Saturday, September 24, 2011

Feasting on Figs!

Figs are a magical and elusive fruit that I had no interest in until a few years ago. I had only know Fig Newtons, until my husband introduced me to the real thing. He loves figs fresh and cannot tolerate them in any other form. He thinks Fig Newtons are sacrilege and prefers to eat figs au natural. However, he did love the fig ice cream I made a few years ago. He was a bit skeptical before I made the ice cream that I was wasting some very yummy figs but I successfully elevated their deliciousness.

Figs are a perfect example of seasonal eating. We wait all year for fig season and then we can't get enough of them. Because they do not ripen after they are picked, it is important that you get your hands on nice ripe figs. An under ripe fig is so sad because its life was cut short and it will never reach its full flavor potential. They also do not travel well as they bruise easily which is a major hurdle for fig growers and why they are often dried. I have gotten fresh figs from the supermarket but they were a shadow of the real thing. Want delicious fresh figs? Now thanks to Ticonderoga Farms you can go to the source for figs.

Ticonderoga farms began their first foray into growing figs in 1988, when I was 8 years old and a fan of the Fig Newton. It started as a hobby on their family farm where they grow apples, pumpkins, bamboo, and Christmas trees to name a few of their crops. Growing figs involved a lot of trial and error as their are not many figs being grown east of the Mississippi. It wasn't until about 8 years ago that they really got it down and another 4 before they had fruit to harvest. Thank you Ticonderoga farms for sticking with it! Today at the Fig Lovers Feast, we enjoyed all their years of hard work and perseverance.

It was my first time at Ticonderoga farms and I was immediately impressed. They have fun for the whole family and the kid at heart. There is a giant balloon trampoline which can be bounced on by young and old alike as well as slides, goats, chickens, a suspension bridge, playgrounds, and much more. I look forward to taking my son there when he is older and maybe even having his birthday party there.

The Fig Lovers Feast festivities were held in the blue barn. I was very impressed with the set up! Their were lovely tables and chairs which made me feel under dressed at fig prom. Not sure what I was expecting but it was lovely and quite comfortable. I had not left the house for about a week so it was a great outing for mom, dad, and baby.

Everyone working the event was friendly and we never went thirsty or hungry. This event had been scheduled to take place on September 10th but it was postponed on account of rain. I am so glad they did not cancel the event all together. It was not all smooth sailing as their Chef informed them at the last minute that he would be unable to cook for the event. Even so, the event went off without a hitch. I am curious how the food would have been had the chef actually been on hand.

Now on to the food! There was home made fig conserve on the table with bread and home made salsa with chips. The conserve was very sweet and I really wanted a nice chunk of blue cheese to go with it. We had a salad of arugula and spinach with orange, walnut, red onion, and fig. The salad greens were very under dressed, actually they did not seem to be dressed at all. Everything else seemed to be dressed then put on to dry greens but it was still tasty.

We also enjoyed baguette with fig, feta from Cherry Glen goat cheese in Maryland, honey, and walnut. This was tasty but the bread did get a bit soggy and once again I found myself wanting blue cheese but hey I am a cheese freak and I do like my blues.

The pizza was made by Fireworks in Leesburg and was delicious. I loved the bacon fig pizza and lucky me there were a few no shows which gave me seconds!

The biggest disappointment was the wine. I tried the white and it was awful and I heard the red was just as bad. No clue where the wine was from but maybe next year they can team up with a local vineyard to provide libations. But I was not there for the wine, I am all about the fig.

After some time digesting, we took a hayride out to the fig grove. I was able to enjoy Donna's company during the hayride. She works on the farm and was extremely knowledgeable and answered my many questions. They grow different varieties of figs including but not limited to mission, brown turkey, champagne, verte, and green delicious. We picked, which is not easy work up a steep hillside. You have to watch out for bees and wasps which are naturally attracted to the juicy fruit. I was determined to get some mission figs but they were not easy and managed to only get two.

I would have loved a simple tasting of the different types of figs available. How fun, a flight of figs! Once they were picked and in my "bucket" I had an impossible time telling which was which variety. I did not eat any figs while we were in the groves because I wanted to wash them as my almost 5 month old baby would be eating them in a few hours when I nursed him. Donna did explain that they do not use any herbicides or pesticides on their figs. This was great to hear but I was sad to learn how little control they have over what utility companies do around their farm.

When we got back to the barn we enjoyed some Moorenkos vanilla ice cream with fig, honey (also from the farm!) and walnuts. This was wonderful because I had gotten a bit sweaty while picking figs in the heat and humidity. There was also a cooking demonstration of the baguette with fig that we enjoyed as an appetizer. This was a wonderful event, $30 (a $5 discount for being a member of Slow Food DC) and you got all the food you could eat, all the wine you could choke down, a pound of fresh figs and a cool bamboo Ticonderoga Farm bag. I look forward to attending this event every year and think it will only get better!

