Saturday, December 27, 2014

I Have Yet to Find a Problem that Can't be Solved with Cheese

After nearly two years of working full-time at a retail cheese counter, I have come to realize a cheesemonger's job is often less about the cheese than it is the customer.

Whether customers know it or not, the holiday season for cheesemongers is brutal. We work long days, long hours, with no days off, to cut and sell cheese as fast as humanly possible. We have special chat groups on Facebook that act as therapy sessions. We tolerate an endless stream of "Do you know anything about cheese or do you just work here?" from well-meaning customers. But at the end of the day, and especially during this time of rush, rush, rush, I remember the customers who remind me why I fell in love with this job in the first place.

There are the jokesters: the old men who ask "What's Gouda today?" Every. Single. Day.

There are the hipsters, who pretend to know the difference between Blue and Gorgonzola: "Are you sure this is crumbled Gorgonzola? It looks more like crumbled Blue." Yawn.

There are the little old ladies who troll the department from one sample station to another, piling up cubes of Gruyere on their toothpicks and sliding them into their purses, saving them for later.

And then there are the customers that one gets to know, the ones you might be friends with if you weren't wearing a hairnet and black bowl hat that no matter how you try and style it, still makes you look like a dork. Customers like Steve, who first walked in the door over a year ago with an exceptionally well-organized notebook of cheeses he'd sampled during the course of the past year, and whom today rivals any cheese expert in the nation.

Or Dad Rap Fan, who comes in with his grandson, Ben, every Monday, gives us an update on his rap star son, chats cheese for a few minutes, and says "See you next week" with a smile and a wave. Or Jean, who every single Thursday comes in for her Woolwich Goat Brie, and when none has come in that week, tells me we should go sing to the goats to help them make more milk.

These are the customers cheesemongers live for.

And then there are the customers we meet only once, who without knowing it, change our lives. Like the woman on Christmas Eve who asked me for help in finding a cheese, because although she had always really liked cheese, she seemed to have a hard time finding one that agreed with her these days.

So I walked her around our Wisconsin section, pointing out this and that, walking back to the counter to give her a taste now and then, when she shared the reason for her sudden cheese dilemma: she was undergoing chemotherapy for late-stage cancer and had lost her sense of taste. I got choked up. Then she got choked up. So we stood shoulder to shoulder, staring at the array of cheeses, until I asked her what was her all time favorite cheese.

She said, "Blue, but my doctor tells me I can't eat it anymore, because my immune system has become compromised." And I'm thinking, this sweet lady has late-stage cancer, and her doctor won't let her eat blue cheese? Really? Come on.

So I showed her the Roelli Dunbarton Blue. I told her it was a cheddar with just a veining of blue, so she really wouldn't be breaking her doctor's rules. She smiled, took the cheese, read my name tag, and told me she would pray for me.

Pray for me. Me.

A lady with late-stage cancer undergoing chemotherapy is praying for me. All because I helped her find the right cheese.

Thus, a sign a very dear friend gave me for Christmas this year, rings true: "I have yet to find a problem that can't be solved with cheese."

Happy New Year, Cheese Underground fans. May the cheese of your dreams find you in 2015.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Exploring Cheese Crystals

Marieke Extra Aged Gouda, featuring tyrosine crystals. Photo courtesy of
Yahoo Food, which identified it as one of the "Best Cheeses to Buy Now"
in March 2013, Read the full article here.

It's interesting that more and more consumers these days are identifying cheese crystals as a feature, not a flaw.

In fact, most every day, at least one customer asks me for a cheese with "those crunchy things" - usually referring to an aged Italian style, such as Sartori SarVecchio or Extra Aged Asiago. Many consumers have figured out that those crunchy bits - known as tyrosene crystals - are often a sign of a bold-flavored cheese and extra aged cheese.

So that's why a headline in the recent issue of Dairy Foods was so very depressing. Titled: "How to avoid crystals in cheese", it was an essay by John Lucey, director of the Center for Dairy Research in Madison. Thankfully, upon closer inspection, the article was mostly about avoiding crystals in processed cheese (eew!) and reducing the level of calcium lactate crystals due to poor packaging techniques in plastic-wrapped cheddar. Thank goodness. As this is an industry-based publication, Dr. Lucey did well to help commodity and processed cheese makers take steps to avoid unwanted flaws.

