Monday, December 22, 2008

Cheddar for Christmas

The traditonal cheese for Christmas in England isn't Cheddar; it's Stilton, a creamy, savory, and syrupy blue cheese made in three counties in the midlands. Stilton is my Christmas cheese of choice as well, but I also add Parmesan to my holiday shopping list. On Christmas Eve, I make a celery bisque with Stilton toasts, and before Christmas dinner, we start off with cocktails and snack on the Stilton left over from the previous evening's soup. My main dish for the holiday meal, a vegetarian one, I use Parmesan in a visually impressive green and red polenta torte. A hearty sauce of mushrooms and Parmesan separates the two layers of polenta, which has been enriched with Parmesan. If Christmas is about celebrating the king of kings, you might as well eat the king of cheeses, too.

Stilton is the right cheese for Christmas. The batches that are ready for eating in December have been made with summer milk, when cows are eating lush pasture. This milk is rich and full-flavored and is the best for making Stilton. This cheese's buttery texture and complex flavors are ideally suited for the winter; in the warmer months it would feel too heavy and warming. In the cold months, however, this is just what you are looking for.

And boy are people looking for it! The lines, or queues, are forming outside the cheese shop, and Stilton, or Stichelton, is on the top of our customers' list. But I would say that the next popular cheese is Cheddar, and amoung the five we sell in the shop, Montgomery's is number one. In fact, it's our best selling cheese.

New Yorkers wouldn't wait in line, like Londoners, for cheese at Christmas. They might queque up for a Barney's warehoue sale or a Vera Wang one, or brunch anywhere, but not cheese. In the U.S. there is no iconic cheese for Christmas, and cheese isn't considered one of the necessary courses for the holiday meal. In England it is, where they eat it after dessert. Very strange. But I fully support bringing out thePort to to drink with Stilton after dinner, provided I'm offered some. Years ago I went to a dinner party in Scotland and after the meal, the men got to enjoy Port at the table, while the women were segregated in the drawing room, with no booze in sight. The injustice!

This Christmas, there's another blue cheese in town that has positioned itself to be an alternative to Stilton. It's called Stichelton, the original Saxon name for the town of Stilton. It's just like Stilton (though by law I shouldn't say this) except for the fact that it's made with raw milk, as Stilton used to be. Up until 1989 Colston Bassett Stilton, the one we sell in the shop, was made with unpasteurized milk, but then in 1990 the Stilton Makers Association required that a cheese wanting to be called Stilton had to be made with pasteurized milk. This was the result of a food scare, even though raw-milk Stilton was determined not to be the culprit of the food-borne illness.

Randloph Hodgson, the owner of Neal's Yard Dairy, missed the depth of flavor that raw milk Colston Bassett had, so he convinced an American cheesemaker in Britain, Joe Schneider, to make a raw milk Stilton. This was dreamed up and agreed upon over many pints at the Wheatsheaf, a pub near Borough Market (where my camera was stolen). The Stilton Makers Association wouldn't accept their cheese as Stilton, so, in a cheeky move, they named in Stilchelton and created packaging very similar to Colston Bassett. It's a great cheese, that's been around for only two years, and still has a way to go. It's savory and almost has a baked-Cheddar taste, and the flavor lingers much longer that the Colston Bassett which slips off your tounge too soon.

For Christmas this year, I think I am going to have Stilton for Christmas Eve and Stiltchelton for Christmas dinner and see which ones my cousins prefer. I'll also have some English goats' and sheep's cheese, but no Cheddar if you can believe it! There are still plenty of other folks buying it for Christmas, but I am going to focus on the blue.

I'll get my Cheddar sooon enough; I'm bringing a modest--but ample--hunk of it on the plane with me to Australia on Boxing Day. It should sustain me over the three days of travel. And my mind will feast on memories of Stichelton.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hand-on Cheddar

According to the ground-breaking work of Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard, there are seven types of intelligence, not just one: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. His theory, put forth in the early 1980s, challenged traditional notions of human intelligence as a single entity, given to us at birth, and recognized that each person has a unique blend of intelligences. This paradigm shift (though not accepted in all academic circles) encourages a more complete picture of a person's cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

I wonder what Gardner would make of me. I have a unique blend of deficiencies.

This personal mix of shortcomings complicates my work at the cheese shop, especially when I have to do a task with my hands, which is pretty much all day long. Cutting a wedge of cheese from its pointy nose with a wire, wrapping it neatly in butcher paper with a crisp French pleat, and covering the exposed sides of working pieces of Cheddar are no-brainer jobs which should be easy, but are tremendously difficult for me. My hands refuse to cooperate even though the mind is willing. This shouldn't be. According to Loe, a fellow American in the shop who trained as a bio-engineer, electronics companies intentionally select women for small, detailed work. They have better fine motor skills than men. My clumsy work puts a wrinkle in this stereotype. Those companies surely wouldn't want me and my dopey hands. I feel thankful that Neal's Yard Dairy does.

My chief goal for the past two months at Neal's Yard Dairy was to get to know Cheddar better. What better way to familiarize yourself with an object than to put your hands directing on it. I find myself, however, avoiding the tasks of wrapping quarter-wheels and hefty working pieces of Cheddar in cling film because of the certain frustration--on my part and my fellow mongers'-- and the imperfect job that would ensue. There can be no flaws; the cling film should look like glass when finished and be hard to detect. That's not the case when I try. I spend far too long trying to get the cling film and tape to cooperate, and the end result looks like crap. For the sake of the shop, I concede the Cheddars to someone else.

My daft hands make me a weak link in the shop. When a socially awkward guy, but surprisingly big spender, came in on the first morning that we were open on a Sunday for the Christmas season, before my coffee had kicked in, and ordered 12 gift boxes of six different cheeses, I had to rope in the support of my fellow mongers because I knew that I wouldn't wrap the cheeses well enough to merit his paying 908 pounds sterling in one shot. I won't go far in the cheese world with this lack of manual dexterity and high level of caffeine dependency.

I don't mind grunt work with my hands, like cleaning cheese crates and knives. The severely chapped condition of the skin on my wrists and fingers prove that I am doing my job, or at least part of it. (I'd take a picture of my hands to show the hard work they've been subjected to, but my computer is so old that I can't upload photos to flickr and now my camera has now been stolen, so I don't even have the pictures any more. I should have kept my hands on my camera!) The satisfyingly tactile nature of the job--patting and rubbing and squishing rounds, wheels, and slices of cheese--has kept me from wearing protective blue plastic gloves. I'd lose the hands-on pleasure of my job if I did.

Taking a cue from the educators who have embraced Gardner's work, I shouldn't give up hope just yet. Since we aren't necessarily born intelligent, we do have the chance to hone the areas in which we shine and develop those which cast a dull light. With practice, I should be able to wrap cheese expertly, either in butcher paper or cling film. In the words of the U.S.'s new leader and my upbeat manager who admirably focuses on the positive, Yes, we can!

Progress has already been made. Yesterday I had a full-on hands-on training in wrapping cheeses. Instead of working at the retail shop near Borough Market as I was scheduled to do, I was sent--or perhaps banished--to "packing," the wholesale and mail order division of Neal's Yard Dairy at its Arches location in Bermondsey. The ostensible reason for shifting me there there was that the shop was overstaffed due to a slow Christmas thus far. I fear, of course, that I was sent there because I've been deemed the weak link on the Borough team, as I surely was this past Saturday when there were, at times, more mongers in the shop than customers. For hours on end yesterday I wrapped cheeses.

Despite being stressed with the number of orders he and his team had to complete that day, the packing manager Flynn patiently gave me some tips on how to wrap cheeses in wax paper. I really appreciated him. He was personable and sweet in a time of high stress, and put his hand on my shoulder whenever he wanted me to do something or to express appreciation for something that I had already done. But I spent the last two hours of my shift washing cheese crates. Was I banished again from wrapping cheese? I'd like to think I wasn't. After all, my coworkers that day were temporary employees, two quiet and young ginger-haired North Americans, a seventeen-year-old drop-out musician from Lewisham, and a privileged twentysomething with a terribly posh accent who had played golf at a small college in the North Carolina and dropped out. I could fold wax paper just as well as they could!

I've been highlighting my deficiencies, but in an attempt to be positive, like my mangers, I will say that I have gotten much better at visual recognition of cheeses. Eight years ago I would have been hard-pressed to pick out a slab of one type of Cheddar (e.g., Montgomery's) that had been misplaced on a tower of another Cheddar (e.g., Keen's). Now I can. I can even distinguish them in blind tastings. And I've finally learned which cheeses go where at the end of the day when we clean the cheese slate. When I last worked at the dairy, I had to ask my manager every night which cheeses went into the cold room and which stayed out on the shop floor or went into the "cellar." Now that I know more about the different classes of cheese I can figure out what goes where, unless Martin, my manger, throws me a whammy and sends, for example, the Gorwydd Caerphilly to the cold room instead of the cellar to control its quick break down.

