Interview: David Bleckmann, co-author of The Cheesemaker's Apprentice

Cheesemaker's Apprentice The Cheesemaker's Apprentice: An Insider's Guide to the Art and Craft of Homemade Artisan Cheese is a new book that represents a meeting of three great minds: Sasha Davies, author of The Guide to West Coast Cheese; David Bleckmann, avid (he would say "obsessed") home cheesemaker and keeper of the blog The Joy of Home Cheesemaking; and Portland, Oregon based photographer Leela Cyd. Together, they have created an informative, gorgeously photographed book that will inspire you to take your home cheesemaking to the next level...or make a great gift for someone who enjoys experimenting in the kitchen.

At the heart of the book are recipes for a range of cheeses ranging from fresh ricotta to more challenging cheeses such as gouda and cheddar. The recipes are interspersed with inspiring interviews by a range of cheese professionals including Allison Hooper of Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery, Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm and French affineur Herve Mons. David Bleckmann, who created the cheese recipes featured in the book, was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk the ins and outs of home cheese making and the process of writing the recipes for the book. Warning: his enthusiasm is infectious!

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First, tell us how you got into making cheese in the first place?

I have always been fascinated by how food is made and love to take on the challenge of making something from scratch that one would normally buy at the grocery store Some of my past endeavors include making marshmallows, bacon, and birthday candles shaped a roman numeral ‘X’ for my wife’s thirtieth birthday. Over the years I worked my way through numerous culinary crafts such as brewing beer, preserving fruit, curing bacon, and roasting coffee. In 2009 my wife Caroline surprised me with a cheesemaking class, and I was hooked. Turning milk into cheese seems a magic process when you see it take place, and behind that magic is a lot of really interesting food science. I was compelled to learn all about the process. My goal was to write about home cheesemaking to try to explain what is going on in the milk and cheese when cheesemakers practice their art.

What was it like writing the recipes for this book? You must have been making cheese for months!

Creating and writing the recipes were a big challenge. In the span of four months I had to develop 16 recipes and make the cheeses enough times that we could photograph all of the stages of the make process, including aging which in most cases took nearly three months. It involved weekends preparing cheese at home followed by full days of photography. I am proud to say that nearly all of the photographs that accompany recipes were of cheese that I made for the project (we did have to use commercial cheese a few times). It would not have been possible without the support of my wife, Caroline, who put up with our kitchen being taken over weekend after weekend with vats of coagulating milk and curds draining in the sink.

A lot of people think making “real” cheese at home is beyond their capabilities. Are they wrong?

It is extremely easy to make fresh cheese at home like cream cheese, mascarpone, or fresh chèvre. You simply ripen the milk until it is thick like yogurt and drain it in cheesecloth until it is thick. Creating aged cheese like cheddar, gouda or gruyère is more challenging, and the new home cheesemaker should be prepared to have a few failures while they are learning. In fact due to variables that are difficult to control in the home kitchen, even if you follow recipes perfectly it is likely you will not get the cheese you were trying for over 50% of the time. This is part of the process, and with practice your success rate will improve. I have learned to embrace the inconsistencies. If I make a gouda-style cheese that turns out a bit too acidic and perhaps has caught a bit of blue mold from a neighbor in the aging cave, I might rename it a “blue cheddar” and enjoy it anyway. So I would say it is very easy to make real cheese at home (especially fresh cheese), but it takes some practice, patience and luck to make good aged cheese.

You cover a lot in this book,  with recipes from fresh cheeses to blue cheese to bloomy rinded cheese. Where should a newbie begin?

I recommend people start with fresh cheese. Even if you only make fresh cheese, it is delicious and you can impress friends with your culinary skill when you serve it with pride. The first recipe in our book is for cream cheese and requires only one or two items that may not already be in your kitchen. The same recipe also can be used to make chèvre, mascarpone and fromage blanc, whose recipes immediately follow.

Many people think they can’t make good cheese at home because they don’t have an aging cave like the pros. How do you solve that problem? And does it really work?

An aging cave is an environment with a controlled humidity and temperature. Depending on the style of cheese, the temperature is between 45°F and 60°F (8°C and 16°C) and the relative humidity is between 70% and 95%. Wine refrigerators maintain the temperature in the perfect range, but unfortunately they often have circulation fans that dry out cheese if it is not sealed in wax or plastic. A much better solution is to obtain a second hand dorm style mini refrigerator and attach an external thermostat (available online and at homebrewing suppliers) to maintain the proper temperature. These refrigerators often have no circulation fans and by placing a pan of water or damp towel inside the proper humidity can be achieved. I wrote an article on my blog at joyofcheesemaking.com that outlines the process of retro-fitting a refrigerator (see that article here). And yes they do work. The cheeses shown in our book were all aged in one of my three caves in my basement!

