By Richard Thompson
Historically maligned as a novelty in the cheese segment, American consumers are embracing flavored cheeses that are being offered by specialty cheese companies. More dairy farms and cheese companies are offering products with additional flavorings, like Sriracha and dill, that cater to both sophisticated and adventurous tastes through a growing variety of award-winning flavored cheeses. Companies like Country Connection Cheese Company, Nicasio Valley Cheese Company and Cypress Grove Chevre are receiving influential awards in the dairy industry for their flavored cheeses: Country Connection’s Sriracha Cheddar, Nicasio Valley’s Foggy Morning with Basil and Garlic and Cypress Grove’s Truffle Tremor. “I think flavored cheeses, when done well, are popular because they expand the specialty cheese category with interesting options for the consumer,” says Ellen Valter, Brand Manager of Country Connection.
Interest in flavored cheese has intensified in the last few years with flavored cheeses now making up seven percent of the total cheese category, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB). Heather Porter Engwall, Director of National Product Communications at WMMB, says that for the last five years flavored cheeses have outperformed unflavored cheeses in both volume and dollar sales with year-to-date dollar sales of flavored cheeses up more than 8 percent. “Trends we see within the specialty cheese category are, of course, flavor,” says Porter Engwall, “Be it hot and spicy, sweet and savory, fruity or nutty, Americans continue to enjoy a heightened taste experience.”
Country Connection started creating new taste sensations by adding ingredients to high-quality cheese and was recently awarded the gold medal at the Los Angeles International Dairy Competition for its peppery Sriracha Cheddar cheese. According to Valter, the Sriracha Cheddar is a top-seller in the 17-cheese line the company offers and is made with all natural Sriracha for a spicy cheddar blend that goes excellently with beer.
The company also offers Chipotle Cheddar, Basil Garlic Jack Cheese, and Applewood Smoked Gouda – one of the three smoked cheeses in their line. The Chipotle Cheddar is made with cumin, garlic, red chile peppers and chipotle. “Chipotle Cheddar is my personal favorite because its smoky and complex flavor profile makes it one of the few cheddars that pairs well with a full-bodied red wine,” says Valter.
Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, a farmstead cheese company that is part of the Lafranchi Dairy, has won numerous awards – including second place in the Fromage Blanc category in 2011, 2012 and 2014 at the American Cheese Society (ACS) – for its Foggy Morning cheese. Foggy Morning with Basil and Garlic is a flavorful extension of that flagship product. “Our Foggy Morning with Basil and Garlic is just like our original, but we add basil and fresh garlic to it,” says Scott Lafranchi, Partner at Nicasio Valley Cheese Company.
This cheese is a very soft, very creamy cheese that carries a tang with it where you can still taste the milk in the cheese, says Lafranchi. “It’s such a versatile cheese; I think it’s great on a bagel. On salads, it’s really good.”
2015 has been a good year for Cypress Grove Chevre and its flavored cheeses, according to Bob McCall, Sales Director for Cypress Grove Chevre. The company’s PsycheDillic goat cheese placed first at this year’s ACS awards in the Fresh Goat With Flavor Added category, while the company’s Truffle Tremor Mini and Truffle Tremor Original placed second and third respectively in the Soft-Ripened with Flavor Added category.
PsycheDillic is infused with dill weed and dill pollen, making it the top bagel-topping choice that will persuade consumers that they don’t want to go back to plain cream cheese, according to McCall. “People who buy this cheese already like dill, but end up trying something brand new from the dill pollen and fresh goat cheese,” says McCall.
The company’s Truffle Tremor Mini and Truffle Tremor Original – northern Italian truffle-infused goat cheeses – were born like most great innovations; by accident. After Mary Keehn, the Founder of Cypress Grove Chevre, tried creating a new fresh chevre flavor that underwhelmed during an initial taste test, the wheels were left in the aging cooler for three weeks before anyone remembered they were there. But when they did remember their existence, the Cypress Grove folks fell in love with the taste. “I kid you not, 60 seconds went by before anyone spoke,” recalls McCall, “We were stunned by how good it was.”
Cypress Grove Chevre is a cheese company that prides itself on the uniqueness of its names and their allusions to their northern California zeitgeist. Herbs de Humboldt, for instance, which sports locally harvested herbes de Provence, is monickered with a tongue-in-cheek allusion to one of the region’s better-known cash crops. “Its wonderful on pasta or as a substitute for cream and pairs well with almost any beer, red ale and Sauvignon blanc,” says McCall.
By Lorrie Baumann
I met Connor Pelcher, a Wholesale Account Manager for Murray’s Cheese, one morning over breakfast during the American Cheese Society’s Cheese Camp, after my attention was drawn to him by one of his co-workers who asked him if he was wearing his flamingo socks. He reared back in his chair and raised his leg above the table to demonstrate that, yes, the flamingo socks were sur les pieds.