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Farewell Father

My father, Thomas, passed away on June 12. He went very quickly and peacefully. He did get to meet Orion but Orion will never remember him. I have included the obituary and eulogy that I wrote with the help of my wonderful husband.

Thomas Crossley, age 66, succumbed to cancer on Sunday, June 12th, 2011. ‘Big Tom’ was known for his kind heart, his ready sense of humor, and his robust laugh. Tom is the beloved father of Thomas Crossley, (Maki) and Charlotte Media (Patrick). In addition to his children, he is survived by his sisters Marion Victoria Skarbek (John), Clarice Elizabeth Skinner (Rod), and Francis Naomi Robinson, and his three grandchildren Thomas Crossley (Kairi), Mary Rimi, and Orion. Tom was the loving husband of Susan Maria Small, who passed away in 2005.

Son of the late Media and Thomas Crossley, Tom was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA, later living in Collegeville and spending his final years in East Greenville. He graduated from Girard College in 1963. Tom worked in various sectors of the local finance and banking industry. He completed an Associates Degree in Science Business Administration from Montgomery County Community College in 2002, making Deans List throughout his studies. He thoroughly enjoyed his academic experience and desired to continue his education.

Nationally ranked throughout his life and holding regional and national awards, Tom was an avid marksman, trap shooter, and a lifetime member of the Lower Providence Rod & Reel Gun Club. He also was an accomplished photographer and devoted fish enthusiast. Tom was an eternal pursuer of a proper cup of coffee, and was an accomplished cook and a great lover of world cuisines. A voracious reader, music lover, and movie watcher, Tom was a daily patron of the East Greenville Public Library. Tom was also a committed technologist, embracing the digital age from its earliest days.

In addition to visiting his family whenever possible, Tom adored spending time roaming The Cańada del Oso Ranch in Peru, Kansas, visiting his dear friends Arturo and Janet Pacheco and employing his weather-eye to keep down the local rabbit population.

He is greatly missed by all who knew him.

My father, Thomas Crossley was a man who enjoyed the simple things in life. He could do anything and knew everything. And if he didn’t know the answer, he would make up a story that I would usually fall for. He had a great sense of humor, a robust laugh, and enjoyed pulling your leg. He was crafty and clever and made the most of any situation. He never backed down from a challenge. He was very content in his solitude and loved his freedom.

I could not have asked for a more wonderful father. I thought he was superman. He was my giant teddy bear at 6’6” with a robust belly. I remember his massive hands and when walking with him in the snow I would hold just his big thumb. It was partially because of how small my hands were, but also in the event that he fell, he wouldn’t take me with him. When I wanted to learn how to paint my fingernails, he showed me how using his big thumb as an example and painting it pink. Later when we were checking out at the grocery store in the Andora shopping center, my dad’s big, pink thumbnail really amused the checkout girl.

He was always there for me even though I wasn’t the easiest child and I asserted my independence very early on. I know I made him worry on more than he few occasions but he rarely ever let me know how worried he was. When I was 21 and backpacking alone around Europe, I got an email from him that he couldn’t sleep at night because he didn’t know where I was. I kept in touch with home but I guess not as often as he would have liked

He loved to read and visited the library on an almost daily basis. He loved listening to music and had a very eclectic taste from Aphex Twin to En Vogue to ZZ Top. When I gave my Dad a call and asked him what he was doing, the reply was often playing solitaire on the computer. He embraced technology and was interested in computers since the early 80’s.

Dad was an avid photographer. Before my brother and I were born, he worked as a wedding photographer but his biggest source of photographic inspiration was my mother. Once us kids were born we were his models. His apartment was filled with photographs. He had that big bulletin board which is on display, hanging next to his desk. Many framed photos and photo albums. On his kitchen table he had a large framed photo of Thomas the IV and one of Mary Rimi, his grandchildren. He may have lived alone but he ate his meals with his grandkids, even though they lived in Japan and everywhere he looked in his apartment were faces of his loved ones.

Being one of 4 kids raised by a single mother living below the poverty line, he was sent to Girard College, a boarding school. There is a huge wall surrounding Girard college and my father told me stories about how he would scale that wall to buy cigarettes. In his youth, he wasn’t much interested in his education but that changed late in life. He was never able to afford college but after being laid off he seized the opportunity. My father and I went off to college around the same time. He loved his college experience. He wished he had enjoyed his educational experience more in his youth. He had a voracious appetite for learning and had a great desire to continue his education. He read fiction and non fiction and surfed the net for interesting news. He even attempted to read my husband’s dissertation, which is something I haven’t even attempted.

