CHEESE NOTES

When you hear “Piedmont”, you may think of Italian cheeses, but did you know that Virginia has a Piedmont region as well? Caromont Farm — an artisan cheesemaking operation in the town of Esmont, 23 miles south of Charlottesville, Virginia — is in the heart of that region, and is producing cheeses worthy of the parallel. 

Gail Hobbs-Page is the cheesemaker and driving force behind Caromont; for the last 8 years she’s been producing small-batch cheeses, working with a mixed herd of Alpines, Saanens and La Mancha goats. Hobbs-Page transitioned from almost three decades in the restaurant business. Caromont also sources cow’s milk from dairy farmer Nathan Vergins, a former apprentice who also put in time at Joel Salatin’s acclaimed Polyface Farms and is now the owner of Silky Cow Farm in North Garden, Virginia. 

I had the opportunity to meet Gail and her husband Dan at Virginia Craft, a culinary event hosted by the Virginia Tourism Board and held at Chelsea Market. The event featured many Virginia artisans from across the culinary spectrum, with restaurants, distillers, brewers, oyster farmers and more sampling and discussing their wares with the NYC crowd (the photos above include shots from the event). Caromont was the only cheesemaker in attendance, and made a strong showing with two cheeses: Red Row and Esmontonian Tinto.

Red Row, a washed rind, raw cow’s milk wheel, aged 60 days and washed with hard cider from a neighboring cider maker, Albermarle Cider Works. The rind is amber-colored and lightly mottled, tacky to the touch. The paste is dense and velvety, buttery but not oozing, well-balanced on the salt, with peanuty, meaty and grassy flavors, and a nice yeasty, floral overtone from the cider wash. The washed-rind aroma is assertive but not strong, wet hay and a beguiling hint of barnyard. 

The Esmontonian Tinto, a raw goat’s milk tomme, is washed with Merlot from local Barboursville Vineyards. The stony gray,  basket-weave rind, with a lightly musty aroma, opens to reveal a firm white paste, dense and flaky, lightly eyed, with an earthy, nutty flavor profile and fruity notes from the wine wash. The Esmontonian took 2nd place in 2013 at the ACS competition in Madison, Wisconsin, in the “American-made, International-style Goat” category.

Caromont’s cheeses are still mostly available regionally, but they’re finding their way further north and west as they expand production. Murray’s Cheese in NYC carries their Esmontonian.

High-res A huge thank you to Rachel Wharton, food journalist and Editor at Edible Brooklyn, who visited me in my “nano-creamery” and wrote about it in their Summer 2014 issue! Food photographer Natalia Moena shot the photos for the piece, you can check out her work at natimoe.tumblr.com. Via Edible Brooklyn:

Artisan Cheese Made in a Gowanus Apartment
First published in the Summer 2014 edition of Edible Brooklyn
Some home cooks ferment their own yogurt or make mozzarella from a kit. Matt Spiegler takes DIY dairy to another dimension: Technically he’s a layman — keeping his day job as a web developer, and giving his homemade caseus away to friends — but he is anything but an amateur.
In his tidy Second Street kitchen, Spiegler creates real cheese — bloomy rounds of Brie; pinkish slabs of washed-rind beauties; mold-ripened Gowanish, made with raw goat’s milk; and tangy tommes with butter-colored pastes — that look and taste like they belong in a professional cheese case.
In fact some have already made their way there: After a recent stage at Vermont’s Woodcock Farm, Spiegler washed some of the cheeses he made on-site with a smoked porter from Queens’s new Finback Brewery. Billed under his byline at Saxelby Cheesemongers in the Essex Market, they sold for $21.99 a pound.
A graduate of the cheesemaking certificate program at Vermont’s Institute of Artisan Cheese, Spiegler hopes to try his hand at more “gypsy” cheesemaking in borrowed pro spaces. Until then, his home base is his apartment kitchen, aka his “nano-creamery.”
It’s an apt description, considering the place is home to teetering stacks of perforated plastic cheese molds, a stainless-steel spring press for packing curds, cheesemaking books with recipes for blending cultures, a tub of commercial-grade dairy sanitizer and two freestanding wine refrigerators, whose humidity- and temperature-controlled racks serve as Spiegler’s stand-in for caves. (One was purchased from Ted Allen, who posted it on Craigslist after the celeb chef renovated his Clinton Hill home.)
He admits the work appeals to both sides of his brain: “It has the complexity of creating,” he says, “but with a very technical mindset.”
Spiegler is one of a tiny number of homestead cheesemakers in the city; they occasionally get together to swap samples and share stories of their shared passion. For Spiegler, the obsession seems obvious, given his heritage (his mother is French) and his education, at the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School, part of a 400-acre biodynamic farm upstate, complete with 65 dairy cows and an on-site creamery.
Today Spiegler gets his milks from several pristine local sources like the Traditional Foods raw milk delivery club. His long-term goal is to make cheese professionally, perhaps upstate, where all the milk is, or maybe right here in Brooklyn.
Why shouldn’t Gowanus have the first Brooklyn creamery, he muses aloud.
Some would argue it already does.