I missed seeing the matching flamingo shirt that he’d also bought after he’d run out of shirts during his stay at Cheese Camp. “I went to the mall, saw a flamingo shirt, and then I saw the flamingo socks,” he says. “As a salesperson, I like to dress in a way that people will remember. The better dressed you are, the more visually impactful you are. That might help people think about me when they have a question about cheese.”
Pelcher started his career in the food industry as an escape from the reality that a college graduate with a degree in English has when realizing the limited options for turning that degree into a well-paid career. “Anyone who has a degree in English can tell you the feeling of fear you get when you get handed that diploma,” he says. “That fear led me back to Vermont, where I grew up.”
Back in Vermont, he began exploring a passion for cooking and applied to the New England Culinary Institute. “I got a call the same week to say they loved my essay and were looking for people who were passionate and who were looking for a second career,” he says. After graduation from culinary school, he moved to New York and began moving up the ladder in white-tablecloth restaurants until he found himself the general manager of a restaurant and two bars in the East Village, and it dawned on him that he was having more to do with spreadsheets and personnel rosters than with actual food. “I took a step away from that and thought about where I could focus myself,” he says. “I had always been obsessed about beer and wine and cheese, so I sent a resume to Murray’s. I went in and got myself hired as a junior sales person.”
He still remembers what he said in that interview, he says. He mentioned “that cheese with the ash.” Humboldt Fog? the interviewer asked, and he agreed that, yes, that’s the one he had in mind. “It was laughable. Now I could talk to you for an hour about my favorite cheeses.”
He’s now been at Murray’s for two years, has become an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional and he’s now teaching some of the classes he attended to learn about cheese. Pelcher says he’s more excited now than he was when he started the job. “At Cheese Camp, I got to meet some cheese celebrities. I got to taste a million things that I never even would have known about,” he says. “The panels were incredible – some of the brightest minds, a confluence of some of the best thinkers that the cheese world has to offer. To be allowed to ask questions of them, to have four people that you deeply respect and that you read about answering a question for you…. Someday I’d like to be on one of those panels and to have people look up at me and applaud.”
Chad Farmer Davis, a Kroger Enterprise Set-up Specialist who opens Murray’s Cheese Shops inside partner stores across the country, also remembers the job interview that led to his career in cheese. He’s from Illinois, and he’d never even seen a cheese shop when he applied six years ago for what was supposed to be just a summer job. “I said I was an expert. I ate Kraft every day,” he says. “That was my entire cheese knowledge six years ago – Kraft and Velveeta.”
Much as he loves eating good cheeses now, his favorite part of his job is working with the people he meets as he travels the country, “training new cheese people and spreading the word on curd.” “There are literally so many crazy people in cheese culture. These are people that you tend to be attracted to,” he says. “When I was a kid, I was so focused on Star Wars. When I grew up, it transferred to cheese.”
When he trains new cheesemongers who aren’t yet as obsessed as he is with cheese, he likes to point out that talking about cheese is an easy way to start a conversation with a stranger. “There are so many kinds of people, but most people love cheese, and you can definitely bond with people over cheese. You can start a conversation about cheese, and it leads to, oh, I made a new friend,” he says. “You can meet a lot of new and interesting people, and it makes you a better person because you’re learning so much about other people.”
Like Pelcher, Farmer-Davis’ was once one of those liberal arts graduates willing to think for food. Now, he’s become one willing to spend the rest of his career thinking about food. “This is now a permanent career – one I thought I’d never have,” he says. “It was something that took me by surprise. I fell in love with it the very first day. I’m definitely not going to walk away from it, ever. It’s something that I love to do, and it makes my life extremely interesting.”
Like Pelcher, Cheesemaster and ACS Certified-Cheese Professional Jill Davis started out as a chef. She now works for Kroger at a new Murray’s Cheese Shop inside a Decatur, Georgia store, but before she joined Kroger, she was working for KitchenAid, teaching cooking classes and offering demonstrations to show kitchenware retailers how to use KitchenAid appliances. Before that, she’d worked at Sur Le Table teaching classes in cooking and knife skills, and she’s spent five years as a chocolatier. She intends for Kroger to be her last employer before she retires.
She came to work for Kroger after KitchenAid closed its Atlanta facility. “I’d been a long-time customer of Murray’s and got an email that said, ‘Coming Soon to Atlanta,” she says. “I called directly to New York.”
A Murray’s staffer in New York put her in touch with the Kroger hiring manager in Atlanta, who interviewed her for five minutes and then handed her an airline ticket to leave the next day for training in New York. “I got the whole Murray’s tour and then came back here and directly became a cheesemonger and in charge of the shop,” she says.
