During a salmonella outbreak of 2008 and 2009 nine people died, 166 were hospitalized and more than 700 fell ill. Authorities ultimately traced the contamination of Salmonella Typhimurium back to peanut products manufactured in a Texas plant owned by the Peanut Corporation of America. According to the US CDC an estimated 48 million people each year are affected by food borne illnesses resulting in over 100,000 hospitalization and 3,000 deaths. In this one case, however, there were several factors that caught the general public’s attention:
- Illnesses were caused all over the US without apparent patterns at first;
- People died from exposure in nursing homes and other medical facilities;
- Many different products across different company’s products and brands were found to be contaminated, both commercial and institutional;
- Ultimately the media found that the peanut processing plant had been operating legally in Texas without EVER having been inspected by state or federal food safety organizations.
As a result of the tremendous publicity and outrage of this embarrassing outbreak a White House Food Safety Working Group was formed to investigate this specific failure in the US food safety network. The result was the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) passed by Congress and to be implemented by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
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The NY Times focuses on cheesemongers selling artisanal cheese and their penchant to wax poetic about the cheeses they sell. This is evidence, as if more were required, that it’s important for us cheesemakers to tell our retailers as much as we can about the the cheeses we make — you never know what small detail might strike their fancy and resonate in the aroma or flavors or appearance of our cheeses. Because if the cheesemonger has a good story to tell about a cheese, they WILL tell it to as many customers as they possibly can (who doesn’t like a good story) which means that they might feature your cheese more often, and likewise strike a chord in the hungry public to try and buy more of your cheese…
I’ve found cheesemongers like to know everything about a cheese, like how a cheese style was developed (what were YOUR influences?), about any quirks in its production, right down to knowing the names of the dairy animals who contributed their milk to each cheese. Be prepared to tell it all, and then pay attention to the bits they latch onto — we could probably write novels about our cheeses, but brevity, as always, is the soul of a good story, and every cheesemonger will focus on something different. They will weave these interesting (to them) bits of your story into their own mythology; more often than not it’s their way of differentiating each cheese. Once they hit upon a good story (your facts, their fancy) they will tell it over and over like any vaudeville comedian would to each new audience.
Here’s a nice overview of the cheese making process from the head Cheesemaker of Lyburn Farm in the UK.
On a cold but bright afternoon on February 12, 2000 a group gathered at MOFGA’s new Education Center in Unity, Maine to talk about cheese. Russell Libby, MOFGA’s Executive Director, thought it was important for the cheese makers in the state to get together with some cheese retailers and talk about what it would take to make more cheese in Maine. He did not focus the group on organic cheese alone, but wanted to understand Maine’s production of all cheese and value-added dairy products because Russell knew that more Maine cheese would be require more Maine milk, and a higher demand for Maine milk would support Maine dairy farmers, organic and conventional.
Among the cheesemakers invited to attend were several core Guild members: Appleton Creamery, Hahn’s End, York Hill Farm, Seal Cove, and Sunset Acres. I attended this meeting as well. I was vice-president of the MOFGA board at the time, but I was also interested in dairy processing, and eager to hear the challenges from the producers and the buyers, and then working to overcome them. Although the Guild didn’t officially form for another few years, many of us point to this meeting as the “first Maine Cheese Guild” meeting.
More to the point, it was an example — one of hundreds — of the way Russell worked. He brought people together, contributed as much as he could to help them, but ultimately he recognized that it was most important for groups to work together. Russell was a genius at bringing people together in a common cause. He is at the core of so many groups and efforts that are currently working on agricultural issues in Maine, and he connected us all. That is why he will be missed so much. We can honor Russell every time we meet to talk about our challenges, and every time this results in a new idea or a new effort we will know that Russell continues to work for Maine’s agricultural future.
Monroe Cheese Studio
Here is a somewhat humorous description of one British reporter’s struggle to comprehend cheese making via Home Cheese kits he has mailed away for. One precious line that experienced cheese makers will enjoy is:
“The ripening of the cheese culture will take 20-24 hours,” says a bit of paper. My heart sinks. Twenty-four hours? It’s already 11pm…
As I reported to the Guild last year, there is a lab at Harvard that is taking an unprecedented look into the microbial communities that make up the rind on aging cheese and they are finding astonishing interactions as well as residents that all help to create the local identity of our local foods. Now Dr. Rachel Dutton, a Bauer fellow at the FAS Center of Systems Biology, has piqued the interest of many gastronomists by studying the cheese rinds at The Cellers At Jasper Hill’s aging caves, and then opening up her appreciation of microbiological societies to look at other food fermentation processes like sourdough and yogurt. Her efforts have now been noticed by the New York Times Dining Pages quoting chefs that believe she is unlocking the mysteries of what makes the taste of place — what is terroir.
