Essex St. Cheese Co.

December 28, 2011, 8:54 pm
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A regular report on geek cheese interests and the learnings by traveling cheesemonger Daphne Zepos.

Three Shepherds

From Homer’s Cyclops to John Muir to the Basques

Polyphemus the Cyclops is one of the unsavory characters that the great Odysseus (Ulysses) encounters on his long journey back home. Guess what? He is the first cheesemaker ever to be recorded.

Homer describes him going about his timeless chores, milking, and making cheese.

“…Back he came from pasture, late in the day, herding his flocks home, and lugging a huge load of good dry logs to fuel his fire at supper. He flung them down in the cave—a jolting crash— we scuttled in panic into the deepest dark recess. And next he drove his sleek flocks into the open vault, all he’d milk at least, but he left the males outside, rams and billy goats out in the high-walled yard. Then to close his door he hoisted overhead a tremendous, massive slab no twenty-two wagons, rugged and four-wheeled, could budge that boulder off the ground, I tell you, such an immense stone the monster wedged to block his cave! Then down he squatted to milk his sheep and bleating goats, each in order, and put a suckling underneath each dam. And half of the fresh white milk he curdled quickly, set it aside in wicker racks to press for cheese, the other half let stand in pails and buckets, ready at hand to wash his supper down. As soon as he’d briskly finished all his chores he lit his fire and spied us in the blaze and ‘Strangers!’ he thundered out, ‘now who are you?’”

Excerpted from The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

In the summer of 1911, John Muir spent the summer taking care of a large flock of sheep up in the CA Sierras. He was ecstatic about the nature that surrounded him, not so enthusiastic about the sheep, and very funny when he turned his attention to the shepherd.

“Our shepherd is a queer character, and hard to place in this wilderness. His bed is a hollow made in red, dry-rot, punky dust beside a log which forms a portion of the south wall of the corral. Here he lies with his wonderful, everlasting clothing on, wrapped in a red blanket, breathing not only the dust of the decayed wood but also that of the corral, as if determined to take ammoniacal snuff all night after chewing tobacco all day. Following the sheep, he carries a heavy six-shooter swung from his belt on one side, and his luncheon on the other. The ancient cloth in which the meat, fresh from the frying-pan, is tied, serves as a filter through which the clear fat and gravy juices drip down on his hip and leg in clustering stalactites. This oleaginous formation is soon broken up, however, and diffused and rubbed evenly into his scanty apparel, by sitting down, rolling over, crossing his legs while resting on logs, etc., making shirt and trousers water-tight and shiny.”

“His trousers in particular have become so adhesive with the mixed fat and resin, that pine-needles, thin flakes and fibres of bark, hair, mica-scales, and minute grains of quartz, hornblende, etc., feathers, seed, wings, moth and butterfly wings, legs and antennae of innumerable insects, or even whole insects such as the small beetles, moths, and mosquitoes, with flower-petals, pollen dust, and indeed bits of all plants, animals, and minerals of the region, adhere to them, and are safely imbedded, so that, though far from being a naturalist, he collects fragmentary specimens of everything, and becomes richer than he knows. His specimens are kept passably fresh too by the purity of the air and the resiny bituminous beds into which they are pressed. Man is a microcosm; at least our shepherd is, or rather his trousers. These precious overalls are never taken off, and nobody knows how old they are, though one may guess by their thickness and concentric structure. Instead of wearing thin they wear thick, and in their stratification have no small geological significance.?

Excerpted from My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir

Dr. Sandra Ott is Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. Trained as a social anthropologist, Dr. Ott began her research on the Basques of southwestern France in 1976, and has returned every year to the same mountain community—known as Santazi—ever since. She wrote the fascinating book, The Circle of Mountains: A Basque Shepherding Community. The following is an excerpt of a conversation between her and Pierre Gaillard, a Basque shepherd in the French Pyrenees.

“A few years ago, when I took Pierre to a farm in the high Pyrenees to buy a ram, he and I had a rare chance to talk in private. As I drove down the mountainside, the sun rose and with a clear blue sky we could see still snow-capped peaks in the distance. It was April, and the trees had tiny buds. ‘I love this time of year,’ Pierre remarked as he looked out the window, ‘because the trees are getting dressed.’

“He was excited to see mountains that he’d never seen before. He had never traveled that far to the east of his natal community. And then he said, ‘You know, Sandy, I have known you for most of life. And I have always tried hard to understand what you do…your love of words and books, the years you’ve spent at universities….And I have to confess that I still don’t understand.’ Pierre gestured toward the snow-capped mountains and bright green fields. ‘This,’ he exclaimed, ‘is my university. These mountains, the earth, my animals…they are my professors and have taught me everything I know.'”


November 9, 2011, 8:02 pm
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A regular report on geek cheese interests and the learnings by traveling cheesemonger Daphne Zepos.

