Laura Chenel’s Chèvre has been recognized by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) for meeting one of the highest levels of food safety standards in the production of its line of fresh plain and flavored goat milk cheeses. The BRC’s Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) is an internationally recognized food safety credential becoming a fundamental requirement of major food retailers around the world. GFSI certification insures that Laura Chenel’s production meets food industry and legislative requirements across the UK, EU and US, including most of the recently enacted FSMA rules in the US.
Laura Chenel’s has a history of high level quality production standards in its state-of-the art Sonoma creamery. “Since the plant was completed in 2010, we’ve worked to establish systems that ensure our products are the highest quality and our facility exceeds food safety regulations,” says Eva Guilmo, Quality Director for Laura Chenel’s and sister company, Marin French Cheese. “GFSI certification is an external or ‘third party’ audit that evaluates quality, food safety and operational criteria ensuring that as manufacturers we meet our legal obligations while providing consumer protection to retailers and our end customers.” Retailers commonly require third-party audits from food producers and by achieving this high-level GFSI certification, Laura Chenel’s products will be streamlined for approval by independent and large retail chains. The certification is renewed annually.
BRC is the leading certification body in the UK, recognized across Europe and the US, with over 23,000 certified facilities in 123 countries.
Stonyfield, the leading organic yogurt maker, is introducing three new products aimed at providing customers more ways to enjoy the delicious flavor and nutritional richness of organic whole milk yogurt. With a new line of 100 percent grassfed yogurts and new whole milk offerings for already popular Stonyfield Greek and Pouch lines, consumers have even more reasons to reach for yogurt.
“During Stonyfield’s first years, plain, simple, whole-milk yogurt was all that we made. In the 90s, diet fads led consumers to fear fat,” said Ana Milicevic, Brand Manager from Stonyfield. “But that simply wasn’t the whole story. Since whole milk provides a wealth of benefits –and tastes great – we’re excited to satisfy an increased demand and return to our roots.”
“Organic whole milk yogurt is an incredibly satisfying, traditional food – something I think many Americans are starting to embrace,” says Drew Ramsey, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and one of psychiatry’s leading proponents of using dietary changes to help balance moods, sharpen brain function and improve mental health. “Plus, it’s a satisfying way to get important nutrients like protein and calcium.”
The Next Chapter: Grassfed Yogurt
Stonyfield’s new organic 100% Grassfed Whole Milk yogurt begins in the pasture, with milk from cows who graze exclusively on grass. Rich and creamy and filled with all the delicious, nutritional qualities of full fat dairy, this cup of yogurt is the perfect choice for a whole breakfast or snack.
Stonyfield is proud to be sourcing its organic 100 percent grassfed whole milk from Maple Hill Creamery, another company passionate about producing milk in a way that is good for the planet, good for the cows and good for people.
Maple Hill Creamery cows are 100 percent grassfed, meaning they eat all grass, all the time (no grain, no corn) throughout the year (even in winter!) to produce whole milk with a rich, unique taste. In collaboration, Stonyfield and Maple Hill Creamery seek to make organic 100 percent grassfed yogurt accessible on a national level to more people than ever before.
To help consumers identify 100 percent grassfed vs. other varieties of grassfed (supplemented with corn or grain), Stonyfield has achieved independent Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO) accreditation, noted right on the label of every yogurt cup. Stonyfield Organic 100% Grassfed Whole Milk Yogurt is currently available at Whole Foods Markets nationwide in 6-ounce Vanilla, Strawberry, Blueberry and Plain cups as well as 24-ounce Plain and Vanilla.
The Plot Thickens with Whole Milk Greek
Adding to its Greek nonfat yogurt family, Stonyfield’s Whole Milk Greek delivers a rich, creamy taste that only comes from full-fat dairy. The yogurt is packed with calcium and protein and new fruit-filled sidecars allow for flavor personalization. Available at national retailers in 5.3-ounce cups of Plain, Strawberry, Vanilla, Blueberry, Honey and Cherry, Stonyfield will also offer Whole Milk Greek in quarts of Plain and Vanilla – perfect for families or recipe creation.
A Conveniently Packaged Ending
The whole story concludes with a solution for bringing whole milk goodness on the go – with the introduction of Stonyfield Organic Whole Milk Pouches. The entire family will love being able to grab a convenient, hand-held pouch for a delicious, satisfying snack on the go. Stonyfield Whole Milk Pouches are available nationwide in Pear Spinach Mango, Strawberry Beet Berry, Vanilla and Blueberry – all available in single serve pouches. Additionally, each flavor except blueberry is offered in a four-pack as well.