My time at Neal's Yard Diary is quickly come to an end. Eight more days in a row there and then it's all over. But the other manager Michael thinks I'll be back, and Martin has already invited me back for next Christmas. With a bit more time (and a few days off first), I am sure my hands, which are kinesthetic learners, would gain the intelligence they need to become expert mongers. Until then, I'll try to get my hands--and mouth--onto as many bits of Cheddar that I can.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cheddar & the Black Dog

I won't beat around the bush. When I arrived in London in October 2000 to work at Neal's Yard Dairy for their busy Christmas season, I was coming out of a dark depression. By the time I had left New York--and my boyfriend and my job as a high school Latin teacher--the black dog was mercifully back in its dog house after attacking me ferociously for at least half a year. But I could still hear it barking. It's never far away.

Most of that previous year, I had grown so despondent that I wished I could make myself small enough to disappear, like a dust bunny under the sofa. In more dramatically hopeless moments, I begged my boyfriend at the time to kill me off. We were like Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, but without the bleached hair, heroin, grungy room at the Chelsea Hotel (though we did have a rather grotty apartment in Hells' Kitchen), punk rock, fame, cool clothes, Malcolm McLaren, and youth. Other than those things, we were exactly the same.

Travelling for a year to London, India, and Rome was just the ticket to make a decisive break from a life that had gotten me down and become almost unbearable. It forced me into new situations. But, as one is slow to learn, you don't leave yourself behind when you go off somewhere new. To quote the cult move The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Wherever you go, there you are. If the black dog was by your side in New York, it will find its way to you in London, even in a stinky cheese shop.

And it did. Most of the time, I was so unsure of myself at the Dairy that one day, close to Christmas, I ended up crying in the bathroom of the Dairy--the cleanest in London, mind you--because I had almost charged someone for a quarter of Stilton instead of half of one, or vice versa. My manager caught me in time and stared at me incredulously. I felt utterly useless and couldn't contain my wretched despondency.

On this current trip, I think I've managed to outwit the black dog and leave it on the other side of the pond. Most days, I am cheerful in the cheese shop, rubbing and flipping Cheddars, giving customer the cheeses they want, making my managers and coworkers laugh, and eating delicious and variable farmstead cheese all day long. Outside the dairy, I am reliably upbeat, so much so that Inkeri told me that her friend John likes hanging out with me because I am always cheerful. It's a dramatic and welcome change to be thought of in this way.

But I know that this might not last. The black dog is a wily one. At this particular moment, it might be quarantined in a kennel in the U.S., but it will eventually find a way to loose itself and track me down in London or somewhere else in my travels, where it will sic itself upon me. Once the black dog has come into your life, it's hard to shake its scent.

For now, however, you can find me smiling in the cheese shop among two tonnes of Cheddar wheels, keeping my fingers crossed that this won't be the day that I see the black dog slinking around in the long afternoon shadows of winter.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

In London for Cheddar

I feel neutral about London.

According to a young Spanish woman at a wildly entertaining party near Manor House last Saturday that Jonathan Czar invited me to and I didn't leave until after 5 a.m., this isn't possible. Either you love London or you hate it. She loves London and has adopted it as her home.

That morning, on my walk to work, I was just thinking about how I didn't feel particularly connected to London, despite how much visual joy my walk to Covent Garden from Vauxhall brings me. Even though I have spent quite a bit of time in the city over the years, there isn't a part of London that I claim as my own and want to share with visiting friends. If they asked me what they should see, I'd tell them to go to Neal's Yard Dairy in Covent Garden, of course, and its other shop near Borough Market, as well as to the market itself and nearby Southwark Cathedral, but what else, I don't know. For the cities that I get excited about (e.g., New York, Providence, Rome, Berlin, Sydney & Melbourne), I have a mental list of must-see places. I don't for London.

If pressed, I'd suggest exploring the edgy East End and Brick Lane, which I got to know eight years ago and very much wanted to share with Deidre when she came to visit me then for New Year's (but have since forgotten), walking along the stunning south side of the Thames between Lambeth and Tower Bridges, finding a cheap but excellent play, visiting shops on Portobello Road and then having old-school cocktails at either Trailer Happiness or Montgomery's Place (or both), appreciating the clever inscriptions for Sir Hans Sloane in his eponymous square and for Sir Thomas More outside Chelsea Old Church, following the remains of the Roman wall, climbing the Monument to the Great Fire and appreciating all that was lost and subsequently rebuilt, glimpsing the opulence of Knightsbridge and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, touring the British Museum for the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, and the Lewis Chessmen, and strolling in as many of the beautifully manicured parks as possible.

These are all wonderful and important places, but none of them grab hold of me. I am not sure why they, or the city, don't. The reasons I can come up with are that I am put off by how needlessly expensive London is and how everything shuts early. There's also no medieval section of the city, thanks to the Great Fire, that I could easily connect with. And the churches, which I relish touring on my travels in other countries, are too cool and cerebral. Since I don't know much about English history, the existing monuments don't mean a lot to me.

If I don't love London, you may wonder why I quit my job in New York, my city, to live here for two months. It was for Cheddar, of course! Eight years ago, after working at Neal's Yard Dairy for three or four months, I vowed to work another Christmas there. It took me a while, but I finally came back.

So far, it's all been worth it, and I am actually sad that I have less than three weeks left in London. A two-month stay isn't enough time. I may not have fully connected with the city, but I've had a rich social life here, become a known regular at several pubs, started to establish myself at Neal’s Yard Dairy, and have settled into a fulfilling routine. And there's so much more I want to do and see!

The wheels of Cheddar will still be here after I've left, and I can always return to them. London is worth it just for them.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Wet Wheels of Cheddar

If you travel to Europe in the autumn, you expect to get wet. It's the rainy season, even in typically warm and dry places like central Italy and Spain. The rain came down so hard in Avila on a Saturday evening in October that it kept Spaniards at home until it let up. Not much can keep them from going out and enjoying the night. Needless to say, almost half of my days in Basel and Warsaw were wet ones, but I was lucky that Berlin stayed dry, especially on the day of the marathon.

London has been particularly wet this past month, with more overcast days than sunny ones. We've even had two snow showers. I know that this isn't groundbreaking news for a country known for its abysmally rainy weather, but it does seem more than usual. Even on days that start off with the sun shining, like this morning when I went for a run in Battersea Park before work, by the afternoon, the brilliant glow of the sun all too willingly yields to the gloom of grey clouds and drizzle.

What doesn't expect to get wet in London are five 25-kg. wheels of Montgomery's Cheddar, which would retail for about 500 pounds sterling each at Neal's Yard Dairy. It was my fault they got wet. While closing the cheese shop with the assistant manager Martin, I did a little dance to the deafening but motivating music of Justice, a French electronic duo. It's hard not too. The eclectic songs are really upbeat; that's why Martin blares their album Cross at each close. But even when you are bopping to the sounds of Justice, you have to keep your wits about you during a close, especially when you are wielding a hose to clean the floors. I didn't and I end up dangling the hose over several Cheddars which were on floorboards at the far end of the shop. Hard farmstead cheeses favor humid conditions--85 to 90 percent, in fact--but not a water bath. Momentarily, entranced by the music, I was oblivious to the potential damage I was causing, but Martin luckily noticed and calmly but sternly told me to stop what I was doing and I did. Fortunately I didn't completely drench them. We put the heavy wheels up on the slate counter, rubbed their wet muslin covering with blue paper towels, and left them there to dry overnight.

I feel awful about it, and stupid. As David Miller, my long-ago colleague and friend at Choate remarked, when you fuck up at a "no-brain" job, you feel like you've really fucked up. He came to this realization while working as a carpenter soon after graduating from college. I know all too well what he means. Even if, or especially because, you have an undergraduate degree from Harvard, as Dave did, you can't help but feel bad about yourself when you fail to hit a nail properly. If you can't hit a nail on the head, or show a hose who's boss, you doubt that you are capable of doing anything at all. I feel this way often. New at the job. I feared that I would be known as the slow-witted, Justice-dancing cheesemonger who gets Cheddars wet instead of the floor during a close.

Two weeks on, my psyche and the Cheddars seem to have recovered, along with my reputation. Key to their recovery was the quick attention Martin paid me and the Cheddars. He quietly let me know that I was okay, and did what he could to make sure the valuable cheese was too. On top of that, I now have enough positive work experience under my belt to know that I am not a total disaster in the workplace, even if I can't be trusted with a hose. Like wheels of Cheddar, with time I've developed a harder exterior and a more nuanced interior.

But the following night, to add injury to insult, the hose uncoiled from its holder on the wall and bumped me so hard on the nose that I thought it drew blood. Damn that hose! And a few days later I left my umbrella at my local pub and am now exposed to the rain. Damn this cold, rainy weather! But not too much. The cheese likes it even if I don't.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Cheddar in Time

Time works magic on artisanal Cheddars. With its passage, young, milky cheeses mature and become multi-dimensional; complex, lingering flavors that weren't there at inception come into being. In time, large wheels of Cheddar become something much more than what they were when they left their molds twelve months earlier.