Do you think it’s helpful for people to learn about the various cheese styles, (fresh, bloomy rinded, aged, etc.) before making their own cheese at home?

I think it works the opposite way. By making cheese at home you learn what makes each of the various cheese styles different. You can explain how the cooked curd process contributes to the texture of gruyere or emmental to someone, but I think it is much easier to understand how the “cooked curd” process differs from any other process when you have gone through the steps of cheesemaking yourself.

How do home-made cheeses typically compare to their [commercial] counterparts? For example, how would your home produced blue stack up to familiar brands like Maytag Blue or Oregon Blue?

As I mentioned previously, there are a lot of variables that are hard to control in the home kitchen and it is a challenge to get every wheel of aged cheese to turn out perfect. That said, the first blue cheese I ever made was a stilton style from raw cow milk. The final cheese had a distinct yellow paste and was riddled with internal air spaces that had filled with blue mold. It had a strong mushroom flavor but also had rich, smooth mouth feel. I would have proudly put it up against any commercial blue. Unfortunately, though I have made many delicious blues since that first one, none have really matched that success. But I am still trying to figure out exactly what I did right that first time to get those results, and I am having fun trying.

I am also fond of pointing out that I enjoy cheese much more now that I make it myself, and I am willing to pay $30-$40 per pound for a product I now know requires great craftsmanship to make well consistently. I know cheese made in my kitchen and aged in a homemade cave in my basement won’t always be as good as the cheese I can buy, but when it is I feel pretty proud of myself.

What cheese have you made at home that you are most proud ?

It is a tie between the stilton style blue I mentioned above, and the muenster I made for The Cheesemaker’s Apprentice that appears on the cover. Muenster is a washed rind cheese, which is the most difficult style to master. When the rind turned bright orange and the center was soft and pudgy, I knew I had a winner.

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The Cheesemaker's Apprentice: An Insider's Guide to the Art and Craft of Homemade Artisan Cheese, Taught by the Masters by Sasha Davies, recipes by David Bleckmann photos by Leela Cyd Quarry Press  176 pages   $24.99 paperback

The Cheese Plate: Portland's New Cheese-Themed Food Cart

Portland's food carts have gotten a lot of press lately. In particular, Dana Bowen's article "Food of the People: Portland's Food Cart Revolution" in Saveur's most recent issue (June/July 2012) has been instrumental in elevating Portland's food cart scene to true foodie status.

As it happens, I recently learned of a new cheese-themed food cart opening soon in Portland. Turns out that Carina Rumrill and husband Nick Dickison, currently sous chef at Portland's Ciao Vito, are the great minds behind the venture. Carina was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat with me about what they're dreaming up for their new baby, The Cheese Plate.

The Cheese Plate will host a soft opening on Last Thursday (June 28th, 2012) at NE 23rd and Alberta in Portland and opens officially on July 6th. Read on to see what's on the menu and more -

How did you come to the idea to do a cheese-themed food cart? And what led you to start a food cart as opposed to a cheese shop or something along those lines?

The idea to focus on cheese came from a real true love of delicious cheese. Every party we have, every picnic, cheese is upfront and we find it so indulgent, special and full of culinary possibilities. For years my husband and I have been making chèvre truffles and people just go nuts for them. So originally we talked about a food cart offering cheese truffles only. But then we quickly realized what we wanted to do was a bit more involved than that.

We love great cheese, but we’re not cheesemongers or cheese experts and don’t have an interest in becoming that at this stage (Although we desperately appreciate the individuals who are!). We love what we love and we listen to what other people recommend. But running a cheese shop wasn’t an interest of ours.

The appeal of the food cart was the relatively low risk involved. Additionally, philosophically we love the idea of food carts. When you go to a food cart, you’re most likely being served by the owner or someone very close to the owner. The owners work so hard to perfect a few products that are from the heart. And the customers get to benefit from wonderful, local inspired food at a really great price.

Both you and your husband come from culinary backgrounds - how do you think that experience will channel into this new venture?

We’re actually a perfect complimentary match for this. I have loads of experience with customer service and the restaurant business…and eating food! I’m a consummate foodie, studied culinary history in college, worked in restaurants most of my life in many positions: server, bartender, wine director, manager, general manager; I love to cook and try new food. And my husband Nick has such a well rounded culinary background. He’s done everything in the kitchen and done it really well. He’s worked in some spectacular restaurants and catering outfits in San Francisco and Portland as line cook, sous chef, head chef, you name it.

