A Monger’s Musings – Part 1

This post is the first of a series called ‘A Monger’s Musings’ written by Saxelby’s cheesemonger / wordsmith extraordinaire Bennie Johnson. Look out for future installments!

3/16/16

Spring. The earlier the better for some, for most. This year spring arrived in a day. We fell asleep bundled to the nose and awoke to something, a smell, almost forgotten, yet so familiar. The scent of fresh juicy shoots swollen with clean dew. It’s smell that demands a recognition, if only briefly. You stop a moment on that slightly desolate block that is fifth street between first and A, you close your eyes and take a deep breath, all you smell is fresh, clean, young and sweet. If you had time you could let your eyes stay closed, allow the smell to take you further, for those of us whose heartstrings are still embedded elsewhere this small patch of sumptuous green grass gives us a glimpse of a lawn where snowdrops nod their glowing white heads, where swallows swoop into the barn, a swoop that would make your stomach hover weightlessly in the space between your belly button and your lungs. The woodpile is dwindling to no one’s concern and the roads are knee deep in mud, sucking to your boots and tires like a jubilant puppy, desperate to play and tragically misunderstood. The breeze hiccups slightly, backtracks on itself in the way it does only in spring, young and playful still finding its way between the buildings and people. Returning to its spindly legs it brings with it the smell of your coffee and your eyes spring open to the present.

While we cling with glee to our fresh sprigs of grass and the return of outdoor seating, elsewhere new life is arriving in other forms as well. When I was 6 this time of year brought even more excitement than the current thrill of being able to wear my converse outdoors. Sometime in the upcoming week I’d be woken up in the small hours of the morning. My dad, smelling of hay and wool and in his cover-all’s is already beginning to scoop me up and bundle me in my coat. My mom is shuffling down the stairs to boil water for tea. “It’s time.”

We had the smallest of barns. Half was a hayloft with a corner where we kept the big grain bin which I wasn’t allowed to open because I wasn’t strong enough to close it tight. Leaving the light of the front porch we made our way across the dark yard to the barn which sat like a mother hen, the cobwebbed, yellow light illuminating the hay dust causing a golden glow. Our beautiful little barn sat there, patient, the ultimate mother she waited for my dad to return. Like a great bellows, her warm breath washed over us across the yard. I climbed up onto the grain bin and opened the little window that my dad had installed so I could see into the stall where the sheep lay, undoubtedly counting one another with mild amusement, night after night. Tonight the old ewe who had slowly at first and then with astonishing speed grown to an enormous size over the winter, lay, breathing heavily on fresh hay while the other sheep snoozed unfazed in the corner. My dad had gone around through the gate and was now at the ewes head with a bucket of water. She and my father had brought many lambs into this barn together and she had grown quite indifferent to his presence.

She didn’t need much help, despite there being two. “We’ve got a double yolker!” My mom had predicted due to the size of the mamma. One by one my dad pulled them up to her head and while she gave them a tender but slightly tiresome look about, he snapped the rubberbands around their tails and looked up at me with a smile. The sky was filling with light and the air had become the color of skim milk. There was still snow on the ground, hard and crusty but in the sheep’s yard it was all mud and hay. He put out the others and gave them grain closing the door behind them to give the old ewe her peace. By the time he had given her hay and grain I was drifting off, drooling slightly on the window ledge. I felt my cheek peel off of the wood and my head bump into the warmth of my dad’s shoulder. There was the bonk bonk bonk of my head on his collarbone with each step and the warmth of the house and the sound of my mom sipping tea. She would go let out the chickens and check on the lambs while my dad slept for a few hours. But by now my head was on my pillow and I was sinking infinitely deep into my bed into the morning light. In the barn my mom was getting the lambs to nurse and in the mudroom my dad was hanging up his overalls. And all across the state of Vermont other families were doing the same. Milk, like the sap in the trees, had begun to flow.

Here in New York we are stopping briefly to take deep breaths of grass and air, we are promising our friends the return of fresh goat cheeses, we are trying to remember how we had stored our winter clothes last year, can we fit anything else under the bed?

The breeze, like a little messenger bears the news of spring, bears stories of what it’s seen. Baby lambs discovering the excitement of wobbly legs, swollen creeks bearing the last of the melted snow to the river, the roar of the fire that boils the great tanks of sap around which folks drink whiskey and eat cornbread and talk about things that float about a bit and then evaporate with the steam that seeps through the cracks under the roof. The news on the breeze intoxicates us, makes our tired feet step more lightly, makes us chatter more animatedly outside coffee shops, makes bicycle commuters yell with renewed abandon, and most importantly, thread us all together, feed us the same joy, send us smiling to work each morning unclear as to why we feel like an escaped balloon at a fair, full of air and bobbing up into the blue sky higher and higher.