Like children, Cheddars depend on grown-ups for their successful maturation and aren't responsible for much on their own. For a year, 25-kg wheels of Cheddar, wrapped up in larded muslin, rest on wooden shelves in a cool and humid aging room. There, their caretakers flip them weekly to distribute evenly the moisture they contain, rub them briskly to get rid of damaging cheese mites, and iron them to see how their flavors and texture are coming along. Every two months, Randolph Hodgson inspects them to see which ones he'll take for his shop, Neal's Yard Dairy, where cheesemongers like me sell them for over 20 pounds sterling a kilo.

Cheese, as with wine, get better with time.

I don't. In fact time and I don't get along at all. I wrestle with it, trying to pin it down, but it slips away and leaves me the loser in my ongoing battle with time.

One of the main reasons I gave up everything in New York City to go travelling for 10 months was to develop a better relationship with time. For over three years, I've mentioned writing a book about Cheddar cheese, but three years on, I don't have anything to show for it. It wasn't as though I didn't have sufficient free time to write it. My job at NYU, when I wasn't meeting a publication deadline, was very much like one in France, a 40-hour work week, with an hour off for lunch. That schedule should have left me plenty of spare time to work on my book, but those chunks of free time whittled away to nothing and, as a result, I got nothing done. I hoped that by leaving my life behind, I would shake up my routine, and time would slow down and let me grab onto it.

This hasn't happened. On my free days from the dairy and in the evenings when I get home, I have a long list of things to do, but very little of it gets done. I start off with high hopes to update my blog regularly, send out proposals for articles about Cheddar, do research about cheese, plan the upcoming segments of my trip, and work on my book proposal. I even had plans, when I first arrived in London, to shadow bartenders at fancy cocktail bars to learn their craft. Usually, I am too tired, too unfocused, or too busy with friends to check these goals off my list. It was very much the same story during those three years in New York City.

I know plenty of other people who could have finished a book in three years. These lucky people have a productive relationship with time, people like Anne, who, in less than a year, presented papers at academic conferences, wrote white papers, made progress on her Ph.D. in food studies, completed book proposals, taught two university classes, ate at every new restaurant in New York City, drank until late at trendy bars, conducted interviews for magazines and a cooking school's newsletter, and started an interdisciplinary institute at the same cooking school. She did all this with grace, confidence, and great success. How the hell did she do this? And there's my American coworker at Neal's Yard Dairy who in her free time improvises dishes with cheeses from the shop, catalogues all the fabric samples she has, affixes labels on every part of her sewing kit, finishes a handbag she designed, consults for bio-tech firms, catches up with numerous T.V. and radio programs, and learns French. How the hell does she do it?

I am not sure what I need to change to make the most of my free time. Perhaps I should have fewer pints of cask ale after work with my coworkers and instead go straight home to write. But Anne goes out regularly. Perhaps I should watch less tennis on T.V. But Loe is always catching up on her favorite programs. Perhaps I should fully take advantage of the free time that presents itself or I should create more free time by sleeping less. But I need the sleep and I am often tired. It's here where time is a great nemesis. The older you get, the more tired you become, especially when you are standing for hours on end behind the cheese counter. This means that in your free time, you want to have something to eat and drink, blob out in front of the T.V., and glance through your emails and friends' updates on Facebook. This is not, unfortunately, how a book gets written.

In one way time has been kind to me. I look young for my age. Few would guess that in three weeks, on December 23, I turn thirty-nine years old. I don't say this to brag. In fact, more often than not, I wish I looked--and acted--more my age. Because I look young, I get treated as though I have less life and job experience than I do. This mistaken youth comes in handy, however, when I am travelling. People don't look at me and think, Who is that old woman selling cheese in a shop for 7 pounds an hour? Shouldn't she have done more with her life by now? As a result, I fit in a bit better with my fellow cheesemongers...and fellow bunkmates at youth hostels.

Oh, how I wish I could just hang out, like a wheel of Cheddar on an old wooden shelf, and let time work for me instead of against me!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thankful for Cheddar

I am thankful for Cheddar cheese. The exceptional Cheddars that I sample every day for free at Neal's Yard Dairy make me appreciate the difference between handcrafted food and the industrial stuff. They keep me on the front line in the battle against bad, mass-produced food.

I am thankful that I never worry about having enough food to eat and that when I do eat, I can have the good stuff. If anything, I worry that I eat too much. This is the job hazard of working at a place where you are expected to sample every cheese every day to see how their flavors and textures change from batch to batch. We need to communicate this to our customers.

I am thankful for the job I have at Neal's Yard Dairy. Not only am I getting hands-on (or, mouth-on) training in artisanal cheeses, but I am also getting paid. In this economic downturn, it's exceptional that I am not worried about job (or food) security.

I am thankful for the safe and affordable accommodation in London that friends here have offered me. At both places I've stayed--Islington with Andrew & Cailin and Vauxhall with Inkeri--I've been able to walk to work. And what a walk from Vauxhall! It takes me along and over the Thames and past the Tate Britain, Parliament (see above), Lambeth Palace, the modern apartment where Match Point took place, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Horse Guards, Trafalgar Square, and the Seven Dials.

I am thankful for this 10-month adventure that I'm on, in search of Cheddar, the world, and myself. How lucky I am that I have the time, money, and the courage (and a good dose of recklessness) to give up a comfortable life in the U.S. to travel for travel's sake. Along the way, I am seeing friends and making new ones.

I am thankful for my many friends back in the U.S. who are making the effort to stay in touch with me even though I am no longer in their daily lives. Their support, encouragement, and fond wishes keep me going and will help me adjust when I return.

I am thankful for my family and their unconditional love. I try not to take it for granted that they will always welcome me back and give me love & shelter, even though I've been likened to Dylan Thomas, "that drunken Welsh poet"!

I am thankful that, as far as I know, I am in good health and that I have the NHS in case something goes wrong. I decided not to pay $530 a month for COBRA, partly because it's so expensive, partly because I can have free healthcare in the U.K., and partly because I am so disgusted that the U.S. government found $700 billion to bailout reckless financial institutions but can't "find" this money to provide all Americans with health security. I think this is a human rights violation, especially in a rich, first-world country.

I am thankful that I make the most of my working limbs by going for runs. These days I run in Battersea Park, where there are still some autumn colors and occasionally rays of sun. I am thankful, too, for my running team, Hellgate, back in Queens who made me physically and emotionally stronger. I am thankful to my trainer Jill, at Dolphin Fitness, for the same reasons. Too bad, though, that I am losing my six-pack abs to a steady diet of cheese (breakfast, lunch, and dinner!) and that I can no longer do push-ups. I injured myself doing them one morning in London. Can anyone say, Almost 40 years old?

I am thankful that I am learning to be thankful. I have a good life.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Good-bye, Cheddar!

In a horrendously expensive city like London, why work at a cheese shop for a measly 7 pounds sterling an hour ? For the cheese, of course! And it’s usually free. Nothing makes me happier at the end of my shift than heading out to the Crown for a pint or two and a cigarette with Martin, the upbeat assistant manager, and having my well-used Neal’s Yard Dairy carrier bag filled to the brim with scraps of cheese that can’t be sold, loaves of good bread, like Poulain, that are left over at the end of t he day, sugary Eccles cakes that had fallen on the floor, and small containers of organic whole milk and double cream that expired that day. For a miser like me, with a taste for fine foods, these free goodies are almost reason enough to work at the Dairy.

But there’s a more noble reason: to play a role, albeit a small one, in promoting and thereby protecting nonindustrialized agricultural foods. If I love Cheddar, I’ve got to do my part to help the flavorful ones stick around. Without places like Neal’s Yard Dairy and people like me working there, the only Cheddar we might know would be the plastic-wrapped, bright orange bricks sold in supermarket chains. It would be good-bye to the good stuff.

The availability of exquisite farmstead Cheddars owes a lot to the Real Cheese movement that started in the 1970s in Britain. It rode on the coattails of the Real Ale and Real Bread movements. Without the efforts of these flavor crusaders--or maybe just larger louts with refined taste!--the foods of rural Britain were destined to be lost, replaced by their unvarying and tasteless counterparts on supermarket shelves.

Neal’s Yard Dairy and their employees in white Wellington boots and the cheesemakers from the British Isles who supply the shop and probably wear regular black Wellies are just a few players in a now greater and slightly more organized food movement. To anyone interested in promoting an alternative and more sustainable food supply, there’s membership in Slow Food International, shares in Community-Supported Agriculture, shopping at farmer’s markets, and reading books about eating locally. These organizations and consumer practices can throw a lifeline to good food from the land, to the producers of this good food, and to the land itself.