A huge thank you to Rachel Wharton, food journalist and Editor at Edible Brooklyn, who visited me in my “nano-creamery” and wrote about it in their Summer 2014 issue! Food photographer Natalia Moena shot the photos for the piece, you can check out her work at natimoe.tumblr.com. Via Edible Brooklyn:

Artisan Cheese Made in a Gowanus Apartment

First published in the Summer 2014 edition of Edible Brooklyn

Some home cooks ferment their own yogurt or make mozzarella from a kit. Matt Spiegler takes DIY dairy to another dimension: Technically he’s a layman — keeping his day job as a web developer, and giving his homemade caseus away to friends — but he is anything but an amateur.

In his tidy Second Street kitchen, Spiegler creates real cheese — bloomy rounds of Brie; pinkish slabs of washed-rind beauties; mold-ripened Gowanish, made with raw goat’s milk; and tangy tommes with butter-colored pastes — that look and taste like they belong in a professional cheese case.

In fact some have already made their way there: After a recent stage at Vermont’s Woodcock Farm, Spiegler washed some of the cheeses he made on-site with a smoked porter from Queens’s new Finback Brewery. Billed under his byline at Saxelby Cheesemongers in the Essex Market, they sold for $21.99 a pound.

A graduate of the cheesemaking certificate program at Vermont’s Institute of Artisan Cheese, Spiegler hopes to try his hand at more “gypsy” cheesemaking in borrowed pro spaces. Until then, his home base is his apartment kitchen, aka his “nano-creamery.”

It’s an apt description, considering the place is home to teetering stacks of perforated plastic cheese molds, a stainless-steel spring press for packing curds, cheesemaking books with recipes for blending cultures, a tub of commercial-grade dairy sanitizer and two freestanding wine refrigerators, whose humidity- and temperature-controlled racks serve as Spiegler’s stand-in for caves. (One was purchased from Ted Allen, who posted it on Craigslist after the celeb chef renovated his Clinton Hill home.)

He admits the work appeals to both sides of his brain: “It has the complexity of creating,” he says, “but with a very technical mindset.”

Spiegler is one of a tiny number of homestead cheesemakers in the city; they occasionally get together to swap samples and share stories of their shared passion. For Spiegler, the obsession seems obvious, given his heritage (his mother is French) and his education, at the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School, part of a 400-acre biodynamic farm upstate, complete with 65 dairy cows and an on-site creamery.

Today Spiegler gets his milks from several pristine local sources like the Traditional Foods raw milk delivery club. His long-term goal is to make cheese professionally, perhaps upstate, where all the milk is, or maybe right here in Brooklyn.

Why shouldn’t Gowanus have the first Brooklyn creamery, he muses aloud.

Some would argue it already does.

BREAKING NEWS: FDA STATEMENT

The FDA just came out with a statement. This sounds promising, but we shouldn’t start celebrating just yet until further follow up tomorrow: 

FDA Statement:
The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.

In the interest of public health, the FDA’s current regulations state that utensils and other surfaces that contact food must be “adequately cleanable” and properly maintained. Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings. FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.

The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving.

ON BACKGROUND:
The CSFAN letter sent in January, 2014 to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services was a responsive letter to questions New York state raised, and was not a policy statement.

