As someone who has many interests but never a clear idea of what I wanted to be when I “grew up”, it’s a little hard not to envy Liz Thorpe. In 2002, she quit a corporate job to work behind the counter at Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York for minimum wage, because she decided on a romantic whim that she wanted to work in cheese (in her paraphrased words, the reason was something like “I thought it would sound cool at cocktail parties”). In seven short years her new career has skyrocketed: she is now Vice President of Murray’s, has traveled all over the U.S., advises chefs as reknowned as Thomas Keller on their cheese menus, and just recently appeared on Martha Stewart. Oh, and did I mention she wrote a book?
The Cheese Chronicles is Liz’s self-proclaimed attempt to trace and document the origins and history of cheesemaking in America. The chapters loosely group together various artisanal cheesemakers into somewhat arbitrary categories such as “Pastured”, “Farmers’ Markets” and “Restaurants”. Within each chapter, Liz describes her visits and experiences with the cheesemakers, their back stories, and of course their products. The cheese operations she features run the gamut from tiny creameries who only sell their cheese locally, to larger, nationally distributed companies such as Cypress Grove, and everything in between. Each chapter has several sidebars that are interesting and informative but tend to interrupt the book’s “flow”, requiring the reader to hop around a lot.
If the book’s organization is its biggest flaw (and it’s a minor one at that), its most shining quality is Liz’s ebullient prose. You can tell that, dammit, this is a woman who loves cheese! While her descriptors sometimes verge on wanky (think snooty wine critic), I can forgive her that because a) let’s face it, there are a limited amount of adjectives one can use when describing cheese flavors, and b) her willingness to go out on a limb just goes to show her enthusiasm. Rather than come across as pretentious or stuffy, Liz’s tasting notes convey the depth of her infatuation and continued excitement for her subject.
With its narrow subject matter, you may think The Cheese Chronicles would only be of interest to a very small minority of food-snob cheese fanatic types, but I think anyone who loves good food and who cares about artisanal production will find something of interest in this book. There are lots of “people stories” here too, so it’s a good balance of factual information and storytelling and never gets dull. Cheesemakers, as it turns out, are a colorful bunch.
I picked up The Cheese Chronicles in part because my burgeoning food curiosity has led me to want to explore whether there might be any feasible careers in food. Having worked in restaurants, I know the life of a chef is not for me, but what about producing and selling a food product? One of the great things about this book is that Liz goes into detail of how each and every producer got started. It’s reassuring and inspiring to know that there are success stories from those who had never had a whit of experience as well as from those who had dairy farming in their blood. I did attend a cheesemaking class at a goat farm recently and am investigating the possibilities of home cheesemaking, so who knows? Meanwhile, I’ve got a new list of must-try cheeses to get my hands on. Expensive, yes, but hey, it could end up being “market research”!
Follow Liz on Twitter: twitter/LizCheese
Anyone who knows me is aware that I love to try new recipes and have a very curious mind when it comes to anything food-related. Lately my curiosity has prompted me to go beyond the kitchen proper and to explore things like charcuterie and cheesemaking. I decided that reading about it wasn’t enough; I wanted to take a cheesemaking class to really see what it was all about. Not much was being offered in my area, but I did find a class on the west side of the state near Grand Rapids, at DogWood Farms. A bit of a drive, but luckily Marvin was into coming with me and making a weekend out of it, so on a rainy late October Friday, we got in the car and headed west.
The class was scheduled for Saturday at 8:00 AM. Marvin and I are not what you would call “morning people”, but we groggily dragged ourselves out of bed at 6:45 and suffered through some terrible hotel coffee, then got in the car for a drizzly half-hour drive in the dim early-morning light. I had no idea what to expect as we drove towards the farm. The website didn’t offer much clue as to the size and scope of cheesemaker Barb Jenness’s operation, and having never visited a dairy or creamery, our minds were a blank slate.
Leaving the freeway far behind, we wound our way down country roads towards the farm. After a bit of a Mapquest snafu, we pulled up the drive and were greeted by Barb’s husband Jim, who informed us that Barb had gone to get some cow’s milk from a farm up the road for the day’s cheesemaking. Barb has a herd of Alpine goats and primarily makes chèvre, but it was too late in the season and the goats were in their drying-off period.