He loved the outdoors. Our family vacations were spent camping, May in Harper’s Ferry and October’s in Hickory Run. He loved to go rafting and kayaking, until the day he got into an Eskimo roll he couldn’t get out of. I remember many 7-11 picnics with Big Gulps and hotdogs, spent in Valley Green. And of course, his favorite place on earth was the Kansas ranch owned by his dear friends Arturo and Janet. Time and health permitting, he would spend long stretches of time there in the spring and fall, ranging across the pastures and culling the over-abundant rabbit population.

My dad was an expert shooter. He won many medals and awards for it and even tried out for the Olympics for shooting. I can remember living on Arcola Road, and helping him reload shotgun shells in the garage. The first time my husband met my father was on Father’s Day, 2004. We went to Gun Club, did some target shooting then went to shoot some trap. When my dad opened the box that housed the arm which throws the clay disks, the spring loaded device went off, catching my dad’s hand and taking a significant chunk out of one of his fingers. I was freaking out, but Dad was calm and collected. The strongest statement he made during the entire ordeal was, “Man…that smarts.”

He loved food and loved to cook as much as he liked to eat. He had an adventurous appetite and would try anything. He loved cuisines from all over the world, especially Japanese food. On his last couple of visits down to Virginia, he spent a lot of time looking at the photo album of our Japan trip to drool over the pictures of the meals we ate in Okinawa.

My dad valued family above all else, and one of the ways he showed that love was by taking diligent care of any person, pet, or thing that needed him. He took good care of his mother during her life. He took amazing care of my mother throughout her fight with breast cancer. And even after her passing, he enjoyed being one of the many, many merry-makers at any gathering of the Small family.

I never liked my father living alone but he did have family close by. I was comforted knowing that his sister Marion came by once a week and took him out to shake off the cobwebs. My husband and I had asked him to live with us on many occasions and he would say yes but not now, later because he liked living alone and wasn’t ready to give up that independence.

My dad was very happy that my brother and I found such wonderful people to share our lives. All he ever wanted was for my brother and me to be happy, and to eventually give him some grandkids. He was so happy when we went to Japan last year. All he wanted to do was hold his new granddaughter, Mary and spend time with the family. Dad came to Virginia to see Orion when he was about 2 weeks old. I’ve never seen a man happier to hold a crying, screaming baby. I am so glad that they spent sometime together but I’m sad Orion will never understand just how wonderful both my parents were.

Though our parents are now both gone, in a way our babies bring them back. I am so excited to discover traces of my father and my mother in my son, my nephew, and my niece.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Creme Fraiche

One of the secrets of French cooking is Creme Fraiche, pronounced "krem-ˈfresh". This cultured milk product is made by letting the natural lactic bacteria in the cream develop. I love seeing a very short list of ingredients and Vermont Butter and Cheese Creme Fraiche has two ingredients, cream and culture. Creme Fraiche is similar to sour cream and can be used in much the same way. But the secret of Creme Fraiche is that it will not separate like sour cream does at high temperature or when wine is added.

Creme Fraiche does not taste as sour as sour cream. Its flavor is nuttier with a hint of almond and has a deep richness and creamy body. It can be used for baking, added to salad dressings and dips and even made into ice cream. It will make sauces richer and is a wonderful compliment for fish. You can also add a dollop to any soup or use as a topping for fresh fruit. Creme Fraiche can be whipped and if you like things a bit sweeter you can add sugar or honey and cinnamon and serve with strawberries.

This is a versatile staple of French cooking worthy of space in your refrigerator. It may be more expensive than sour cream but it has more uses and holds up when heated or reheated in the microwave. I took some Salmon into work with a sour cream based sauce and after I zapped it in the microwave I was left with a chunky curd accompaniment. If I had used Creme Fraiche, the sauce would have stayed the same.

Here is a recipe for a Blue Cheese Dip which can be thinned with half and half or milk to be used as a salad dressing. For a lower fat version, use skim milk and reduced fat mayo but never skimp on the cheese or Creme Fraiche.

• 1 cup Maytag Blue cheese, crumbled (or your favorite blue cheese, Buttermilk Blue will add more tang)
• 1/4 cup Creme Fraiche
• 1/4 cup mayonnaise
• 1/2 cup half and half
• 1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
• 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
• 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• Freshly ground black pepper

Combine above ingredients and allow flavors to marry for a day or two to provide optimal flavor. Don't worry, it will stay fresh for about a week.

Sorry for my disapperence!

I have been a very very bad blogger. I am sorry that I have not posted in months. I have been very busy being pregnant but now Orion is out of the womb!

He is amazing and breastfeeding is going very well! It is astonishing seeing my body make milk to feed this little life. I have milked goats and now have had a more personal experience. His delivery was not ideal (induced only to have a c-section) but he arrived healthy but a bit angry. He immediately peed on a nurse.