These movements are making a difference. Pubs throughout London proudly advertise that they serve real, cask ales. A chef I met last night at the French House in Soho in London, where I drank two glasses of kir in quick session (yes, I know, something French and not English) cooks at a modest pub outside of London and sources meat from only 12 miles away and uses veg that’s in season.

In contrast to these promising changes is the closing of Forfar Dairy in rural Eastern Ontario, not far from Ottawa. I just read about it thanks to Bill and Elise, who are so good about sending me cheese news from Ontario. Forfar Dairy has been around for almost 150 years. Although it has turned a profit since at least 2000, when the current family took it over, it’s had to close because of rising fuel and milk costs and new provincial government regulations. With the passage of the Nutrient Management Act, Forfar would have to build a storage tank for its whey or find an alternative method for disposing it. Currently it spreads whey on nearby fields as fertilizer. Even though this disposal method has caused no problems, the provincial government won’t allow them to continue it, for the sake of protecting groundwater. Now I know, especially in light of the fatal problems the U.S. recently had with spinach, we should be very careful about what agricultural waste might end up in our groundwater, but small places like Forfar, which have no history of negligence, aren’t really the ones who are threatening the food supply. But the passage of this law has guaranteed to put small dairies in jeopardy.

I visited Forfar with Bill and Elise on our way to their lake cottage (see my entry on cheese curds) and found that the quality of their Cheddars shared little resemblance with the ones at Neal’s Yard Dairy; they were only slightly better than the ones in supermarkets. (But their cheese curds were worth arriving early at their retail shop, to get them fresh, milky, and squeaky.) Just the same, I am sorry to see it go. Their closure marks another unfortunate victory for big business and government’s protection of it. Who will now help the remaining small dairies of Ontario, if, in fact, there are any left? As places like Forfar disappear, so too does part of Canada’s dairying history, as well as their sustainable farming practices. If there are no pigs in the area to eat the discarded whey, what makes more sense than spreading it on fields? Sadly, Ontario’s government believes that expensive storage units do.

So, so long Forfar. I hope your loss will inspire a similar real cheese movement in Canada. In the meantime, in my white Wellington boots, I will continue to be a minor crusader for small cheesemakers, and with my sturdy clear plastic bag in hand, I will continue to be a scavenger of their fine cheeses.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Hello, Cheddar!

Montgomery is back in my life. Montgomery's Cheddar, that is.

What a delicious comfort it is to have a wedge of the world's best Cheddar in my fridge. Working at Neal's Yard Dairy in London for a second Christmas season means that my fridge never has to go without.

I was looking forward to this moment of returning to the cheese shop and regaining easy access (perhaps too easy!) to exceptional artisanal cheeses from the British Isles. It's the reason I'm back here in London, earning less than 8 pounds sterling an hour, and no longer sitting in comfort behind a desk at New York University. My first day of work at the cheese shop on Monday officially launched my great, 10-month Cheddar adventure. There was no Champagne at the launch, just nibbles of cheese from the moment I arrived at 11:30 a.m. until the time we closed the shop around 8 p.m. I did have a couple of bottles of "real" cider with Stony later to unwind after a long day on my feet, in white Wellington boots. Stony also heated up some leftover dal & basmati rice for me to counteract all those dairy products in my stomach.

It's comforting, too, how familiar work at the dairy is. Eight years is a long time to be away from a job, but so much about working behind the slate counter, encouraging customers in my unexpected American accent to sample and buy cheese, came back to me immediately. This familiarity made me realize how much I had learned in my four months at Neal's Yard back in fall 2000. Put a blue apron and cap and those white Wellies on me and I become a mean, but not lean, cheese-selling machine.

The smells are familiar, too. Usually the pungent aroma of aging cheeses assaults your senses right away and it can be overwhelming. People passing by the shop in Convent Garden can be heard yelling out to their mates, "God, would you smell that!" They are surprised and a bit disgusted. In this age of industralized food, when dinner usually comes wrapped in plastic, people no longer know what food really smells like. Customers who get turned around trying to find us will say that they ultimately located the shop by following its distinctive smell. It's that strong. Working at the dairy, however, you get used to the smell and don't even notice it after a while. I acclimated right away.

A lovely smell came from the cold room that I had forgotten. Whenever the stainless steel doors open for someone to pull butter, yogurt, or heavy creams for the shop, I enjoy the sour, milky scent. It smells like the essence of dairy, the aroma of northern Europe. Or as if you had taken a decadent bath in fresh, heavy cream at bedtime and then awoke to its lingering smell. Martin, one of the good-humored shop mangers, says it's actually coming from the industrial fan in the fridge. I would be really wrong, wouldn't I, if I were confusing fermenting milk with motor grease! But maybe that is the smell of northern Europe, agricultural products mixing with industry.

There was a moment on Monday that wasn't so positive. My doubts about Cheddar that have been growing for the past month returned. I didn't expect that at Neal's Yard Dairy, of all places. This was to be my reassuring return to real Cheddar. My first sample of Monty's was off-putting. I didn't taste its sweet and nutty complexity; all I got was mustiness. For sure, farmhouse Cheddars that have been aged in cloth will have a earthy quality close to the rind, kind of like wet potato skins, but it's all I tasted and I didn't like it. This is not what makes a world-class Cheddar. To my relief, my next sample of this naturally pale yellow cheese yielded that flavors I was after. Phew. This is the Cheddar that made me quit my job at NYU and sent me traveling the Anglophone world. It's that good.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


A highly attractive part of living in Europe is the ease and the affordability of traveling to other countries. And you have the vacation time to do it! (But I can't join my fellow Americans in this complaint; NYU was very generous with days off, and I'll certainly miss this perk.) I don't know how they do it and stay viable, but there are many discount, no-frills European airlines that offer cheap fares to a range of European destinations, if you book your flight well ahead of time.

This past month, I took three flights on easyJet, an airline which Paul in Basel told me about: Berlin to Madrid, Madrid to Basel, and Basel to London (Luton). I didn't save as much money as I could have on these routes because I am totally incapable of making a commitment to a flight in a timely manner, even if I know that the fares will only go up in price. I don't know what I hold out for. I think that I am fearful of locking myself into a date until I am absolutely sure of where I want to go and when. Unfortunately, coming to this level of surety takes a while. We all have our issues.

After several anxious days in Berlin and Warsaw, driving myself absolutely crazy trying to decide where to go in my two free weeks between the marathon in Berlin and the arrival of my mother and her husband in Madrid, I finally took the plunge and booked my tickets. Exactly two weeks after my arrival in Berlin from NYC, I was on an easyJet flight to Madrid, with organic Cheddar, a pumpkin seed roll, rose and aloe yogurt, and apple in my black NYU canvas tote bag for my mid-flight lunch. It was a miracle I was on the plane, or at least in my mind it was. The morning of my flight I had to wait over 20 minutes for my S-bahn train to Berlin's secondary airport, and I made it to the check-in line with only 10 minutes to spare. EasyJet leads you to believe that if "you're late, we won't wait," and I was really afraid that I was going to be late and they wouldn't wait. Sweaty and worked up after checking in, I guzzled a bottle of water, which I had planed to refill before arriving at the departure gate, but after security, I made a beeline for the gate, afraid again that they wouldn't wait for me. In the lounge I remembered my empty bottle, but I didn't dare leave. I didn't want to miss this flight. Without any water on hand, my hydro-anxiety kicked in. How was I going to survive my two-hour flight without water? Well, I knew I could, but I also knew that I would be uncomfortable.

On board and in the aisle seat that I scored (there are no assigned seats; its first-come, first-served on easyJet), I leafed through the menu of beverages and foods on offer. To my great relief, the water was actually a Euro cheaper than the bottles in the vending machine in the departure lounge. I splurged and bought a can of Perrier and happily tucked into my Cheddar sandwich.

Continuing to leaf through the menu, I was really excited to see that there were some Cheddar-flavored snacks on sale. Proof, at last, that Cheddar is an international cheese. Here in airspace that wasn't exactly Cheddar friendly were familiar orange-colored snacks, keeping company with green olives in a vacuum-packed bag. And then I realized that easyJet was an British company. So of course they had something with Cheddar. Hell, they even offered Ribena. I can't imagine anyone else but the English wanting this black currant fruit drink. As a child, I never liked it, but I did name my Rub-a-Dub dolly after it. A strange drink, but an attractively exotic name.

No Cheddar on the flight to Basel, but I could have enjoyed some mountain-dried beef.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Excommunicated Cheddar

Maître Bernard Anthony--eleveur de fromages, cheese pope of southern Alsace, host extraordinaire of Käs-Kaller, and kindred salt lover--doesn't welcome Cheddar into his holy sea of cheese, only the canonical raw milk ones of France, and maybe one or two from Italy. The closest he comes to pardoning English-style cheeses is a yellow, crumbly Cantal, which appeared at the center of one of the four cheese plates Paul, Katie, and I struggled--and failed--to finish last Thursday at Käs-Kaller. I can't remember when the Cantal appeared during our once-in-a-lifetime dining experience; there was just an extraordinary amount of cheese.

