• From the Ground Up: Cheese can be funny

    by Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan
    A special to the Winters Express

    Gordon Edgar in his new, hilarious and informative book “Cheesemonger – Life on the Wedge” is incredulous that he, an anarchist punk and politico, became a cheese dude at Rainbow Grocery founded in San Francisco in the 1970’s as a workers cooperative.

    “Think about it,” Edgar says. “You only need a cheese dude or diva, an expert, if you’re buying something other than mozzarella.”

    Although Americans consume 30 pounds of cheese per year ranking them number seventh in the world, and produce over nine billion pounds of cheese per year, we appear hungry for more. Cheese plates are popular on the menus in Yolo County restaurants; make it yourself cheese classes fill up fast; and retail stores stock more cheese than ever.

    The staple of any cheese department, Edgar says, (whose cheese blog goes by the name “gordonzola”) is the factory-made, 40-pound commodity block Cheddar. It’s simple, affordable and feeds a lot of people. Its price is set at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which is why it’s called commodity cheese.

    Ann, who cofounded the Davis Food Co-op as The Peoples Food Conspiracy Buying Club in the early 1970s in her home, remembers cutting those 40-pound commodity blocks of Jack and Cheddar cheese, which members drove to West Sacramento to get from Tony Ingolia’s Salami and Cheese Company.

    The Davis Food Co-op still buys from Tony’s. Cheese Expert Sara Yost says the commodity cheeses are the most popular at the Co-op, but cheese sales overall are up 20 percent since in the past year. Yost, who’s been cheese diva with the co-op for 10 years, says her customers are demanding more local cheese.

    The Davis Food Co-op has a list of eight cow milk and six goat milk cheese producers that are from within a 100 mile radius, and many more within a larger radius. Ask them for it. They will cut to order, sample, and wax prolific on cheese. Be careful though, Yost keeps a diary on funny cheese stories – she may be the next Cheesemonger turned author.

    Artisan cheese, the other end of the spectrum from commodity cheeses, was pioneered in the 1970’s on the east coast with Alison Hooper of Vermont Butter and Cheese Company. Her story is told in the book “American Artisanal” by Rebecca Gray, and even Edgar recounts visits with Hooper. The heart of the movement though was in Northern California with Sue Connelly who founded Cowgirl Creamery and Laura Chenel who championed the art of making fine goat cheese in 1979. They really began to connect cheese to the local environment for people in America as it is and has been connected in Europe for centuries.

    In Georgeanne’s memoir, “A Pig In Provence,” she recounts how she came to make and sell goat cheese in Provence. She recently invited Sue Connelly to her small farm in Winters to make cheese together with Ann and a few friends. And Winters has attracted a new cheese maker, native son Dan Turkovich, whose longtime Yolo County farming family recently opened the Turkovich Family Winery and the Winters Cheese Company on Railroad Avenue. While in Winters, check out Lorenzo’s Market. It has a well-stocked selection of Mexican cheeses, such as Cotija, which is excellent for crumbling on top of enchiladas.

    A bit further north in Yolo County live a few cheese makers, some practicing their craft and others not. It seems everyone has a cheese story – Gordon Edgar in “Cheesemonger” thinks Americans just find cheese funny. Ann remembers being lectured at a dinner party in Paris about not cutting the nose off a wedge of triple cream – “you Americans are so selfish – you take the best part for yourself.” She always cuts cheese from the side now. Moyra Barsotti with Capay Organic outside of Esparto shared this story with us.

    “On one of my first days apprenticing at a goat farm in Alsace, France,” Barsotti told us, “I cleaned the kitchen where we were staying and threw away what looked to me like moldy heels of what had once been cheese. Later that day, a more senior intern was in a fury when she found out I had thrown out her cheese. Only after several months of bathing in cheese — milking goats, making cheese and aging cheese — did I truly comprehend my utter faux-pas.”