He is not letting me sleep much at night and being awake for 20 hours a day will, hopefully, provide me with more time to work on this here blog. Because I do want to blog and think it will be nice to take a break from baby and indulge in some cheesy dialog.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Raw Milk Review

The debate over raw milk and cheeses made from raw milk has been heating up this winter. This past December, Sally Jackson Cheese recalled all of their cheeses due to the possibility of E. coli 0157:H7 contamination. This causes diarrhea and bloody stools with most healthy adults recovering within a week. It is possible to develop Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome which is a form of kidney failure. The elderly and young children are more likely to develop this condition which can lead to kidney damage and death.

So what went wrong? Sally Jackson makes cheese from raw or unpasteurized, cow, goat, and sheep milk. These cheeses were found to be made under conditions that create a risk of contamination when the facility was inspected by health officials. The cheeses were identified as one possible source of E. coli infection. There were 8 reported cases between September and November of E. coli in Washington and Oregon which could be traced to Sally Jackson cheeses.

Seven patients were able to provide food histories and one reported eating Sally Jackson cheese. Four patients said they may have eaten Sally Jackson cheese, three of these ate at restaurants which served Sally Jackson cheese. The 4th of these ate a variety of artisinal cheeses which may have included Sally Jackson cheese. Two patients had consumed artisanal cheese but were unsure if any of it was made by Sally Jackson.

Sally Jackson began making cheese after receiving a "Small and Appropriate Technology Grant” during the Carter administration. They tended 140 acres in Oroville, WA and raised goats, sheep, and a few cows. They made cheese exclusively from the milk of their own herds. All cheeses were made from raw milk and aged for 60 days as per FDA regulations. I was able to try one of their cheeses at a Slow Food event in which Cowgirl Creamery provided a handsome cheese plate. I remember being very excited to finally get to taste some of the well know Sally Jackson cheese. I was impressed by its clean taste and supple paste.

Sally Jackson closed its doors in December. Their website, has a very brief statement which does not go into detail but says that, "Many factors went into our decision to retire the business." Among these must have been heartbreak and frustration. The possibility of even one person getting sick from a cheese I made is a risk I do not want to take. I do not know the conditions of their cheesemaking operation but having a government agency come in and declare it unsanitary must have been very painful.

Bravo Farms in Traver, CA also had an outbreak of E. coli in which 38 people in 5 states became sick. This outbreak was traced to their raw milk Gouda which was sold by retail giant Costco. Investigators cite Bravo Farms with packaging their cheese for sale before the 60 day aging period ended. In the case of Sally Jackson, the facility was found to be unsanitary.

In both cases, investigators are unable to clearly state that the contamination has been traced to the raw milk used to in making the cheese. Contamination can occur at any part of the cheesemaking process regardless of whether the milk is raw or pasteurized. The issue these cases has brought to the forefront is the effectiveness of the 60 day aging rule. It has been widely accepted that cheese made from raw milk and aged 60 days will naturally destroy any harmful bacterial during that period. The bacteria, acid, and salt in cheese will consume any harmful bacteria within that 60 day time frame. But it is not just raw milk cheesemakers getting recalled. In 2009, nine cheesemakers in the US issued recalls and five used pasteurized milk and the other four made raw milk cheeses.

What we are learning now is that the 60 day time frame was an arbitrary decision. This rule was created in the 1940's after outbreaks of typhoid fever were linked to cheese. Scientists knew that as a cheese dried out it was no longer an ideal environment for bacteria. This lead to the 60 day rule which is now being seen as simplistic. Cheese has changed a lot since the 1940's and they are many different types of cheese currently being made in the US. The pathogens in cheese have also changed, making E. coli and listeria more dangerous threats.

Recently a paper was published which showed that E. coli could survive in cheese for more than a year. A study from 2008 showed that levels of listeria increase in soft cheese as it aged. This style of cheese becomes less acidic as it ages and moisture increases which are good conditions for bacteria. So what can we do to ensure that cheese is safe?

Food safety has become a major issue with recent outbreaks in spinach, celery, and eggs. The Food Safety Modernization Act was passed by the U.S. Senate December 22, 2010 and President Obama signed it into law on January 4th 2011. This bill aims to prevent food borne illness outbreaks before they occur. Some provisions of this bill include:

*Enables the FDA to issue a food recall. Previously, the company had to issue a voluntary food recall.
*Evey two years, the FDA will identify major threats to food safety and provide science based outlines and regulations to deal with these threats.
*Create offices in at least 5 forgien countries that export food to the US to improve food oversight.
*The FDA will inspect high risk food production facilities every three years.

I didn't see any mention of raw milk or raw milk cheese in the information given about the Food Safety Modernization Act. This legislation seems to focus on produce and imported food. But it is agreed that the cheese industry does need to improve food safety standards which go beyond aging. Raw milk should be tested frequently as well as the finished product throughout various stages of aging. It is also necessary to improve hygiene and stress its importance.