I also have quite a bit of managerial experience; restaurant management, non-profit management, and I served as managing editor of a small magazine and have some marketing experience. So the combination between our sets of skills is incredibly complimentary for this type of undertaking.

Your website mentions the celebratory nature of cheese ... say more about the connection you see/feel between cheese and celebration.

I always throw these epic birthday parties every year. My birthday is in August which itself is already a celebratory month. And we would often have the party in some great park: Dolores or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco; or a rose garden here in Portland. And the rule is everyone has to bring their favorite cheese to share. Not just something okay, but something GREAT, their absolute favorite. And I have the best images of people just running around trying this, trying that, “Oh, try this one with a strawberry!” “Try this one with some chocolate!” We just love that.

What are you planning for the vegan side of your menu, since cheese obviously isn't vegan?

Both my husband and I have both spent some portion of adult life being vegan. For years I personally was vegan every other day (that’s all I could commit to!) and then for a few other years I would be vegan for months at a time. It was a bit harder for Nick cooking in restaurants but he too had several stints of being vegan. We really support the choice to be vegan and we want to make sure people who are vegan can enjoy themselves at our cart. We originally wanted to offer a vegan cheese plate made of the best sliceable vegan cheeses we can find (there are some really good cashew cheeses, in particular Dr. Cow which offers a line of aged cashew cheeses). But after tasting the best in what is available for sliceable vegan cheese we decided to pass on this idea.

There are some GREAT “cheesy” vegan recipes made with cashews or white beans or tofu or nutritional yeast and nut/soy milks. There are excellent vegan cream cheeses and sour creams. So we plan to always offer some vegan “cheesy” options. A big feature on our summer menu is our picnic plate, from which you choose items such as “wild mushroom and kale pâté with seaweed caviar,” “melon with ginger sea salt,” “today’s pickles,” etc. to make your own plate. Six of the ten items offered are vegan.

What are some of your favorite cheeses (local or otherwise)?

We’ve fallen totally in love with cheeses from the Pacific Northwest. We have found some absolutely gorgeous cheeses here. In particular, Willapa Hills cheeses out of Washington. They are just on a different level and everything we have tasted from them is like cheese gold. Their “Two-Faced Blue” is sublime. We are completely obsessed with Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue. Willamette Valley’s “French Prairie Brie” is such a delicious and approachable party cheese. There are so many local goat and sheep cheeses that are really excellent.

I’m from Vermont originally so we are partial to cheeses out of Vermont. There’s nothing like Grafton Village cheddars. Their Sage Cheddar is impossibly delicious as are most of their cheddars.  And Willow Hill Farm out of Milton, Vermont. Wow. The best sheep cheeses we have ever had.

We are suckers for Brillat-Savarin or Pierre Robert triple creams from France and we adore Roaring 40s blue cheese from Australia. We also love quite a few Swiss Gruyeres.

Most importantly - when do you open and what's going to be on the menu?

We are going to soft launch at this month’s Last Thursday on Alberta, June 28, 2012. We will have just gotten onto the lot at NE 23rd & Alberta so we won’t be ready to fully open doors, but we plan to offer a couple items from our menu: our fromage fort and our fudge brownie with blue cheese and port wine drizzle.

We will open on July 6 during the day and have a grand opening party in the evening. The 23rd & NE Alberta lot, next to Townshend’s Tea is a new lot with four fantastic carts and a terrific produce stand, so the July 6 opening will also be a big celebration for the entire lot.

As far as the menu: our namesake item is obviously a cheese plate and we believe it is an excellent cheese plate. It will feature three Oregon cheeses, our own fromage fort, three chèvre truffles, a seasonal jam and cart-made crackers for $8. At this point, we plan to exclusively feature Oregon cheeses on our cheese plate. But we are open to adding more geographically diverse cheese plates as we mature and get more feedback from customers about what they want. We really believe in what Oregon has to offer, we’re committed to making a home here and we’re invested in the state tremendously. So focusing on the products and produce of this area in particular and the Pacific Northwest in general is important to us.

A cheese-focused sandwich that reflects the seasons will always be a feature as well. For our summer menu we are offering a Garden Sammich that has chèvre and a delicious romesco sauce, baby beet greens, heirloom tomatoes, shaved red onion, and our cart-made pickles, on Fleur De Lis’s stunning focaccia bread.