Advertisements

Spring Has Sprung! Get Ready For Some Serious Kidding (and Lambing and Calving) Around!

IMG_1211.JPGA few weeks ago I wrote a dirge to the doldrums – that deepest winter time of year when all seems frozen and static except for the low hum of cabin fever and vibrations of new life’s impending arrival on the farm.

The days have gotten longer (and quite a bit warmer too!) and mother nature has done her duty. We city dwellers can’t quite feel it the same way that a cheesemaker with hundreds of baby lambs and goats baa-ing and meeh-ing out in the barn can, but we can see it at the cheese counter! All of a sudden, fresh goat cheeses – jewel-like, like budding flowers on a branch, are gleaming betwixt and between the hulking wedges of firm aged cows’ milk cheeses and stinky puddle-y washed rinds in the display case.

If you stop by Saxelby Cheesemongers this week – be sure to ask for the first goat cheeses of the season. Right now we’ve got Pearl, Lake’s Edge, and Sandy Creek –fresh from the farm! One taste of that tart, fluffy, lemony curd, and you’ll be heralding the arrival of spring on the streets of New York! (Well, that might be a bit much, but would make for a good addition to our naturally occurring sidewalk entertainment on Essex Street.)

So what actually happens on the farms to bring all of this good fresh goat cheese to our cheese counter? Lots and lots of births, that’s what. Goats and sheep are very seasonal in their breeding – they breed in the fall when the days grow shorter, and give birth in the springtime when the weather is more hospitable to kids and lambs running amok, and when the growth of fresh pasture is right around the corner to feed both kids and moms. Most of the farms that Saxelby works with follow this natural breeding cycle.

Most goats and sheep (does and ewes for you nerdy types out there) give birth to twins or triplets, meaning that a farm with 100 milkers will have between 200 to 300 babies in the spring! The next time you think about how stressed out you are because of the subway running late, your phone not working right, etc, remind yourself of the fact that at least you’re not bottle feeding 200 baby goats.

Our cheesemakers double as midwives during this time of the year – David Major of Vermont Shepherd sleeps in the barn with his sheep so that he can be at the ready to assist with births. Laini Fondiller of Lazy Lady Farm recounted some wild tales of turning around breach babies, and helping her does through difficult births. For her as for most farmers, the vet is only called in if there’s a particularly tricky situation. Michael from Twig Farm turns his garage into a nursery for the kids – there are little plywood cubicles full of fresh bedding filled with sweet smelling, affectionate kids alternately cuddling, jumping, and testing out their best head butts on one another.

After the babies are weaned from their mother’s milk (this depends from farm to farm) then the cheesemaking begins. Now for a word on spring milk – And that word is DELICIOUS. There is a waterfall of other words I could use too – rich, luscious, fatty, decadent, exquisite, transcendent, etc. Spring milk has a ton of butterfat and protein in it because it’s designed to grow kids and lambs that are strong, fatty, and hungry pretty much around the clock.

A milking doe, ewe, or cow has a lactation cycle just like we humans do. In the early days after being born, the babies need lots of nourishment, but can’t yet eat a lot because their digestive systems are just getting rolling. The mothers produce a sort of proto-milk called colostrum, which is small in terms of quantity, but incredibly high in fat. The colostrum also carries antibodies, which are passed from mother to baby to help jump-start their immune systems. Colostrum is NOT used for cheesemaking.

Just after the colostrum comes the richest and fattiest milk. This milk makes delicious cheese that is different from any made during the rest of the season, and there is a window of just a few weeks per year when cheeses are made from this milk. There is still less of it, again because babies are growing and need less. As the babies continue to grow, and the feed changes over from dry hay and grain to pasture, the milk supply goes way up, and the fat content correspondingly goes down. The mothers make more milk, but it’s not quite as decadent as those first few weeks.

Towards the end of the season (which for sheep is about 5 months, for goats about 10 months, and cows closer to 12 months) the milk production begins to dwindle again, but rises in fat and protein. By this time most of the herd is pregnant again (they get right down to business!) and the milk production drops off the closer they get to giving birth. A few months before the babies are due, the farmers will ‘dry them off’ i.e. stop milking them so that their bodies can fatten up and prepare for the next round of babies!

Stop by the shop this week to taste these first, most delicious, goat cheeses of the season! The sheep will be following suit shortly – look out for those in a month or so. That window of spring milk is already winnowing away, so be sure to snag a slice!

Drunken Cheese For St Paddy’s Day + Future of Essex Market Talk at the Lowline Sunday 3/20

StPatricks01.jpg

Grab your bagpipes and shillelaghs folks!