The raw milk I get from my local farm is tested daily and the results are posted. I have never been concerned about their milk and have every confidence in their cleanliness. I was surprised when a dairy farmer told me about an exchange she had with a neighbor farmer. The neighbor was shocked that they dairy farmer consumed raw goat milk. The neighbor thought it was too dangerous of a substance for family consumption. But when you are so involved in every step of the process from raising the goats, feeding them, breeding them, and milking them, why not drink the raw milk? There is nothing inherent in raw milk which makes it dangerous.

Milk and cheese must be tested and these regulations vary from state to state. Do we need to make these regulations uniform as the end product does cross state lines? Cheesemakers should not fear testing and inspection as this will ensure food safety which is good for the cheesemaker and consumer. It can be difficult dealing with new regulations when you are so accustomed to doing things the way they have always been done in your operation. Changes can also be costly which is very difficult to afford in this economic climate. I would hate to see more wonderful cheesemakers go out of business.

I was at a conference recently (more on this in a later blog) and was surprised when a lecturer said that there is no good and bad bacteria, just bacteria. She was teaching us about pH and TA testing. Preforming these tests throughout the cheesemaking process will ensure a safe end product. This is a practice I have yet to apply to my cheesemaking, but now that I have learned of its importance I will put it into practice.

I do not know the future of raw milk cheeses but I do not think we need to outlaw all raw milk cheeses. If you were to do that, you may as well outlaw all cheese. Raw milk cheese in various stages have been consumed in France for ages but even the European Union is starting to crack down on raw milk and cheese made from raw milk. It would be a shame to lose the traditions of raw milk cheese. You could kiss your Parmigiano-Reggiano and your Roquefort good bye!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Rind time!

To eat the rind or not to eat the rind, that is the question. A woman was very perplexed recently when I offered her a taste of Bonne Bouche; she said "it's blue!” She was lacking confidence in her knowledge of cheese rinds and in her cheesemonger. Bonne Bouche is an ash ripened goat cheese that has a grayish blue rind that is completely edible. The rind is coated with vegetable ash which is often used in cheesemaking. Humboldt Fog and Morbier are two classic examples of cheeses that use ash. Both have a line of ash through the center of the paste.

Many that night were calling Bonne Bouche a blue cheese but it's not, it just has a striking look which makes it a great addition to any cheese plate. I love Bonne Bouche, the ash coating helps the cheese age, prevents unwanted molds and intruders, and helps the paste get crazy runny and gooey. This cheese won best goat cheese at the 2010 American Cheese Society conference. You can learn more about Bonne Bouche at

Some cheeses have a natural rind like bandaged wrapped cheddar. This means that the truckle (term for a wheel of cheddar which refers to its shape) was wrapped in cheesecloth which is often coated in lard and then aged. Before the cheese goes to market the cheesecloth is removed but you can still see the hatch marks on the rind left behind from the texture of the cloth. You can choose to eat this rind if you like but it will be a bit dry. Similarly, other cheeses get a paper coating to their rind. If won’t kill you to eat paper but it won’t add much flavor.

Blue cheeses like Cashel blue and Mountain Gorgonzola have a natural rind. The rind on Mountain Gorgonzola can be dry and brittle. Often the natural rind on a blue cheese can be more concentrated in flavor. You can decide to eat them if you want. Some blue cheeses like Buttermilk Blue and Maytag blue have no rinds. Their rinds are removed before packaging.

There are a few rinds that you really don't want to eat. If a cheese is covered in wax, don't eat it unless you are nostalgic for the wax lips of your childhood. It won't kill you to eat wax but it also will not taste very good. Some chesses have a thick wax coating and others like Manchego or P’tit Basque have a very thin waxy coating. You can cut off these rinds and enjoy your cheese. When serving this type of cheese on a party platter, it is best to cut the wax off the sides of the wedge but leave the wax along the back as it will provide a bit of support while guests cut off chunks.

If a cheese has a wooden belt like Petit Sapin or Winnimere, do not eat the wood. These types of cheeses are best served in the whole with the top rind peeled back and the glorious goo spooned out. But a wedge of Winnimere can also be delicious but as it is a washed rind cheese, the rind will have a more concentrated flavor. The rind is exposed to multiple washings in a brine solution which may contain some kind of alcohol. The salt and flavor will concentrate on the rind with a specific type of red mold called Bacteria Linens. This type of mold is intentional and gives washed rind cheeses their stinky nature. When you see mold whether it is red, white, or blue ask yourself if it was intentional and if it was give it a taste.