“Murray’s is extremely thorough in training, not only about cheese, but about merchandising and the product itself. There are product sheets on every single thing you sell: name of the farmer, name of the cheesemaker, nutritional information, some factoids to help you remember it. You need to have all of this information before you even begin a demo, plus all of this information is on every single sign, which also contains pairings and information on pronunciation,” she continues. “They also bring in their people to teach you the proper way, the Murray’s way, of cutting each cheese within each family of cheeses and how they’re merchandised and displayed.”
Her new shop has about 100 different cheeses, an olive and antipasti bar, a case of charcuterie, pickles, jams and chocolates. Crackers sit on top of he cheese cases. While most of the cheese is cut to order, there are also some grab-and-go precuts because many of the Kroger stores are open 24 hours a day and some customers choose not to interact with the cheesemonger.
“For me, it’s all about the cheese. I like talking to my customers every day. I want to have customers, people who come in and ask for me and say they’re having people over and want to know what to serve,” she says. “Everything – the bottom line – is customer service. It’s not all about the cheese; it’s all about the customer.”
By Lorrie Baumann
Catalina bleats insistently from her pen in the Toluma Farms nursery barn as farmer Tamara Hicks approaches. Slender and long-haired, Hicks has the sun-kissed complexion of a woman who spends much of her time outdoors, and she doesn’t have the bottle that Catalina, a pure white Saanen kid born several weeks ago, is hoping for.
Like the other lambs and kids born this year at Toluma Farms, a 160-acre farm in west Marin County, California, Catalina is named after an island. There are also Kokomo, the island of the Beach Boys song; Floriana; and Manhattan – all bodies of land surrounded by water, a topic that’s very much on Californians’ minds. “We have often discussed the irony of being surrounded by water, being a coastal farm and dairy and worrying constantly about water,” Hicks says. “Hence, the islands seemed comical in a depressing sort of way.”
She and her husband, David Jablons, bought this farm in the rolling hills near Point Reyes in 2003 with the idea that they could become agents of change in the local food production system and in the debate about climate change. “We made a conscious decision that we could be part of the conversation about restoring the land,” Hicks says. They’ve sunk most of their children’s potential inheritance into this property, and now California is giving them a practical lesson in what the state’s climate means to the future of local food.
California is in its fourth year of a drought that’s setting records even for a state with a long history of concern for whether it has enough water to supply a burgeoning population and an agriculture industry that supplies most of the country’s fruits and vegetables. The period from 2012 through 2014 was the driest three-year period ever in terms of statewide precipitation; exacerbated by record warmth, with the highest statewide average temperatures ever recorded in 2014. Every California county has been included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s drought designations at various times between the beginning of 2012 and the end of 2014.
Unlike most other natural disasters, drought is a gradual crisis, occurring slowly over a period of time. There’s no sudden event that announces it, and it’s not usually ended by any one rain storm. The impacts of drought get worse the longer the drought continues, as reservoirs are depleted and water levels decline in groundwater basins.
Even though some parts of northern California did get a little rain last December and again in February of this year, the cumulative effect of four critically dry years has created a crisis that is expected to cost California’s agriculture industry $1.8 billion this year, with a total statewide economic cost of $2.7 billion. More than 18,000 jobs in the state’s agriculture industry are likely to be lost to the drought this year, according to agricultural economists studying the effects of the drought for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Marin and Sonoma Counties have been the heart of northern California’s dairy industry since 1856, when Clara Steele made the first known batch of cheese in this part of the country from a recipe she found in a book. These are not the state’s most drought-stricken counties, but even here there’s a pervasive air of crisis. Marin County has declared a state of emergency so that farmers can qualify for any aid that becomes available. Local radio stations advertise water conservation tips and the availability of financial aid for water-saving devices. Farmers and gardeners hold evening meetings to share advice, offer each other fellowship and discuss the chances that this year’s drought might be California’s new normal, as Governor Jerry Brown said it is in April, as he imposed mandatory water use restrictions. Across California, the message is being passed that, “Brown is the new green,” as the state’s residents are urged to save water, save water, save water.
Hicks and Jablons take some solace in the knowledge that this property has a long history of having sufficient water. California’s most significant historical droughts have been a six-year drought in 1929-1934 – the Dust Bowl years, the two year-drought of 1976-77 – a comparatively short drought that nevertheless had very serious effects on the state’s groundwater, and another six-year drought in 1987-1992. The 1929-1934 drought was comparable to the most severe dry periods in more than a millennium of reconstructed climate data, but its effects were small by present-day standards because the state’s urban population and agricultural development are much greater now. In the 1970s drought, the family that owned Toluma Farms then had enough water to allow friends and neighbors to come and fill up tanks to truck back to their own farms. This time around, Hicks doesn’t feel secure enough to make that offer.