This is an entry about too much cheese, not the infallibility of Maître Anthony. It's about being overwhelmed by the occasion and not being appropriately reverent. It's about not being able to be counted among the faithful. It's about my humble status as a lay cheese lover.

Back in early September, when I was still in New York City and had not yet left my job to go on a great Cheddar adventure, Paul sent an e-mail, asking his wife Katie and me whether we would like a reservation at Käs-Kaller (42 EUR plus beverages) during my stay with them in Basel in October. With the dismally weak dollar, the price seemed quite steep, especially on my limited travel budget, but I gave Paul the go-ahead. The hilarious Babblefish-translated description of Bernard Anthony as the cheese pope was enough to persuade me, even though I had never heard of him--mirable dictu. Who can deny the cheese pope? Considering myself part of the cheese faithful, I certainly couldn't.

We three had no idea what to expect at this dinner. It was a given that there would be a lot cheese, but beyond that, we didn't give it much thought. We were willing to give ourselves over to Maître Anthony and his cérémonie de fromages. Katie and I got a bit worried, however, on the day of the cérémonie. Paul's former assistant, affectionately referred to as the Butler, sent Paul an e-mail, which he forwarded to us, with the specific details about the reservation. The Butler advised that "The tasting of cheeses comes with a few accouterments (potatoes, bread), however, is not a traditional soup-salad-main course-dessert meal, although it is absolutely possible to have cheese for hors-d'oeuvre-premier plat-dessert." He went on to wish us a "world of savors." It hit us: this meal was going to be just cheese. What had we gotten ourselves and stomachs into? And where exactly were we going?

Käs-Kaller wasn't listed in the red Michelin guide to France. This meant a couple of things. One, this unknown place might not be worth all the cheese and the dough, and two, we didn't know how to get there. Katie printed out Mapquest directions on her printer which didn't have enough toner and gave them, as illegible as they were, to me as the navigatrix. We hoped for the best on both counts.

Things didn't go well. The drive from Basel to
Vieux-Ferrette that should have taken us forty minutes (or twenty, according to Souphie on, who extols Käs-Kaller as "the best fromagerie period, wherever in the World") took over an hour and a half. We got lost along the dark country roads of charmless Alsace. It was no one's fault, but as navigatrix, I blamed myself. By the time we had finally arrived in the empty village, forty minutes late for our reservation, and had found our way to Käs-Kaller, thanks to locals at the only restaurant around, my stomach was uncomfortably tense and I was thinking drink, not cheese. You know, to take the edge off....

It was going to take more than a drink to put everyone at ease. To my relief,
Maître Anthony was gracious and didn't show any obvious frustration that we were so late. Looking more like a French version of Grandpa from the TV show The Munsters than a cheesemonger to royalty (Monaco) and the world's finest restaurants (Alain Ducasse's), he showed us into the small restaurant which seats just ten people. Attached to the retail section of his world-class operation, which looks to be carried out in a modest home, the dining room resembled a finished kaller in its first sense, a basement. The white walls had thick wooden detailing, and two of the three tables were placed in corners of the narrow room and had dark benches around them, with backs like picket fences. The unpretentious dining room, with framed photographs of a younger and slimmer M. Anthony, seemed more appropriate for hosting a neighborhood Super Bowl party with buffalo wings and nachos, not the finest cheese in the world (as many believe).

After a very necessary trip to the bathroom, I slipped onto the bench next to Paul, gulped the good, local pinot gris, and started talking much more loudly than Paul felt comfortable with. I can't help it. At the end of the day, I'm a loud American. On top of that, everyone, including the only other diners, a middle-aged German couple, was speaking in the hushed tones of church before the service, and I found this silly in such a simple dining room. We were meant to be relaxed, but no one was. I was just trying to be myself, but this was a no-go. I poured myself some more pinot gris from the extraneous fourth glass and resumed my anxious banter, sotto voce.

With everyone in place (and quieter), M. Anthony presented the first course, a lightly toasted slice of pale brown bread, brushed with olive oil, and topped with a circle of melted cheese, like a poached egg, and a sprinkle of herbes de Provence. I don't what the cheese was, unfortunately. That was the main problem with my fully appreciating audience with the cheese pope. He would say what the cheese was and I would soon forget because there were so many others to keep track of, or I just wouldn't understand him. He was speaking in French, of course, which I don't speak, and he had a funny accent that Paul and Katie had difficulty following. I wish I knew what it was because, for me, it was the most distinctive cheese of the evening. It resembled a slice of Bucheron, but the interior, instead of being chalky, was like warm, milky ricotta. The first course was promising. Maybe the meal wouldn't be all cheese, all the time.

Wrong. The next four courses were just cheese, one-ounce roughly hewn chunks circling the rim of our small, country plates. In all, M. Anthony must have served us about twenty-eight cheeses. The saving graces in this baptism by cheese were the boiled fingerling potatoes from Normandy liberally dusted with fleur de sel, the small plate of butter, also from Normandy, that tasted like caramel and was hard to stay away from, and Katie's stash of paper napkins and large, stylish handbag, into which she surreptiously
placed the cheese we couldn't finish. Moderate Katie could eat no more after the first cheese plate of goats' & sheep's milk cheeses; I gave up after the second plate of cows' milk cheeses, and Paul slowed down after the third one, also cows' milk. Paul and I valiantly ate the two (or was it three?) cheeses on the fourth and final cheese plate, a Munster and something else, and also tucked into a simple, almost freezer-burned crescent of ice cream. To cut through all those thick dairy products in my stomach, I wanted a local kirsch, which was offered to me, but it was too late and I went without.

For the true believers, what I have written must border on blasphemy. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe, but I just couldn't that evening. Here I was at the temple of cheese, but I couldn't appreciate the microbial miracles before me. There are a few reasons why. First, as mentioned above, there were just too many bloody cheeses! The normal person's
palates can distinguish only so many different tastes at one sitting. At a certain point your tastebuds refuse to work. On top of that, the stomach can comfortably accommodate so much cheese. Eat too much, you feel ill. As the evening progressed, the appropriately modest slices of yellowish cheese on our plates became challenges instead of eagerly anticipated morsels of lactic yummy-ness. Second, I didn't know what I was eating. After he handed each of us our plates, M. Anthony would go around one of them, pointing at and naming the assembly of cheeses, but when he got to where he had started in the circle, he would start going around again, but give the cheeses a different name. That was only part of the problem. Just as our palates and stomachs can handle a limited amout of cheese, our brains can remember only so many names. I wish that we had had a list of all the cheeses served that evening so that I would know exactly what I was eating and trying to appreciate. A pen would have been helpful, too, so that I could write tasting notes on these sheets, if they existed, even if Paul protested in embarassment. As it was, the evening was just a creamy blur of cheese. Third--a confession here--I am not a connoisseur, just an enthusiast. If I were a connoisseur, I would have been able to have eaten all my cheeses and not have Katie wrap them up in napkins and stash away for another day. I would have been able to identify the cheeses and remark out loud--and too loudly--that these were the best cheeses in the world. To me, the uninitiated, I could tell that they were superb specimens of farmhouse cheeses--excellent texture, unblemished rinds (which M. Anthony believes, according to Souphie, are like women's clothing and should come off), desirable and balanced flavors that lingered long in the mouth. But the world's best? I just didn't have the expertise to say. If anything, they were a bit too salty. And that's saying a lot from me, salt-lover that I am. In sum, if I had been served M. Anthony's much-lauded four-year-old comté (which I could have been), I wouldn't have known it, and even if I did, I wouldn't have had the room or knowledge to fully appreciate it. Is this a sin?

I know I've been negative, but I really would like to go back, after I have learned my cheese catechism. My upcoming two-month stint at Neal's Yard Dairy in London, which starts Monday, should help. By January, after eating cheese seven hours a day, five days a week, I should be able to handle an obscene amount of cheese and know better what makes a properly aged farmhouse cheese extraordinary. For now I thank Paul and Katie for their generosity in treating me to a world of savours and for excusing my poor navigating skills and crude American ways.

Until I go back, I am left wondering whether M. Anthony, with his squinty eyes and slight resemblance to my father, is one of my people. Part of my background is Swiss French. I am also wondering whether, with his predilection for salty flavors,
M. Anthony has a salt lick in the kitchen, which he turns to for solace when his American guests show up forty minutes late and his two typically punctual German ones are left waiting for their first course, which he inexplicably must serve at the same time to everyone. It is from them that I should have asked forgiveness. And if I go back, I'm going to get that kirsch!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Quesos Cheddar

In Poland I got the orange version oozing out of pierogi filled and topped with pumpkin seeds. In Germany solid slices of the tangy white stuff were wedged (by me) between slices of dense bread, also topped with pumpkin seeds. What form of Cheddar was waiting for me in Spain?