We love being creative and pushing ourselves to make most things we carry from scratch, but we also really believe in supporting others. There are some amazing small businesses in Portland offering incredible products and working their butts off doing what they love. So we don’t need to make our own kombucha when we have Brew Dr. around the corner or our own bread when bakeries like Fleur De Lis are in operation down the road or our own kale chips when Pacific Northwest Kale Chips are making the best kale chips we’ve tried. However, we will make plenty ourselves, from the jams, to chutneys, to pickles, to crackers – we’re even making our own goat cheese that we’ll use in many dishes of the summer menu.

We'll also be offering items for take-home and use at parties, picnics, cheese plates, etc. like jarred pickled eggs, pickles, chutneys and jams. Packaged fromage fort, cheese stuffed olives, popcorn & hazelnut party mix and other items from our menu will be available as well.

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The Cheese Plate Food Cart located at NE 23rd and Alberta in Portland (next to Townshend's Tea)

[photo courtesy Carina Rumrill]

 

 

 

Interview: Products Liability Attorney Ken Odza

Ken OzdaGiven the recent news about potential cheese contamination and various recalls, I thought it would be useful to understand just what the underlying legal issues and processes are in these types of situations. Toward that end, I spoke with Ken Odza, a products liablity attorney and partner with the firm Stoel Rives in Seattle, Washington. Mr. Odza is an expert in the field of product liability and has litigated numerous cases in the area of foodborne illness, insurance recovery and other commercial and business matters. His firm also writes the blog Food Liability Law, where they recently posted a Listeria Recall Toolkit discussing some useful strategies a business might emply in the event of a listeria-related recall.

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What happens in a typical food product recall situation?

Currently, the FDA does not have mandatory recall authority. So all recalls have to be voluntarily initiated by a food seller. In 99% of the cases where a product needs to be recalled (for example, when it has tested positive for something like listeria) the company, not the government, recalls the product.

The law defines certain levels of recall - Class I, II or III. A listeria problem in a ready to eat product such as cheese is typically a Class I recall because it's viewed as such a dangerous pathogen. A Class I recall comes with a high level of publicity.

In the Estrella case there has been a seizure order issued by a federal judge. What is a seizure order and how does that fit into the whole process?

If a producer refuses to recall the products, the next step is usually that the FDA will work the publicity angle. And so you see that the FDA issued a press release about the Estrellas in September. Next, if a company still doesn’t cooperate, the FDA may take the rare step of requesting involvement of the US Attorney's office to obtain a seizure order by the federal court. A seizure order like the one issued in the Estrella case is a really extreme measure. The number of seizures the FDA does in a year is really small.

If your products are the subject of a seizure order, you have the right to file a claim for the seized goods in order to avoid their disposition by the government. To prevail, you'd have to overcome the FDA's showing that the products are adulterated - which means you'd have to prove somehow that the FDA tests were wrong, or made up, or show some problem with the testing itself. The reality is that prevailing against the FDA is very challenging, to say the least. And, if you lose, you will be ordered to pay the government's fees, costs of storage and other costs.

[note: for general background on the Estrella Family Creamery case, see here. For legal specifics, download the Estrella seizure order here and/or see FDA seizure procedures manual here]

What other penalties are possible?

Even more significant than seizure of your product and a shut-down of your business is criminal liability. Under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, it’s a crime to sell adulterated food. It’s a crime even if you’re not doing it intentionally, and even worse of a crime if you are doing it intentionally. The FDA has been pivoting toward enforcement. In the event of an FDA seizure, criminal defense counsel should also be retained.

How does a recall typically play out over time?

The economic cost of a recall alone can overwhelm a food business. Here's a hypothetical example: say you are selling cheese, from a certain batch made on a certain day, that tests positive for listeria. But some cheese that you made later is not positive for listeria. So you tell FDA - we’re only recalling the positive batch. The FDA will say – how do you know the other batches aren’t contaminated? You say - because my results are negative for listeria in other batches.  The FDA will say - that's not good enough. They’re going to want to know what kind of environmental swabs have been done of the facility, where, when, etc. If you can’t show that the environment itself was clean between your production runs, you may have to recall every product you’ve ever manufactured out of that plant. Imagine the costs, even if no one had ever gotten sick.

And then, as soon as a retailer hears about a problem with your product, they’re going to pull your product no matter what, and not wait for test results. And they're going to charge that cost back to you. So you're not only facing your own recall costs, but your customers' costs as well. During the peanut recall of 2009, for example, the company (Peanut Corporation of America) couldn’t afford to recall their own products, and as a result they went bankrupt. Recall costs can be overwhelming.

Do you think the FDA is specifically focused on the artisan cheese industry right now?