When they found this property, 18 miles west of Petaluma, in an area where they’d been coming for weekend camping excursions for years, it was a dilapidated farm with a history of dairy production that had been abandoned and the pastures neglected. Ten thousand old tires had been piled on a hillside in an ill-advised attempt to prevent the slope from eroding and were spilling down into the road. Other discarded junk had been dumped around the house or buried in backhoed pits.
Neither Hicks nor Jablons had any experience in farming – Hicks is a clinical psychologist and Jablons is a surgeon, both with busy practices in San Francisco – but they felt that their financial resources, their skills in forming and maintaining helpful relationships with other people and their commitment to their values could see them through the challenges of returning the farm to its historic use as a productive dairy farm. “It’s a good thing that we are both equally committed to the idea of restoring the farm to health and making a statement about the value of sustainable agriculture and a healthy food system,” Hicks says. Otherwise, she adds, their marriage might not have survived the challenges of figuring out how to turn derelict pastures and an ad hoc landfill into a financially and ecologically sustainable family farm. After more than a decade of work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to rehabilitate the pastures, hauling away the tires and other garbage, building a guesthouse that’s rented out for in-depth educational farm stays and meeting space, and opening a creamery for making cheese, the farm hasn’t yet fulfilled that dream of sustainability. Hicks is hopeful that the artisan cheeses from the Tomales Farmstead Creamery she opened on the property in 2013 will be the final piece in a patchwork of enterprises the couple operates to support the farm, but returning the land to health will probably take a few more decades, she estimates. “We’re not profitable yet,” she says. “I’m not sure if it’s possible to make a living as farmstead cheese producers.”
Toluma Farms gets its water from sidehill wells that just have to last until the drought ends because the farm can’t support the costs of trucking in water, even if the water was available at all, which it probably wouldn’t be. “We kind of hope and pray,” Hicks says. “The city [of Petaluma, the nearest municipal water system] has pulled way back in prioritizing water for agriculture. Houses out here can’t even get water.”
Coming to terms with the drought has meant cutting back the milking schedule to once per day instead of the usual twice-daily milkings at 12-hour intervals, which saves half the water normally used to clean the milking parlor but reduces milk production by 25 percent. State and federal regulations require that the equipment used in milking must be sanitized before every milking and then washed immediately after use, both to protect the milk from contamination and to protect the health of the animals, and all of this cleaning is a major use of water on dairy farms.
Tomales Farmstead Creamery makes and sells five cheeses made from the milk of its herd of 200 goats and more than 100 East Friesian sheep. The cheeses all have names that reflect the heritage of the coastal Miwok Indians who lived here before the Europeans arrived. Kenne is a soft-ripened goat cheese with a wrinkly Geotrichum rind that’s aged for three weeks. Teleeka is a soft-ripened cheese made with goat, sheep and Jersey cow milk – the only one in the collection that’s not a farmstead cheese, since the Jersey milk comes from Marissa Thornton’s dairy farm just down the road. Assa, a word that means “female” is an aged goat cheese with a chardonnay-washed rind. The name is a tribute to the many women who work on the farm as well as the female animals that produce the milk. Liwa is a fresh goat cheese aged just three days – the name means “water.” “We pray for water,” Hicks says. Atika is an aged sheep and goat cheese with a McEvoy Olive Oil rind. Atika won a second-place award from the American Cheese Society in 2014, in the creamery’s first time to enter the awards contest.
All five cheeses are made with pasteurized milk, since the creamery doesn’t have the space to isolate pasteurized milk cheeses from raw milk varieties. Hicks is glad now that the couple made an early decision not to make raw milk cheeses because she’s noticed that the makers of raw milk cheeses are getting extra scrutiny this year from food safety inspectors. While there are raw milk cheesemakers who believe that pasteurization could compromise the complexity of the flavors in their cheeses, Hicks is satisfied that the production method she has chosen produces an excellent product. “We think it’s delicious cheese, or we wouldn’t do what we do,” she says.
Two years ago, Jablons and Hicks started growing their own hay using dry-land farming techniques, by planting 40 acres with a mixture of oats, rye and barley that yielded one cutting last year and a second cutting this year. That’s easing some of the effects of the drought on the farm, since it insulates the couple from the extra costs of buying hay in a market in which the supply/demand ratio has been affected by decreased production from farmers who haven’t had enough water to irrigate their hay fields. “We still have to supplement some, but not nearly what we had had to do,” Hicks says. “With the drought, we’re paying twice as much now as we did 10 years ago. It’s now $300 a ton, and the quality is not as good…. We know people who’ve had to get rid of their cattle. Fortunately, sheep and goats don’t drink as much water.”
She’s grateful for the coastal fog that blankets the hillsides of her farm in the mornings and shelters the fields from the evaporative power of the sun’s heat. “I don’t know how the farmers around Modesto are doing it,” she says. “The weather is so much hotter there.”