The Cheesemonger’s Invitational

A cheese moment unlike any other

The Cheesemonger’s Invitational, a party and competition held for the second year at Larkin warehouse in Long Island City, New York, is one of the hippest raves for every cheese nerd. Young cheesemongers travel long distances to be there. The event was sold out at six hundred people and, that evening, there were bouncers, a waiting list and a line down the street.

Ostensibly it’s a competition among cheesemongers (40 cheesemongers competed this year). But I think resounding success of the event has a lot to do with the place and the impresario vaudevillian culture that host Adam Moskowitz brings to it.

The space is visually powerful—a large warehouse lit with mercury strobe lights with docks and huge refrigerated walk-ins. We bathed in its metallic ugliness and because it’s so ugly it was beautiful. The cheesemonger’s platform was made of stacked wooden pallets. The contestants had to know where to put their foot or they would fall through. To me, that seemed like the allegory of the whole place. You couldn’t lay back, you needed to be on your toes. There might be a hi-lo coming through!

Next Adam. During the American Cheese Society Conference I heard people call him the Billy Graham of cheese. While he runs Larkin business by day, for this event he becomes a mad hatter and performs like a rock star host. It’s worth coming just to see him do his thing.

The most incredible cheese combinations
At the center of this pulsating party, like in the eye of the maelstrom, 40 competitors went through the challenges. The final contest, called “Plate the Slate”, was to create a stunning cheese combination. The 10 finalists were given an array of cheeses. They could bring their own bag of goodies, including accompaniments, wine, beer, utensils, whatever. As one of twelve judges who got to try them, I thought they were all great, but three stood out.

Brooke Little from Formaggio Essex in NYC.
Chällerhocker (a Swiss alpine cheese) with salted preserved cockles (berberechos) and fennel pollen. It blew my mind. It’s rare to find a strong, briny combination that doesn’t lose the cheese. The flavors were balanced, surprising and not overwhlemingly fishy. The selection had an element of quickness about it that was great.

Poul Price from Consider Bardwell Farm, Vermont
Deep-fried purple amaranth leaves dotted a tiny piece of Comté and topped with a frond of fennel. It was delicious in part because it was tiny. The flavor was herbaceous and milky. The amaranth leaf was delicate, brittle. Visually lovely, like a purple butterfly wing with a cream spot brushed with bright green.

Steve Jones from Cheese Bar, Portland, Oregon
Little paper cones filled with caramelly-spicy popcorn (I found out later they were Xocolatl De David bacon caramel corn) Emerging from the popcorn cloud was a stick of Comté. It reminded me of a Belgian “frites” cone. It played the creaminess of the Comté against the crunchiness of the popcorn. Steve nailed the visual, too, putting each cone on its own little stand, lining them up in a row. A pop in your mouth, done — winner!

Some links
Cheesemonger’s Invitational
Photos of the event at Culture
Photos of the event at Eater
More on Adam

June 29, 2011, 9:09 pm
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A regular report on geek cheese interests and the learnings by traveling cheesemonger Daphne Zepos.

Dutch farmstead cheesemakers
Nylander, Wilde Weide, Remeker
First you start with the land

While you may think of Holland as a country that makes large, industrial, wax wrapped cheeses, there is another side to Dutch cheesemaking. Dutch farmstead cheeses are experiencing a new revival. They are made by dairy farmers who raise cows and make cheese on the same farm.

On a recent trip I met three Dutch farmstead cheesemakers.

  1. Otto Jan Bokma makes Nylander in north Holland, close to the enclosed Zuiderzee sea.
  2. Jan van Shie and his wife Roos make Wilde Weide. Their farmstead is a one square kilometer island; they are the sixth generation to farm the property.
  3. Jan Dirk van de Voort makes Remeker. The land has been in his family since the 1600s.

The first thing I noticed about these farmstead cheesemakers is that they are very serious about keeping their land alive and sustainable. Maybe it’s because of the length of time many of them have owned it. They farm organically. They leave hedgerows. Jan of Wilde Weide hays very late, in effect renouncing the revenue of the first hay harvest to let indigenous birds come eat from the grass and rear their baby chicks. If he sees their nests he plows around them.

I was on the farms at the end of May. All the pastures were in bloom with clover, lupine, chamomile, buttercups and tall reedy grasses. It was an extravagant salad bar for the cows.  A symphony of aromas. The term “grassy” could fill a whole aroma wheel on its own.

The second and most striking difference about Dutch farmstead cheesemakers was the answer they gave to the question, “How do you make cheese?”  Every other cheesemaker I’ve met starts at the dairy. The Dutch started with the land. In particular…

…Otto Jan of Nylander drove me down a dirt road to their fields to see his heifers, a handsome bunch of young Jersey cows. Slim water canals act as moats that keep the feisty girls on the right side of the road. Then we walked to the milkers’ field. Slowly, we got surrounded by a hundred cows, a relaxed, curious, pulsating mass. Wet nostrils took in our scent. Sandpapery, bluish tongues nibbled at our clothes and fingers. The cows heated the air around us. They smelled incredible, a mixture of clean hide and pollen. The power of that encounter completely influenced my visit to the dairy.