Barb showed up shortly after, and sat down with us for a few minutes to chat. She was very hospitable and had a sampling of cheeses out for us, as well as thick slices of a delicious banana-coconut bread, a welcome sight after the nasty factory muffins on offer at the hotel buffet. We talked to her about why we were there, what we hoped to get out of the class, and discussed the little we did know about cheesemaking. It turned out that we were the only two students that day, which was perfect as it gave us the opportunity to ask any and all questions that came to mind, and gave Marvin the chance to take lots of photos!
Barb’s creamery turned out to be about as tiny as they come, but it was perfect for learning, and for getting an idea of what’s possible on a small scale. Barb had converted a room that was once her laundry room (probably no more than 40-50 square feet) into her cheesemaking room; another space that was little more than a hallway accommodated her packaging area and her “aging cave” (a couple of wine refrigerators rigged to the proper temperature and humidity). Even with just three of us in the cheese room, it was a little tight, and I was glad we were the only students that day.
Given that the goat’s milk was done for the season, we made two cow’s milk cheeses. One was a fresh cheese that Barb called cream cheese, but which bore very little resemblance to the gummy cream cheese in square foil packages. It tasted like the cow equivalent of a chèvre- a mild, creamy, moist and somewhat crumbly cheese with a bit of tanginess to it. She had milk/curd in a couple of the stages of production, and working backwards, showed us the process from the finished cheese to the curd to the milk she had started with. We were able to participate by ladling the curd into molds to drain. It had the same texture as yogurt, when you spoon into it and it releases liquid.
The other cheese we made was a Tomme-style cheese. This one, an aged washed-rind cheese, had a few more steps and involved pasteurizing the milk, cutting the curd, and forming it into blocks. She showed us some bricks of the cheese being aged and it had a ruddy rind that was the result of a paprika and olive oil wash.
Cheesemaking involves a lot of what Barb termed “hurry up and wait” time, where you’re waiting for curd to set, whey to drain, etc. During these “breaks” she would sit us down at her dining room table and go over slides she’d prepared on different aspects of cheese and cheesemaking. Barb was a great teacher and very well-prepared. She had a packet for us to take home that included all of the information given in the class, as well as some recipes, a list of books and websites where cheesemaking supplies could be ordered. She was extremely encouraging and kept asking us if we planned to open a creamery. I certainly have thought about it, although I think Barb has a big advantage not having to own or lease a secondary property for her facility. I’m not sure that would work with my tiny little Ferndale house!
After we were done with the day’s cheese-related activities, we headed out to the barn for a visit with the goats and chickens. After hanging back a bit watching Marvin in the pen photographing Barb, Jim and the goats, I decided to take the plunge. A few goats escaped, but were quickly rounded up by Alice, the resident canine goat-herd. It was hilarious to watch this little dog corral goats twice her size, nipping and barking until they ran back into the pen. Barb looked amused to see us city folk interacting with the livestock, and had a twinkle in her eye as she asked us whether we thought we could have goats of our own. As much as I thought the goats were pretty cool, I doubt this city girl could get the hang of milking and breeding livestock. But Barb assured us that it was perfectly “OK” to just have a creamery and leave the animal-tending to someone else. Phew!
We left the farm with a few of the fresh cheeses as well as some goat’s milk soap I bought from Barb- she’s been in the soapmaking business since before she got into cheese three years ago. Barb urged us to keep in touch about our cheesemaking adventures, and told us to feel free to contact her if we had questions or issues. I was pleasantly surprised at how encouraging she was about starting a cheesemaking business- she went out of her way to tell us about her experiences getting started, how to avoid certain pitfalls, etc. She didn’t get into details about how much she is grossing, but she did tell us how much her cheese sells for (retail and wholesale) and that she easily sells out of everything she produces. She gave me the impression that, while it may not be a way to get rich, you could definitely support yourself.
I plan to try my hand at a few different cheeses at home as soon as I get a chance to order some supplies and figure out a good milk source. I’ll be sure to post about my successes and failures here as I go!
All photographs (except chicken) courtesy of Marvin Shaouni Photography