Next: Drought Adds to the Pain of a Bleating Heart Continue reading
Litehouse® Foods is expanding its top-selling Opadipity Greek Yogurt Dip line with three new flavor-packed options. Spicy Asiago Artichoke, Greek Olive and Cinnamon Swirl flavors give consumers even more ways to make the holidays stress-free and tasty by serving the low-calorie creaminess of Greek yogurt.
Since launching Opadipity in 2014, the dip quickly became a category leader. The Litehouse brand is responsible for fueling 56 percent of the veggie dip category growth in the U.S. in just the last few weeks.
“The retail and consumer response to Opadipity has been amazing, and we are proud to continue to innovate with these latest flavor offerings,” said Camille Balfanz, Brand Manager, Litehouse Foods. “These new dips continue to deliver on the promise of extraordinary everyday fun, giving consumers more better-for-you snack options that are not only convenient, but can be used in so many inspirational and delicious ways.”
The new Opadipity Greek Yogurt dip flavors provide a thick, creamy consistency that fans love with fewer calories than traditional dips. They are also gluten-free with no preservatives or MSG. The three new flavors each stand on their own as instant crowd pleasers:
The three new Opadipty Greek Yogurt Dips are available at retail locations nationwide starting in October with a suggested retail price of $3.99 for a 12-ounce tub.
By Lorrie Baumann
Cheese has taken Corinne Coniglio into a life that many downhill skiers would trade their souls for. She’s the full-time cheesemaker at the Deer Valley resort in Park City, Utah, and she makes her cheeses in a room a step away from the ski slope. “It’s really awesome. It’s right on the ski slopes, so it couldn’t be better. It’s so beautiful to see the mountain when I go to work,” she says. “It’s so beautiful and inspiring as I create the cheese.” But, as is true of many ultimate destinations, the road to Deer Valley Cheese was long and the journey was arduous.
Her dedicated cheese-making space was created for her after a pilot season two years ago in which she made her cheeses in the resort’s restaurant kitchen, working at night between 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., when the kitchen was unused and empty. “You need peace to make cheese; it takes time to allow the milk to curdle. You can’t have chefs running around with knives,” she says.
Once it became clear that house-made cheeses were an attraction valued by the resort’s clientele, Executive Chef Clark Norris convinced the management to invest in the construction of a new cheese room for Coniglio. “The customers really like the idea. One day we had a cheese tasting right there in Royal Street restaurant. We made a big cheese board to bring in, and customers coming in in their ski gear were asking if they could have that,” she says. “It’s a pretty high-end food place, so we have direct customers for the fine cheeses we’re making here on the resort. It’s nice for the people who are coming skiing.”
“It’s really unique to have access between ski times to a cheese board and charcuterie made from scratch. Everything is made right here on the ski slopes,” she adds. “There’s a nice sunny terrace with a lot of flowers in the summer and great food and everything made from scratch.”
She’s now making cheese all year round, supplying the resort’s restaurant kitchen as well as a local grocery chain that’s selling her cheeses in 16 stores around Utah. Coniglio makes European-style cheeses from local raw milk. “We go pick up the cow milk at Heber Valley Farm just 15 minutes away. The goat milk, from Sweet Deseret Farm, is directly delivered by Daniel the farmer, who always has nice stories to tell about his high-quality registered dairy goats. I pasteurize both milks myself at the lowest temperature allowed by the USDA,” she says. “I make a double cream brie that is really nice. There’s a triple cream brie with black truffles that Clark uses over a bison steak with foie gras on top at the Mariposa restaurant. I make a goat cheese with vegetable ash…. A marinated goat cheese with grapeseed oil, cipollini onion, lemon peel and a little sweet red pepper that looks like a little chocolate kiss. It looks really cute. Blue cheese with cow milk, which is not pasteurized and ages a minimum of 60 days. I have a French friend who told me that it reminded her of a Bleu des Causses.”
The road to Deer Valley had its beginning when Coniglio, who was born in Belgium, started making cheese 12 years ago. “I had my own little farm in Colorado, where I had goats and took cheese to the farmers market,” she says. “We had a little piece of land and there were a lot of wineries there, but nobody was making cheese. I was missing my cheese from Europe, where it’s possible to get cheese from Spain and everywhere. I bought some goat milk from a local farmer and took the cheese to little wineries, where they loved it. We bought a goat, then another goat, and soon there were 50 goats.”
Coniglio found places to learn more about cheese. She’s a native French-speaker, and she found an online forum which allowed her to connect with French farmers, and they invited her to come and tour their farm and cheese facility. A few years later, she contacted a French manufacturer while she was looking for cheesemaking equipment, and the company became interested in what she was doing in the United States. “After a few months, they actually hired me as a director of sales for the U.S.,” she says.
