Sunday, May 23, 2010

Cheese of the Week: Tronchetto Miele

This has to be one of the best flavored cheeses out there. The paste was chalky the underind full of goaty flavor and the rind had a hint of honey that got more pronounced as the cheese aged. Overall an amazing cheese.

The label has this little rant in Italian supporting raw milk: Il latte "crudo" e un alimento "vivo," non viene privato delle sue caratteristiche originaire e mantiene tutte le sue qualita.

I got this amazing cheese at the Formaggio's on Essex Market in NYC. Brooke the head monger at this cheese store is superb and always has great recommendations. A couple of weeks ago she recommended Papillon Pur Brebis Pave d'aveyron from Belgium.

Coming up a post on flavored cheeses, stay tuned...

Thanks to my fried Ale for my newest cheese-board.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Cheese Solidarity

Since I started using Twitter, I have been following an awesome guy named the @CurdNerd. He is from New Zealand and is living in England and the person behind the #cheesesolidarity hash tag. His concept, as I understand it, is an easy one.

There are very few of us really committed to the idea of artisanal cheese and we should all support each other, but most importantly the small cheese makers. The problem is that because the profit margins are so small, some big players are getting territorial about their turf and markets. Unlike wine, cheese companies/retailers are not directly encouraging cheese connoisseurship. They have instead opted for the middleman model standing between cheese makers and cheese consumers. This is basically my whole problem with the international foodie circuit.

At the same time, some cheese experts are more worried about helping companies sell more cheese and less about helping cheese makers maintain their livelihoods, cultures and life styles. This late capitalist model prefers fancy over local, food as signifier of style rather than culinary cultures and it thrives from corporatization while obscuring craftsmanship.

It has been over a year now since I spoke about this in the 2009 Ontario Cheese Society annual meeting in Toronto, Canada. Back then I was pushing for a North American expertise of cheese. My remarks while welcomed were recieved with hesitation, especially from the big players.

Later in the year in my way to the Canary Islands for the WCA, I had the opportunity to talk to Jaime Montgomery from the now famous English cheddar. He like others and me in the event were worried about the direction that the cheese industry was going and wanted to change the emphasis to the craftmanship. I should point out that this is not just a conversation that existed with cheesers of the Anglo world; Spanish, French and Swiss judges expressed similar worries. Me as the only Latin American and the judge from South Africa were concerned that this marketization would destroy small local cheese farms in our counties. Giving way to a foodie market that rather consumes fancy food from factories bought at high-end markets than local productions from farmers and mongers.

Finally, after a brief conversation with Mateo Kehler, and other members of the American Cheese Society, I realized that the only thing I could do, was to directly link up with cheese makers to learn from them how we could ensure that their livelihoods were maintained for them, their families and their regions.

It is for this reason that I keep helping cheese makers in Chiapas pro bono and this summer I am planning to expand to help cheese makers in other regions of Mexico. I am also hoping to help start the Mexican Cheese Society.

In the mean time, I ask you to email me with suggestions and how to help cheese makers, opening markets, fighting lame legislation, finding funding and expertise, and connecting with cheesers all over the world.

In a sense keep the #cheesesolidarity going!!!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Culinary culture

If you follow me on twitter, you may know that I am fighting a very-familiar battle for cheesers out there. The battle is against big dairy corporations, their lobbyists and elected officials with no backbone. The fight is over pasteurization and this time the battleground is Mexico. However, the fight does not look much different in the rest of North America, Australia or New Zealand for that matter.

My battle is against a law proposed in the Federal Congress by the Ministry of Health that would outlaw cheesemaking using raw milk. The passage of the law would not only criminalize small artisanal producers, it will also constitute an assault to our culinary culture.

Yes, I know that both charges are really strong, but that is exactly what this proposed law (we'll call it NOM 243 by it's filling number) would do. Let me explain why and present the case for raw milk cheeses in an entirely Mexican context. If this sounds familiar to you, but you are not from Mexico or live there, it may be because a very similar situation exists in your country.