Bellwether Farms, renowned for nearly 30 years of making award-winning sheep milk and cow milk cheeses, has unveiled its first mixed-milk cheese, named Blackstone. The handsome 3-1/4 pound wheels are a blend of local Jersey cow and sheep milk, dotted with black peppercorns and sporting a gorgeous dark rind. The rind results from a mixture of crushed black pepper, oil, rosemary and vegetable ash that is hand-rubbed on each wheel during its six-to-eight weeks aging at the creamery. The first wheels of Blackstone are arriving in Bay Area retailers and restaurants this month.
Bellwether’s proprietor and cheesemaker, Liam Callahan, developed Blackstone for an American market hungry for mixed-milk cheeses. “We like that Blackstone combines the best of both worlds,” says Callahan. “Our premium Jersey cow milk gives the cheese a creamy mouthfeel while our sheep milk deepens the complex flavor.” Callahan named the cheese Blackstone for its resemblance to the volcanic rock outcroppings surrounding the family’s Sonoma County dairy farm. Bellwether Farms is a family business founded by Cindy Callahan in 1986 with a flock of sheep needed to control grass on their Sonoma land. Today, they milk 350 sheep and every cheese, and yogurt is made on the farm by Liam and his crew, while business administration is handled by Diana Callahan, his wife.
Blackstone joins the roster of Bellwether’s popular aged cheeses, Carmody, San Andreas and Pepato. The creamery’s fresh and cultured products include top-selling sheep milk yogurts, Whole Milk Basket Ricotta, Crème Fraiche, Fromage Blanc and Crescenza.
Another cause for celebration at Bellwether Farms is an unprecedented fifth consecutive award for its Whole Milk Basket Ricotta from the esteemed Good Food Awards competition, honoring products that are authentic and responsibly produced. The exceptional flavor and texture of Bellwether’s Whole Milk Basket Ricotta comes from three specific steps: First, it is made using fresh whole Jersey milk delivered daily from a neighboring farm. Ricotta cheese is often made from only whey left over from cheesemaking. Second, traditional cultures are introduced to coagulate the milk for a slow fermentation, developing flavor and transforming it into moist, pillowy curds tasting of rich cultured cream. Faster-acting vinegar or citric acid are commonly used instead of cultures in ricotta making. Finally, the cheese is hand-ladled into perforated basket-style containers to protect the tender curds in transit to stores and restaurants. This distinctive ricotta cheese also took a bronze medal at the 2010 World Cheese Awards in the UK, competing against fresh ricotta from Europe. Bellwether Farms Whole Milk Basket Ricotta is available in specialty stores throughout the Bay Area and select regions across the U.S.
Following the release of a surprise statement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expressing respect for the artisan cheesemaking community and announcing that FDA is “pausing its testing program for non-toxigenic E. coli in cheese,” FDA Deputy Director for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, Michael Taylor, met with raw milk cheese producers on February 12 to learn more about the concerns of the American artisan cheese industry.
This Listening Session was held at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, where Taylor was joined by Dr. Susan Mayne, Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and a number of pertinent FDA staff. In opening remarks, American Cheese Society (ACS) Executive Director, Nora Weiser, expressed that “ACS’s desire to preserve and protect traditional cheesemaking practices; ensure safe, diverse products for consumers; and work with regulators to avoid undue and unnecessary barriers to growth are shared by many allied industry groups.” Weiser went on to name over 20 industry groups that support ACS in this direction, including numerous regional cheese guilds, international cheese organizations, and other dairy industry groups.
Seven ACS members, all raw milk cheesemakers from around the country, lent their voices to advance the dialogue and understanding that are needed to ensure continued growth of the artisan cheese sector. Presenting cheesemakers focused on several key issues:
Taylor emphasized that “we have to work together, and ACS is positioned for leadership in helping FDA understand what works for your product.” He went on to explain that preventive controls (PC) are about industry knowing what is needed and assessing what history has shown is successful. In response to ongoing concerns over changes to the 60-day aging rule, Taylor assured the group that any change to the rule will not be a surprise to stakeholders, and that this open dialogue is a prelude to any future rule-making or comment process. He stated that we must “look at raw milk cheese in [the] context of the PC framework.”