As part of her training for the new position, the company brought her to France and then to Germany to visit cheesemakers and learn about the equipment. “They sent me back to the U.S. with that knowledge,” she says.
She had the chance to visit cheesemakers all over the U.S. until the company decided to close down its U.S. sales. “That’s when I started my own company, Fromage Without Borders,” she says. “Colorado was a lot of fun with raising the goats and doing the local farmers market at the end. We were doing some pasteurized cheeses for the market because the law did not allow us to sell raw milk cheeses. We had the good stuff under the table, and good customers knew about it. It was kind of a black market.
That part of her life ended when the farm was sold, and Coniglio moved to Utah along with her goats, which had been sold to a Utah farmer interested in starting a cheese business. “Deer Valley was buying my cheese,” she says. When the farmer decided that raising goats wasn’t for him and sold the flock, Deer Valley offered her the chance to come to the resort. “This is a permanent situation. I told them they need to bring some cows with some bells to put on the ski slopes and have their own cows and goats,” she says. “Right now I’m working on a little project with some ewe milk. We want to do a bloomy rind with a little bit of a blue touch inside. The difference in the milk is so interesting.”
As she continues, she’d like to try her hand at a raclette cheese. “That’s the thought for the future. If we start that, we’re going to have to have a bigger cheese room and a bigger aging room to store all those big wheels,” she says. “But I would love to do that. I would love to make raclette. That would be the next step.”
By Lorrie Baumann
Cheese is complicated, which is one of the things that Liam Callahan, the cheesemaker at Bellwether Farms, likes about it. “These are my cheeses. I feel like I have license to change them. If it interests me, I can do that,” he says. “I don’t want to do anything that’s less good; everything is in an effort to improve them. I still find that challenging.”
He won a sofi Award last year for his Whole Milk Ricotta and another sofi Award this year for his Blackberry Sheep Milk Yogurt. His Fromage Blanc took a second place award at this year’s American Cheese Society Awards. That’s another thing he likes about his business: “After all these years of Fancy Food Shows and several times being finalists…. It feels good that people still respond to it, that they like the packaging,” he says. “I still get satisfaction from that kind of recognition. I take it with a grain of salt, but it’s great to get some recognition.”
Callahan grew up in San Francisco and didn’t become a farm boy until after he was in college, when his mother, Cindy Callahan, won a long-running argument with his father, a physician, about getting out of the city. “Once we were out of school, she managed to win the tug of war,” he says. They found Bellwether Farms, a 34-acre property within commuting distance from the city, and it didn’t take them long to decide that they were going to need some animals to eat all that grass. “By the end of the first summer, the grass was over six feet tall,” Callahan says.
Then, three years in, the family had about 100 sheep grazing on the farm when a visitor from the Middle East remarked that they could be milking them. “Everyone in the Middle East that has sheep are milking them,” he told the family, as Callahan recalls. “We thought it was a crazy idea at first. We never realized that some of our favorite cheeses were sheep’s milk cheeses. We had never looked beyond the wedge of cheese.”
That question came up as Callahan was finishing school in the spring of 1990, and Cindy asked her son if he thought he might like to learn how to make cheese. “It sounded interesting, sounded challenging. I was able to see something for the work I had done. I felt like I was working with and for the family, which was unusual at the time,” he says. “Once we started it, there was so much to learn. It appealed to me because I’ve always had a scientific analytical side, but there’s a lot of it that’s beyond analysis…. It’s amazing – you never can know it all in this.”
The FDA’s recent heightened scrutiny of raw milk cheeses is one of many issues that’s making it harder to make good sheep milk cheeses these days, Callahan says. “That’s something that adds to the cost of doing business: recordkeeping, additional lab work,” he says. “It’s an expensive move for a HACCP program to be implemented and maintained. That’s really tough for the smaller people. It’s tough for everyone. When you’re a one-person or a two-person operation, it takes a full-time person to be the liaison to the regulatory side of the industry.”
He points to current uncertainties surrounding how cheesemaking is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that are frustrating him. Most of the code under which his operation is regulated is subjective, he says. “The key phrase is ‘in a sanitary method’ or ‘well-maintained,’ and there have been differing opinions of what that means,” he says, citing last year’s controversy over aging cheese on wood boards as an example.
While it’s possible to almost completely eliminate the risks of consuming cheese, that would come at a price, according to Callahan. “Somewhere at the back of everybody’s mind, we’re worried that that’s where it’s going to go. For a lot of products, it wouldn’t do good things to the product,” he says. “It’s like fresh fish versus canned fish or a smoked fish versus canned fish. They’re both preserved, but by taking it to a further step with the canning, you completely change it. It’s no longer the artisan, traditional smoked fish. It’s the same thing for cheeses.”