However, for artisan and specialty cheesemakers, crystals - both tyrosene (protein crystals that form in aged Italian styles and some extra-aged Goudas), and calcium lactate (white bumps that appear on extra-aged cheddars), are becoming known more as a feature. And in good news, one of my favorite chief cheese geeks, Dr. Mark Johnson, senior scientist at the CDR, wrote an exceptional and detailed article on "Crystallization in Cheese" in the latest issue of the organization's Dairy Pipeline -- a must read -- click here to view.

When I'm trying to explain the difference between calcium lactate and tyrosine crystals, I almost always go to the eternally-bookmarked page of Laura Werlin's Cheese Essentials. On page 164, she has one of the best explanations I've ever read, and I quote it often. Keep in mind this was written in 2007, so Werlin was ahead of her time in appreciating this particular cheese trait:

"A by-product of cheese aging is the breakdown of protein. You have probably experienced this phenomenon but not known what it was. For you, it was when you bit into a cheese and discovered the delightful little crystals that seemed like sugar. To me, these are the ultimate payoff in a grana-style cheese. In almost all hard cheeses, the crystals are the result of the proteins breaking down, a process called proteolysis. The particular amino acid that breaks free is called tyrosine, but to anyone who enjoys those crystals, it's called a bite of heaven."

Werlin goes on: "You might also find crystals in cheddar cheese, but these are entirely different. The crystals found in cheddar are generally not the result of proteolysis (which explains why they are not tyrosine) and are instead probably the effects of certain starter cultures. Called calcium-lactate crystals, these tiny white crystals tend to colonize the surface of the cheese and, to the untrained eye, may look as if the cheese is developing some type of white mold. While this is not the case, many cheesemakers, particularly the large manufacturers, have traditionally tired to avoid this. However, because people usually like these crystals, many cheesemakers are no longer discouraging their development."

At modern U.S. cheese judging contests, both types of cheese crystals are more often being treated as a feature, not a flaw. (This largely depends on the age and education of the judge - I've found it's hard to convince a 70-year old Cheddar cheese grader that calcium lactate crystals are now in fashion).

The American Cheese Society is leading the way on this education. At its annual competition, judges are specifically trained on calcium lactate crystals. In pre-conference webinars, judges are taught that an "even distribution of aging crystals" on aged Cheddar surfaces may be considered desirable, and can even earn a cheesemaker points from the Aesthetic Judge if he or she determines "a pleasant mouthfeel or 'crunch' from these crystals if they are evenly felt and seen on the cheese surface."

That's good news for us cheese eaters seeking out "crunchy bits" in our cheese. The next time you're at your favorite cheese shop, be sure to impress the cheesemonger with your knowledge of tyrosene and calcium lactate crystals!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Coffee: It Does A Body Good

A cup of coffee is the great social equalizer of the world. Two people can be from completely different places in the stratosphere of life, but when you sit down and share a cup of coffee, life becomes a little simpler.

I didn’t start drinking coffee until age 32. Growing up, my parents both drank coffee, black and strong, pouring the first cup before the break of dawn from an old electric percolator with a glass top, which as far as I can tell, basically boiled the shit out of it until it was done. That was 30 years ago. Back then, there were exactly two kinds of coffee in the grocery aisle: Folgers in the red can and Maxwell House in the blue can. My parents bought whichever one was on sale.

When I was younger, old people drank coffee. Young people drank Pepsi. It wasn’t until I was hired at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture that I became a coffee drinker, and it wasn’t by choice.

Six months after being hired to oversee local food programs, the Wisconsin Department of Ag received federal funding to help Wisconsin cheese factories transition from low-profit commodity cheese to higher profit specialty cheese, and to help dairy farmers build on-farm “value-added” dairy plants. I was re-assigned from local foods to a three-person dairy team and charged with visiting cheese plants and dairy farmers to help spread the word that we had grant money and expertise to help interested cheesemakers and dairy farmers start crafting value-added products.

Here’s how it worked: Jim Cisler drove, Norm Monsen navigated, and I threw up out the window because I kept getting carsick.