Things can get confusing when a cheese is covered in leaves. Valdeon is a wonderful Spanish blue cheese made from goat’s and cow’s milk with a covering of Sycamore leaves. These leaves make a pretty presentation but are not edible. Once again, this will not kill you but won’t help the flavor. Rogue River Blue is a raw cow’s milk blue made in Oregon that is covered in grape leaves soaked in pear brandy. These leaves are edible and offer a unique flavor and texture to the cheese. If the leaves are dry, I would avoid them but it they have been drenched in some kind of alcohol, I may taste them and then decide if they are worth eating.

Really when it comes down to the rind it is a matter of taste preference. Try the rind first and if you don’t like the taste don’t eat it. But please take the rind with you, I hate seeing a sad slice of brie being hollowed out at a party. It is unattractive and leads others to think that the rind is not edible when they might enjoy the taste. It’s like asking someone else to clean up your mess.

The rind on Soft Ripened cheeses like Brie, Camembert, and Humboldt Fog are edible and made from a white mold which is often penicillium candidum and/or geotrichum candidum. Some inexpensive bries and camembert have a rind that is papery and a paste that is firm. That is not what I look for in brie so I skip them. I love d’Affinois which has a very mild rind which lends body to the very creamy paste. But the rind on a soft ripened cheese can become bitter with age. When that is the case, I may choose to discard the rind. Pierre Robert is an indulgent triple crème from France but I often find the rind too bitter and will scoop out the runny paste.

If a cheese has mold that was not intended and has developed with time you might not have to trash the whole chunk. If you have a chunk of cheddar that has gone a bit moldy, cut off the mold until the paste is pure and enjoy. Do not eat a cheese that has cat fur mold, unintended red mold, or smells like urine. If the cheese is a soft, fresh cheese, or a surface ripened cheese, you might have to let it go as it can be hard to remove unwanted molds from these creamy cheeses.

I hope this provides some rind confidence and remember what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger! And a tip, Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds aren't edible but they can be added to soups, stocks, and stews to add a wonderful salty, cheese flavor.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Cheesemonger for the masses!

Epoisses, Brebirousse, d'Affinois, Gres des Vosges, Rogue River Blue, Roquefort, Valdeon, Coupole, Bonne Bouche, Humboldt Fog, P'tit Basque, Ossau Iraty, Beecher's Flagship Cheddar, 5 year aged Gouda, Midnight Moon, Lamb Chopper, Taleggio, Fontina Val D'aosta, Burrata. These are all wonderful cheese which are now available at Safeway. Yes that is right, welcome to the World of Cheese at Safeway! The super gigantic supermarket chain is selling high end cheese and charcuterie. But not just any Safeway, the only cheese counter of its kind is at the Georgetown Safeway in DC. Safeway is using this store as a barometer of how a high end cheese counter might do in other store locations. They have even taken a few of our top selling cheese to the store location in Potomac.

How do I know this? Because I started working for Safeway at the end of May 2010 and am currently still mongering there 15 hours a week. It has been an interesting experience for me to be involved in such a new corporate endeavour. I have worked at a few different cheese counters in Northern Virginia and all of them, till now, had been independently owned. When I first got the job, it was hard for me to say that I worked at Safeway and often told people that I worked at a cheese counter in Georgetown. But now, I am proud of my job at Safeway and the vast array of cheeses we offer.

It has been said that our cheese selection is the largest in DC and that our French selection is the largest in the area. I have not gone out to pound the pavement to verify these claims but I do feel comfortable saying that we have the largest and most diverse selection of cheeses than any other supermarket in DC. We definitely have more cheese than the average Whole Foods but Wegman's does rival our selection. Wegman's also cuts most of their cheeses in the store, something I wish we did at the World of Cheese.

At the Georgetown Safeway, we do not cut every cheese we offer. We do cut most of our soft ripened cheeses and blue cheeses. We have to cut d'Affinois, Saint Andre, and Supreme every day as they are among our top selling cheeses. We also cut P'tit Basque, Ossau Iraty, Tallegio, and many other cheeses. We do not cut any of our vast selection of Cheddars in the store. Cheeses we do not cut are either cut at our distribution center in Maryland or are packaged by the cheesemaker. I do believe that the best cheese is cut fresh off a whole wheel but packaged cheese is still pretty good. Still better than processed Kraft singles or Velveeta.

We also do not cut the Parmigiano-Reggiano in the store. This is cut at our distribution center and we receive it frequently throughout the week. But it is this one cheese that gets the most criticism from our customers. People look at it and do not believe it is real Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano. They say it is too hard or that they are Italian and have never heard of Bella Rossa. There is often no convincing the customer otherwise. Let me take this opportunity to explain why are Parm is the real deal.