More coverage of the FDA “clarification”. This paragraph really struck me: 

"The FDA tells 27 News that this policy of not allowing wooden aged cheese is nothing new. Officials say the agency has had this policy for several decades. This official also says that imported cheeses are forced to follow this guideline as well. That means all imported cheeses from Europe are also subject to this regulation. However, cheese shops, restaurants and grocery stores have featured wood-aged European cheeses for decades. "

What this tells us, more than anything, is that the FDA is making these regulations without even having a clear grasp on the realities of cheese production domestically or globally. I seriously wonder whether any of the people who wrote these regulations understand that many of the standard cheeses they themselves might buy at the supermarket every day — Parmigiano Reggiano, classic Swiss Cheeses, English Cheddars, and more — are aged on wood. 

Via WKOW in Wisconsin: 

Cheesemakers concerned after FDA cracks down on wood-aged cheese

The FDA recently conducted a handful of routine inspections in New York and cited cheesemakers for using wooden planks to age their products. News of these citations quickly spread through the cheesemaking industry and many business owners are concerned about their livelihood.

"It’s a game changer in the industry. Wooden boards are so important for so many flavors of cheese," Fromagination Artisanal Cheeses owner Ken Monteleone says. "Without this process many of our favorite cheeses would cease to exist."

Monteleone says more than 80% of the cheeses he sells are made using this process. The way it works is cheesemakers combine all of their ingredients and then place their cheese on wooden planks to age. The process helps the cheese to develop a variety of unique flavors and helps it develop a thick rind around the cheese.

Read more

Game Changer: FDA Rules No Wooden Boards in Cheese Aging

This news has been ripping like wildfire through the cheese world for the last couple days. Its hard to exaggerate just how much of a financial and infrastructure hit this would be to cheesemakers, small producers in particular, who have been aging their cheeses on wood as standard practice for a very long time. From the smallest, newest caves to well-established producers with decades under their belts, cheese, particular longer-aging, larger format styles, are being aged on wood EVERYWHERE. In addition, the FDA has clarified that this position applies to imported cheeses as well. Say bye-bye to many of those amazing Swiss Alpines and French washed rinds. 

This is huge. Hopefully the cheese world and their supporters won’t take it quietly. Via Cheese Underground

Game Changer: FDA Rules No Wooden Boards in Cheese Aging

A sense of disbelief and distress is quickly rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community, as the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week announced it will not permit American cheesemakers to age cheese on wooden boards.

Recently, the FDA inspected several New York state cheesemakers and cited them for using wooden surfaces to age their cheeses. The New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets’ Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services, which (like most every state in the U.S., including Wisconsin), has allowed this practice, reached out to FDA for clarification on the issue. A response was provided by Monica Metz, Branch Chief of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s (CFSAN) Dairy and Egg Branch.

In the response, Metz stated that the use of wood for cheese ripening or aging is considered an unsanitary practice by FDA, and a violation of FDA’s current Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations. Here’s an excerpt:

"Microbial pathogens can be controlled if food facilities engage in good manufacturing practice. Proper cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities are absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate. Adequate cleaning and sanitation procedures are particularly important in facilities where persistent strains of pathogenic microorganisms like Listeria monocytogenes could be found. The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP requirements, which require that "all plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and shall be properly maintained." 21 CFR 110.40(a). Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized. The porous structure of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood. The shelves or boards used for aging make direct contact with finished products; hence they could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products."

The most interesting part of the FDA’s statement it that it does not consider this to be a new policy, but rather an enforcement of an existing policy. And worse yet, FDA has reiterated that it does not intend to change this policy.

Read more

High-res saveourcheese:

The FDA has declared that aging on wood is a violation of their Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations. Aging on wood has been standard practice for decades and after extensive scientific study (and thousands of years of using the practice) has been deemed perfectly safe by regulators in the EU. 
Read an excellent overview of the issue at the Cheese Underground blog, and stay tuned to saveourcheese.tumblr.com for more updates. 

saveourcheese:

The FDA has declared that aging on wood is a violation of their Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations. Aging on wood has been standard practice for decades and after extensive scientific study (and thousands of years of using the practice) has been deemed perfectly safe by regulators in the EU. 

Read an excellent overview of the issue at the Cheese Underground blog, and stay tuned to saveourcheese.tumblr.com for more updates. 