St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner! Stop by Saxelby Cheesemongers this week to taste our selection of beer-washed cheeses to go along with your St. Patrick’s Day shenanigans. These tart, savory, and funky cheeses are washed or soaked in local brews, bringing a whole new level of flavor AND making them a perfect partner for your favorite pint of craft beer!

Trifecta

Crown Finish Caves (pasteurized sheep and cows’ milk/vegetarian rennet, Brooklyn, NY)
The traditional definition of trifecta is when a person accurately bets on the top three finishers in a horse race. In the case of this cheese, the top three finishers are cows, sheep, and beer! These little squares of buttery goodness are crafted by Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, and then sent down to Crown Finish Caves in Brooklyn for finishing. The young cheeses are washed with beer from Threes Brewing (yet another Trifecta reference for ya..) giving them a slight fruity funk. The texture and flavor of Trifecta is sublime – think silky, creamy sheep butter with a hint of pepper and barnyard. Aged 4 weeks.

Harpersfield with Ommegang Beer

Brovetto Dairy (pasteurized cows’ milk/microbial rennet, Jefferson, NY)
The Ommegang Brewery, located in Cooperstown, New York, is just a stone’s throw (or a short drive) from the Brovetto dairy. This American original is the only cheese we know of that’s made in this fashion – young wheels of cheese are soaked in beer from Ommegang Brewery for one week, allowing the beer to penetrate the semi-firm chalky paste and dye the rind of the cheese a pale orange color. Deliciously yeasty with tangy and lactic notes, this cheese is the perfect marriage of two nearly perfect fermented foods.

Snow’d In

Lazy Lady Farm (pasteurized cows’ milk/animal rennet, VT)
A delicate round of creamy, mold-ripened cow’s milk that is lightly washed in local Vermont beer from Newport Brewing Co. This young cheese is a perfect blank slate for many pairings, the flavor is mild, milky, and nutty with just a hint of pungency.  Think very young Reblochon meets Robiola.

Upcoming Event

History and Future of Markets in NYC – Part Two

Sunday 3/20 – 12pm to 1pm

Lowline Lab – 140 Essex Street (between Rivington and Stanton)

Delight your inner foodie with stuffed risotto balls and other light bites as we discuss the importance of preserving the rich history of markets in New York City. Moderated by local history mavens, the Bowery Boys, alongside market vendors Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheesemongers, and Giulia Della Gatta of Arancini Bros; and Rohan Mehra, Principal at Prusik Group.

FREE – For tickets, RSVP here

Saxelby Salutes Women in Cheese!

March is women’s history month, and though I would not call myself an ardent ‘feminist’ – in the clichéd bra-burning kind of way – I realize that this sentiment is probably largely due to the fact that I take for granted how good I’ve got it thanks to the work of all of those fierce women who paved the path that I contentedly walk.

The world of cheese has probably always had a more feminist bent than other professions – especially in the field of agriculture. In France as in many other cultures, the work of making cheese was often a woman’s work. In the case of small-format cheeses like Camembert, and the little drums, thimbles, pyramids, buttons, and discs of goat cheese that are a large part of France’s gastronomic patrimony, we owe a debt of gratitude to the women who made them betwixt and between countless other tasks on the farm.

For those of you who did not grow up on a farm that produces cheese (and I imagine there are a few of you out there…) there is a real division of labor on the farm – there’s inside work, and then there’s outside work. Making cheese falls under the ‘inside work’ umbrella. The cheesemaking process is a fastidious one (cleaning, tempering milk, culturing milk, checking the feel of the curd, ladling the curd into molds, salting, turning, brushing, washing) and one that takes place over many hours. It would often be the woman’s job to tend to the cheesemaking while shuttling back and forth between the house and other farm chores. Apparently the age-old cliché that women are better at multitasking than men has roots in the cheese world as well.

When I lived in France before opening Saxelby Cheesemongers, I made goat cheese on three different dairies in the Loire Valley. On those dairies, the women were in charge of making the cheese, and the men were in charge of the animal husbandry and farm maintenance (or ‘outside work’) – feeding and milking the animals twice daily, haying fields, fixing tractors, etc. Of course this notion can be easily upended. There are certain cheeses, mostly larger-format ones – that traditionally were made by men (Comté, Cheddars, etc) or cheeses like the great sheep cheeses from the Pyrenees that are crafted in huts in high mountain pastures by groups of male shepherds, and there are certainly a lot of women out there who can fix a tractor. But it is all to say that women have a solid spot in the cheesemaking hall of fame.