Bella Rossa is made in Italy, aged 24 months, and distributed by Arthur Schuman, an American company. For any cheese to be legally called Parmigiano-Reggiano it must meet DOC (Denominazione Di Origine Controllata) regulations. Therefore it must be made in Italy, in either Emilia Romagna or Lombardy. It must be made from partially skimmed cow's milk and the cow's have strict dietary rules and cannot be feed any silage. Once the wheels are made and aged they undergo a strict DOC inspection process. If the wheels pass inspection, the rind is stamped with the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium mark. If you ever question the authenticity of a Parmigiano-Reggiano, look at the rind. If you can see the name stenciled into the rind, it is the real thing. What we sell at Safeway is the real thing but it would be better and fresher if we cut it in the store.

So why is it that we do not cut all the cheeses in store? Our store is open 24 hours, seven days a week and sells a whole lot of cheese with only 3 dedicated World of Cheese employees and one manager. Sometimes it is hard enough for us to stay on top of all the cutting, stocking, cleaning, and other cheese counter chores. We make Baked Bries in store and shred and grate various types of cheese as well as fill orders for our catering department. We also have a severe lack of space. It can get very crowded behind our counter and I hate cutting cheese with my back to customers but you do what you gotta. One thing I do really like about the cheese counter at Wegman's is they have a spacious work area in the center of their cheese counters.

We are also working to expand our cheese selection. This could not be done without our fromagerie manager, Treva Stose. She has put in countless hours fighting for wonderful cheeses to make it into the World of Cheese. Even when she is not working, she is working. She is very dedicated to the World of Cheese at Safeway and has worked tirelessly for it to be the best cheese counter in DC. She takes great care with our French air freight cheeses and is now working on expanding our Italian and Spanish cheese selection.

When the World of Cheese first opened in May 2010, we had to order all of our cheeses, Pates, and salamis through one distribution company, DPI. We had a few difficulties and Treva fought corporate to be allowed to use another distributor. If DPI did not have the cheese, we could not sell the cheese. Cheeses Safeway used to sell disappeared and some of the cheeses we did receive were not in the best condition or cut in a manner that was not ideal. We do not accept anything less than the best and any issues we take to our most wonderful DPI rep, John. Such a demanding high end cheese counter is pretty new for our distributor and the start of any new process will have some growing pains.

Recently, we have begun using Epicure and hope to order more exciting new cheeses through them. Any cheese we order from them, we will have to cut in the store. But getting new cheeses is a bit of a struggle. At cheese counters where I have worked previously, I would only have to make a case for that cheese with the store manager and then they would order it through one of their distributors. As Safeway is a large national retail chain, all items must be approved by our corporate office in California. Since the store opened in May, customers have been asking for Mozzarella DI' Bufala. Customers ask us, we tell our Manager, and she takes it to our distributor and corporate. We still do not have Mozzarella Di' Bufala but have been told that it is in the works. We take our customer requests very seriously and make notes whenever a customer asks for a specific cheese. No matter how often a cheese is requested, it does not guarantee a spot for that cheese in our case. And if a cheese doesn't sell, like Limburger, chances are that it will disappear from our counter.

Halloumi is a wonderful cheese, I love to grill it in the summertime. One of the first Saturday cheese demos I did at the store was grilled Halloumi. Everyone loved the cheese and was excited about its cooking possibilities. When I went to check the sales figures the next day, I found that it wasn't on the report. The cheese did not have a scanable barcode and was not an approved item. We fought to get this item approved by corporate but it continues to be denied even though it sold well and was requested by many customers. But we do not stop trying and sometimes unauthorized items magically appear in our counter.

One thing I love about working at the "Social" Safeway in Georgetown is the diversity of our customers. We get all types from every walk of life and I love hearing all the different languages being spoken all around the store. Every day we lure these people to our cheese counter with samples of different cheeses. I love giving a person a new cheese to taste and when that person really loves what they are tasting. We have had young children go gaga over Epoisses, which is one of our top selling cheeses.

We love to take the time to educate our customers regarding cheese. We love to take time to help them assemble their cheese platters, or pick cheeses for a fancy grilled cheese or mac and cheese. We also offer a lot of wine pairing advice as we are located right next to the wine department. If they are tasting wine or beer in that department, you can be sure they are serving a carefully selected cheese to go with that tasty beverage. Customer service, interaction, and satisfaction are very high priorities at Safeway. I love any opportunity to talk cheese!

Some customers get frustrated because all of our cheeses are not located all in one place. Our store is very big, 71067 square feet, and can take a long time to navigate. People often ask where the "regular" cheese is located. Not sure what "regular" means because what is regular for me, like chevre, might not be regular for someone else. But what they are usually looking for is located in aisle 3, which is also the cracker aisle. This is where the cream cheese, Velveeta, packaged processes cheese, shredded cheese, and some kosher cheeses are located. But to further confuse, we also have cheese located on the other side of the wine department along the back wall. This is where you will find your port wine cheese, Boursin, in-store grated cheese, crumbled cheese, and sliced cheese as well as summer sausage and hummus. I like to call this wall our shreds and spreads section but it is a lot more than that. We have such a variety of cheese, that to keep it all in one place would be a very overwhelming space. At the World of Cheese, we have close to 200 different kinds of cheese on any given day.

