Slow Food Nation


Slow Food Nation was a 3-day event held here over Labor Day weekend.  The event was held in numerous locations around San Francisco, including lectures, an open farmers market, a 2-day concert, and a Taste Pavilion featuring 12 food categories.  I was fortunate to volunteer my time this last weekend at the Cheese Pavilion alongside dozens of other volunteers.

Walking into the Taste Pavilion at Fort Mason was immediately amazing.  Just outside the Festival Pavilion to my right a beer garden, and to my left a row of ovens both wood fired and gas, and an amazing display of the worlds most classic styles of bread.  I’ve been in the main building many times over the years participating in events both as a consumer and as a retailer, but I had yet to see the building so well decorated and designed.  Along the perimeter of the building were 12 mini pavilions each designed by its own architect.  Of primary importance were that the materials were or would be recycled after the event.  A large sign proclaimed that this event was a fully compostable event; each trash and recycling station had a person nearby to assure you put your waste in the proper receptacle.

As I strolled through the hall I walked past all the mini pavilions: pickle/chutney, fish, charcuterie, honey/preserves, tea, coffee, chocolate, ice cream, spirits, olive oil, the green kitchen (cooking classes), and wine on my way to the Cheese Pavilion where I would spend the next 2 afternoons and evenings.  The Cheese Pavilion was decorated in contrasts.  An interesting labyrinth of hay bales fashioned into a mini amphitheater/lounge, surrounded by large photos of cheeses and quotes, and a backdrop of bright red milk crates form Straus Organic Creamery – which reminded me of a stack of amplifiers from a heavy metal video.

The Cheese Pavilion featured only American cheeses, with a particular slant toward raw milk and farmstead production.  In fact, all Pavilions were exclusively American from the 450 bottles of wine from states as diverse as Georgia and New York, to the chocolate roasted and blended in the US, and those fantastic pickles and cured meats I couldn’t seem to eat enough of.  The folks at Slow Food sent out an invitation to American artisan cheese producers offering to buy their cheese to be se served on a composed cheese plate at the event.  In total there were 54 cheese makers represented, each sending a maximum of 25 lbs of cheese each.  After a brief meeting with the team leaders for the event, I rolled up my sleeves, donned the Slow Food Nation apron we were given, and began cutting wheel after wheel of cheese into small batons and triangle wedges.  An amazing selection of unique cheeses passed under my hands – a salty, mineral-y goat cheese from Oregon; a robust and buttery Bosque blue from Veldhuizen Family Farm outside Ft. Worth, Texas; rounds and rounds of sticky stinky Winnemere from Jasper Hill dairy in Vermont to which I started mimicking the Crosby Stills and Nash song Guinevere – “Winnemere has a smelly rind, like yours, baby like yours…”.

In the “Hay Bale Amphitheater” we had demonstrations and discussions by authors like Laura Werlin, cheese makers like Mike Gingrich, Jennifer Bice, and Mary Keehn, and blogger/educators like Tami Parr from the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project.  As the line for the cheese plates wrapped around the corner and out the door outside and alongside the pier, I was sent out with tray after tray of cheese samples to entertain the folks.  With glasses of wine in hand, their Slow Dough (taste coupons), and the view of this wonderful City – with Coit Tower to the right and Alcatraz out in the Bay – it was a pretty nice line to wait in.

It was incredible to see so many folks in town for the event.  I visited with a couple from the Carolinas, another group from Portland, some fine cheese heads from Wisconsin, and dozens of local Bay Area food lovers.  One gentleman from Utah told me how he attempted to make a batch of yogurt on the hood of his car a few days ago.  He said it was good but a little runny.  Another person told me of their attempt at fresh mozzarella, and another at making his own Mexican-style heavy cream for a taco feast that weekend.  Wow!  So many enthusiastic food lovers coming together to taste, talk and explore the best in American artisan foods.

