From the Editor
For most consumers, the day is long past where the only place to purchase specialty cheese is a high-end specialty store. The news reports are filled with speculation as to how Amazon’s expected takeover of Whole Foods might impact both organizations and their offerings. That is for the future… immediately, though, consumers are being offered a new opportunity to shop at “deep-discounter” retailers.
Cheese is among the most beloved of foods. How could it be otherwise with thousands of varieties to choose from? And it is a food that can be eaten raw or cooked in so many ways. Yet, some people hesitate. They have heard bad things related to healthfulness but, increasingly, the research is vindicating what cheese advocates have long contended - that there is little to be afraid of.
Recently, Kroger has acquired the flagship Murray’s Cheese Shop in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village for more than $20 million, plus it bought the whole company for an undisclosed amount. The acquisition plays to two opposite ends of every retailer’s current dilemmas: on the one hand, Murray’s has a substantial Internet business, and this positioning of specialty products perfectly positions Kroger to grow its online sales. At the same time, the authenticity, reputation and expertise of Murray’s help Kroger differentiate its own offerings.
It is never hard to find people who love specialty cheese. But there is often some holdback because cheese is high in fat content. This has always been an overrated concern because cheese is so rich. People only eat small amounts at a time. Now, however, the health benefits of cheese have started percolating through mainstream media.
Many recent studies point out that the urging of low fat diets and, specifically, consumption of low fat dairy products are not really well-tested recommendations. It is, indeed, as much a prejudice as it is an established health fact.
Few people doubt specialty cheese is delicious, but some hesitate to consume it because they believe it is “fattening.” Yet our knowledge of nutrition is rapidly evolving, and a new study out of Piacenza, Italy, titled “Blood Pressure Lowering Effect of Dietary Integration with Grana Padano Cheese in Hypertensive Patients,” is just the beginning of our coming to understand ways in which cheese can impact health.
It’s a revolutionary moment in American retailing as the traditional heart of the American supermarket is being superseded by plant-based foods in the produce department and specialty cheese that is staking its claim to be the centerpiece of culinary interest in 2016. The cheese counters are large, their offerings extensive and… here is the shocker: In many of these concepts, specialty cheese is outselling meat.
IT IS IMPORTANT TO MAKE SURE that we each work to create the life we want, rather than simply letting life happen. New Year’s resolutions are part of this. A related idea is picking a topic or activity to gain mastery of during the year. With today’s focus on specialty cheese in major retailers, you can cross the globe without leaving your home. So set out to make 2016 the year of learning through cheese.
ALL ACROSS RUSSIA, panic is spreading and the media is picking up on it around the world: There is “a ban on Brie, an edict against Edam and a crackdown on Camembert.” Is the issue “ripe” for resolution? It seems not.
The piece in this issue, “Gracie and The Cheese Factory,” brought to mind the salad days of my oldest son, William, cheeseophile if there was ever one. I remember watching a five-year-old William – he is 13 years old now – sauntering up to a retailer’s cheese counter and, exhibiting quite the sophisticated palate, ask if the cheesemonger had anything similar to a Manchego – his favorite then and now.
The fact that the recovery has seen disposable income grow much faster for the more affluent means there is a substantial group of people with the money to pay extra to get meat from animals treated better or food that is local, organic or hormone-free. There is a tie-in with environmentalism. Animal cruelty concerns are part of it. In general a shift to consciousness about food – what one is eating and why — has become influential. Not as widely recognized is the transformation in retailing.
There is so much we take for granted. But the news out of Russia illustrates how small things can enrich our lives. It hardly seems like much of a hardship to go without some specialty food products from a few countries. After all, Russia does make cheese and they can still buy from Israel and other countries not covered by the Russian law. Yet it is a loss. Not just of a single product but a whole cuisine. As the restaurant owner explains, without Italian cheese, it does not taste like Italian food.
The stunning cover image and cover story in this issue featuring Padma Lakshmi of Top Chef fame is a milestone for CHEESE CONNOISSEUR and for the evolution of specialty cheese in America. Why? Because specialty cheese is not just delicious… not just an important contributor to the sustenance of rural economies across the country… not just a vibrant new American industry… but specialty cheese is now, well, sexy.
If you have any doubt how important specialty cheese has become in the United States, you need only to look to Rochester, N.Y. There you could meet Eric Meredith, who has been named the Wegmans’ Affineur. Wegmans is an East Coast supermarket chain well known for, among other things, an extensive selection of foreign and domestic specialty cheeses. An affineur is someone in charge of ripening or maturing cheese.
How important is cheese? Well, you would think that the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, might have some higher priorities, what with nuclear talks, a population on the edge of starvation, etc. Yet in the midst of all this, Kim Jong-un thought it worthwhile to send a delegation to the National Dairy Industry College (ENIL), based in Mamirolle in Franche-Comté, which is on the eastern side of France. The mission? A crash course in cheesemaking.