I was amazed that I found any at all. My first encounter, however, was not a promising one, and it did nothing to prove that Cheddar is the world's favorite cheese. Again, it looked as though the Dutch ones take that prize. Really thirsty from walking around Salamanca all morning long and into the afternoon, I was desperate for some water. Going against what I usually do, I went into a chain store in search of a bottle of water. Usually I would patronize a local shop, but they had all just shut for their siesta and I needed something to drink quick. Inside Carrefour, I tracked down the water, and afterwards checked out the cheeses that were available. There were two sections: the fancy one where someone sliced and weighed decent quality cheeses at your request, and the convenient one with packaged, pre-sliced cheese. To my dismay, Cheddar was only available in the latter section. And what sorry Cheddar it was, deep orange, like the yolks of organic eggs, and dry and flaky, like the corners of my mouth in the wintertime when I don't properly moisturize. In short, gross. The only thing that I found intriguing was that the slices of Cheddar came in two different sizes, the normal square shape like Kraft Singles, but also rectangles. These are meant for baguettes. How ingenious!

The only good thing about my foray into Carrefour was that I was now properly hydrated. But I was fretting about Cheddar. Was I wrong in believing that it's the world's favorite? How could it be when this French chain store, the world's biggest retail group after Wal-Mart, had such slim and grim pickings? This wasn't the case for the other foreign cheeses.

But, lo and behold, I found it at a vineria in Madrid, just when I had stopped looking. It was Saturday night and just before 1 a.m., late for me, but not for Spaniards. I was alone and feeling a bit awkward about it. I probably should have gone directly to bed after seeing "Burn after Reading," but I needed something to eat and it just seemed too pathetic to turn in when the rest of the city was out and about enjoying themselves. It wasn't as though  I had anything urgent to do the next day; I am, after all, unemployed. I had already been to one small bar, where I had a bad glass of rioja and a tosta (see picture for examples of tostas; picture was not taken by me) with honey, a chalky slice of warm goat cheese, and caramelized onions. By the time I got to the vineria, I really didn't need anything more to eat. I couldn't even finish my first tosta; I stashed the second slice in my totebag, a thrifty habit I've been embarrassing myself with during the past four weeks of travel (and most of my life). Needless to say, the tosta freed itself from the napkin which was poorly wrapped around it (by me) and nestled into my Spanish phrase book, now forever stained with an oil mark from the Bucheron. But I am a sucker for trying local foods that I haven't yet had. I was going to get a small fried thing to drink with what I hoped would be a better rioja, as I tried to make myself anonymous at the long zinc bar, but then I spied a tosta with Cheddar, Emmental, and smoked salmon. I felt it my duty to order it, even though images of a fatter me and a thinner wallet put up some resistance. As with the pieorgi in Warsaw, I can't say this dish did anything good for Cheddar. The bread wasn't toasted enough for the the melted cheese and soft fish, and, worse, it was like bad supermarket French bread. Oddly, one half of the toast was orange with Cheddar and the other half was white with Swiss. Having the two cheeses separated reminded me of an open-faced "grilled" cheese sandwich I had late at night at small dinner on Vancouver Island, when Sarah Jay and I arrived too late at the Sooke Harbor House from the ferry to have a world-class meal there. Dinner, instead, was at a log cabin in the damp woods. But I was in Madrid now, and I wondered what the kitchen was up to with this dish. Again, I wondered, Why Cheddar? And now a new question, And why Emmental? By ordering this dish, did I proclaim my Anglo-Saxon roots or did no one think anything about it? For the folks around me--a young, somewhat scruffy bunch for a white-tiled wine bar--perhaps Cheddar was just another foreign cheese.

World-class Cheddar, as it turns out, is available in Madrid at the cool and smart cheese shop, Poncelet, in the tony barrio of Salmanca. They've got both Montgommery's and the Isle of Mull from Scotland. I was so happy to find them. Montgommery's is perhaps my favorite cheeses in the world, and Mull is where I hope to make Cheddar next spring. Montgommery's is so exceptionally good that my host in Madrid, Javier, remembered the name of this cheese, which he sampled at Murray's in London, long after he had forgotten the name Poncelet, where he was told he could buy it. I bought him a modest 100-gram slice as a thank-you present. I hope he goes back to try the Mull.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cheddar Kase

Pumpkins, wheat, apples, ales, and Cheddar. These are the foods I associate with fall, as I wrote in my blog almost a year ago. Not only are they seasonal, but also aesthetically appropriate, their golden hues similar to the warm colors of turning leaves, illuminated by the glow of the autumnal sun.

Berlin  has most of what it takes to make a simple fall lunch. There's no problem, of course, getting beer, especially in the fall, when Oktoberfest is raging down south in Munich. At my favorite Biomarkt in Mitte, and Becca's too, I pick up a brown bottle of Pinkus Special Organic Lager each time I go to the LPG, which is pretty much every day. On the label is a sketch of an old tavern, with men of yore enjoying themselves at rows of wooden tables. The tavern exists in reality and not just in seductive marketing, and Uli can point out where he once sat, savoring a beer of his own, when it was too cool to be outside in a biergarten. As much as I love beer--or any beverage with a kick--the breads are what get me in Berlin. They are so unlike what's commonly available in the States or anywhere else--dense, whole grain loaves and rolls, often topped with nuts or seeds. Some aren't made with wheat, but with spelt instead. Whatever the grain, they are hearty and substantial and certainly colon cleansing. I am particularly drawn to the breads topped with dark green pumpkin seeds, the same color as my hooded, woolen cape that I wear only from October to November. These, in my mind, are the breads for fall.

But where's the Cheddar, the best cheese to go with my bread and ale (ok, a lager)? Unfortunately, it's not easily found. There are plenty of other cheeses on offer, in particular the alpine cheeses of Switzerland and about any cheese from France. At first it didn't bother me that Cheddar is rarely on offer at markets in Berlin, but then I got a bit indignant. Why is Cheddar being ignored? Why isn't it included among the other cheeses of Europe? Unlike those other cheeses, this one is the most popular in the world! It looks, however, like Cheddar has lost the popularity contest in Berlin.

But then on my last night in Berlin, after my trip to Warsaw, where, as I wrote in my earlier post, I ate Cheddar-filled pierogi, I spied some organic Cheddar at the biomarkt. I was picking up some snacks for my plane ride the next morning and at the same time saying goodbye to beer and hearty breads before heading off to Madrid, where, I imagined, I wouldn't be finding my golden-hued foods of fall. In the fancy cheese section was a pale block of organic, farmhouse Cheddar, from the West Country of England, certified Cheddar country, according to the EU's PDO regulations. I bought some, even though I had planned to steal a wedge of the cumin Gouda I had brought Becca and Uli from the Schiphol airport 10 days earlier. It was my duty.

And it was good. It was no Montgomery's Farmhouse Cheddar, but Lye Cross Farm's organic cheese was creamy and sharp, and just what I wanted for my brown rolls, which I ate on the easyJet flight the next day. I didn't have a beer with it--it cost too much on the plane and I was typically dehydrated--but I did have a tart organic apple.

But the day after, on a bus ride from Madrid to Avila, I did feel self-conscious eating a decidedly non-Latin sandwich, made with the leftovers from my purchases at the LPG. I bet I was pegged as a German. But if the Spaniards on the bus only knew that I was eating rolls purchased from two days before, they would identify me as the frugal Brit that I am!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Eastern Bloc of Cheddar

October was to be the Cheddar-less portion of my 10-month Great Cheddar Adventure. Germany, Poland, Spain, and Switzerland have great cheeses, but they don't have Cheddar.

But I ended up having a dish with my cheese of choice in Warsaw on Friday, baked pierogi with Cheddar, mozzarella, tomatoes, and pumpkin seeds. As soon as I heard that there were pierogi with Cheddar somewhere on offer in Warsaw, I had to have them. The place serving up such untraditional Polish fare was a warm and cute little eatery called Pierrogeria, located near one of the gates of the restored barbican in the old city. My friend Dorota took me there. When she was finally done taking care of administrative work at Warsaw University, an hour later than she said she would be done, she gave me the option of a vegetarian restaurant or place for pierogi for lunch. While I appreciate vegetarian restaurants, especially in meat-loving countries like Poland, I seldom frequent them. They're rarely what I am after, and what I was after on my first full day in Warsaw was something Polish and something with Cheddar. Dorota was happy with my choice because she rarely leaves the university area and she welcomed a break from her routine.

I was totally charmed by Pierrogeria. It was perfect for a chilly, grey day. Sitting and waiting for Dortota outside in a courtyard at the university for a hour while reading about how many times Poland was partitioned, I got more chilled than I thought I was. The restaurant warmed me up when I didn't know I needed warming.

Even though Pierrogeria served Polish food, it wasn't an old-school, kitchy place. It was fresh and new, and its light wood details and inventive pierogi signaled something modern and young. A nod to tradition was a humorous one, a wooden carving of a figure with three Easter Island-looking heads. It was Pierogigowid, the Pierogi God.