Now let’s talk about mongers. In French, the word ‘monger’ doesn’t exist (can you imagine saying ‘monger’ with a French accent?!) but a woman in cheese is a fromagére or an affineuse. Many of the best cheese shops and affinage operations in France are run by women – There is Marie Quatrehomme, Marie-Anne Cantin, and Nicole Barthelemy in Paris, and La Mere Richard with her storied St Marcellin in Lyon. The best chefs in France, and the most discerning of cheese eaters happily entrust their cheese selections to these grand dames du fromage.

In America, one could argue that our artisan cheese revolution was kindled (and the flames stoked) by women. Back in the 1970’s and 80’s, when the rest of the country was wolfing down Velveeta and Kraft Singles, women like Laura Chenel, Mary Keehn, and Jennifer Bice in California, Allison Hooper and Laini Fondiller in Vermont, Paula Lambert in Texas and Judy Schad in Indiana, were trying their hands at making an array of goat cheeses and fresh Italian-style cheeses – the likes of which had never been seen stateside. Fast-forward to 2016, and when you look at the cornucopia of American artisan cheeses that grace the counters of Saxelby Cheesemongers, Dean and DeLuca, Whole Foods and beyond, give thanks to these women and to their visionary (and at the time) wildly impractical desire to create fine European-style cheese in the United States.

As a woman who opened a cheese shop in New York City at the age of 25, googly-eyed with admiration for these cheese pioneers and the legions they inspired, and given the chance to launch a crazy business and sell New Yorkers good cheese, I guess I just might be a feminist after all… So when you munch on a morsel of cheese this March, give thanks to the many women out there – now and throughout history – making, aging, and selling great cheese!

 

 

Left Coast Cheese – A Monger’s Visit to LA’s Grand Central Market

LACheese

After 17 years of living in NYC, I am an unabashed New Yorker. The schlepping, the running around, the wonderfully frenetic hum of this insane city contents my soul. I’ve had the chance to visit LA several times, and though this midwestern transplant turned New Yorker could never live there, the city (especially in February!) has its charms.

This past weekend I had the chance to visit LA and poke around some of its cheesy corners – mainly in the form of DTLA Cheese in downtown’s Grand Central Market. Owners Lydia and Marnie Clarke opened their stall at Grand Central in 2013, building on the success of their first shop The Cheese Cave in historic Claremont village, which they launched in 2010. The Grand Central Market is a destination near and dear to my heart – I seek out all markets first and foremost among tourist destinations when traveling. In the middle of the up-and-coming yet still dingy and sparse downtown area of Los Angeles, it is an anomalous hive buzzing with caloric activity.

DTLA has an international coterie of cheeses, but their Cali selection is particularly strong. Marnie sits on the board of the California Cheese Guild, and both she and her sister are ardent supporters of California’s artisan cheesemaking community. Standing behind the counter tasting cheese with Lydia was like a cheesemonger’s right of passage – when fellow cheese folks come to visit our shop in the Essex Market, I often keep them there noshing and talking for far longer than they had anticipated staying. There is just so much cheesy goodness coming out of the northeast that doesn’t make its way out of the region – I have to share it all with my cheesy compadres so that they can get to know some of our weird and wonderful wheels, tommes, and loaves of curd.

Lydia’s selections were sublime – she took our tastebuds on a tour of the Golden State starting with a stop at Central Coast Creamery. Their Bishops Peak, a raw cows’ milk cheese aged for 8 months, was a sharp and butterscotchy mouthful – toothsome, aged, and wonderfully full flavored. When Marnie and Lydia tasted this cheese, they were bowled over – and promptly bought the only 19 wheels that the cheesemaker had. He’s currently making more, which when mature will grace the shelves of DTLA and the Cheese Cave. We then took a stop at Bellwether Farms for a taste of Blackstone – a young mixed milk cheese whose black exterior was rubbed with a cocktail of rosemary, peppercorns, vegetable ash, and olive oil, and whose interior was studded with Peppercorns. Then because I couldn’t resist – we picked up a butter-filled bomb of ripe Mt Tam from Cowgirl Creamery. When cut open, it unleashed a veritable tidal wave of pale yellow, puddling-like buttercream paste. And schmearing it on a crusty chunk of baguette under the warm floral-scented Angelino sunset, I was in cheesemonger’s heaven.

In the almost 10 years of Saxelby Cheesemongers’ existence, the number of artisan cheesemakers in the United States has ballooned exponentially. Many of the makers that we select and purchase cheese from were not in business when we began, and that refrain rings true throughout the rest of the country. Traveling to far flung cheese locales in America yields regional delights equivalent with what one would expect from Europe. You just have to know a monger to ask…

1920px-los_angeles_mountains_to_ocean_pano