Mayne agreed, stressing the importance of science. She pledged that FDA will seek outside consult from academia and science in approaching artisan cheese safety. She sees moving forward in three steps: dialogue, which was furthered at the Listening Session; data, which must be shared openly; and scientific engagement, with technical discussions informed by what cheesemakers are doing.
Spurred by Taylor and Mayne, those present agreed that the next step is to pull together a group of relevant stakeholders, technical experts, and appropriate FDA staff to convene and discuss what preventive controls might look like for raw milk cheesemaking, and how testing can play its appropriate role in verifying controls. Jeremy Stephenson, cheesemaker at Spring Brook Farm in Vermont and member of the ACS Board of Directors, captured the theme of the meeting when he stated, “Concrete, measurable steps need to be taken on the part of FDA at every level to give the cheesemaking community confidence that regulators are operating in the spirit of FSMA. We need and value good regulation both to protect our customers as well as our collective industry.”
By Lorrie Baumann
As the market for quality cheeses grows, cheesemakers like Marieke Penterman of Marieke Gouda depend on professional cheesemongers to continue educating their customers about the products in their cases. That’s particularly important if, as some cheesemakers say, the cheese market is not driven so much by a definition of “local” that depends solely on geography as it is by a definition of “local” that connotes a community of like-minded people who share a cultural context. It’s cheesemongers who tell the stories that communicate that cultural context to their customers, Penterman observes. “It’s fun to see the cheesemonger community grow and develop a passion for the cheeses. It’s a kind of community,” she says. “Those people are so essential to the food industry. They represent us in the stores, and they talk about us, and they pass on that passion for cheese. It’s just phenomenal.”
Penterman herself experiences that sense of community among those who appreciate fine cheeses, she says. “When you go to a food show, it’s always fun to see people enjoy it, and it’s so rewarding and encouraging in what you’re doing.”
The awards that Penterman has won at many of those food shows are permanent symbols of how much her cheeses are enjoyed. Since she started making cheese in 2006, Penterman’s company, Holland’s Family Cheese, has won more than 100 national and international awards, including awards for all of its Marieke Gouda varieties. She has recently added Marieke Gouda Honey Clover, Marieke Gouda Cranberry (seasonal) and Marieke Gouda Jalapeno to her line. Marieke Gouda Bacon is the very latest flavor in the line, made in collaboration with Nolechek’s Meats, a butcher that’s local to Marieke Gouda’s home in Thorp, Wisconsin.
“They have been phenomenal. They put our Gouda in their brats and their hot dogs, so we thought we’d put their bacon in our Gouda,” Penterman says. “Bacon Gouda is really phenomenal!”
Marieka Gouda Foenegreek, which has won multiple awards, was one of the first cheeses Penterman made when she went into commercial production. She’d been thinking about adding walnuts to her gouda, but she’d hesitated because bringing tree nuts into a food facility is not done lightly. Then she tasted a fenugreek Gouda during a visit to the Netherlands and decided that the nutty flavor of the fenugreek seeds satisfied that craving without adding the tree nut complication, so she decided to try making it herself. It didn’t go well at first.
“It was so smelly in the house. I cooked the herbs in those days in our home kitchen,” she recalls. The simmering fenugreek smelled so bad that she changed her mind about adding it to her cheese, but then her husband, Rolf, suggested that she go ahead, give it a try and see how it turned out. “He doesn’t like to waste things,” Penterman says.
The cheese was aging when Penterman got a call from the Dairy Business Innovation Center to alert her to a 2007 competition. She picked a cheese to enter, and she asked one of her team members to pick a cheese. Rolf picked a third cheese, the Marieke Gouda Foenegreek. “Rolf picked the Foenegreek, and right away it won a gold award at the 2007 championship, so it was pretty cool,” Penterman says.
American consumers’ enthusiasm for Marieke Gouda and for Gouda cheeses in general is elevating both the availability and the quality of fine cheeses in the marketplace as cheesemakers improve their products to meet consumers’ expectations, Penterman says. “You can see the consumer starting to realize what good cheese is. Consumers are willing to spend a little extra to taste good cheese and to support local farmstead cheesemakers,” she says. “Overall cheese quality has improved. Flavor profiles are getting better. People are traveling and tasting cheeses and returning passionate about cheeses. I think that in general the quality for sure made a big jump in the last 10 years.”