Camembert may lose last farmhouse maker

The town of Camembert, in France, may lose its last AOC Camembert maker Camembert will continue to be made in the region of course, but the Durand family was the last in the town that gave the world this wonderful cheese in 1791. Via English-language French news site The Connexion

No buyers for last real Camembert
June 04, 2014
CAMEMBERT could soon be just a fragrant memory in the Orne town that gave the famous French cheese its name more than 200 years ago.

François and Nadia Durand are the last Camembert manufacturers in the Normandy town where the cheese was invented in 1791 - and, after 30 years in the business, they want to sell up.

But, the Durands said, no one seems interested in buying the profitable business. They turnover €600,000 per year, and have three partners and two employees.

Ms Durand, 46, told Ouest France: “Our customers are wholesalers who supply specialist dairies and delicatessens.”

Maybe it’s the heavy workload that is putting off potential buyers. The couple work seven days a week and, Ms Durand said: “In 25 years, we have taken 11 days’ vacation with our children.”

Ms Durand said her husband, who is 52, gets up at 6.30am to make 600 handmade cheeses per day, while farmer brother Nicolas looks after the 70 dairy cows that supply the milk.

In order to qualify for Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) certification, at least half the milk must come from Norman cows.

None of the couple’s three children want to continue the family business, Ms Durand said. “Our eldest is a cook in a gourmet restaurant in Caen; the second is training to be a nurse; and our last is in primary school.”

Their decision has caused uproar in the town, which is hoping that a buyer can be found to keep cheese-making alive in the town.

Read the full post

High-res Valley News has another report from the brand new Wegman’s affinage facilities. I hadn’t realized that Eric Meredith, formerly of Mons Affineurs (you can see him in the documentary The War of the Stinky Cheeses), is in charge of the affinage program. That promises good things for the future, as he worked alongside the legendary Hervé Mons for years before coming back to the US. Via Valley News:

Facing a Cheese Challenge, Major Grocery Chain Caves
The Wegmans 1916 Aged Goat Cheese is smooth, silky, a little grassy but not at all punctuated by the sharp tang that turns off so many people from other goat’s milk varieties. The four-inch round also bears little resemblance to the plastic-wrapped logs that disintegrate in your hands; it’s easily cut into wedges. “You don’t want it to crumble,” says Carrie Lesio, the cheese team leader behind the case at the Wegmans in Pittsford, N.Y. The ideal consistency, she says, is more akin to that of peanut butter.
This dairy perfection has been achieved thanks to Eric Meredith, the recently anointed Wegmans affineur (cheese ager), and his new toy, a 12,000-plus-square-foot cheese cave building not far from the company headquarters outside Rochester, N.Y. (Most of the 84 Wegmans stores are in New York and Eastern Pennsylvania, but there are two in New England, in Northborough and Chestnut Hill, Mass.)
The caves are not drippy subterranean spaces but rather seven high-tech rooms in which Meredith and his team have begun to ripen cheeses that will be distributed to stores around the country. The conditions in the caves, each of which can hold up to several thousand small pieces of cheese, are meant to mimic those in the real caves used in Europe.
“Aging cheeses isn’t easy,” Meredith says. This from a man who used to work in a converted railroad tunnel in France and now has 21st-century technology at his fingertips.
The idea at Wegmans is to take the pressure off cheesemakers by cultivating relationships with local producers who will hand over their fresh cheese to Meredith’s group to ripen. To jump-start the process, the company has provided funding for a program through Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences that will work with New York cheesemakers in creating safe, high-quality products.
Meredith’s current stock of aging cheese includes American and European selections. The affinage facility cares for the cheese from the time it comes in the door to when it’s ready to be shipped out to Wegmans stores. The caves control for temperature and humidity, and measures are in place to prevent contamination and cross-contamination of the very sensitive cheeses.

Check out the full story.
(photo ©2014 vnews.com)

Valley News has another report from the brand new Wegman’s affinage facilities. I hadn’t realized that Eric Meredith, formerly of Mons Affineurs (you can see him in the documentary The War of the Stinky Cheeses), is in charge of the affinage program. That promises good things for the future, as he worked alongside the legendary Hervé Mons for years before coming back to the US. Via Valley News:

Facing a Cheese Challenge, Major Grocery Chain Caves

The Wegmans 1916 Aged Goat Cheese is smooth, silky, a little grassy but not at all punctuated by the sharp tang that turns off so many people from other goat’s milk varieties. The four-inch round also bears little resemblance to the plastic-wrapped logs that disintegrate in your hands; it’s easily cut into wedges. “You don’t want it to crumble,” says Carrie Lesio, the cheese team leader behind the case at the Wegmans in Pittsford, N.Y. The ideal consistency, she says, is more akin to that of peanut butter.

