Ask the Cheesemonger
Tim Gaddis is the cheese & specialty buyer for Star Provisions in Atlanta, Georgia.
Q: What makes a cheese kosher? And are there any artisanal ones
A: There are only a handful of artisan kosher cheeses, mostly because the kosher certification is very costly. I recently learned, for instance, that Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery, in Websterville, Vermont, pays $12,000 a year for the privilege of putting the kosher seal on just their cow’s milk products—crème fraîche, butter, fromage blanc, quark, and mascarpone. “At one point we also had our chèvre certified kosher,” explained Adeline Druart, cheesemaker at VB&C, “but it was confusing to our customers because the goat cheese with olives and herbs couldn’t be certified without sending the rabbi to Greece to certify the olives!”
It’s well known that kosher cheese cannot be made with animal rennet, in deference to the age-old Jewish prohibition of mixing milk and meat. But Adeline’s colleague, Andrew Schmitt, quality control supervisor at the creamery, shared some of the finer points of getting certified: “For a product to be considered kosher, all the ingredients, methods of preparation, cleaning practices/chemical usage, order of production, new/used equipment purchases, other products in your facility, and even the temperatures used to make non-kosher products in the same kettle/vat have to meet inspection.”
Andrew explained that cheesemakers can have non-kosher ingredients in their facility, but all kosher products must be stored above non-kosher ones and cannot come into contact with any non-kosher product or ingredient. The kosher certification body maintains a master list of all the ingredients used at Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery, kosher or not, and no additional ingredients can enter the creamery unless they’re preapproved. When the rabbi comes in for the monthly inspection, he or she looks for unapproved ingredients and processing or cleaning methods that don’t follow kosher rules. Should that happen, the rabbi can force a total recall of that product or have it destroyed.
“One common misnomer,” Andrew adds, “is that the rabbi will ‘bless’ the product. They do not bless any of our products; they just make sure that we’re following kosher processing guidelines properly.” As I noted, the kosher artisan options are few, but they are great. In addition to Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery, you can buy kosher cheese from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company (CA), Redwood Hill Farm (CA), and 5 Spoke Creamery (NY).
Q: Having moved to a big city from a small town, I’ve recently discovered a whole new world of specialty cheeses. How can I learn more about what’s what?
A: Coming from a small town myself, I’ve learned that the artisan cheese world is much like a small town. Everyone knows each other and what they are doing. It may feel overwhelming at first, but you’ll get your bearings pretty quickly if you pay attention. Find the local farmers’ market, and start talking to people. You are likely to run into a local chef who will be more than happy to tell you his or her favorites. And when you find a cheese shop, befriend the cheesemonger, and don’t hesitate to ask questions. Most cheesemongers are eager to do a show-and-tell, complete with tastings!
It goes without saying that there’s lots of information online—sometimes too much. If you’re starting out, it’s best to look for credible cheese information at one of the reliable online cheese libraries (my friends here at culture maintain a fabulous library with over 600 entries). Cheese books are aplenty; you can find ones that are encyclopedic and cover the world of cheese (Patricia Michelson’s books are favorites), as well as books that are more regionally oriented.
Another great way to find artisan cheese and information is through social media. Throw out some questions on Twitter or Facebook and someone will respond. Everyone wants to talk about his or her favorite producer or store. I answer cheese-related questions on Twitter daily. Once you tap into that small town that is the artisan community, you can discover as many cheeses as you care to.