Cheese as an Act of Patriotism

This week’s yarn is a doozy, a story of patriotism and dairy culled from the annals of American history. I once heard mention of a tall tale involving a little town in Connecticut, a giant cheese, and President Jefferson, and thought there could be no better week than this to delve into the strange and hilarious story of the Mammoth Cheese.

Back in 1802, when Thomas Jefferson was in the White House, a little reverend in a little town in Connecticut decided to script a love letter in curd to the commander in chief. Reverend John Leland, a Baptist marooned in a land of staunch Calvinists, symapthized with Jefferson’s progressive ideals surrounding the separation of church and state, and the two men struck up a friendship. Leland figured that the best way to show his admiration and devotion to the big guy would be to enlist his congregation’s labor in the fabrication of a giant wheel of cheese to be delivered to Washington.

He called on every farmer in town to bring every drop of milk or every bit of curd from their dairies to the town’s cider mill, where they jury-rigged a makeshift cheese press where the apples would usually get squashed. A provision was made, however, that no milk from a farmer with Federalist leanings would be included in the project, ‘lest it should leaven the whole lump with a distasteful savour.’ (As quoted from an article written for ‘Gentlemans’ Magazine’, circa 1869. Why don’t we talk like that anymore?!)

The resulting cheese, a wheel of Cheshire, tipped the scales weighing in somewhere between 1200 to 1600 pounds. I suspect the discrepancy in weight is like a big fish tale… there’s always a bit of wiggle room where more drama and more heft are likely to be inserted. The unwieldy cheese was too awkward to be transported in a normal horse drawn cart, so the Reverend harnessed his beasts to a sleigh, and dragged the cheese for 500 miles through the New England winter to the White House. I mean, come on, can you imagine waking up one morning and peeking out the window only to see an enormous cheese glide by silently over the snow? I’m telling you, those were the days!

The cheese was presented to Jefferson on January 2nd of 1802, who by all historical accounts, was pretty darn impressed. He sliced off a wedge, took a walloping bite, and declared it a fine example of the craftsmanship and industriousness of his countrymen. The Mammoth Cheese, as it came to be called, remained at the White House for over two years, and was slowly chipped away at during many ceremonial dinners. You can imagine the waitstaff and their grumblings… ‘Would anyone like more cheese? We have a lovely macaroni and cheese casserole for dinner tonight…’ Rev. Leland’s Cheshire was on the menu for the Independence Day banquet of 1803, a full year and a half after it was first nibbled on. So for any of you who’ve ever wondered about how long you can keep a chunk of cheese in your fridge, keep this tale in mind. Our forefathers didn’t mess around when it came to dairy.

So add it to the list of grocery items for this year’s barbeque… hamburger patties, ears of corn, a six pack of beer, and a gargantuan wheel of fromage.

Oh, and don’t forget to mark your calendar… Saxelby Cheesemongers will close at 5:00 pm on Friday July 3rd, and will be closed Saturday July 4th. We will re-open on Monday July 6th at 9:00 am sharp.

Happy Fourth!

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Summer Tasting and Rain Dance Workshop

Last week’s email was dedicated to sheep, and these little guys pictured above were feeling a bit left out. And goats, as you may have heard, are known to have a bit of a mischievous streak. At Saxelby Cheesemongers, we don’t want any trouble from the goat powers that be… So, in honor of our caprine buddies, this week we’re crafting a little shindig for the fabulous creature we call the goat.

Summer Goatstravaganza!
Wine and Cheese Tasting at Discovery Wines
10 Avenue A (between Houston and 2nd)
Sunday, June 28th
6:00 – 7:30 pm

For Reservations ($45) and more info, call (212) 674-7833

This Sunday, we’ll be celebrating summer (it’s going to arrive, we swear!!) with a wine and cheese tasting devoted to the best of the goats. Join us at Discovery Wines as we guide you through the wild world of chevre. ‘Tis the season for goat cheese in all its incarnations, and we aim to nibble a little bit of all of them. Savor fine, paprika-dusted pyramids from Capriole Dairy in Indiana, earthy weathered field-stone-looking Square Cheese from Twig Farm and racy, caramel-sweet gamey Manchester from Consider Bardwell Farm, just to name a few. Tim from Discovery Wines will be on hand with an arsenal of delicious fermented grape juice to compliment our selections.

Think you don’t like goat cheese? Well, we’re here to assure you that there’s much more to it than the tangy, spreadable stuff that bedecks your salad. Come on out and give it a try! We may just make a believer out of you.

As for the rain dance… I’m willing to give it a try if y’all are.

Hail to the Sheep

Hail to the sheep. Mother nature’s scrappy and robust ruminants. From Iceland to the Middle East to New Jersey, sheep have been running amok for centuries, making their agricultural mark. Of course, for our own selfish purposes, it’s the dairy sheep that interest us most. Still by far the smallest cheese contingent in the United States (cows and goats outnumber our fleeced friends by quite a long shot) they produce some of the best dairy products around. This week’s email is a love letter to sheeps’ milk ricotta, fresh from Vermont.

Vermont Shepherd was one of the pioneer sheep dairies in the US, proving that it was possible to make a living from milking sheep and making cheese. After a trip to France in the early nineties, the Majors set up shop in southern Vermont and began making Vermont Shepherd, an aged cheese after the Pyrenees tradition. This year, for the first time Saxelby Cheesemongers is thrilled to carry their Ricotta Lana, a mouth watering take on sheeps’ milk ricotta that lies somewhere between the fluffy, springy fresh stuff and the more dense and compact ricotta salata.