This dairy perfection has been achieved thanks to Eric Meredith, the recently anointed Wegmans affineur (cheese ager), and his new toy, a 12,000-plus-square-foot cheese cave building not far from the company headquarters outside Rochester, N.Y. (Most of the 84 Wegmans stores are in New York and Eastern Pennsylvania, but there are two in New England, in Northborough and Chestnut Hill, Mass.)

The caves are not drippy subterranean spaces but rather seven high-tech rooms in which Meredith and his team have begun to ripen cheeses that will be distributed to stores around the country. The conditions in the caves, each of which can hold up to several thousand small pieces of cheese, are meant to mimic those in the real caves used in Europe.

“Aging cheeses isn’t easy,” Meredith says. This from a man who used to work in a converted railroad tunnel in France and now has 21st-century technology at his fingertips.

The idea at Wegmans is to take the pressure off cheesemakers by cultivating relationships with local producers who will hand over their fresh cheese to Meredith’s group to ripen. To jump-start the process, the company has provided funding for a program through Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences that will work with New York cheesemakers in creating safe, high-quality products.

Meredith’s current stock of aging cheese includes American and European selections. The affinage facility cares for the cheese from the time it comes in the door to when it’s ready to be shipped out to Wegmans stores. The caves control for temperature and humidity, and measures are in place to prevent contamination and cross-contamination of the very sensitive cheeses.

Check out the full story.

(photo ©2014 vnews.com)

This buttery beauty is the St. Stephen, an indulgent Triple-Cream cheese from Four Fat Fowl Creamery, a brand new cheesemaking operation just getting off the ground. Four Fat Fowl is the project of four partners: Willy Bridgham, a cheesemaker with 15 years of experience, including at Old Chatham Sheepherding Co.; his wife Shaleena Bridgham, who also has experience in the cheese world and will be in charge of sales and distribution; Josie Madison, and her husband Seth Madison, on the cheesemaking/affinage and business development sides, respectively. 

The operation is based in Stephentown, in upstate Rensselaer County, NY. As they say on their site, the name came from the fact that “…in the seventeenth century, the Dutch colonized this area of the Hudson Valley and a landlord, called the patroon, took possession of the area. The last patroon of Rensselaerswyck (what is now Rensselaer County), after whom Stephentown was named, collected annual rents from his tenants which included “four fat fowl”, a day’s labor, and ten to twenty bushels of wheat per hundred acres.” 

Triple-cremes must have a fat content of 75% or greater to qualify as such (Formaggio Kitchen’s blog has a good breakdown of the difference between double- and triple-cremes). Four Fat Fowl identified it as a style that was not currently being produced in the Hudson Valley region, and set out to produce a version that would bring the textural and flavor characteristics of the classics like Delice de Bourgogne or Brillat-Savarin, using locally sourced milk. 

In this they have succeeded, with a Jersey cow’s milk cheese that, when warmed to room temperature, has the color and texture of a freshly whipped buttercream frosting and a pillowy white rind wrapped around it. The flavor is intensely buttery, tangy, a little sour, with mushroom and grassy notes, the paste melting in the mouth.

Triple-cremes are the quintessential decadent experience in cheese, an explosion of butterfat on the tongue, and it’s hard not to overdo it once you get started in on the wheel. You can also pretty much substitute it for anywhere that butter works, and slathered on some crusty bread with a dollop of fruit preserves is a great way to start the day (or end it).

Four Fat Fowl has recently launched a Kickstarter to raise funds for first-year expenses and to purchase much-needed equipment for the creamery; you can learn more and contribute here. For now the plan is to distribute locally, with limited distribution further afield, to grow with time. 

They will also have a launch party at the Old Chatham Country Store on Saturday, June 7, 7:00am – 2:00pm, where they will be giving away samples of St. Stephen, and special promotional items.