By Lorrie Baumann
Face Rock Creamery is a three-year-old operation on the southern Oregon coast that’s already producing award-winning Cheddars with “in your face” flavors. Face Rock Creamery 2 Year Extra Aged Cheddar won a first place award for aged Cheddars between 12 and 24 months from the American Cheese Society in 2015 and its Vampire Slayer Garlic Cheese Curds won a first place award for flavored cheese curds in the 2013 American Cheese Society competition. “We’ve been really fortunate to win these awards right out of the gate, and it’s given us some credibility and momentum, so that’s been wonderful,” says Face Rock Creamery President Greg Drobot.
Face Rock Creamery is located in Bandon, Oregon, a town of about 3,000 people with a heritage of cheesemaking. Cheese had been made in Bandon for about 100 years from milk produced at dairies upstream along the Coquille River and barged down the river to the cheese factory that employed 50-60 of the town’s residents until 2005, when a large cheese company bought the creamery to shut it down.
Drobot happened to have moved to Bandon in 2005 to pursue a real estate project, and when the project was completed, he was looking for something else to do when local resident and friend Daniel Graham suggested that he think about starting a new creamery and reviving that part of their heritage. “I thought at first it was nuts…. I didn’t know anything about cheesemaking, but it’s such an integral part of everyone’s like here that it stuck with me,” he says. “When we reopened, we had community members coming in in tears to talk about how they felt that the cheese plant was a part of their family legacy. I’m really proud and happy that I can do that.”
He wrote a business plan, got a loan, and suddenly, he was starting a cheese business. He took his plans up to Seattle and showed them to Brad Sinko, a son of Joe Sinko, who’d owned the cheese plant before it had been bought and closed. Sinko was the founding cheesemaker for Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, another award-winning maker of fine Cheddars, and after he’d finished reviewing the drawings for the new plant, he said he might be interested in coming to work there. “He was top of the world, a rock star in the cheese community, and I didn’t even think it was a possibility that he’d come back to Bandon,” Drobot says. “I about fell off my chair when he told me that. It changed things a lot.”
Sinko moved back home to Bandon, and the plant started operating in May, 2013. The plant employs about 25 people directly and provides employment indirectly for about another 15, including delivery drivers and service providers. Holstein, Brown Swiss and Jersey cow milk is sourced from Bob and Leonard Scolari’s family dairy just up the valley, where a temperate climate and coastal rains mean that the cows can be on pasture about 70 to 80 percent of the year. Products include conventional aged Cheddars as well as flavored varieties like In Your Face, a three-pepper Cheddar; Vampire Slayer, which is flavored with garlic; and Super Slayer, which has both peppers and garlic. “Cheese is, for a lot of people, intimidating, but we want to make sure people have fun and enjoy their cheese, so that’s the route we went, especially with some of our flavors,” Drobot says. “We put kind of a fun twist on it.”
The Face Rock Creamery cheeses are currently sold in 2,500 retail locations across 10 states. “We would like to continue to move west and continue to spread the word about Face Rock,” Drobot says. “We want to continue to make wonderful cheeses. We would like to be nationally distributed. We’re never going to be a commodity cheese, we’re always going to be small batch, but the flavors have national appeal.”
Tickets are now on sale for the United States’ premier public artisan cheese event, the 10th Annual California’s Artisan Cheese Festival, which takes place March 18 – 20, 2016. The weekend-long festival is a celebration of California cheesemakers, chefs, brewers, cider makers, winemakers and passionate guests, all coming together for three days of learning about, tasting and supporting artisan cheese.
Bringing attendees face-to-face with the farmers and cheesemakers who work together to create some of America’s best artisan cheeses, the farm tours tend to sell out early every year. This year, in honor of the 10-year milestone, there will be two full days of farm tours, on both Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19, including destinations outside of the Bay Area, as well as educational components included in every tour.
Tickets to the festival’s other events are also now available, including Friday’s Cheesemongers’ Duel, Saturday’s “California Cheesin’ – We Do It Our Whey!” 10 Year Celebration, and Sunday’s Bubbles Brunch with Celebrity Chef John Ash and The Artisan Cheese Tasting & Marketplace. Tickets for all events may be purchased at www.artisancheesefestival.com.
Those interested can also follow updates by “liking” the Artisan Cheese Festival on Facebook and following the event on Twitter. All events are priced separately and the Sheraton Sonoma County – Petaluma is offering special discounted rates on rooms for festival-goers.