I can't say, however, that I loved my pierogi z cheddarem, mozzerella, pestkamidyni, pomidorami. The Cheddar wasn't really Cheddar, of course; it was more like melted Cheddar goo. It was all too rich and creamy and the tomatoes didn't provide the balancing acid that they should have. Even though I've been enjoying seasonsal and typical pumpkin seeds during my recent days in Eastern Europe, there were just too many of them in the dish. It was kind of like having trail mix inside your pierogi. I made the concoction even richer by swiping bites of pierogi into a creamy horseradish sauce. There was another vegetarian Chedddar option on the menu, with broccoli. I might go back to try it, but boiled this time instead of baked. And I will definitely have the double mead again. It made everything better!

I am still trying to figure out why Pierrogeria's spins on traditional pierogi used Cheddar and not some other cheese. Mozzarella, also in my dish, makes sense because pizza is popular everywhere these days. But Cheddar? Perhaps it's to make dishes seem international and therefore current. Perhaps it's to appeal to foreigners; there were several tables of them at Pierrogeria that afternoon. Maybe it's the backward migration of food. I just learned (thanks to wikipedia) that in Canada potatoes with Cheddar is a popular filling in pierogi (there's so much to love about Canada!). Polish immigrants to Canada must have made pierogi with what was easily avaiable (viz, Cheddar) and then this dish made its way back to Poland. I should probably ask someone. In the meantime I'll try to get some more Cheddar before I say goodbye to it for another few weeks. Or maybe I'll just relish my Cheddar-free days and eat more fried circles of smoked goat cheese (oscypek Zakopane) with cranberry sauce, washed down with hot beer and fruit syrup. Hey, don't knock it 'til you try it!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Running off the Cheddar

The Berlin Marathon at the end of September is a lot like the New York City Marathon at the beginning of November. They're both large, world-class marathons that fortuitously fall on beautiful Sundays in autumn. The big difference in Berlin is that you don't have to get to friggin' Staten Island for the start!

The Berlin Marathon starts and ends right in the heart of the city, in front of the restored Reichstag. Such a convenient location meant that I didn't have to get up until the civilized hour of 7 a.m. for the 9 a.m. start and that I could take mein bananen and me right there by public transportation. No queuing for a bus at 5 a.m. or worrying about bridge closures was involved, only the U-Bahn 2 (yes, U2!) from Senefelderplatz in Mitte to Potsdamer Platz. It was a bit of walk from there to Platz der Republik, the large, grassy area accessible only to the runners, but it was easy. I wish that I had had my camera to take pictures of my fellow runners walking by the rows of evenly spaced trees with leaves that had already turned completely yellow. On the way to the starting area, I went past other runners peeing at the edge of the Tiergarten (I was soon to join them) and the temporary food stalls set up at the finish, just beyond the Brandenburg Gate. I could have gotten myself a chocolate-covered XXL pretzel or a Red Bull & Coke, but decided that pleasure now would mean pain later. The kuerbiskerne mit kase brotchen (a roll with pumpkin seeds and cheese) I ate on the U-bahn was a better, Teutonic bet, even with the very American peanut butter and honey I glooped onto it.

It's a joke with my running team that I show up at the very last minute to our races. This race was no different. I arrived with just over half an hour to spare, but it was enough time to find where to drop off my bag (though I did get into a bit of panic because my section didn't seem to be where it was on the map of the start/finish area), stretch atop the yellow plastic sack that was given to all the runners, courtesy of adidas, keep warm at the start, drink several cups of wasser in my starting area (there are six areas, based on your time and marathon experience; I had been placed in H, the last group, but I officially negotiated my way to the next group), cheer for Haile Gebrselassie from inside the port-a-john when his name was announced, and get a little teary that I was about to run one of the five major marathons.

I think we were the third or fourth group to start. And it was a majestic start--though not quite the Verrazano Bridge--along Strasse des 17 Juni, the major thoroughfare in the Tiergarten, toward the gilded victory column. Not even five minutes into the race, I stopped to pee in the park again. I suppose that takes away some of the majesty. Even though the New York Times reported that the temperature at the start wasn't even 50 degrees, it felt warm in the glow of the morning sun, but there was definitely an autumnal chill in the air. The scar that I got from running into a mailbox on a training run on the Jersey Shore (I am sure I had the right of way!) was raised and pink on my goose-pimpled arm, but soon the paper cuts on my fingers stung with sweat. I got them when my friend Becca here in Berlin accidentally slipped some documents for my German cell phone into my bag and my plump fingers got in the way.

Of course, more typical pains set in, and much too early. Well before the halfway point, the hamstrings in both my legs got super-tight, and I worried that they would cramp later on. What didn't set in were the pains that I was most fearing, the ones in my right knee and Achilles tendon, the ones that had sidelined me for half a year of running and made me cut back my marathon training in the summer. Throughout the first half of the race, I was anxiously expecting the searing pain in my Achilles to return; it had made me yelp out loud during a training run along the East River in early August. But it never came. But I myself inflicted pain on it later, after the marathon, when I took the preventive measure of icing it, but for too long. I gave myself freezer burn!

All this pain is self-inflicted. I don't have to run. I want to, but I don't have to. And if the pain is too great, I can simply stop. Walking past the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (a name shockingly direct and different from the euphemistic Final Solution that caused it) on the way to the start in the morning and then running by Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirsche, the church bombed during World War II later in the afternoon, put all this into perspective. I would be disappointed if I couldn't complete the marathon, but it certainly wouldn't be the end of the world. There are greater catastrophes. With this in mind, I could do as my teammates urged me to do and just enjoy the experience of running one of the top marathons in the world.

At the halfway point, my hamstrings were tight and I was a bit worried about them, but I was barely huffing and puffing and I felt no other pain. My time was 2.01. If I kept going at this pace, I would finish in just over four hours, which is totally respectable, epecially given my interrupted training, but I knew that I was capable of a faster time on such a flat, forgiving course. I made a decision. I was going to finish under four hours. I told myself, No more walking at the overly crowded water stops. No more talking to friendly Finns. No more peeing behind bushes on the course. Just go! And I did. I got my burly legs in motion and I picked up the pace.

It was an uplifting feeling, and one that I am not sure I had experienced in my other two marathons, to know well into the race that I would finish (unless I had another run-in with a mailbox!). I probably wouldn't have had this confidence if the course had any hills, but it didn't. Initially I thought that the flat course was wasted on me since I was so under-trained and accordingly incapable of a fast time, but in the end I was thankful for it. I knew that once my legs got going, there wasn't much, but a finish line to stop them. From kilometer 24, I counted down the kilometers two at a time, striving to complete the distance in about 11 minutes. If I did that, I was on track for a sub-four-hour marathon. I completed the second 21 kilometers in 1.54, a whopping seven minutes faster than the first 21, and I finished all 42.195 km. in 3.56.49, just 13 seconds slower than my personal record in New York City in 2005. Not bloody bad for someone who lost three weeks of training (out of 16) for a wedding in Montana, an injury, and a fainting spell on the E train in Queens!

My goal wasn't necessarily to finish the marathon in any particular time (though my ultimate goal, I must confess, is to qualify for Boston one day), but to get back into shape. Half a year of not running had taken its toll. I was heavy and slow. At km. 10, I passed Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, the U2 stop close to where I had stayed in Berlin back in March to celebrate my friend Alec's 40th birthday. It was a hedonistic trip. My belly was never empty and my head was rarely sober. I made a plan then to return to Berlin in the fall for the marathon, as a way to get back in shape after months of indulgence and inactivity. Six months later I had lost several pounds, gained muscle, and found my six-pack abs (well, maybe just a fourpack. I didn’t totally give up drinking!). Too bad I am going to lose that four-pack when I start the Cheddar portion of my trip!

For these reasons, Berlin was a happy triumph. I raised my hands with joy and a few tears at the end. I was so proud of myself for finishing and pushing myself during the second half to meet my modest time goal. It was a solitary triumph, however. I had no friends along the route or at the end (Becca had to work that day, cooking brunch for Brangelina and their six kinder). There didn't seem to be any other Americans, either in the crowd or among the runners. But these aren't the days for waving an American flag. It was just the Danes and the rest of the field. I swear, half of Denmark was either running or cheering. I learned later, while waiting for my free massage, that more Danes run the Berlin Marathon than the one in Copenhagen! No one yelled out my name, like they do in New York City, or even commented on my Hellgate singlet. But maybe they feared that with my race number of 6669, I was actually running with the Devil! There were plenty of shout-outs, however, to Wolfgang, Jens, and Bjorn. All this was OK. It was a race for myself, and there was enough of a crowd to keep my energy up and make me feel like a part of something bigger (and very European).