More and more, I see the FDA moving toward a risk-based approach. They don’t have the resources to have inspectors everywhere all the time. So I think they’re looking at the cheese community and saying - there's a lot of folks out there doing this, it's an expanding sector. These new producers may not have the resources to do sophisticated food safety prevention in the same way that larger companies do, so maybe we ought to pay more attention to this industry.

The food-borne illness that concerns the FDA more than any other is is Listeriosis. Listeriosis, caused by the bacteria listeria monocytogenes, kills a higher percentage of its victims than any other food-borne illness. Listeria is often found in deli products such as cheese, processed meats, hot dogs. That’s probably another reason why the FDA is  focusing on these recent cheese-based listeria outbreaks so closely.

Interview: Gianaclis Caldwell, Author of The Farmstead Creamery Advisor

Gianaclis CaldwellGianaclis Caldwell's recent book, The Farmstead Creamery Advisor, is a guide to starting and maintaining a cheesemaking business. It's the missing manual that every aspiring cheesemaker has been looking for....a guide that literally walks you through the process of starting from square one. But it's not only a how-to guide: one of the things I like most about this book is that she's up front about the many challenges inherent in the startup process. Her "10 questions for Aspiring Cheesemakers" gives you some idea of her humorous but very realistic take on the artisan cheesemaking business. Because a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, right?! Gianaclis took some time out of her busy schedule at Pholia Farm in Southern Oregon to answer a few questions about her book and about the business of making cheese.

You've got plenty going on between taking care of your goats and making cheese. What made you want to write a book about it?

Well, I think one of the traits that makes for a successful farmer of any type is a certain amount of masochism...and I mean that in the most wholesome sense! But seriously, you have to be drawn to a high level of pressure, both mental and physical, to go into this type of work. And for me there is also a desire to have a new project, a new area to explore, and a new frontier to pursue. It was so difficult for us to find resources that would help us design and build our dairy and creamery and then after it was done we were constantly answering questions from others who were interested  in doing the same thing. I had always wanted to write, and the idea of writing something  practical that would help others was very appealing. Since it also ties into our business, it was easier to rationalize the time (and get support from the rest of the family!) than it would have been had I wanted to write something else - like fiction.
So many people are interested in making cheese for profit these days. Why do you think this is the case? What's the attraction?
I think a combination of factors (or maybe planets!) have aligned at this time in our culinary history that make cheesemaking so appealing. First the desire to reconnect with food - its production, its cultural history and its quality - and the renewed interest in self sufficiency have drawn people back to the animals, the land, and cottage industry.  It is truly wonderful to be a part of this revolution!
What resources were available to help you out when you were starting out? Did you have to learn by doing or were there places to go/look for help?
There were not many resources - at least consolidated ones that didn't involve some other cheesemaker taking time out of their busy lives to give us advice. Luckily a few did allow us to visit and learn. But we still made a lot of mistakes and have had to learn the hard way - hopefully that is mostly over!

Now that Pholia Farm is an established creamery, what are your biggest challenges going forward?

One of the challenges that I would not have foreseen is holding up physically to the job.  It is demanding and for some reason, every year we keep getting a bit less capable in that regard! Plus you start realizing that you can't push yourself to the physical limit as often and recover as quickly. So I guess the plan would be to have some help eventually, but being people who would rather do it all ourselves, that will be a personal/mental challenge to overcome.

Do you think the local/artisan cheese movement has peaked (either locally or nationally) or is the growth sustainable long term?

It sure doesn't seem to be anywhere close to peaking. What seems to be happening, in addition to the constant inflow of new cheesemakers, is the continued improvement of quality in the cheeses produced by existing and new cheesemakers.  I think the pressure from new cheesemakers is helping to inspire this. What SHOULD happen, is a absorption of the movement into our culture - so instead of it being seen as a movement or trend- I think that artisanal cheesemaking will become a cultural mainstay - wouldn't that be nice?

If there was one message you could give to aspiring cheesemakers wanting to start a farm-based cheese business, what would it be?

The one thing I would like them to be able to do is to see beyond the romantic, idealistic vision and understand the reality a bit better before committing their future (and their funds) to the choice.

(note: See my review of The Farmstead Creamery Advisor here.)

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The Farmstead Creamery Advisor 504 by Gianaclis Caldwell Chelsea Green $29.95  256 pages  paperback

Interview: Roger Bass of Madison Market in Seattle

photo of Roger Bass courtesy Madison Market

 

Madison Market is one of Seattle's great food stores. Located at the crest of Capitol Hill, its shiny and well-stocked store represents a dramatic evolution from the co-op's humble beginnings on 12th and Denny (where I was once a member!). I don't recall Central Co-op having a great cheese selection back in the 1980s, but that's all changed. Today at Madison Market you'll find one of the best selections of local cheese in Seattle. Cheesemonger Roger Bass is the mastermind behind all of those lovely, carefully cared for dairy gems and in honor of Madison Market's upcoming Cascadia Cheese Festival (see below) I took some time to chat with Roger about how and why he does what he does.