Throughout the weekend I worked with the best and brightest of the Bay Area cheese world.  The Cowgirls were gracious and professional; heading up the operations, donating many staff members, the logistics, refrigeration and trucking.  Debra and Diana who represent Redwood Hill in Sonoma Co. and Jasper Hill Dairy in Vermont kept us on our toes.  A number of enthusiastic Slow Food members who just wanted to help out were also on hand to cut cheese and greet the guests.  You could see how bright eyed they were at the opportunity to serve, taste, and learn.  An instant crash course in cheese from a few experienced cheesemongers, and between bites, an opportunity to give back to an organization they believe in.

I was told the event at the Taste Pavilion was to host 7000 ticket holders, but just learned that as many as 14000 ticket holders were there throughout the weekend.  It just blows me away to see so many people participating in the “slow” movement – if you don’t already know, the term slow food is the opposite of fast food.  I often speak about the importance of supporting the independent farmer or producer.  How this creates sustainability financially by providing the farmer/producer a livable income, and keeps the soil and crops alive as well.  As a child I worked on my family’s farm.  Today the farm is gone, sold away, the county seat a dried up community of what once was thriving.  But I consider myself a lucky one who did have a chance to taste traditional and authentic foods, and to live close to the soil, if only for a few summers.  Some of my favorite food memories of that time are gone with the farm, into prepackaged and predictable internationally branded commodities.

Slow Food Nation, if only for a few days, was a window into our culinary heritage, a chance to embrace the idea that food is unique and inspired.  A product of the people, the soil, and the history of our great nation.  It starts with the carrots and ends with the caviar, and along the way we can all do our part in little ways by supporting traditional and authentic foods at farmers markets and independent grocers, by growing our own lettuces in a window box, and always tasting and asking questions about the origins and creation of our foods.

Cheese in the Heartland

American Cheese Society Judging and Competition

Chicago, Illinois

The American Cheese Society is an organization dedicated to the domestic cheese industry.  Each summer the ACS hosts a conference, cheese judging, and cheese festival.  This year’s conference, marking the society’s 25th anniversary, was held at the Hilton Hotel in beautiful downtown Chicago.

When offered to be an aesthetic judge this year, I jumped at the opportunity.  When I received the list of other judges this year I was blown away – I mean how often do you get to spend 2 days in a room with many of your all-star cheese idols?  Folks like Janet Fletcher (SF Chronicle), Anne Saxelby (Saxelby’s, NYC), Kate Arding (former Cowgirl), David Lockwood (Neal’s Yard Dairy), Steve Jenkins (Fairway, NYC), and others are the life blood of the American Cheese movement.  Working alongside them is a pretty heady experience, for sure.

The judging is serious business, and this not-so-early riser had to be ready to go at 7 AM on Tuesday morning to board the bus to the Plumbers Union Hall where the judging would take place.  When we arrived a few minutes later we were greeted with 3 container sized portable walk-in coolers which housed more than 1100 cheeses and dairy products from the US and Canada.  In the main hall the tables were neatly arranged with name cards, paper plates and napkins, plastic spoons, and spittoons.  I was delighted to see my partner for the next 2 days would be Kate Arding.  Kate’s a legend in the Bay Area for her work at Neal’s Yard Dairy, Cowgirl Creamery, and the new Oxbow Market in Napa.  We’d met over the years, but I never had a chance to get to know her and her cheese philosophy.  Kate was there as a technical judge, and I was her aesthetic counterpart.  Her role was to find flaws and reduce the overall score, while I was there to find the perfections and build points on the score sheet.

After an initial training review from the judging committee chairs, we were off and running.  My list of cheese for the next 2 days included 15 goat feta, a few cows milk brie, nearly 2 dozen gouda, 20 smoked cows milk cheeses (wow!), and another dozen or so flavored goat cheeses.  And on the last day of the judging, the 80 1st place winners in all categories for the Best Of Show. That’s a solid 150 cheeses!  The tasting is blind, meaning you only know the category of the cheese – like say, D. AMERICAN MADE / INTERNATIONAL STYLE  Excluded: all Cheddars (E), all Italian Type (H) cheeses  DD: Dutch Style, All Milks (Gouda, Edam, etc.) – my favorite of all the categories I was assigned.  The cheese would appear in a plain white wrapper with the category number, then the producer number, and the number of the cheese itself, which looks something like this: DD 150 03.