Ricotta Lana is made from fresh curd, just like traditional ricotta, but is then molded and drained in small baskets to squeeze out a bit more moisture. The result is a fresh cheese that is curdy and snappy, with a sweet, yet sheepy flavor so distinctive you might think you’ve wandered into a congregation of the ovine persuasion in some French or Italian village. Ricotta Lana is meaty and rich for a fresh cheese; it has enough heave-ho to make a killer gnudi, and makes a lasagna so fortified you could cross a desert after eating it. For lighter summer fare, let the Lana grace your breakfast table topped with your favorite honey or preserves. Or just crumble a bit over a menagerie of crisp greens for a more satiating salad. We’ve searched high and low for a sheeps’ milk ricotta to please our palates, and want you to have some too.

Till next week… may the sheep cheese be with you.

Who’s Your Daddy? Radio, Father’s Day, and a Whole Slew of Other Stuff…

This week’s email is dedicated to dads. Father’s Day is coming right on down the pipeline, and Saxelby Cheesemongers is poised to celebrate in a myriad of ways. From mail order cheese to our new radio show, we’re going to be kicking out the cheesy jams to all the padres this June 21st. If you’re stumped over what to get for dad on his special day, (and I know I ALWAYS am…) why not go for a box o’ delicious cheese? Add some beer and a barbeque to the equation, and you’ve got yourself a little slice of dad heaven. Check out saxelbycheese.com to check out our gift selections. Just think, YOU could be the food hero of this father’s day.

In other news, yesterday was a banner day for Saxelby Cheesemongers. My love of radio and all technologies antiquated landed me a spot on the burgeoning Heritage Radio Network, which broadcasts out of a delightfully quirky, DIY pizzeria in Bushwick. Half radio station and half platform for a killer garden, Heritage Radio exists within the walls of two green shipping containers, atop which sit raised beds full of sugar snap peas, tomatoes and other tasty greens.

The Heritage Radio Network was started by one Patrick Martins, one of the founders of Heritage Foods USA. Through the business, Patrick and his cohorts aim to save heritage breeds of livestock, mostly turkeys and pigs, by hooking up farmers in the midwest with savvy chefs and restaurateurs who have an eye for quality meats. Just last year, the spirit moved him to take his ‘slow’ business show on the road. Patrick convinced the owners of Roberta’s that they needed to have a radio station in the back yard (really, what respectable pizzeria doesn’t?) and in the spirit of wily culinary cowboys, they agreed. Two shipping containers and many a good conversation later, Heritage Radio is thriving. Programming is great and growing all the time, and features chefs, artists, master composters, authors, and now dairy gurus too!

‘Cutting the Curd’ is my radio homage to all things dairy, and airs live every other Sunday afternoon at 3:30 pm. The inaugural broadcast was devoted to National Dairy Month, and I got the chance to interview some folks from Wisconsin who play a big role in all the festivities. I talked with Jeanne Carpenter, author of a fantastic blog about Wisconsin cheese (cheeseunderground.blogspot.com), and Bill Schlinsog, a retired cheese and butter grader for the Wisconsin State Department of Ag. You can check out the show any old time online by visiting heritageradionetwork.com

On Sunday June 21st, Cutting the Curd will delve into the crazy and complex world of breeding and genetics with a special Father’s Day episode entitled ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’ We’ll get some folks on the horn to talk about different breeds of dairy animals and what a difference the right genes make. It may not be a subject we New Yorkers can put into practice in our day to day lives, but when else do you get to hear about someone who flies frozen goat sperm across the country for a living?

So pony up this Father’s Day with some cheesy treats and afternoon audio entertainment! See you over the interweb-waves!

It’s National Dairy Month! (As If We Needed an Excuse to Eat More Cheese…)

This morning, whilst spelunking around the internet in my parents’ kitchen in Chicago, the cheesy gods offered up this tidbit of dairy trivia. June is National Dairy Month. Who knew?! Certainly not me, and I’ve been in this game for quite a minute or two now. I was looking for cheese related holidays, knowing that shavuot happened just last week, but who needs a one day holiday when you can have four weeks worth of dairy-centric festivities?!

According to the milk-lore out there, National Dairy Month started off as National Milk Month way back in 1937. And it wasn’t just a summer love letter to cows and dairymen alike… it was designed to keep the public’s appetite for dairy high during times of peak production. Cows tend to produce the most milk in early summer when they have just freshened and are turned out on pasture, grazing their way through tons of grass and greenery. The Dairy Council, bent on using up all that good milk instead of turning it into processed gobbledygook like they do today (milk powder, powdered whey, etc, etc) went on a dairy rampage, and states from Wisconsin to New York began having parades, cow camps, milking competitions, and free food! (ice cream, omelettes, curds) all in the name of promoting dairy.

Last year, when I was a judge at the American Cheese Society competition, my co-judge happened to be a seasoned Midwestern dairyman. Bill Schlinsog was a 50 year veteran of the Wisconsin Dairy biz, and worked his way through the dairy industry from helping his folks operate a small cheese plant without electricity near Madison, to being a professional cheese and butter grader for the state. He told me about his own county’s Dairy Days festival, which according to him was far and away one of the best parts of the job. Each June, people from miles around would converge at a different dairy farm for a day of farming and food. Bill was responsible each year for the gargantuan cheese omelette… they would crack up a couple hundred eggs, shred an obscene quantity of cheese, and with the help of some good Wisconsin butter, would fry the whole thing up and serve it for breakfast. Now that’s what I call a dairy day.

So for anyone out there who was looking for an excuse to eat more cheese, there you have it. Make some ice cream, fry up some curds, or just grab a hearty block o’ something delicious for the house. Cholesterol be damned! ‘Tis the season for cheesin’!