Cascadia Cheese Festival July 24th 11am-3pm Madison Market, 16th and Madison in Seattle Free!

On July 24th from 11-4pm, Roger and the crew will welcome cheesemakers from Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese, Larkhaven Farm, Kurtwood Farms and others as well as sample cheeses from around the region. I will be there as well signing copies of my book, Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest. Come sample, meet cheesemakers and immerse yourself in local cheese! And it's all free!

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Roger, you're originally from Wisconsin...how did growing up in the Cheese Heartland of the US influence your later career choice?

I grew up in Wisconsin at a time when you were more likely to find Velveeta or government cheddar in one's refrigerator. My dad would often take us ice fishing with a big thermos filled with a soup made from Velveeta, chicken stock and cauliflower. I remember loving it as a kid; I'm not sure how I'd react to such a concoction now. Oddly enough, my first experience selling cheese was for our yearly Boy Scout fund raiser.  There were three choices; Brick, Colby or Cheddar. Colby was my favorite and best seller.

Tell us how you became a cheesemonger. You started at DeLaurenti's in Seattle, is that right?

I stumbled upon cheese when I worked at DeLaurenti's 9 years ago and I haven't looked back. I loved working at DeLaurenti's, the selection of cheese they have is amazing. Being a fledgling foodie it was a big challenge to learn all of the cheeses they carried. Learning their names, pronunciation, milk type, flavor profiles and what they would pair with was challenging. Connie Rizzo, the cheese buyer, was a wealth of information and I bugged her constantly. I filled my head with as much stuff that would fit; working at DeLaurenti's was like a cheese university.

I've been at Central Co-op's Madison Market for 6 years. Here at the Co-op I got a crash course in clean, sustainable and local foods. It's pretty cool to work for a place that lets me follow my passions. For instance when I came up with the idea for the Cascadia Cheese Festival, the Co-op got behind me to make it a reality.

With so many great local cheeses out there, how do you choose which to feature and sell? What are some of your current favorites?

Right now one of my favorites is Dinah's Cheese from Kurtwood Farms; Kurt drops off his cheese every Wednesday and it's always in perfect shape. I have a huge crush on Pat Morford from Rivers Edge Chevre, her cheeses like Sunset Bay, Astraea and Cape Foulweather are great examples of how a talented she is. Not only do they taste amazing they are also gorgeous to look at. I just got Kelli Estrella's Brewleggio the other day and it made my knees weak. At room temperature it almost melted in my mouth. We are really lucky to live in the Northwest, the cheese being made here is some of the best examples of American artisan cheeses.

What sorts of cheeses do people like to buy at Central Co-op? Do you find that their consumption tends towards certain styles or types of cheeses?

We are a grocery store so most of the time people stop in to get the basics. I try to have the best quality Parmagiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Gruyere, Swiss and Feta at the lowest prices on Capitol Hill.  More and more our customers are asking for local cheeses. I have fans of anything made from raw milk or from goat or sheep milk. There are the customers that are only looking for something new. Of course there are others that have their favorites that they pick up every week. It's a mixed bag really.

Our customers shop at Central Co-op because they believe in supporting local and sustainable agriculture. I try not to disappoint them by carrying as many NW cheeses as I can find.

What are the hardest and most fun parts of being a cheesemonger? I love to sell cheese. By far the best part of my job is getting someone excited about buying cheese. Buying cheese can be intimidating so I love to sample and tell the story.  Also, it feels really good when a customer will pull me aside to thank me for helping them with a selection of cheese I had help pick out. I also love turning vegans to non-vegans, I only have two vegan co-workers left to convert.

The hardest part of my job is selling soy "cheese," although I refuse it put it in the specialty cheese case. I still get customers asking about what soy "cheese" melts the best.

Six Questions for Sheri LaVigne of The Calf & Kid in Seattle

Calf&Kid+logo+final_small

After months and months of hard work and planning, Sheri LaVigne will be opening Seattle's newest cheese shop, The Calf and Kid, on April 23rd - that's just 10 days from now!  [update - now open!] She was kind enough to take a few minutes out of her frantically busy day to chat about her plans for the shop...read on.

So how did you get the idea to start a cheese shop -  and find the guts to actually go through with the idea?

