Some say it started with our 20-year-old Swiss au pair Katja. Actually, for me, it goes back to my father’s exotic family trips to remote places, sharing his love of travel and a few survival skills at a young age. And to my mother, who was also adventurous and loved to entertain, often using European recipes, which were quite sophisticated for her time and place.
My husband John and I both grew up in Iowa, with Northern European roots and farming culture woven into our families. In 1994 when our daughters were young, Katja lived with us for a year and introduced us to the wonders of fondue, raclette, and Swiss cuisine —with French, Italian and German influences and the highest ingredient standards. No one I knew enjoyed such beautiful cheese and wonderful flavors. It forever changed our lives.
In 1997, John was transferred to Utah, and a little later we bought a cheese and specialty foods shop in Salt Lake City. I ran the shop, developing professional contacts in Europe, and continued to plan family trips around food and cheese— expanding our itineraries to France, Switzerland, Britain and eventually Italy.
Over the years, I often became the de facto tour leader for a diverse group of friends. Unbeknownst to me, I had already started Cheese Journeys. In 2007, we moved to New York City. Missing the cheese business but maintaining my European contacts, I kept planning trips. Meanwhile, my daughters both launched their own careers in cheese, fostering many more connections, working first for Neal’s Yard Dairy and now Essex Street Cheese.
In 2013, John and I got together with veteran Neal’s Yard cheesemonger and educator Chris George and officially launched Cheese Journeys as a business. I looked for other travel companies to learn from and found none. I consulted extensively with my network of pros, especially Jason Hinds, managing partner at both Neal’s Yard and Essex. Later that year, I executed our first Cheese Journey to England. Since then, I’ve hosted 11 tours to England, France, Italy, Pennsylvania, and Oregon, with five tours planned for 2018.
The creation of a new Cheese Journey always starts with the feeling of heightened anticipation, a tinge of anxiety when I’m going someplace I’ve never been or a place I’ve merely imagined. I quickly zero in on the cheese geography of a region. On my France tour, for example, I focus on the Savoie, Jura and either Alsace or western Switzerland. Once I’ve chosen a cheese-rich region, I start building an itinerary around a series of visits to creameries and cheese venues. Our visits include small artisan farmsteads, larger producers and affineurs like Marcel Petite. I also incorporate other compelling cultural events like Slow Food’s Bra Cheese Festival in Italy, visits to wineries, charcuterie producers, distillers, breweries and other artisans making typical local products. In the Jura, one of my favorite shopping stops is Fonerie Obertino, where they sell traditional cowbells, handmade the same way for over 1,000 years. They make great souvenirs!
One trademark of a Cheese Journey is to rent a private home where we can “own the castle”. Sharing family meals during the tour is a priority too. Chef Sylvain Jamois, a charming French native has become a favorite with guests. Sylvain is a master of French, Italian and English cuisine who knows artisan cheese and is an adept teacher. He offers hands-on cooking demonstrations featuring regional cuisine and local ingredients. In addition to the chef, I always bring a well-known cheese/food educator as my co-host and throughout the tour, we integrate a teaching aspect, without being too pedantic. Cheese is fun, so how much we “educate” depends on the makeup of a group.
Each new Cheese Journey takes a minimum of one year to build, market and prepare for. The work list is long—itinerary details, scouting trips, meetings with hosts, cheese, wine and menu research, budgets, and communicating with guests. As a guide, the planning and logistics are important, but the personal connections, the aesthetics, and emotions that come with this style of travel are key.
It’s rewarding when you make a personal tie to the culture and foods of a particular region. Amazing memories of visiting a new place or spending time with an engaging cheesemaker, adds great value to my everyday life back home. I’m always thrilled to meet interesting people making great cheeses in stunning locales. They’re often tucked into very special little micro-climates and cultures and off the beaten path. That’s how I like to travel and now I’ve discovered, others do too.
Featured image: Tenaya Darlington
Starting November 1, 2017, we will be sharing a multi-part travelogue series by Anna Juhl, founder of Cheese Journeys, where she takes you deep into the world of cheese. Come back every other Wednesday for a new story.