I think offering such a wide variety of cheeses in a supermarket is a wonderful thing. It makes cheese more accessible to all and might demystify cheese for some people. I have seen people get very intimidated by cheese which can cause them to get frustrated and overwhelmed. It is only food and the cheese can stand alone, it is really hard to pick the "wrong" cheese. In this type of environment where you are free to walk up and grab whatever you like without asking may empower people to explore new cheese horizons without fear. And if you have any questions, we are here!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mother's Milk, liquid gold

Mother's milk is the perfect food for baby. All mammals produce milk to feed their young. The best part is that it is free and naturally occurring! Humans are the only animals who take milk from other animals to feed ourselves and make cheese and other dairy products. We are also the only animal that continues to consume milk after being weaned.

What is in human breast milk? Human breast milk contains saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 fats, DHA, protein, lactose, vitamins, and carbohydrates. It also has Lysozyme which promotes healthy gut bacteria, fights E. Coli and Salmonella and is anti-inflammatory. There is also Lactoferrin, Secretory IgA, and Bifidus factor which all protect the baby from the bad and support support good bacteria. It does not contain Iron which is often added to baby formula.

Breast milk, its not just for babies any more. A New York Chef Daniel Angerer made "Mommy's milk cheese" with his fiance's breast milk. It was not offered for sale or available in his restaurant, you needed to know him to get a taste. It was made with half human breast milk and half animal milk. But long before he was even born, they were doing it in France. Le Petit Singly started making cheese with human breast milk in 1947. They sell this cheese to the public and consider it to be organic. Le Petit Singly has a sweetness with notes of hazelnuts, according to their website

I even watched a member of the band Blur, Alex James, make a cappuccino for Gordon Ramsey on the F Word using breast milk. Gordon did not have a very positive reaction. You can watch the fun here

Breast milk is very difficult to coagulate. I have read about an attempt to make paneer with 100% human breast milk that was a total failure. You would need something much stronger than lemon juice to curdle breast milk. I think mixing it with animal milk was vital in making "Mommy's milk cheese". I wonder how they make Le Petit Singly. Many people online believe it is a hoax but I do believe in its existence but have no proof.

Daniel Angerer made cheese from his fiance's breast milk because they had a glut and did not want to waste it and donating it was a lengthy process. There has been a massive decline in breast milk banks. One reason for this is a law supporting milk banks expired after World War II. Then formula took off and I can't help but wonder if there is a connection between the decline in milk banks and rise in sales of baby formula. Of course there is a connection but is there a conspiracy?

The sad truth is that there is a need for human breast milk and it has become very difficult to get to those who need it. Some babies do not thrive on formula and some mothers have a hard time breastfeeding. Neil Patrick Harris and his partner have had a hard time getting breast milk for their daughter. They are rich and famous and have minions at their disposal to do their bidding, so why did they have such a hard time getting breast milk?

What happened to the wet nurse? This was very common previous to the 20th century. They still exist and this profession seems to be making a comeback. Some may find it very disturbing to have a baby feed by someone who is not their mother. I know my Aunt breast feed me a few times when I was a baby, this is called cross nursing. I also remember my mother telling me a story of a young woman who was a new mother and was tragically murdered. The neighborhood organized lactating mother's to step in to supply her baby with breast milk. There was no medical exam or blood tests just good people doing something to give a baby what they could to improve an awful situation.

I really hope I can breast feed. Formula scares me and I know it is nowhere near as nutritious as breast milk. Did you hear about the babies in China developing breasts because of powdered milk that was contaminated by chemicals. Breast milk helps a child's immune system and if you do not breast feed you really should not put your baby in day care until they are on solid foods.

My case is a bit different as I take a daily injection drug called Copaxone to treat MS. I have taken it every day during my pregnancy as it is considered safe during pregnancy. But there is no information whatsoever regarding this drug and breast feeding. This makes me very angry and I have been unable to get even a recommendation from my high risk obstetrician or neurologist or the nurse who calls me every few months from Shared Solutions who work for Copaxone. They all tell me the choice is mine with no advice leading me one way or another. I also do not know or have heard of anyone who has been in this situation. If you do, please let me know.

What I do know is that I can go off Copaxone after the baby is born I run the risk of getting sick. In this scenario I would surely get sick and my only option would be steroids. This is not ideal and am already at a high risk of getting sick a few months after the baby is born as hormones change. I had to get off a number of drugs months before I even started trying to get pregnant. I really want to stay on my Copaxone and breast feed. Wish me luck! Maybe a study will actually be done on the matter before my son is born in May.