The music and sounds from the spectators along the course were great, except for the guy who made a noise that sounded eerily like an air-raid siren. You don't want to hear that in Berlin! There were an inexplicably large number of samba bands. I love that energetic music and even wasted some of my own precious energy wiggling to it. My favorite music came from a bunch of twentysomethings blaring the menancing industrial sounds of Rammstein from a balcony. Now, that's what I expected in Berlin! I didn't expect, however, Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," in Berlin or anywhere else in a marathon. It's not exactly the most uplifting running song. But the oompa band that followed made up for it.

There were also several 70s bands, including some middle-aged Frauen in neon outfits singing to ABBA. The theme of this marathon was celebrating the 70s and the marathon's 35th anniversary. I thought this was strange since I didn't think that the 70s had ever left Eastern Europe! What I think they should have celebrated instead was the participation of women. I don't think 35 years ago, women were allowed to run in the marathon, and today only 7,429 women finished compared with 28,357 men. I can't get over this. Where are you fellow Frauen?

I've run marathons in only two cities, but I think I can safely say that NYC is the best, even if you don't get free beer and a massage afterwards (and you have to get to Staten Island far too early in the morning), but Berlin is great too. I'd like to run here again when I'm in better shape and to nail the 3.45 that I'm after, a time that would be hard for me in NYC. I am still high from the experience and can sum it up with the words of teammate Fast Phil, Wow. Cool.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Big Cheddar or small cheddar?

Cheddar is, of course, a big cheese, both in terms of size and worldwide popularity, but should it be spelled with a big C or a little c?

I can't decide.

Initially, once I had given this issue my full consideration and no longer wanted to switch indiscriminately between both spellings, I opted for a capital C. My guides for spelling it this way were reputable: the New York Times, Fine Cooking, and from Cheddar's country of origin, the Oxford English Dictionary. How can you go wrong with them?

But a friend, to whom I showed some of my writing about Cheddar cheese, curtly dismissed this spelling, along with most of my writing. She pulls no punches. As director of publications for a prestigious academic press, she works with top American scholars in the fields of economics and sociology. With these credentials, as well as glowing references from her authors, she's definitely a reputable source when it comes to proper spelling.

I usually defer to her, but I stuck to my guns. Cheddar was to remain capitalized, and I had other sources to back me up. After all, my friend doesn't work with food writers. Her authors bring up food only in the grim context of the sociology of poverty. If they're discussing government cheese, or "Pasteurized Process American Cheese for Use in Domestic Programs," cheddar should probably remain lowercase, as in blocks of cheddar cheese.

But then I caved to another trusty source, one that I consult almost daily at work and have pretty much memorized, the Chicago Manual of Style, 14th ed. They don't capitalize anything: the seasons and the two solstices; golden retrievers; the big bang theory; cold war; and professional titles like director of publications, the pope, the president of the United States, and the queen of England—they all get the lowercase treatment. If the queen of England isn't capitalized, how can her sovereign nation's cheese be?

Also pulling me in a lower direction was the Association of Food Journalists' FOODSPELL, their "guide to style and spelling for food terms, both common and exotic." For them, cheddar is lowercase. But so is champagne and camembert. If left up to me, I would capitalize camembert since it's a name-protected cheese. Even Blogger's spell check wants to capitalize camembert, underlining the lowercase spelling in red every time I write it this way. AFJ's reasoning for the lowercase spelling is to "deflate the snootiness unwarranted capitals represent." But then why do they capitalize Calvados (an apple brandy made in the Normandy area of France) and Emmentaler cheese (a variety of Swiss cheese from the Emmental Valley)? Are these food products worthy of snootiness? I would understand if they capitalized a brandy made from pears. A noble pear would warrant snootiness.

In a quandary like this, I usually turn to Webster's to settle the score. They're the reason why I capitalize Web site and write it as two words and why I hyphenate on-line. But they don't come down one way or the other about cheddar. Their entry is lowercase, but they say that cheddar is often capitalized. Thanks for nothing, Webster's!

I suppose I could take the middle ground put forward by the independent food writer Edward Behr, of the Art of Eating. He capitalizes Cheddar when referring to proper English, clothbound Cheddars made in the southwest of England. All other cheddars, whether clothbound or plastic wrapped, are kept lowercase.

But Behr's distinction gets too complicated and I like absolutes. I was a Latin teacher after all. What to do? I still don't know. I guess I'll leave it up to my (potential) editors and their house style. Ah, the easy way out.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Cheddar, Murray, and Me

First, there were three: a Vermont classic (either Grafton or Shelburne Farms), cheap and yellow block cheese, and some mouth-puckering stuff from north of the border, whose distributor has long been forgotten. Then, a few years later, came the English invasion of clothbound, farmstead Cheddars. And now the Americans, in the midst of a cheese revolution, handcraft their own.

Since the early 1990s a wide range of Cheddar cheese has been sold at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City. I haven't been shopping at Murray's all that time (I didn't move to New York until 1996), but owner Rob Kaufelt knows and remembers which Cheddars have been coming in and out of his cheese shop on Bleecker Street for the past 15 years.

What I find most intriguing about Rob's selection of Cheddars over the years is that they clearly reflect America's maturing taste for good food. In the early 1990s, we wanted what we knew and we wanted it cheap. If we wanted something new back then, it had to knock our socks off and slam us to the ground. Subtle flavors weren't in the picture. By the mid 1990s, we came to realize that superior food didn't come cheaply from factories and that to have high-quality cheeses we had to pay a higher price for them. This opened the door for the complex--and expensive--clothbound Cheddars (e.g., Keen's and Montogomery's) to leave Greenwich Mean Time and enter Greenwich Village. Won over by the novel and nuanced taste of traditionally made cheese, Americans gave farmstead cheeses that were made in their own time zones a shot, and now we find ourselves searching for regional cheeses, like the Cheddars made by the Amish, which somehow make their way to NYC. Do they travel by horse and buggy?

What new Cheddars will find their way to Murray's in the next few years, by truck, van, or buggy? It may seem like we have reached the summit of our knowledge about exceptional food, but there's always something new to be had and learned. Rob suspects that what's around the corner is right under our noses, like the Cheddars being made today by small producers in Wisconsin, which are going to the big guys for mass distribution, but could be made on a small scale. Smaller usually means better. Or maybe these Wisconsin Cheddars will stay big, but find a different market. Rob hopes that the real cheeses of Wisconsin will end up on Big Macs one day and replace the processed stuff. Rob doesn't know why this isn't the case now.

Well, he does know. We all know. It's the issue of big business. Despite what we have learned about good food, most of us still want our food familiar and cheap, and this means mass-produced food from factories. But when we see that this might be doing us--our health, our environment-- in, we may finally change this mode of production around.

And when things change, Cheddar will still be there. It always is.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Cheddar's Problems Solved

You think you've got problems, what about Cheddar?

Cheese has so many potential problems that a whole book has been devoted to solving them, the straightforwardly titled, Cheese Problems Solved. Cheddar's own tricky issues take up just a chapter in this full-length book, but, as the world's most popular cheese type, it's mentioned throughout, in sections covering the typical composition of cows' milk, the various starter cultures used for cheesemaking, the processing variables that affect syneresis, etc. You know, typical problems.

Cheese Problems Solved
is no self-help book, and it certainly shouldn't be written off with a bewildered laugh as one of the oddest titles in 2007. What other book could you possibly consult to answer one of your 200 most pressing questions about cheese and the cheesemaking process? This is a serious and helpful reference manual for commercial cheese manufacturers who have their hands full, trying to make their young cheeses live up to their gustatory potential. This can be a daunting challenge. Just as no one can fully know how demanding childrearing can be until she has a little human of her own, few know all the work that goes into making a successful cheese for market.

Part of cheese's allure is its magic. Cheese mysteriously comes forth in a solid, tasty mass from a monochromatic liquid, and its list of ingredients are bafflingly short: milk, salt, rennet, and lactic acid bacteria. You can't help but marvel at how a cheese is born. Compare cheese with a Twinkie and its long list of unpronounceable and unfamiliar ingredients. It's no secret that scientists in labs produce unnatural foods like Twinkies. Cheese, on the other hand, seems elemental.

But there are scientists in labs working on cheese, too. As Woodhead Publishing points out in its description of Cheese Problems Solved, cheese "requires a significant amount of scientific knowledge to be produced successfully." So many things can go wrong with cheesemaking--low yields, worms & flies, bitter or soapy off-flavors, health hazards, sliminess and stickiness, slits and fissures--that dairy scientists have stepped in to figure out what cheesemakers can do to avoid these problems. It's not magic, then, but a grasp of science that increases a cheesemaker's chances of making a marketable cheese. The published and shared research of scientists guide cheesemakers when they are determining the ideal caesin to fat ratio in the milk, the temperature to heat and hold the milk, the time to add salt to the curds or the pressed cheese, etc. Cheesemaking is no simple thing.

And it seems like someone is having some urgent problems with his cheese. My copy of
Cheese Problems Solved was recalled by the library in South Dakota soon after I received it from Interlibrary Loan!