Generous sponsors of the Artisan Cheese Festival include American AgCredit, Beehive Cheese Company, Bellwether Farms, Central Coast Creamery, Chevoo, Cheese Connoisseur Magazine, Cowgirl Creamery, Culture Magazine, Cypress Grove Chevre, Donald & Maureen Green Foundation, Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese Co., Lagunitas Brewing Company, Laura Chenel’s Chevre, Mike Hudson Distributing, Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, Nugget Markets, Oak Packaging, Oliver’s Markets, Pennyroyal Farm, Petaluma Market, Petaluma Post, Pisenti & Brinker LLP, Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co., Pure Luxury Transportation, Real California Milk, Redwood Hill Farms & Creamery, Rustic Bakery, Sheraton Sonoma County, Valley Ford Cheese Company and Willapa Hills Cheese.
By Lorrie Baumann
As love did for Mama Cass Elliott, Peter Lovis’ parade for Crucolo cheese just started quietly and grew. Last December’s 100-yard parade route around the Walden Street corner from Main Street to the front of The Cheese Shop in Concord, Massachusetts was the sixth annual Cheese Parade hosted by Lovis in honor of the arrival of a 400-pound wheel of cheese from the Italian village of Scurelle, where Crucolo has been produced by the Purin family for the past 200 years.
The parade started out six years ago as a couple of 8-foot red carpets that rolled out along the street from a delivery truck into the store. But like Cass Elliott’s love affair, it’s getting better and growing stronger, until last year it included, not just a horse-drawn wagon to carry the cheese along in style, but dancing mice, Miss Crucolo Universe, Miss Crucolo USA, Little Miss Crucolo, a marching band, and a military escort of His Majesty’s 10th Foot, on furlough from their Revolutionary War service in the British army. “Now they’re friends. We don’t hold a grudge in Concord,” Lovis quips. “When it turns on Walden [Street], that’s where the band picks up and the dancers and the mice…. There’s nothing like a cheese parade. Go big or go home. It’s just fun. It’s really just for fun.”
When the wagon stops outside The Cheese Shop, the tractor tire-size wheel is rolled ceremoniously off the wagon onto red carpet, to be welcomed with the reading of a proclamation from the Concord Board of Selectmen; the waving of Italian flags; a speech by the Italian representative of Rifugio Crucolo, another by Tyrolean-hatted and white-aproned Lovis, each line of his text echoed by the crowd; and a protest march by local vegans carrying signs announcing that “Milk comes from grieving mothers.” Lovis says that he didn’t arrange the protest, but he admits without shame that, “If I’d thought of it, I’d have set it up.”
The event, held annually on the first Thursday in December at 3:30, so the kids have time to get home from school first, has become something of a tradition in Concord. People take the day off work for it, some driving in from out of town. “It’s over by 4:30 because it’s dark,” Lovis says. Last year, more than 1,500 spectators showed up. The parade has been featured in news reports all over the world, and the YouTube videos have been seen by thousands.
At the very end of the celebration, someone cuts the cheese to reveal its ivory paste laced with small irregular eyes, samples are passed out to the crowd, and the whole 400-pound wheel is gone in a week. For most of the rest of the year, the Crucolo lovers will have to get by with wedges cut from the 30-pound wheels that arrive in the shop without benefit of a parade. Crucolo, an Asiago fresco-style raw cow milk cheese with a mild, buttery taste and a tangy finish, is one of about 200 cheeses in the case at The Cheese Shop at any given time. The 200 rotate in and out to make a total of about 1,000 cheeses offered to The Cheese Shop’s customers over the course of a year. “We’re always out of about 80 percent,” Lovis says. “People come in and ask for what they want. We can’t have everything all the time.”
The cheese is sold by Lovis and his 16 year-round employees, who are augmented by seasonal employees during the winter holiday season. Lovis has eight seasonal employees who’ve come back year after year during the holiday season, so that they’re now fully trained in every job in the store – one now in her eleventh Christmas at the Cheese Shop, another in her tenth year. “They love it. They love the work, they love the place, they love the customers, and they know I love them,” Lovis says.
Lovis has been in the business since 1976, when he was 15 years old and started a career that has included retail, wholesale, importing – every link of the supply chain. He signed the agreement to purchase the store in 2001 and closed the deal in 2003. “My whole life has been an apprenticeship for owning this store,” he says. In that time, he’s learned a lot about selling cheese for prices that range from about $8.99 to $40 a pound. “One thing I work very hard is not to be a cheese snob about the cheeses we sell,” he says. “The point of being in business is to give the customers what they want…. What we need to focus on is not how good we are about selling cheese. What we focus on is how we get you what you want.”