The judging is a pretty simple process – sniff, taste, look, write – but also one that can be exceedingly difficult to find the subtleties amongst the masses. Each judge has a score sheet outlining the criteria of Aroma, Flavor, Texture/Body, Appearance/Rind with minimum and maximum score range, and room for our comments, suggestions or compliments.  We’re required to sign these forms and they’re given to the cheesemaker so they may know our thoughts and make changes to their cheese based on our comments if so compelled. Awards are given based on scores, with no curves.  In this manner you may have many 1st place winners in a category, or only one 3rd place winner if the cheeses didn’t score highly.

We started out by dutifully piercing the cheese with our Cheese Irons and pull a long cylindrical sample from the interior of the cheese. (Using a Cheese Iron is a traditional method for sampling cheese, and also a good way to keep the cheese in good condition for the Festival of Cheeses to be held a few days later)  The nose knows, and there was a lot of sniffing in the room.  Sometimes you might imagine the goats eating wild garlic or sweet herbs from the cheese aromas, but quite often it’s just the lactic smells of yogurt or buttermilk, so you really need to concentrate to find the nuances.  Tasting, on the other hand, is often not about nuances, as many of the cheeses in our categories had aggressive, well developed flavors.  Quite a few of our cheeses were flavored, and most of the second day was dedicated to getting through 20 smoked cheeses – not an easy task!  You take a look at the cheese, then squish the cheese around your mouth trying to distinguish the overall textural characteristics; hopefully something more compelling than just soft and gummy.  Finally, you look at the whole cheese to see if the rind is uniformly developed, the size and shape are pleasing, the wax is appealing, the overall packaging attractive.  Between cheeses we take a few breaks, eat lots of fruit (pineapple and grapes to clear the palate) and drink massive amounts of water.  As an aesthetic judge I’m advised to not detail faults in the cheese, but it some cases you do want to give a few suggestions on how to improve the cheese.  Fortunately many of the cheeses we tasted were really quite good, a reflection of how far the industry has come in the 25 year history of the ACS, so I gave at-a-boys for my favorites.  Occasionally we’d look up and see something interesting on another judging table and have a nibble, or be asked to help settle a dispute about whether this or that cheese was supposed to look that way or taste this way.

In late afternoon of the second day of the judging, all the 1st place cheeses were placed on the tables for the final tasting.  A throwdown for your digestive track and battered tastebuds – in short order we would be required to taste all these 80 cheeses – flavored, smoked, lowfat, extra aged, butter, yogurt, blue, fried bread cheese – you get the picture and pick our top 3.  No comments, just 1st, 2nd, and 3rd.   After a little more than an hour all 30 judges had made it around the tables and made their selections.  A team of ACS staff members tallied the scores, and soon we were gathered together, sworn to secrecy to not tell the results before the awards ceremony on Friday evening, and told the winners.  3rd place Cave Aged Marisa – a sheep milk cheese, kinda sweet and cheddary from Sid Cook’s Carr Valley Cheese Co. in Wisconsin (available at Cheese Plus), 2nd place – a pungent, full flavored Raw Milk Washed Rind known as Grayson from Meadow creek Dairy in Virginia  (available at Cheese Plus), and 1st place “Best of Show” was awarded to Sid Cook again  for his sweet and salty Aged Bandaged Goat Cheddar known as Snow White.

Behind the scenes dozens of volunteers had been been working for days. First receiving the cheeses, tagging them with the top secret codes, and then moving the cheeses in and out of the coolers for the judges.  When we boarded the bus to return to the hotel, these volunteers were busy packing all these cheeses away in the portable walk-ins.  A few days later we would see these 1150 cheeses again, back at the Hilton Grand Ballroom, stacked and cubed by even more volunteers, with name cards and ribbons appropriately displayed for the Festival of Cheeses.

