Friday, August 15, 2014

Rush Creek Reserve Production Stopped By FDA Rule Uncertainty

Andy Hatch with one of his first experimental batches of
Rush Creek Reserve on May 20, 2010. The cheese was
officially released that fall to great acclaim. Photo by
Jeanne Carpenter
Uncertainty over how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will rule in regards to a number of pending raw milk cheese regulations has claimed its first official victim: Rush Creek Reserve by Uplands Cheese near Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

In an email to industry professionals this morning, Uplands co-owner and lead cheesemaker Andy Hatch broke the sad news that he will not be making Rush Creek this year.

"It's disappointing news, I know, and we hope that it's not permanent. Food safety officials have been unpredictable, at best, in their recent treatment of soft, raw-milk cheeses, and until our industry is given clear and consistent guidance, we are forced to stop making these cheeses," Andy said.

Andy added it's not a decision he and his team came to easily. "Hopefully, our government officials will soon agree on how to treat traditional cheesemaking, and we can all return to the cheeses that are so important to us."

So what would make one of America's most awarded cheese companies stop production of a cheese that debuted four years ago to great acclaim and that the New York Times described as "fluent and satiny, with a rich, slightly grassy aroma and a mild flavor that hints of smoke and pork."?

Let us count the ways:

1. The FDA is currently reviewing the 60-day aging rule it imposed in 1949 on American cheesemakers making raw milk cheeses, with many academics speculating the rule will be increased to 90 or 120 aging days within the next year. For an excellent recap and history of how the current 60-day raw milk cheese rule came into being, check out this article by Bill Marler. Remember, Rush Creek Reserve is a raw milk cheese aged 60 days. It is patterned on the magnificent Vacherin Mont d'Or, of which I consumed an entire wheel at one sitting while in London on April 4. No regrets.

2. The newest focus of FDA food safety officials appears to be enforcement of non-toxigenic E.Coli levels in raw milk cheese. Unbeknownst to almost anyone in the industry, in 2010, the FDA changed the standard (see top of page 7) for non-toxigenic, E.Coli in raw milk from  less than 10,000 to  less than 10 MPN per gram. This happened even after the FDA's own policy review team (see top of page 7) in 2009 suggested lowering it to only "100 MPN per gram in two or more subsamples or greater than 1,000 MPN per gram in one or more subsamples." The FDA has begun to enforce this new policy by purchasing raw milk cheeses from distributors, testing them for pathogens, and then showing up at cheese factories for a 3-day investigative inspection. Every cheesemaker I talked to says it is virtually impossible to consistently produce a raw milk cheese with less than 10 parts of non-toxigenic E. Coli per gram. Goodbye, raw milk cheese.

3. Aging cheese on wooden boards may or may not be a dead issue. Two months ago, after a mid-level FDA bureaucrat declared the agency would no longer permit American cheeses to be aged on wooden boards, the entire U.S. cheese eating population erupted in an uproar that made the FDA back down just three days later. In Wisconsin alone, 33 million pounds of cheese are aged on wooden boards, including Rush Creek Reserve.

So to recap, between raw-milk aging rules, new pathogen policies, and the threat of whether the FDA is really backing down on the use of wooden boards, one of America's great cheeses is no more. The death of Rush Creek Reserve should act as the canary in the coal mine for all American raw milk artisan cheeses, because just as our great American artisan cheese movement is in serious full swing, the FDA has basically declared a war on raw milk cheese.

P.S. Mind you, of course, the FDA pubicly insists they have nothing against raw milk cheese. At the American Cheese Society conference in Sacramento in July, a total of seven - yes seven - officials from the FDA politely attended a public luncheon after meeting privately with the ACS board of directors. Their fearless leader, Mike Taylor, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, spoke to us industry professionals for 45 minutes at the luncheon. What he said can best be summed up with his opening words: "We are from the government and we're here to help you."

Monday, August 11, 2014

Saxon Creamery Reinvents Green Fields Into True Monastery-Style Cheese

I have a soft spot for monastery-style cheeses. Their pungent aromas and savory, meaty flavors are dangerously addictive to this farm girl raised on meat and potatoes.

One of my all time favorites is Oka, originally manufactured by the Trappist monks in Oka, Quebec, Canada, and now owned by Agropur (but still aged 35 days in the original cellars of the Cistercian Abbey). At the American Cheese Society Festival of Cheese two weeks ago in Sacramento, I stood next to the Washed Rind table noshing on Oka so long that Keith Adams from Alemar Creamery in Minnesota told me I was going to get kicked out.

So you can imagine my extreme delight when Saxon Creamery in Cleveland, Wisconsin, retooled their Green Fields earlier this year into a true monastary-type cheese. First of all, don't let the pinkish rind scare you. Those are just harmless pink yeast molds taking over, and you're not going to eat the rind anyway. The paste is creamy, savory and surprisingly similar to Oka.

Green Fields has come a long way. For the past few years, it was merely a "meh" cheese, mild and spongy. But today, it actually fits its description  of a "Semi-Soft, Washed Rind, Aromatic Monastery Style Cheese."

The cheese is aged twice as long as Oka, at about 70 days. The affinage process begins with surface ripening and hand washing of the cheese for the first five weeks. Its flavor development is enhanced as the cheese wheels rotate through two aging rooms.

Master Cheesemaker Jeff Mattes is doing an outstanding job of retooling all the Saxon cheeses, improving the quality of each and every one. In fact, three of their cheeses won ribbons at the 2014 ACS, and Saxony won its class just this past week at the Wisconsin State Fair. Congratulations to the Saxon team on remastering Green Fields - this one is a treasure to savor.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Vermont Wins Second Consecutive ACS Best in Show

Tarentaise Reserve. Photo by Cheese Chick Productions
California may have its cheesy flags and Wisconsin its stoic cheesemaking heritage, but Vermont proved this week at the American Cheese Society annual competition it indeed has the real deal artisan cheesemaking goods, backing up its perennial claim of being "the premium artisanal cheese state with the highest number of cheesemakers per capita."