Let's start with a basic facts, Mexico did not have cheesemaking or any dairy industry before the colony. It was with the arrival of the Spanish and Italian monks that cheese made it's way to Mexico. This, however, does not mean that cheese is still foreign to Mexican cuisine. What it means is that cheese, like many other food ingredients in Mexican cooking, is a clear representation of a complex, varied, and vibrant culinary culture.

This culture inherits a strong indigenous sense with ingredients like corn, chilies, chocolate, cactuses, tomatoes, and vanilla. It borrows techniques from Spain like salting fish and meat and integrates milk (and it's by-products), bread and most meat into the cuisine. But the story does not end there. Mexican cuisines also learnt and incorporated French sauces, Italian meat curing, Chinese soups and broths, and we also use tahini and pickles from Mexicans whose backgrounds are Lebanese and Jewish. Increasingly our food is also influenced by new immigrants from Haiti, Argentina, Central America, Brazil, Korea and also from the US.

It is exactly within this diversity that Mexican cheese finds its place in our cuisines. Cheese in Mexico is not only a food product, for many is a way of life. Here I am talking of the small artisan producers who produce unique cheeses in all regions of the country. Think for a second of the Menonites of Chihuahua, the small communities (some indigenous peoples included) of Oaxaca and Chiapas who make Quesillo or Queso de Bola or Queso de Cuadro and of small ranchers in Michoacan who turn amazing raw milk into Cotija cheese. Those artisan cheesemakers learnt their craft from their grandparents who in turn learnt from their grandparents. Most of them use raw milk to make their cheeses. They have small herds that are taken care by the immediate family and worry a lot about the well-being of their cattle, their cheese and their customers.

If the proposed law passes, it would criminalize their way of living. Most of them would have to leave cheesemaking as they won't be able to afford pasteurizing machines and will rather sell milk for liquid consumption. Others would defy the law and continue making cheese with raw milk, but their productions will be pushed to the illegal market raising the real risk of having an outbreak of food-related illnesses from dairies that are not carefully inspected and regulated.

That situation already exist in Mexico, as there are laws in place for limiting the use of raw milk, but this law will completely outlaw this practice. Just to be sure, I am not advocating for no regulation. I am arguing that we don't need laws that prohibit completely traditional ways of cheesemaking and that instead we need strong mechanism for monitoring that the raw milk that is used for human consumption is clear and free of pathogens that can affect human health.

In a sense this proposed law is the option to solve a problem on the cheap. By outlawing all production of cheese with raw milk, the government only needs to enforce the law by sanctioning producers who go against the law. While establishing a monitoring system, guidelines, and trainings for dairy producers and cheesemakers, is expensive, labor intense and requires long term planning. Outlawing something from a comfy office in Mexico City is the easy way out.

The project that I am involved with in Chiapas to create a collective trademark for the Queso de Cuadro is the right solution. This project involves producers, farmers, government and academia in finding a way to maintain traditions while ensuring that cheesemaking is safe and clean. It is an initiative that has the backing of many stakeholders, making it a slow process, but at the same time it ensures that the ultimate decision would have the backing of all involved.

So what is it about raw milk? Why are so many of us fanatics of it and what does it have to do with Mexican culinary culture? Before I answer to these questions, let me tell you a short story about one of the cheese judging competitions that I hosted in Chiapas.

In my first trip to Chiapas, I tasted 45 samples of Queso de Cuadro. There were producers from the many regions of the state, and while most cheeses tasted similarly I was able to taste the terroir of the farms where these cheeses were produced. Those from the mountain region were dryer and fattier. The ones from the plains were more lactic (milky) with fresh smell of grass and those from the coast were sweet and aromatic (like tasting flowers). One cheese from the coastal region stood up in smell and flavor. It was sweeter than the others and the smell reminded of ripe fruit instead of flowers. After the competition, I asked the producer of this unique cheese about his herd, the location of his farm, the weather in the region and finally about the feed the cows eat. I was surprise to find out that while his dairy is similar to all other in the region the feed that he gave the cows included a stick of sugar cane in the middle of the day. He said that the cows loved the sugar and produced better milk. He said that he was worried that I was gonna ask him to stop feeding sugar canes to the cows. Instead I was for the first time realizing how much impact feed has on the final flavor of the cheese.

Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria and pathogens in milk, but it also destroys all the complexities in the milk from the various aspects present in the terroir. This means that flavors are more generic and it really doesn’t matter where cheese is made, as no trace of the location where is made is maintained. However, taste alone is not enough to argue that milk should not be pasteurized, especially if there are concerns about the quality of the milk.

Here is exactly, where the minutia of the argument becomes relevant. The solution is to ensure better milk, cleaner and safer techniques, and also to care and be responsible for milk producers’ livelihoods. This is impossible to achieve when the only reasoning behind producing milk is to turn a profit. Milk, while treated as a commodity in economic markets, it is also a food for human consumption. However a lot of people, companies and farmers forget this. They only see dollar/peso sings in the liters/gallons of milk produced and not a food with nutritional value, a story and benefit for our population. Food companies are not in the business of feeding people, they are in the business of making profits with products that we all need daily.

We need to move away form this economic model, which is ending traditional ways of production and hurting our environment. The solution is smaller farms, local consumption and care for the trade of farming. This is why I advocate for raw milk, to support our dairy farmers who are willing to produce good milk for us because they love what they do, not because they want to turn a profit at expense of the animals and the consumers.

If you are interested in learning more about the campaign in Mexico against NOM 243 follow me on twitter (@carlosyescas) and make sure to be ready to talk about raw milk to everyone that needs help understanding why this matters.

For resources in English visit the Alliance for Raw Milk Internationale, they have info about similar movements all around the world.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Cheese in Restaurants

One of the most common questions that people ask me is "what restaurants do you recommend to go eat cheese?" While there are many in New York and elsewhere. I am yet to find one where I feel that I am getting value for my money.

My problem is that for the US$16-24 dollars you could get better cheese, than the three/five tiny, mishandled/abused, old pieces of cheese you normally get. Still, I continue to try different restaurants and their cheese plates. I know that there will be a great restaurant soon. My only rule for choosing a restaurant where I would order a cheese plate is a good display. If you are able to see the cheese, either in a fridge (like the one in the pic), a display or a cart. These restaurants most of the times care a great deal about their selection and the cheese plate will be better.

In New York City try Casallula and Artisanal. My recommendation for Artisanal is to go during lunch, this way the cheesemonger will have more time to come to your table to explain the cheese you are getting and the selection will be better. Enjoy!

For amazing Mozzarella di Buffala fresh from Italy also in New York City go to Obika, just beware that the carbon miles of these delicious mozzarella balls should prevent you from using your car for about a week and plant a tree this spring.

Do you have recommendations? Let me know in the comments section.

This pic was taken at the Terzo Piano which is the restaurant at the Art Institute of Chicago. For a list of their cheese selection go here.

Adventures in Cheese-buying

Everyone in NYC told me I had to check out Pastoral when I travelled to Chicago, and they were right. Their selection of world cheeses is good, their American selection strong, but the best part is that they have cheeses from the Midwest that we normally don't get in NYC.

I visited the store twice, and while the first time the cheese selection was not as good. In my second visit, I got a great cheesemonger that was able to introduce me to great cheeses. Hail to the Savvy Cheesemonger! The second time I got:

Ewe Bloom - Prairie Fruits Farm (Champaign, IL) - Bloomy ewe's milk triangle made with pasteurized milk. Perfect gooey under-rind and chalking middle. Great for spring days. The taste as fresh, with a hint of pepper, but mostly really sheepy.

Little Darling - Brunkow Cheese of Wisconsin (Wisconsin) - This hard cheese, is sharp to taste with a gorgeous cream color. The rind smells amazing, like walking into a moist cave and the texture is soft. This cheese reminded me of those small production cheddars from Ireland, it is made with cow's milk. Great cheese!

Marisa - Carr Valley (Wisconsin) - Sheep's milk cheese for those starting to experiment with non-cow's milk cheeses. This is a perfect example of what can be achieved if the cheese maker knows her trade. Flavor, smell and texture are perfect, creamy, and fatty. Wish I had bought more.

Cheese selection @ Pastoral Cheese - Loop (Chicago, IL)