consuming does not appear to be hurting. The Mediterranean diet that I prefer may help: more fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and olive oil, cheese (definitely) and less red meat. We often hear about that Mediterranean diet but somehow cheese is not usually mentioned as one of its parts.

Cheese most certainly is a part of that “diet.” The highest per capita cheese consumption occurs all around the Mediterranean and on many islands within. We tend to try to bring it down to one or two things, like fish and red wine, and the same holds true with explanations why certain nutrients, like vitamin C, accomplish their stated claims. Most nutritionists recognize that many players are involved in the success of the Med diet.

The 2013 Epcot Food and Wine Festival ends this weekend and our cheese series closes with a Mediterranean theme, which of course means there will be some goat and sheep milk cheeses, as well as one cow cheese, all of them from within and around that wonderful sea.

Just wanted to make sure we got a full complement of those delicious nutrients.

A part of what makes that “diet” succeed is the pace at which one enjoys the foods and wines. The pace in central Florida is a bit slower than the one here in New York, though not as slow as the Mediterranean. This weekend is not going to be that slow however. The Epcot festival’s Saturday morning cheese and wine tasting will be sandwiched between a pairing session Friday night at Orlando’s La Femme de Fromage and an early afternoon Flying Fish Café luncheon, complete with its own cheese course.

This time of year the Mediterranean sounds wonderful – the thoughts of warmer, sunnier climes replete with Mediterranean cheeses and wines. So if you’re not headed that way, or to central Florida either, we have a couple of classes planned for you: Italian Cheese and Wine this Saturday, and French Cheese and Wine on Sunday, the 17th. Both classes will be held at Alison Eighteen, 3:00-5:00.

- Max McCalman

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