    It turns out those heels of cheeses were preciously being nurtured in a calculated environment atop the fridge. Grapevine-ashed to neutralize the surface of the cheese for optimal ripening, those rinds were being reserved for special occasions — to be shaved on salads or savored in small quantities.

    “In just three months time,” she said, “I went from being a simple camembert smuggler to a mold-loving, bacteria-loving cheese maker.”

    As people begin to make their own cheese, it will create a market for raw and local milk — who knows, we may add a few more goat, cow or ewe dairies to some farming operations in Yolo County. Davis Food Co-op’s Education Director Julie Cross says their cheese classes with instructor Laurin Sacha are sold out, and that people are driving from Bakersfield and Long Beach to attend.

    “We’re pleased to offer an almost lost home skill that people obviously really want to learn,” she says, “and we will offer more classes in the Summer Schedule.” To be put on the mailing list, email: jcross@daviscoop.com.

    Nugget Markets’ Cheese Specialist Kyle Smelosky says “Daffinois, [a type of Brie Cheese], is their best selling specialty cheese in the Valley Oak Plaza store in Davis. He gets asked about how to put together a cheese course frequently – not just holidays anymore. The store has hand-outs to help you or their cheese section will do it for you with a preorder. Smelosky recommends Janet Fletcher’s best-seller, “The Cheese Course,” to his customers, which the store carries.

    Seasons Restaurant or Tuco’s Wine Market and Café in Davis offer cheese courses – Tuco’s even sells specialty cheeses retail. In Woodland, Tazzina’s Bistro offers up a “Fromage a Trois” for an appetizer course.

    Yolo County has its share of cheese dudes and divas. We must be buying more than mozzarella. Here’s a dish to celebrate spring with hope that the goat cheese Georgeanne made for so many years – and that her daughter-in-law now makes, will become a home art again in Yolo County.

    Spring Pasta with Asparagus and Goat Cheese (Serves 4)

    One half pound whole wheat pasta such as penne
    One bunch asparagus, sliced on the diagonal into two inch pieces
    One half yellow onion, sliced
    One half pound Crimini or other mushroom, sliced
    Four ounces soft creamy goat cheese such as Laura Chenel’s Chèvre LOG
    Four tablespoons Extra Virgin California Olive Oil, such as Yolo Press or Taber Ranch

    Putting it Together:
    Bring a large pot of boiling water to boil, add pasta and cook according to instructions on the package, generally about 8-10 minutes for dry pasta.

    While the water is coming to a boil, turn the heat on under a large frying pan and when hot, add the olive oil. When oil is hot, add the onions and sauté briefly for three to four minutes, add the mushrooms and stir to coat all mushrooms with the oil and sauté for another three to four minutes, then add the asparagus and sauté another four to five minutes. Add the goat cheese and stir. The goat cheese will melt to form a sauce. Put into a bowl to serve.

    Strain pasta when cooked. Put into a bowl to serve. (Alternatively you can mix the pasta into the pan with the sauce, until you have the ratio of pasta to sauce you desire. You can add a little more goat cheese, or a little of the pasta water if you want to make more sauce.) Serve with fresh artisan bread and follow with a mixed green salad.

    (Georgeanne Brennan and Ann Evans have a food marketing and consulting firm, Evans & Brennan, LLC. They co-lead Slow Food Yolo. Reach Georgeanne at gbrennan@yolo.com and Ann at annmevans@aol.com.)

    • WOW who knew. Great story about cheese. I think I am so pedestrian about my cheese choices. Trader Joe’s for me. Also, have to watch my cholesterol so cheese is limited.

    • You talked about Yolo County cheese. Well I have a complaint. The big block of cheese that I get down at the welfare thingy won’t even melt on a toasted cheese sandwich. I think it’s plastic. I guess no one wants to talk about that though. I did learn a lot about cheese though, thanks.

      • Judith Newton

      • May 5, 2011 at 11:13 am
      • Reply

      I don’t know nearly enough about cheese, so thanks for this fun introduction. Have been in Italy for three weeks and can’t face another dish of pasta but when I recover, I’m trying this one.

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