How you sell people a $40/pound piece of cheese is to give them a taste, he says. “You should never buy a cheese if you can’t taste it first. Have a taste. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. If you can’t afford it, I have other cheeses in the same family. But there’s a reason why it’s $40. It’s not cranked out of a machine; it’s made by hand. But if you want something less expensive, I’ll get you something less expensive,” he says. “Give people a taste. It’s not about the cheese. It’s about the customer.”
By Lorrie Baumann
It wasn’t so long ago that the blue cheese you found in your local grocery came in a tub of crumbles or in a bottle of creamy salad dressing. While you’ll still find Roquefort salad dressing and Gorgonzola crumbles in the refrigerated cases, it’s more and more likely that you’ll also find wedges and wheels of moldy goodness in gourmet groceries as blue cheese comes back to the cheese board.
“Blue sales in the U.S. are up again over year prior by about 2.2 percent,” said Jeff Jirik, Swiss Valley Farms Vice President of Quality and Product Development. “That’s great news for those of us who make and love American artisanal, natural cheese.”
Swiss Valley Farms, Caves of Faribault
Swiss Valley Farms is a Midwest dairy co-op that’s also the parent company of Caves of Faribault, which produced the first commercial American blue cheese in 1936. The history of American blue cheese is intimately tied to Minnesota, and Caves of Faribault in particular. In the 1920s, University of Minnesota food scientists began trying to develop a cheese that would rival Roquefort. They were making cheese out of cow milk and aging it in St. Peter sandstone caves when the French took notice. “In 1925, the French declared it ‘bastard blue,’ and that’s what led to the first PDO,” Jirik said. “It was because of the blue cheese made in St. Paul.”
Food scientist Felix Frederiksen came onto the scene at Caves of Faribault when he decided to venture into commercial cheese production. He’d seen sandstone caves used in France for aging Roquefort, so he started looking for a sandstone cave that he might be able to use for the same purpose. He traveled into Minnesota by train, and when the train stopped at Faribault, he couldn’t help but notice the St. Peter sandstone bluffs directly across from the train station. Even better, the bluffs already had a cave, which had once been used as a cool environment for beer storage until Prohibition shut down the brewery in 1919. Frederiksen set up shop in the abandoned Caves of Faribault and operated it as an aging facility for America’s first commercial blue cheese until 1965, when he sold it. The Caves of Faribault went through a couple of changes of ownership before Jirik and two partners bought the facility in 2001, and then it became part of Swiss Valley Farms in 2010. Today, both Swiss Valley Farms and Caves of Faribault make award-winning blue cheeses and gorgonzola.
AmaBlu® Blue Cheese is a 75-day-old cave-aged blue cheese that’s sold in convenient exact weight crumbles and wedges. Its tangy taste profile makes it a good choice for sprinkling on a salad or laying over a burger. AmaGorg[R] Gorgonzola Cheese is aged a minimum of 90 days and has a sharper flavor but is a little less acidic than AmaBlu. AmaBlu St. Pete’s Select blue cheese is a super premium cheese aged more than 100 days and available only in limited quantities.
Rogue Creamery is another cheese company with a respected legacy in blue cheeses. The company started thinking about blue cheese during World War II, when the company was providing millions of pounds of cheddar for the war effort, and Tom Vella, the creamery’s founder, thought what we all think after we’ve eaten no cheese but cheddar for the duration of a world war: A piece of cheese is still wonderful, but it’s time for something a little different. He created Oregon Blue, the West Coast’s first cave-aged blue in 1954.
Oregon Blue successfully carried the blue flag for Rogue Creamery until 1998, when Ig Vella, Tom’s son, created Oregonzola in honor of his father’s hundredth birthday. New owners David Gremmels and Cary Bryant took ownership of Rogue Creamery in 2002 with a handshake promise to keep the plant open and its staff employed. “Ig continued on as Master Cheesemaker and mentor,” said Francis Plowman, Rogue Creamery’s Director of Marketing. “The tradition and path was laid down to develop expertise for blue cheese and to create new varieties.”
Gremmels and Bryant took those two blue cheeses and ran with them, expanding the line to nine with a tenth expected to come out some time in 2016. In 2003, Rogue River Blue won the award for Best Blue Cheese at the World Cheese Awards, and that led to the cheese becoming the first raw milk cheese to be exported into the European Union in 2007 . “That was a catalyst for us, really,” Plowman said.