The Festival of Cheeses is the grand display and tasting event that closes the conference.  A room filled with 1150 cheeses and nearly as many people tasting and writing notes about the cheeses.   The wine is flowing and old friends are hugging and catching up on each others lives. Beyond the socializing, the festival is a wonderful opportunity to taste unique cheeses from across the country.  Many of which the production is so small and territorial that this may be the only opportunity to see or taste these cheeses unless you’re lucky enough to live in Vermont, Minnesota, or Georgia.

For me, the week is over.  It’s been a long week, and in between the judging and the festival, I visited all the best cheese shops in Chicago and took an overnight road trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan to visit my most admired specialty food store, Zingerman’s Deli; have dinner at their Roadhouse restaurant (the best creamed corn and fried chicken this Texan had tasted in a long time), tour their cheese making facility, and even get my hands into a batch of fresh (and very hot) Mozzarella that was being made when I arrived.

Time to get back to my city by the bay, and source all these great new cheeses for the store.

-Ray Bair

The Five Senses

Cheese Plus Style

The dictionary tells us our senses are the physical means by which all living things see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Kind of boring, huh?  It doesn’t need to be,  so let’s spice it up a bit and celebrate the sensual side of food. Here are a few of our favorites to ignite your senses this Valentine’s Day!

Sight

What could more lovely than a great selection of artisanal cheese from around the globe.  When putting together a cheese board for Valentine’s Day we suggest you keep it simple with 3 cheeses and an accompaniment such as French Rose Petal Jam or Robert Lambert’s California Quince Paste.  Stop by and have a taste or our favorites this week.  We’re here to help you create a memorable Valentine’s Day cheese board.

Smell

Truffles, Truffles, Truffles!  We’re talking about that funky little wrinkled fungus the pigs root out from under the ground.  The aroma is an intoxicating and complex experience that’s difficult to describe.  You either get it or you don’t – we do, and we’ve got plenty to go around.  Try our selection of truffled foods including Ritrovo’s Truffle and Salt, Truffle Tremor Goat Cheese, Truffle Cacciatore Salame, Truffled Pasta and Sauce, Truffle Butter, Truffled Oil and so much more!

Touch (Texture)

Caviar and Creme Fraiche immediately come to mind.  We simply adore the gentle pop of Tsar Nicoulai California Osetra Caviar on the roof of our mouths followed by the creamy swoosh of sweet and tangy creme fraiche.  How ’bout a glass of French Champagne to complement?

Sound

What could be better than the explosive sound of opening a bottle of Champagne?  Could you imagine opening a bottle of champagne with a bottle opener? What’s the fun in that?  That magic POP! is half the fun and universally regarded as the beginning of a great experience.  Our choice for Valentine’s Day is Agrapart Les 7 Crus Brut Blanc de Blancs.  Made with 100% Chardonnay this wine is clean and bright showing great elegance and finesse.

Taste

Chocolate is synonymous with Valentine’s Day and we couldn’t agree more.  From creamy white chocolate to astringent extra dark we love it all!  One of the greatest things about chocolate is how a little bite can provide a ton of flavor.  We recommend the local favorite Charles Chocolates Valentine’s Box filled with with Raspberry, Passion Fruit, and Mojito ganache-filled heart-shaped chocolates.  We’ll also be creating our own Dark Chocolate covered longstem Strawberries this Valentine’s Day.  Available Wednesday the 13th and Thursday the 14th only.

Fondue

Traditional Winter Warmer

A classic dish for cold weather and good times, Fondue is a great winter warmer. Like so many enduring food traditions, Fondue’s history is based on frugality and survival. Bits of leftover cheese and wine were melted together and bread was used to extend this hearty mixture. Today, Fondue makes a great entertaining centerpiece, and your choices for ingredients are bountiful.

While you can fashion your Fondue in the traditional Alpine style, or branch out into Tex-Mex or Asian flavors, a few basic rules must be followed: First and foremost – use the best natural cheese. Second, keep a keen eye on the temperature of your cheese – too hot and it will be stringy and dry; not hot enough and you’ll be stirring all night long. Third rule – Have a good time. Fondue is a simple formula, so let’s get cooking!

Here’s our master recipe for Fondue.

