August 10, 2012
On Saturday, August 4th, we attended the “Festival of Cheese” at the 2012 American Cheese Society’s Conference and Competition held in Raleigh, NC. This year’s festival, which is open to the public who purchased a $55 ticket for the 2.5-hour event, featured more than 1,700 cheeses from throughout North America. Vendors also presented a wide array of gourmet foods, wine, and beer.
Having attended last year’s festival in Montreal, we knew what to expect: an overwhelming collection of cheese organized into more than 100 categories from Fresh Unripened Cheese made from cow’s milk to Washed Rind Cheese aged more than 90 days.
Our plan of attack was to sample as many of the blue ribbon winners as we could, but we always end up sampling even the non-winners in categories we most love.
The rainy weather of June has everything growing, breeding, putting stores by for winter. The trees, fields & hedges are dripping with the heavy tresses of well-watered leaves, using July’s peak sunlight. Plenty is everywhere, including lots of insect life. I love watching the house martens ceaselessly combing the high air, the swifts scything across my path, inches above the ground, then swooping up. The birds keep us free of insects - the midges come out when the martens go to bed.
"I opened during the worst part of the recession," Laura Downey says with a chuckle as a coda. Such a statement of entrepreneurial horror isn't often followed with a gentle laugh, but Downey has earned that right. For her, the recession isn't an excuse for a failed business, but something that she has succeeded in spite of. She is the co-owner with Chris Palumbo of the thriving Fairfield Cheese Company in Fairfield, Connecticut, a shop bringing the best in artisan and locally produced cheeses to the Connecticut suburb.
The third annual Cheesemonger Invitational last Saturday was loud, sweaty, and packed. Forty five mongers from all over the country – and the world – began the competition with a written test that, by many accounts, rattled them. Serious questions like “what is the PH of raw cow’s milk” and “what breed of goat produces milk with the highest fat content” would have left me a sniveling mess at square one. Luckily, the contestants knew more than I do.
With a closed house from 2-6pm, the mongers had a chance to focus without the distraction of a roaring crowd. Even so, the nervousness was palpable, and competitors carefully monitored their beer intake (supplied by Brooklyn Brewery and Six Point) to avoid being felled by inebriation.
I'm a Bostonian through and through. I'm loyal to the sports, the seafood and I've never been to Cheers. New York is not a place I'm often comfortable with visiting. It's too big, and frankly, I don't know what to do with a city whose planning actually makes sense. That said, there's one thing that calls me back again and again: the food. New York is arguably the best city in the United States when it comes to dining out, and whether you're craving a fresh salad or lamb on a skewer, New York can suit your needs.
My first, and most lasting impression of Savenor's Market in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, was their meat cooler. Yak steaks, ostrich burgers, rattlesnake - it's not the same selection of products found at say, Shaw's. And while its menagerie of meats might grab attention first, its cheese selection is not to be overlooked, and packs as many surprises.
On a wall before checkout, blocks of cheese stand like soldiers in tightly packed columns, marked by index cards penned by neat handwriting. This selection has been curated by Diana Deming, who is in her third year of cheesemongery at the market. Under Deming's tutelage, you will be hard pressed to find a Kraft Single or string cheese.
"I try to explain to them that I'm selling cheese that you can't usually get at a supermarket," Deming says of confused customers looking for nothing more than Monterey Jack.
A recent article in Mother Jones examines what Americans are eating overall. Information here is pulled from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and we learn that we now spend more on processed foods than any other food type. This is followed by meats, with dairy now at the bottom!
How would you describe the flavor of cheese?
It's an impossible question. You can certainly elaborate on the tastes of cheese varieties, the sharpness of a blue vein, spicy kick of jalapeno, or flavor of an ale wash. But trying to define the basic taste of cheese itself is impossible, no easier than trying to tell you what red looks like.
Cheese's' avoidance of being captured by words or trapped by sentences can make writing about cheese difficult, but I'm viewing that as a challenge as I began writing and blogging here at Culture. As a budding writer and foodie, I hope to learn how to better capture food through language, and learn more about what makes cheese such a unique, undefinable treat.
I hope that you will join me.
Wondering why northern Italy got hit twice in short order with earthquakes? I asked Jeffrey Park, coauthor of Dynamic Earth (Read it. It's about the earth you live on. The one we return to, call mother, mine, fight over, and, sadly, the one that puts the terror in terroir). He's a Yale seismologist who works on the seismology of northern Italy. Here’s what he had to say. A warning, there’s strong earth science language in this report, a suggestion that plates are getting stuffed in the mantle, plus a reference to a quake in the 1500s. Reader access to a geological dictionary is advised. ~ Steph
The earthquakes both hit very close to Bologna, where I spent a year's sabbatical while collecting seismic data. I once spent a night in Carpi, where the cathedral roof fell in.
In the middle of a cool, drizzly day, three of us from Culture Magazine (Stephanie, Eilis and myself) took a little field trip to the Concord Cheese Shop in Concord, Massachusetts. Driving from our office in Somerville, it felt as if we were entering the countryside for a vacation, a nostalgic feel that continued into the shop itself.
Tiny, wooden and old-timey, the Concord Cheese Shop certainly gives that old-fashioned feeling. A large wine collection engulfs the back end of the store, packed with careful selections. Taste rules over brand in this shop, so count on finding many new and unique bottles. The shop’s sommelier also has a bit of an affinity for Rosé, so if you find yourself craving something light in February, stop by—they stock a variety of pink wines year-round.