Consumer demand for the blue cheeses drove production, and Rogue Creamery’s cheesemakers were inspired to see what else they might be able to do. Crater Lake Blue was created in 2004. Smokey Blue won a Trend Innovation Award at SIAL in 2005 as the first smoked blue and then came the award for Outstanding New Product at the 2005 Summer Fancy Food Show. “That became almost an instant best seller,” Plowman said. “We now had two cheeses with international reputations.”
Then the creamery created Flora Nelle Blue Cheese, an organic cheese created especially to comply with Australia’s refusal to allow imports of raw milk cheeses. “We were looking to create a cheese for the Australian market that was the same fine quality as our other products,” Plowman said. “That was also a catalyst for us to learn how to make some of the best pasteurized blue cheeses.” In 2012 Flora Nelle was selected as the Outstanding Organic Product at the Summer Fancy Food Show.
Next up for Rogue Creamery was Caveman Blue, a natural rind cheese with a lot of the flavor profile of Rogue River Blue, but it’s available year-round, while Rogue River Blue Cheese is always sold out before the winter holidays because in keeping with Rogue Creamery’s tradition for cheese production, it’s only made during the six-week period in late fall after the first rains of the season as a celebration of the autumnal equinox and the rich milk coming in at that time. Keeping the tradition means that the supply of Rogue River Blue doesn’t necessarily keep up with demand, and after Rogue River Blue is sold out for the season, Caveman Blue is still available. “I think that all of these things built on the others,” Plowman said. “Ig Vella as Master Cheesemaker made great cheeses, and then the new owners really innovated from that platform.”
“That’s been our niche for more than 10 years,” he continued. “We really focused on certain cheeses. We’ve had a lot of requests to make others, but the facility is dedicated to making the world’s finest hand-made cheeses. Product diversification is great, but we’re not going to start making Gouda or some other kind of cheese. We want to do what we do and be the best at it.”
Founded in 1988, Organic Valley is best known for an entire range of USDA-certified organic dairy products that includes Cheddar, Jack and block mozzarella cheeses sold from the self-service cases at natural and mainstream grocers, but the company also makes the delicious Kickapoo Blue, which is positioned as a specialty cheese. Brand Manager Andrew Westrich says it’s one of his favorites. “Sales for Kickapoo are doing well and growing. There’s a rising interest in blues in general, and I think it comes from the awakening of America’s food palate in the last five to 10 years. Blues offer some of the richest, fullest sensory experiences you can get in a cheese,” he said. “Chefs and consumers are looking for full sensory experiences. Blues offer a wonderful juxtaposition of flavors and colors from the creamy white of the cheese to the tangy, salty notes from the blue-green Penicillium roqueforti mold used in our Kickapoo Blue and in many of the world’s best blue cheeses. You can see the texture on the plate and feel it in the mouth, and they offer a continuum of flavor beyond that of other cheeses.”
Kickapoo Blue presents a mild, creamy taste of the base cheese followed by the rich earthiness of the mold and finishes with a salty tang. “It’s almost like a primal experience,” Westrich said. “Other specialty cheeses offer complex flavor profiles, but blue cheeses offer a very unique, even more dynamic experience that changes from start to finish.”
Kickapoo Blue is unique because it’s made in southwestern Wisconsin from milk that comes from organic family farms from the Driftless region of southwestern Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota. The landscape of rolling hills and valleys is home to some of the 1,800 farmers who belong to the national organic cooperative. They share the goal of tending the land with sustainable methods and have an average herd of about 70 cows. “They’re not 100 percent grass-fed, but they’re out on pasture as much as possible in a Midwest climate,” Westrich said. Kickapoo Blue is made from a decades-old recipe that uses this milk combined with Penicillium roqueforti. “That milk, that great organic milk from our family farmers really makes the difference,” Westrich said.
That difference is gaining the notice of the critics. Kickapoo Blue won a gold medal this year at the Los Angeles International Dairy Competition and a second-place award at the American Cheese Society’s 2015 competition. “Clearly we’re doing something right with it,” Westrich said.
Kickapoo Blue is sold in a 4-ounce wedge wrapped in plastic and foil and in tubs of crumbles that are made from the same cheese sold in the wedge.