At the ACS conference last month we learned how animal welfare for dairy animals can be very troubling, and what is being done to correct bad practices on a local and national level. Many folks misstated that USDA Organic rules say nothing about animal welfare (yes, even Temple Grandin got it wrong when it comes to pasture requirements for organic dairy animals), leading many dairy farms to consider other certification choices specifically on that aspect of their husbandry. At the same time it’s always nice to read the positive side of dairy farming, the way we want to think about the farms who supply us with milk, which Nicolas Kristof provides in today’s NY Times.
The village of Roquefort, France is located on the southern tip of the high Massif Central plateau about 100 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, and it is built into the cliffs containing the caves that “invented” blue cheese. Natural air currents vent these caves (called “fleurines“) and carry the naturally occurring Penicillium roqueforti spores through them, as well as keep the caves at a constant temperature and humidity. As part of the AOC definition of “Roquefort” cheese, all cheeses with that name must spend at least two weeks in these caves. This means that 24 hours a day trailer trucks full of young cheese are brought to the caves while each cheese that has already been two weeks in the caves are loaded back onto the same trailers and taken away to cold storage for final aging. Below are some pictures of the village, as well as of an antique cheese piercing machine that looks more like a medieval torture device (which is apt because long ago the Catholic Church purged non-believers from this region through a reign of torture and terror).
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In March 2012 the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) released the results of a study titled “Nonpasteurized Dairy Products, Disease Outbreaks, and State Laws—United States, 1993–2006″ which is now posted on their web site.
In response to this report, the American Cheese Society issued a “Statement on the Safety of Raw Milk Cheese” which put some of the findings of the CDC study into context, as well as made corrections to some of its statements (such as that it is illegal to sell raw milk cheese in the US). Among the assertions in the ACS statement are: “Raw milk cheese, when produced and sold under current FDA guidelines, can be consumed without unnecessary risk” when that cheese is produced under the following circumstances:
- producing cheese in licensed facilities that are routinely inspected on the local, regional, and
- producing cheese under the oversight of licensed dairy handlers
- aging cheese for a minimum of 60 days before it is sold
According to the ACS’s latest newsletter: “In light of continued scrutiny, and with the goal of helping cheesemakers adhere to the highest standards of cheesemaking, ACS’s Regulatory & Academic Committee is at work compiling Best Practices for Cheesemakers. This document, as well as a related Best Practices for Retailers document, will serve as a resource for the industry to ensure awareness of current regulations and requirements, and to provide tools that can be implemented to meet those requirements.”
The British Blue Cheese Workshop led by Kathy Biss from West Highland Dairy in Scotland took place last weekend and the participating Guild members all took a lot away from it — information as well as workshop cheese that they will now age!
We made four recipes in two different milks for contrast:
- Blue Leicester — goats milk
- Ascaig Blue — cows milk
- Strathdon Blue — goats and cows milk
- Lymeswold — goats and cows milk
The first two are made with scalded curd for a firmer texture, more mechanical holes, and longer aging potential. The last two have a much higher moisture content, and the Lymeswold actually incorporates a bloomy rind with the blue interior, though it will age no more than four to six weeks.
The contrast between all of these recipes provided and excellent background on what is needed to adapt any recipe to a blue recipe, and how to work with Penicillium roqueforti, which digests the milk fats for its distinctive flavors, but requires oxygen to grow. That’s why piercing cheese wheels is necessary to allow blue to grow inside.
As with any workshop, much of the information applied to cheese making of all kinds, and most importantly what to do when your make isn’t progressing the way you would like. In this case we needed to re-warm the buckets in which we were making the Strathdon Blue on the second day because the acid was not developing, which was evident because the curd was slow to reach the right texture.
Overall a great experience for Maine (and beyond Maine) cheese makers.
Kathy Biss will return the following weekend to lead a workshop on making Hard British Cheeses.