My husband and I moved to Seattle from Brooklyn in 2005 and we really missed our neighborhood cheese shop, Bedford Cheese.  We attended the Seattle Cheese Festival in 2006 and I was astounded by all the amazing cheeses being produced in the Pacific Northwest.  I went home thinking - awesome, now we just have to find our cheese shop! - and I was pretty shocked to find that there weren't any stand alone cheese shops in the Capitol Hill area. It was later, over wine and about $100 worth of amazing cheese back in our old 'hood in Brooklyn that it really hit home how much I missed that quality of life element in our new city, Seattle, and I thought since no one else seems to be opening a cheese shop, why don't I make it happen?

I spent over a year mulling it over, researching small businesses and talking with cheesemongers around the country.  Once I made that decision the whole project started to take on a life of its own; it was clear that I had hit on something Seattle desperately needed and wanted. My investors are a true testament to this; I put out a call for funding once I finally got the big "no" from the SBA, and within two weeks I had 3 amazing people willing and ready to help me make my dream come true.

Besides cheese, what else do you plan to carry in the shop?

I'll be carrying fresh bread from Macrina Bakery and an assortment of typical cheese accompaniments like olives, gourmet crackers, jams, chocolate, etc.  I will also be selling some of my favorite books about cheese and Culture Magazine. Right next to me will be Homegrown Sandwiches (their second shop).  They will have a rotating sandwich featuring cheese from Calf & Kid.  On the other side of me will be a wine bar so I don't need to sell alcohol....It's wonderful to have these neighbors in the Marketplace because I can really concentrate on the cheese.

Given that Seattle is such a food town, why do you think there are so few cheese shops? We know people like cheese, so what's the deal?

I think it's a combination of a few things.  First off, a lot of people simply don't know what they're missing because dedicated cheese shops aren't prevalent in the city.  We know they love the cheese counters at shops like Metropolitan Market and DeLaurenti's, and those places have paved the way for me to present an experience that is similar to what they already know and love, but also so much more than what they are used to. Secondly, I think it's easy for people to be intimidated by cheese, but it's also very easy to alleviate that by offering a fun, easy-going atmosphere.  And nothing cuts the ice better than a delicious sample of good cheese!

Can you talk about your approach to selling cheese?

My approach is based entirely on my experience as a customer in my favorite cheese shops: I like shops that are friendly, casual, and very educational and I plan to give my customers that same experience.  I'm one of those kooky people who actually loves customer service - I get so jazzed when I talk about cheese, and that energy is very contagious.  Nothing makes me happier than watching someone's face light up when they taste an amazing cheese, and people love to hear the background information of where and how cheeses are made.  I want every person to walk away with cheese they are excited about and a great story to tell.

The Melrose development seems like a great location. What other shops/restaurants are going in around you?

The Melrose Market is really a group of amazing group of people.  Matt Dillon is moving Sitka & Spruce from Eastlake into a large restaurant space, and I could not be more excited about working with him.  Matt is also working with some other folks to open a raw oyster bar and wine bar, both of which will happen sometime in the summer. Marigold & Mint is currently open selling organic flowers and some fresh veggies as the season progresses.  Across from my space is Rain Shadow Meats, offering all local, sustainably raised fresh meat, and a selection of charcuterie.  The owner, Russ Flint, has built his own aging room right in the space with windows where you can look in to see the salamis and etc.  I am so happy to have him in the space.  And then there is Homegrown Sandwiches, as I mentioned earlier. We often joke that the only thing we need is a bakery and we're all set.

What are your three favorite cheeses of the moment + why?

Of course this changes pretty regularly, but right now I am in LOVE with Rivers Edge Chevre's Humbug Mountain, it is so sloppy and gooey and makes me shudder a little when I eat it. I am also loving L'ulivo, a sheep's milk cheese from Italy.  It's wrapped in olive leaves and is oddly shaped like a giant wad of gum, but it is delightfully creamy and aromatic.  And I can't get enough of Gothberg Farms fresh chevre - it's simple, light, sweet, and reminds me very much of the fresh chevre I grew up eating.

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Calf and Kid
1531 Melrose Ave.
Suite C2
Seattle, WA  98122

Herron Hill Dairy

Herron Hill DairyWashington cheesemakers continue to multiply! Now at over thirty and still growing, this state is developing into a significant center of artisan cheesemaking. One of the newest of Washington's licensed cheesemakers is Herron Hill Dairy, a goat farm in tiny Home, Washington in Pierce County on Puget Sound. While Herron Hill is new to most of us, turns out they're already well known in the goat world as the home of Baby Belle, a tech-savvy Nigerian Dwarf goat whose blog, This Goat's Life, has been entertaining readers for several years. Most recently, cutting edge Belle has taken up Twitter as her newest medium of communication, the first goat ever to do so. Her stories of life on the farm are funny, revealing and engaging and offer a unique perspective on life on a dairy farm...She's one heck of an advocate as well, weighing in on contemporary issues such as the keeping of goats at the White House, a practice which dates to the Lincoln presidency.

