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.