…Jan Dirk of Remeker took me out to a field with a shovel. He uncorked the earth, a foot deep. He talked about the soil and how worms rise from the earth to pluck treasure from the cow dung each night. The worms’ excrement, in turn, creates humus to grow great grass. Next thing I knew he stuck his index finger into a fresh cow turd and had it up to my nose. I took a step back as he approached but I was mesmerized. It was the most galvanizing cheesemaking demonstration I’ve ever seen. He said, “This is where it all begins. This is where we started when we wanted to improve the health of the cow and quality of the milk.”

I’ve been in this business for over twenty years. There have been few moments that have changed my perspective on cheesemaking the way that moment did. It made me realize that the dairy with its stainless steel vats and warm curds is but one step in the cheesemaking process. Maybe step eight out of ten. There are so many steps before the dairy—the breed of cow, the grass, the season, and apparently, worms and turds. It starts with the land. And after the dairy it continues with aging, which is never called cheesemaking, but really is. I might even include cheesemongering in there—after all, it’s still alive when we sell it, right?

Watch Jan Dirk uncorking the earth

Read “Of Windmills, Dikes and Cheese” in the current Cheese Connoisseur

– Daphne

Essex Street Cheese Co. offers Farmstead Goudas selected by Betty Koster at L’Amuse, Amsterdam’s best cheese shop. From time to time we also have an extremely limited selection of Wilde Weide.

May 18, 2011, 7:03 pm
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A regular report on geek cheese interests and the learnings by traveling cheesemonger Daphne Zepos.

The Fox and The Crow
Same Fable, Different Cheese

The Fox and the Crow is an ancient story of a crow sitting on a branch with a nice piece of cheese in his beak. A clever fox flatters the crow into song and makes him drop the cheese. This well known fable was first told by Aesop in ancient Greece and again by La Fontaine in 17th century France

In Aesop’s version, I like to think of the crow holding a dry, crumbly piece of shepherd cheese in his mouth. Something like a Kefalotyri from Crete, grayish white and very goaty. The fox is starving, and the muscular, barnyardy aromas wafting down from the tree make him salivate. He is a fast, urgent thinker.  First he devours the dropped cheese, then he sermonizes the crow.

Bernard Salomon, Aesop Cycle, 1547

La Fontaine’s crow, on the other hand, has a whole Muenster cheese delicately held in his beak. Soft and stinky, the aroma that reaches the fox is infinitely more corporeal and rich. La Fontaine’s fox is more of a gourmand. He takes the time to think of his ruse. He hones the flattering words, and prances away with the prized Munster, his bushy tail held high.

Francois Chauveau, le Corbeau et le Renard, 1668

The tale is fun for kids. If it’s helpful to sell more cheese, all the better. It strikes me as great to use at Halloween in our cheese shops. Feel free to take the idea and run with it. Here are some additional links.

Here is a translation of Aesop.

Aesop’s fable, animated.

Here is a translation of la Fontaine.

Soprano Veronique Gens sings Offenbach’s lied of  La Fontaine’s fable

March 24, 2011, 7:22 pm
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A regular report on geek cheese interests and the learnings by traveling cheesemonger Daphne Zepos.

A Secret Italian Cheese Wrapping Technique

Mulino Bianco Taralluci: every Italian eats them. They are little cookies that Italians dip in their Mokha-maker coffee in the morning. (We have them in Greece where they’re calledmerenda.) They’re very tender. As soon as you stick them in coffee they dissolve. You have to be very quick and put them in your mouth immediately after dipping.

The cookies are fine, but it’s the packaging that concerns us cheesemongers. The packaging has a magical property that I learned from Giorgio Cravero, the 5th Generation cheese selector at Cravero Parmigiano-Reggiano. It is a nearly perfect cheese wrapper.

It now becomes the world’s best cheese bag.

The Taralluci bag is paper on the outside, foil on the inside. It’s a perfect home for cheese. Giorgio—and countless other Italians I’ve met—put the cheese in the bag to store it in their refrigerator. No other packaging is needed. They roll the bag down, then seal it with a chip clip.

Once the taralluci are finished, the bag is wiped out, the top edge cleaned up with scissors, and it’s filled with a piece of cheese and put in the refrigerator. Where in the fridge? “In the refrigerator, period. It doesn’t matter.” says Giorgio. It keeps, as Giorgio says, “per-fect.”

On my next trip to Italy I’m going to try to finagle some pictures of the inside of people’s refrigerators to see how they store their cheese. I’m also going to experiment with this, and compare Taralluci bags to American cookie bags, foil paper and saran wrap. I’ll get back to you on the results in a future issue.

You can find Taralluci at many Italian shops in America. I know they’re at DiPalo’s, Dibruno’s, all the D shops. Or you can join me at the cheese fair in Bra this fall and we’ll get a few bags together.