Herron Hill plans to start selling goat's milk and raw milk cheeses in earnest in the spring; check Baby Belle's blog for updates. An Open House is also in the works, with details forthcoming soon.

Because I so rarely have the opportunity to interview a goat, I took some time out a few days ago to pose a few questions to Baby Belle.

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1. Tell us a little bit about yourself - were you born at Herron Hill? How would you describe your place in the herd hierarchy?

OK. Well as you probably know I am five years old and I am a purebred Nigerian Dwarf, which is the smallest and best of the dairy breeds. Many people assume that I was born here at Herron Hill Dairy, which is in the illustrious town of Home, Washington, site of one of the nation's most famous late 19th century anarchist colonies. That is probably because I seem like I might be an anarchist. In fact, though, I was born in Eastern Washington, in the Tri-cities area. When I was just a little kid the farmer picked me and my sister Snow Pea up at the Flying J Truck Stop in Ellensburg, which is about halfway between Walla Walla and Home. I rode home to Home after refreshing myself with a bottle of milk at the truck stop. In terms of the herd hierarchy, obviously I am the smartest and prettiest goat here. Not everyone agrees with that so luckily I am also a fast runner. For several years I was the farmer's personal milker, and the farmer would only make lattes with my milk, because it was the sweetest milk, but then it was decided that I would take some time off because I kept having big hungry triplets and then I would get milk fever. So now my daughter Baby Blue is the farmer's personal milker.

(photo of Baby Belle with Tricia and Richard Nixon in the Rose Garden courtesy Herron Hill Dairy)

2. What inspired you to start a blog? What are the hardest and most fun things about blogging? Would you recommend it to other goats?

I started a blog when I was a year old to keep track of my kidding countdown. About two weeks before my kids Jingle and Tinker (Belle, obviously) were born, I went online. The most fun part is getting email. I get email from all over the world - New Zealand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, even Minnesota. The hardest part is when I have to tell something sad that happened at the farm. Some years we lose baby goats during kidding season, or something else sad will happen. One year two of my grandsons were killed in a dog attack. This is probably the biggest fear at any goat farm, that there will be a dog attack. I would recommend blogging for some goats but not for Nubians.

3. I've found that sometimes if people know you are a blogger they avoid telling you things they think will end up on the blog. Do you find this to be the case at your farm? Do the other goats at Herron Hill read your blog and if so, what do they think of it?

Just the opposite. People and goats are always telling me, "here's something interesting, why don't you put it in your blog?" For example one year Scouty the Nubian 'discovered' that a lot of leaves had fallen off the trees in the autumn. She was very puzzled by it and wanted me to put it on my blog. "Leaves Fall From Trees" or some Nubian headline like that. As if. Honestly I don't know how many of the goats here actually read the blog regularly. I think some of them are really only pretending that they can read. On the other hand, one time I wrote that Winnie the LaMancha had an unrealistically high opinion of herself and was always going around t-boning everyone for no reason. I did not intend it as a criticism but just as a statement of fact. Anyway, right after that, she came up and t-boned me for no reason. Coincidence?

4. Is it true that goats have four stomach chambers?

Yes. But the most important organ is the brain.

5. Recently you made history as the first goat to ever tweet on Twitter. What inspires you to embrace cutting edge technology? Dd you find it helps you communicate with other goats - or are people your primary constituency, do you think?

Technology is our friend. Without technology there would be no microwave popcorn.

[ed note: follow Baby Belle on Twitter here]

6. What's next for Baby Belle?

I was just wondering that, too. If I feel like it I might work on my cookbook - "Baby Belle's Dairy Princess Cookbook" - which was supposed to come out a while ago. I may also spend part of the winter ruminating about the world's problems, and I might start a power-to-the-goats movement to return goats to the White House. As you probably know, the Lincoln family had pet goats when they lived on Pennsylvania Avenue. I think Caroline Kennedy will probably help me with that if she becomes the next Senator from New York, since she kept her pony Macaroni there. I understand there are a lot of really delicious rosebushes at the White House, so I think it would be a good fit. So there are a lot of things I might do. Or I might just sleep a lot. I will definitely try to eat as much hay as possible.