Those uncertainties and the greater scrutiny that’s being directed at raw milk cheeses may end Bellwether Farms’ production of raw milk cheeses, Callahan says. “People like our raw milk cheeses, and we can’t meet the demand for them, but they are growing at a slower pace than our other products, and as it grows to be a smaller part of what you do, you start asking yourself if the risk, you start thinking about whether you’re going to have a problem,” he says. “Raw milk cheeses present a bigger risk, and it impacts everything you do because people hear that. It damages the brand.”
By Lorrie Baumann
In 1865, Samuel L. Clemens was living in San Francisco, writing articles for newspapers and wondering if he had any shot at a career as a humorist. He was also apparently drinking quite a lot, which means that there actually is some chance that he tasted the Breakfast Cheese made by Jefferson Thompson, who founded his west Marin County dairy farm that year. He sold the cheese he made in the creamery that would eventually become known as Marin French Cheese to San Francisco saloons who sold it to their customers.
No, Marin French Cheese’s official history doesn’t document any consumption by the writer who’s best known today as Mark Twain, but there’s no way to prove it didn’t happen, after all. What we do know is that Thompson launched his Thompson Brothers Creamery in 1865 on a 700-acre dairy ranch that’s now known as Hicks Valley Ranch near Petaluma, California. He sent his Thompson cheese by horse and wagon and then by boat to San Francisco’s saloons, where dock workers began calling it “Breakfast Cheese.”
Thompson’s two sons, Jeff Thompson, Junior and Rudolph Thompson, took over the creamery in the early 20th century, and Jeff, Jr. traveled to Connecticut to learn to make European styles such as Camembert, Brie and Neufchatel. He branded his French-style cheese Rouge et Noir, French for “Red and Black.”
In the 1990s, Marin French Cheese was acquired by cattle rancher and real estate developer Jim Boyce, who modernized the cheese plant and expanded distribution of the Marin French cheeses. In 2005, Marin French Cheese achieved distinction as the first U.S. company to be awarded Gold in a European competition for Triple Crème Brie, besting the French in that category. The 2014 World Cheese Awards in London honored Marin French Triple Crème Brie cheeses with three out of four awards in the soft-ripened category, awarding a Super Gold to a new cheese, Supreme. Following that win, the company’s legacy cheese, Petite Breakfast, was selected as a winner in the 2015 Good Food Awards, recognizing authentic and responsibly produced food.
After Boyce’s untimely death in 2010, Marin French Cheese was acquired by The Rians Group of France, which has since modernized the creamery with state-of-the-art equipment and aging rooms, new packaging with redesigned labels and an expansion of the retail shop on the creamery property. This year, Marin French Cheese is celebrating its 150th anniversary with a year-long schedule of celebratory events that pay tribute to the company that is the longest continuously operating cheese company in the United States.
Rians, a French company that specializes in farmstead cheeses with European AOC and AOP identities, bought Marin French Cheese with the knowledge that the company operates in a very environmentally conscious community and saw a fit that matched Rians’ environmental ethics and respect for the places in which its cheeses are created, said Eva Guilmo, Quality and Food Safety Manager for both Marin French Cheese and Laura Chenel’s Chevre, which was acquired by Rians in 2006. “Rians Group is built on having many small creameries that have terroir and a close relationship with their environment,” she said.
Like Laura Chenel’s Chevre, where Rians built a new creamery from the ground up that incorporates modern technology to save both energy and water, Marin French Cheese is adapting its operations to modernize and to save water, said Miguel Da Conceicao, Site Manager for Laura Chenel’s Chevre. He arrived in California three years ago after transferring from a Rians goat cheese plant in France. “Every year we are doing things. That’s why in three years, we have saved 30 to 35 percent of the water compared to what we used when we started this plant [at Laura Chenel’s Chevre],” he said. “We haven’t waited until California was in crisis to start doing things.”
“Proactivity is the word, always, and we want to stick to that,” Guilmo added
Marin French Cheese gets its water from natural ponds on the property that are fed from snowmelt and rain, although it hasn’t snowed here since 1990. “Each year, after the winter, we look at our ponds and we manage from that,” said Amelie Curis, Site Manager for Marin French Cheese. “I think it will be okay for this year. We should be okay for the next two years.”
As it modernizes its operations, the company is working closely with the federal Food and Drug Administration as well as state regulators, Guilmo said. “We’re working on the design of the machines to ensure that they comply with the rules and even go beyond them in terms of standards of cleanliness and food safety. The dairy inspector comes every three months and we discuss the requirements for the dairy industry,” she said. “With the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA is moving from a system of management of corrective actions to a system of anticipation of the risks with the implementation of prerequisite programs which are good practices to run a food manufacturing plant. They’re asking more about control points and trends management before serious problems arise and require the manufacturer to issue a recall. We’re moving from a corrective era to a proactive era in food safety.”