For the second year in a row, an artisan Vermont cheesemaker took Best in Show at the annual ACS conference, held this year in Sacramento, California. Tarentaise Reserve by Farms for City Kids  Foundation in Vermont, claimed the top prize, succeeding last year's fabulous Best in Show, Winnimere, from the Cellars of Jasper Hill, Vermont.

Jeremy Stephenson, Cheese Program Director of Farms for City Kids Foundation, said of the Best of Show win: "The more I’m involved in this work, the more it becomes clear to me that what we’re doing is so much a part of agriculture and working to develop a new sustainable food system. We’re a small part of that."

He continued: "When we do this work we have to remember we’re part of something much bigger than an individual or individual farm, we’re a part of a community. The people that buy our cheese are supporting something very important for the future."

The future of American cheese is indeed very strong, based on the quality and quantity of winning cheeses. At the ceremony, Wisconsin, as expected, cleaned house with the sheer number of winning cheeses, earning 97 first, second and third place ribbons, more than twice the number of California and three times that of Vermont.

Bob Wills of Cedar Grove Cheese and
Clock Shadow Creamery in Wisconsin.
In fact, several Wisconsin cheesemakers became weighted down with multiple awards by the end of the night - including Brenda Jensen of Hidden Springs Creamery in Westby. Brenda, a farmstead sheep's milk cheesemaker, claimed nine awards - one for virtually every cheese entered. She was topped only by Carr Valley Cheese of LaValle, which won 10 awards.

And Wisconsin icons BelGioioso and Klondike Cheese both earned seven awards apiece, while Clock Shadow Creamery and Cedar Grove Cheese, both owned by Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills, earned 6 ribbons total, including a first-place award for Quark. Holland's Family Farm earned five awards, as did my hometown cheese plants: Montchevre-Betin and Lactalis, both in tiny Belmont, Wisconsin, population 986. Woot-woot - go Braves!

Unlike last year, however, Wisconsin was shut out of the top three. While Vermont won the whole deal, runner-up Best in Show went to Pt Reyes Farmstead Creamery for their new Bay Blue. The entire Giacomini clan was on hand, most of them in tears, and led by patriarch Bob Giacomini to accept the award. Tying for third place runner-up Best in Show were Aged Gouda from Oakdale Cheese & Specialties in California and a cheese called Eden from Sprout Creek Farm in New York.

Overall, cow's milk cheeses dominated the contest with 194 winners. A total of 67 goat's milk cheeses won ribbons, 40 sheep's milk cheeses claimed awards, and 21 mixed-milk cheeses were in the winner's circle.

The 2014 ACS Judging & Competition saw 1,685 entries of cheeses and cultured dairy products from 248 companies. Entering companies represented 39 U.S. states, 4 Canadian provinces, and even the country of Colombia - with Annabella Creamery, Inc. taking a blue ribbon. In all, 325 ribbons were awarded: 89 first place ribbons, 109 second place ribbons, and 127 third place ribbons.

For a printable list of this year’s winners, click here and then navigate to the link that downloads an Excel spreadsheet with all the info. Congratulations to all the winners!

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Quest to Become a Certified Cheese Professional

Many thanks to Cheesemaker Cesar Luis for taking this
photo of me when I first started working at
Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale.
Eighteen months after making the decision to try and become an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional, I am on my way to Sacramento, California to take the official exam with 250 other cheesy pro hopefuls.

As many of you know, deciding to sit for the test has dramatically changed the course of my cheese geek career. In January 2013, I was rolling full steam ahead with my own public relations company when I persuaded the nice folks at Metcalfe’s Market in Madison to hire me part-time so I could garner retail experience and the hours I needed to qualify to take the exam.

Today, while I’m still running Wisconsin Cheese Originals and the Wisconsin Artisan Cheesemaker Guild (albeit a bit poorly – I promise members I’ll be back at 100 percent after this test is over), I’ve retired my PR company of one and am working full-time at the Metcalfe’s flagship Hilldale location, managing the Specialty Cheese Department, rockin’ and rollin’ cheese sales with an awesome staff of three-full time cheese geeks. I get the amazing opportunity to cut and eat cheese for a living.

However, whenever I tell customers I’ve spent the past year studying animal breeds, FDA regulations, HACCP plans and the science of cheesemaking in order to sit for the ACS CCP (catchy acronym, right?), I almost always get the universal response of: “What are you going to do once you’re certified?”

Well, first of all, getting certified is no sure thing. There is a substantial chance I will not pass this beast of a test. It’s a three-hour exam covering everything from the ph of cow’s milk before adding rennet, to the lactation schedule of goats, to the steps of receiving cheese in a retail setting, to knowing the FDA food code like the back of my hand.

It will be a three-hour written test during which I will be escorted to the bathroom by a personal exam proctor. I have been instructed to show up with a photo ID, my computer loaded with the test software, and nothing more. I get the feeling if I try to sneak in some deodorant, I might be escorted away by agents.

But on the off chance that I do actually pass this monster, here’s what I’ll do with my certification: I’ll keep working at Metcalfe’s Hilldale and know that I’m on the way to becoming a better cheese geek. Why does anyone become certified in their field? To know they are on the way to being the best they can be at whatever they do.

So at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, July 29, if Cheese Underground readers would like to cross their fingers for me, I’d be grateful. I’ll find out in mid-September whether I pass, but the folks already certified tell me that I’ll know myself once it’s over. Either you know the stuff, or you don’t, and I sure hope I do.