Bleating Heart Cheese
Bleating Heart Cheese’s Buff Blue is one of most unusual blue cheeses on the American market. Cheesemaker Seana Doughty makes it from water buffalo milk supplied by dairy farmer Andrew Zlot, who uses it to make his gelato during the spring and summer months. Demand for gelato diminishes during the winter, so Zlot urged Doughty to take some of his winter milk and try making cheese with it.
Water buffalo milk is traditionally used to make mozzarella di bufala in Italy, where it’s been made since around 1,200. Doughty, though, who specializes in American Originals cheeses that are an expression of her own creativity, had absolutely not interest in making mozzarella. “But he kept coming back and asking me,” she said.
Zlot finally talked her into trying some experiments. She made a couple of experiments at home and then did some thinking about the implications of the milk’s very high fat content – water buffalo milk contains about 8-10 percent fat, compared to around 7 percent fat for sheep milk, which doesn’t sound like a lot of difference, but the extra fat makes a very dense, very rich milk that’s distinctively different to work with. After playing around with the milk a bit, Doughty began to wonder if it might make a good blue cheese.
The result was Buff Blue, an absolutely unique cheese for the American market. Doughty made it in multiple batches for the first time in late 2014, then sent it to the World Cheese Awards, where it won a bronze medal in its first competition. In 2015, Buff Blue made from spring milk went on to win a third-place award in the American Cheese Society competition.
The water buffalo milk supply went to Zlot’s gelato instead during the summer, but as soon as the cooler weather came, Doughty went right back to making cheese with it. “I have been getting so many requests for it because people who did get a little bit of it loved it,” Doughty said. “Markets have been sending out purchase orders for it even though I told them that we were sold out.”
Buff Blue retails for about $40 a pound, depending on the retailer and the distance from the Bleating Heart creamery, but the reception has been so enthusiastic that Doughty is planning to expand her production of Buff Blue with all the milk that Zlot’s willing to sell her. The cheese, made in 2-1/2 to 3-pound wheels, will continue to be made in the fall and winter, ending each year with the arrival of spring weather.
Buff Blue is aged for at least 90 days, so it’s available for sale in the spring months through June, if it lasts that long. “The buffalo milk is tricky and can be difficult to work with, but I’m used to it now. I know what to expect,” Doughty said. “I feel a sense of accomplishment as a cheesemaker that I have found a way to make an award-winning cheese from this very difficult milk.”
The federal Food and Drug Administration is bowing to cheesemakers who claim that in applying a standard for non-toxigenic E. coli in cheese that they claim is arbitrary and unscientific, the agency could be, in effect, limiting the production of raw milk cheeses without demonstrably benefiting public health.
“In response, we want to first acknowledge our respect for the work of the artisan cheesemakers who produce a wide variety of flavorful, high-quality cheeses using raw milk and our appreciation for the great care that many take to produce raw milk cheeses safely. We understand the concerns expressed by some cheesemakers, as well as lawmakers, and intend to engage in a scientific dialogue on these issues,” read’s the FDA’s statement announcing the change, issued on February 8.
The FDA has been testing raw milk cheeses for the presence of non-toxigenic E. coli because that’s been thought to indicate fecal contamination. The FDA says that the bacterium is used as an indicator of fecal contamination by other public health agencies in the U.S. and other countries as well as by the FDA. “The FDA’s reason for testing cheese samples for non-toxigenic E. coli is that bacteria above a certain level could indicate unsanitary conditions in a processing plant,” the FDA says.
FDA recently sampled and collected data on 1,200 imported and 400 domestic raw milk cheeses, according to the American Cheese Society. The FDA notes that the sampling it has conducted to date shows that the “vast majority of domestic and imported raw milk cheeses” are meeting the FDA’s criteria.
The FDA will also hold a listening session later this week in Washington, D.C. to hear directly from ACS raw milk cheesemakers. ACS President, Dick Roe, and ACS Executive Director, Nora Weiser, will be joined by seven raw milk cheesemakers from around the country, who will share their stories and speak to the impact of raw milk cheese regulatory changes on their businesses. The seven cheesemakers who will be addressing the FDA include:
Looking ahead, with the FSMA preventive controls rule now final, the FDA plans to take another look at what role non-toxigenic E. coli should have in identifying and preventing insanitary conditions and food safety hazards for both domestic and foreign cheese producers. Changes in the safety criteria the FDA is using will consider what the cheesemakers and other experts have to say about the use of a single bacterial criterion for both pasteurized and raw milk cheese, and the use of non-toxigenic E. coli as an indicator organism.