For 6 people you will need approximately 3 lbs of cheese (12 cups) grated and dusted with a little cornstarch. You will also need approximately 2 cups of dry white wine, Vermouth or other alcoholic beverage. You’ll serve the Fondue with crusty bread, pickled cornichon and pearl onions, bits of prosciutto, ham or salame, steamed vegetables, and crisp apples. Spice it up if you like with a little dry mustard, grated nutmeg, a clove of garlic, or a splash of truffle oil – let your creativity flow.

Serve crisp dry wine such as Apremont from the Savoie region of France, Chardonnay (not too oaky) or Sauvignon Blanc, crisp Apple Cider, light Pilsner Beer, or refreshing sparkling wine to help wash it all down. For dessert a little fresh fruit or sorbet will complete the meal wonderfully.

The technique is straightforward. Using a standard fondue set with a fire candle or canned heat gel let the wine heat for a few minutes. Slowly add handfuls of your cheese while stirring. Once the cheese starts melting add a little more cheese continuously until it’s smooth. If your mixture is too wet, just wait a few minutes, if too dry add a little more wine. This process will take about 10 – 15 minutes and then it’s time to dig in.

When the Fondue is cooked away and all but gone you’ll find a crisp layer of cheese at the bottom, this is called La Religieuse, or The Nun and is a wonderful delicacy to be saved for the most special person at the table. Enjoy!

A traditional Alpine Fondue typically includes at least 2 cheeses; Emmentaler and Gruyère. Emmentaler is the classic “Swiss” cheese with plenty of well-formed eyes (holes) in its body. Made in wheels of approximately 200 lbs, Emmentaler is mellow and nutty and provides nice texture for Fondue. Emmentaler, like many traditional European cheeses is always made with raw milk. Gruyère is a more complex cheese, also raw milk, and fashioned into 70 lb wheels. Gruyère adds more piquant flavor and rich creaminess to the recipe.

Branching out from the basic recipe you will find many more regional recipes using more cheeses, or simply focusing on the favorite cheese of the area. Here are a few choices to consider:

Vacherin Fribourgeois – A creamy and full flavored raw milk cheese from West Central Switzerland. Mix a little in for an earthy mushroom-y character.

Appenzellar – A relative of Gruyère made with raw milk from Northeastern Switzerland. Washed in white wine and Swiss mountain herbs this cheese lends a bit of spice and brightness.

Fontina Val d’Aosta – From Northern Italy. This raw milk cheese is closely related to Raclette. It has a mellow earthy flavor and melts wonderfully.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve – A raw milk farmstead cheese from Wisconsin based on the style of Beaufort from France. Pleasant Ridge is only made during the spring and summer when the grasses are on the prairie. This cheese adds a nice buttery character with plenty of meaty flavor.

Raclette – We offer Raclette from France and Switzerland, and also a French goat’s milk version. All have a smooth texture and a little spiciness. You can use Raclette in Fondue or in a dish also known as Raclette.

We also offer a variety of Gruyère cheeses from France, Switzerland, and right here at home, too:

L’Etivaz – An AOC protected raw milk Gruyère from the French corner of Southwestern Switzerland. Made in the strictest and most time honored method from only 80 farms during the months of May to October, this is Gruyère as it was made over 100 years ago. Full flavored with gorgeous fruity complexity and generous meatiness.

Comté Sainte Antoine – Comté is Gruyère’s French sibling. Generally regarded as lighter and more fruity than Swiss Gruyère, Comté is subtle yet complex with a wonderful aroma of the green pastures it calls home. Raw milk.

Le Gruyère Reserve – Our best selling Gruyère from Switzerland. Made from farmer cooperatives and aged up to 1 year for full on meaty flavor and a smooth texture. Raw milk.

Sur Choix Gruyère – From farm cooperative dairies of Wisconsin comes this pasteurized Gruyère. We like this 1 year aged cheese for its full flavor and traditional character.

At Cheese Plus we’ll help you with your favorite Fondue recipe. We’re stocked with all the trimmings you’ll need for a great Fondue night. We can shred your cheeses, and we offer Fondue pots and Raclette grills for sale and rental, too.