I read with special interest the cover story on Alexander Weiss, age 13, and the winner of Fox TV's Master Chef Junior. It doesn't surprise me that a boy should have diverse culinary interests -- our boys also have grown up going to many restaurants and have favorites in each cuisine. Obviously some children will really enjoy cooking, but the big win for society is that focusing on how food is made and where food comes from leads to a consciousness about eating. It turns meal time into a thoughtful act and, often inadvertently, leads to reflection on the consequences of food choices.
To spend time with Mario Batali—as this author had a chance to do when we shot the cover story for this issue—is to find oneself caught up in a whirlwind of activities: restaurants, television shows, writing, charities, family… the common denominator being a kind of drive, a kind of passion.
The Great Gatsby, that staple of high school English classes hearkening back to the gilded moment of reckless abandon just after World War I and just before the Great Depression, and Star Trek into Darkness, the second installment in the reboot of the Star Trek tale that takes place far in the future. William Shatner, who graces our cover, bridges these two worlds
That the French are thin compared to Americans is hardly a novel observation. Many theories have been proffered: genetics, more cigarette smoking, unique characteristics of red wine, etc. Certainly it is true that portions are smaller in restaurants, and cities are set up in a way to encourage more walking. All these theories probably have an element of truth to them. We, however, would cast our ballot for a different theory.
This magazine is about specialty cheese, but more so it is about fine cheese as a portal to graceful living. We posit that a graceful home, filled with food and love and learning, is a path not only to a more pleasant life but to richer, more earnest and fulfilling days.
Amidst the national political conventions, the presidential nominees emphasize their abilities to create jobs and improve our economy and our lives. They could do far worse than to look at the specialty cheese industry as a model.
An earthquake that reduces the supply of a wonderful product makes us all a little poorer, makes all our lives less rich and reminds us how fortunate we are to live in a time when our options are vast, when we can both eat local and try the best the world has to offer.
Those of us who would like to sample specialty cheeses at fine restaurants face four big obstacles. These points were perfectly illustrated in "On a Cheese-Selecting Mission With Alain Ducasse," a recent Bruce Palling on Food column in The Wall Street Journal.
Alexander Woolcott was among the most quoted men of his time and a member, along with Dorothy Parker, of the famed Algonquin Round Table in New York City. Among his witticisms: “Everything I like is illegal, immoral or fattening.” It does sometimes feel that way — especially the fattening part — but it may not be quite true, especially when it comes to specialty cheese.
In this time of economic uncertainty and high unemployment, people are looking for growing sectors in which to find careers. There is one area in which demand will surely increase employment: People will increasingly seek high-quality food. Even if only a small percentage of the food supply shifts to an artisan model, it will take many workers to produce and market these specialty products.
At Cut 432, a steak house in Delray Beach, FL, they serve a delicious grilled cheese sandwich made with Gouda and sliced short rib on buttered thick toast, and served with heirloom tomato soup. It’s just similar enough to my mom’s Kraft-singles-on-white-bread grilled cheese with Campbell’s tomato soup to make me nostalgic; and it’s just different enough to make me feel sophisticated and grown up.
Recent articles in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal focused on raw milk cheeses — those made with unpasteurized milk. The great fear is the FDA will overreact and, instead of accommodating the great diversity of cheeses we enjoy in this country, will take an absolutist point of view, perhaps banning raw milk cheese altogether. This would be a shame.
After the holidays, we turn to resolutions for the New Year. For many of us the perennial is a pledge to lose weight. But any diet built around deprivation is fighting primal human instincts and thus bound to fail. The cultural move toward high-quality foods may point the way to a solution.
In this political season, those who see in food a yearning for a life of quality may be reminded of Oscar Wilde's critique of socialism: "It takes too many evenings." Most of us would rather spend time with our children, find joy with family and friends and savor an exquisite Cabernet and incredible Brie than listen to political debates. But there may be no conflict here. Upon contemplating the world of specialty cheeses, principles appear before us...
My wife and I are designing a new house. In our attempt to economize, we often find ourselves compromising one room's plans for another. One place we won't skimp though is on the areas that have to do with food.
Affluence doesn't imply more, but better. Cheese Connoisseur will help the reader on their journey to discover fine cheeses and gaining awaremess; that is another way of defining wealth.
Just as a generation ago, many Americans first began to consider learning more about wine, today the intellectually curious and the culinary aficionado are teaming up and creating a new class of connoisseur, the connoisseur of cheese. It is to this temperament that we dedicate this magazine: Cheese Connoisseur.
This issue's cover story on David Gremmels, president of Rogue Creamery, is compelling, partially because David is fascinating, partly because it reveals the complexity of making great cheese, which is engrossing, and partly because the specifics of his story are just so emotive and so rooted in a time and place. These all play into the definition of terroir that goes beyond environmental factors to incorporate the cultural and business eco-system in which a cheese is produced.