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.