It turns out that visiting cheese plants as a representative of a government agency – that, by the way - also regulates and inspects these same cheese plants – is not particularly easy. Whenever we walked in the door, we were usually greeted with a look of disdain, a sigh of frustration and a sarcastic remark of “I suppose you’re from the government, and you’re here to help me.”

However, being Midwestern, we were always offered a cup of coffee and a few minutes to sit down and talk, usually in an office or break room, or if it was on a dairy farm, at the kitchen table. It was here that we would make a little small talk, share info about grant money available, leave our business cards and leave before they thought about kicking us out.

I can remember the first road trip clearly. We walked into a cheese plant to a round of heavy sighs from the owners and were politely offered coffee. Naturally, I declined because I didn’t drink coffee. We made some small talk, made our sales pitch, shook hands, and left. We then repeated this sequence at stop number two.

By cheese factory number three, something changed. Before I opened the cheese factory door, Norm gently put his hand on my shoulder and told me, this time I was going to drink the coffee. I told him I didn’t drink coffee. He said it didn’t matter. We were entering these folks’ place of business, taking up their time, and we had the extra strike against us that we were from the government. “Just drink the coffee,” he said.

So at the third factory, when offered a cup of coffee, I smiled, said thank you, accepted the coffee and then stared at it until the cheesemaker asked whether I took cream and sugar. After an emphatic yes, I then poured in as much cream and sugar as humanly possible and pretended to like it. Norm smiled. The meeting went more smoothly than the last two. I began to understand that the simple act of accepting a cup of coffee, sitting down, and sharing a conversation, put everyone a little more at ease. Sheer genius.

Fifty cheese factories later, I was down to just cream. Ten years later, I can drink it black if I have to, but I prefer a little cream, and I drink at least two cups every day. I’ve even become somewhat of a coffee snob, buying coffee from local roasters when I can and treating myself to a latte now and then.

More importantly, I’ve learned that if you have a request of someone – whether it be knowledge, an introduction, or business – asking someone out for a cup of coffee is a pretty hard invitation to which to say no. Once you’re drinking coffee, sitting across from each other and having a conversation, the playing field tends to flatten.  I've done a lot of business over a cup of coffee. I’ve made a lot of friends over a cup of coffee. I’ve had a lot of good ideas over a cup of coffee. It seems to do both a body and soul good. Thanks, Norm.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

CheeseTopia: Bringing Artisan Cheese to the Heart of the City

It's official: you can book April 12, 2015 on your calendars for the First Annual CheeseTopia, a new one-day cheese festival I'll be planning each year for the next three years. Year one will be at the Pritzlaff Building, a renovated warehouse in the Historic Third Ward of downtown Milwaukee, Year two will be in Chicago, and Year 3 in Minneapolis.

After retiring the annual Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival in 2013, I still wanted to do an event to highlight our amazing artisan cheesemakers, but I knew I wanted it to be something different.

CheeseTopia aims to bring the best of Midwest artisan and farmstead cheese to the heart of the city by offering up to 700 attendees the opportunity to sample and purchase cheese from more than 50 cheesemakers from the Great Lakes Region, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan. The festival will be open from Noon to 4 p.m. on a Sunday and offer a fun open marketplace atmosphere with cheese samples and a cash bar.

I'll also be asking several favors from long-time cheese industry friends to help me build two large edible displays of cheese to compliment the hundreds of cheese samples available from cheesemakers. While many artisans will sell their products, farmer's market style, those who don't will have an opportunity to have them available for purchase from Larry's Market, which will set up a beautiful table of cheeses for sale at the event. Thank you Steve Ehlers and Patty Peterson!

In addition, several breakout seminars will take place in separate meeting spaces inside the Pritzlaff Building, which was constructed in 1875 and just recently renovated. More than 20,000 square feet of floor space will be filled with cheesemaker tables surrounded by carved wooden beams, industrial age columns, Victorian era arched windows and gritty cream city brick. This is a building you truly need to step inside and appreciate.

Tickets will likely cost $25 and will go on sale after the first of the year. As always, faithful members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals will have first chance to purchase entry and sign up for seminars, which I expect may sell out before the event is opened to the public.

Thank you in advance for supporting our artisan and farmstead cheesemakers and I look forward to seeing you all in April in Milwaukee!