Industry self-policing is also helping to ensure that consumers are getting the safe cheese they want, she said, noting that the large retailers have begun asking their suppliers to provide products that meet consumer demands, such as dairy products made without the use of rBST, the bovine growth hormone that increases milk production when injected into dairy cows. “The use of rbST was approved as safe by the FDA. The FDA found that there is no significant difference between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST treated cows, but the distributors want rBST-free milk. The same thing is happening with GMOs,” she said. “Consumers are always pulling us forward before the government does. By the time the government acts, we’ve heard about it, and it’s already being discussed, which is a big advantage.”
By Lorrie Baumann
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is asking for comments and data about the safety of cheese made from unpasteurized milk with a view to regulating more carefully how cheesemakers produce raw milk cheeses. “We are taking this action in light of scientific data on potential health risks associated with consumption of cheese made from unpasteurized milk,” according to an FDA notice published on August 3.
The public has until November 2 to submit either electronic or hard-copy comments and scientific data and information to the FDA. Electronic comments should be submitted to http://www.regulations.gov with reference to Docket Number FDA-2015-N-2596.
The FDA is relying on a 2012 review of outbreaks of foodborne illness that occurred in the U.S. between 1993 and 2006 that pointed a finger directly at cheese, and to cheeses made from unpasteurized milk in particular. According to that study by scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the review included 121 outbreaks of foodborne illness involving dairy products between 1993 and 2006, and among these, 73 (60 percent) involved nonpasteurized milk and resulted in 1,571 cases of illness and two deaths. Out of the 65 outbreaks involving cheese, 27 involved cheese made from raw milk, a figure that’s particularly significant since less than 1 percent of the dairy products consumed in the U.S. during the time period were made from unpasteurized milk, according to the FDA. The 38 outbreaks involving cheese made from pasteurized milk resulted in 744 illnesses and 1 death, while the 27 involving cheese made from raw milk resulted in 641 illnesses and two deaths.
According to the 2012 study, all of the illnesses involving nonpasteurized dairy products were caused by bacteria, although a number of species of bacteria were involved, including Campylobacter species, Salmonella species, E. coli, Brucella species and Shigella species. Three of them were caused by Listeria. That suggests that the contamination more likely came from the dairy environment than from the humans who handled the milk, who’d have been more likely to pass along viruses than bacteria.
The FDA notes in its call for data that cheeses made from unpasteurized milk are required by federal regulations to be aged, typically for 60 days or more. This was presumed to reduce the risk that disease-causing bacteria would still be alive in the cheese when it was eaten, but recent research has shown that the 60-day aging period for soft ripened cheeses might actually increase the risk that the cheese will cause listeriosis, the infection caused by Listeria, by giving more time for the bacteria to multiply. It is not legal in the United States to sell soft ripened cheeses made from unpasteurized milk outside the state in which they were made, but such cheeses can be made and sold in states that permit sales of unpasteurized dairy products.
Dr. Catherine Donnelly, a Professor of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont, is among those who agrees that the FDA should take another look at whether the 60-day aging period for raw milk cheeses does more harm than good in the case of soft ripened cheeses. “The 60-day aging rule should not be applied to a soft-ripened cheese,” she said. The rule makes sense in the case of hard cheeses made from raw milk, she said. “As cheese ages, the pH goes down and the moisture declines, and you’re creating that inhospitable environment [for harmful bacteria].” But in the case of soft cheeses such as a brie or Camembert, the surface molds that are essential to creating the cheeses produce amine products that raise the pH of the cheese, creating an environment in which bacteria can thrive, she said. “Mature ripened Camembert has a pH about 7 [which is neutral]. As the pH goes up, you start getting conditions that allow the growth of Listeria. That’s why in cheeses like brie and Camembert, you get very high levels. The FDA should never have applied the 60-day aging rule to a soft-ripened cheese, but it’s part of our Code of Federal Regulations. That’s not a very good rule from a safety standpoint.” The good news for cheesemakers, however, is that FDA’s soft cheese risk assessment shows that if every batch of raw milk soft ripened cheese is tested for Listeria, the risk is actually lower than that for soft ripened cheese made from pasteurized milk. Donnelly also points out that Food Standards Australia New Zealand conducted a 2009 Risk Assessment of raw milk cheese, which concluded that “Campylobacter spp. [species] were found to be a negligible risk in both raw milk extra hard and Swiss-type cheeses. The presence of Campylobacter spp. was not assessed in raw milk Cheddar, blue, Feta or Camembert cheeses. However, Campylobacter spp. are unlikely to grow in milk or cheese, as their growth requires reduced oxygen tension and temperatures between 32 – 45°C and they do not survive well under slightly acidic conditions, or in the presence of greater than 2 percent salt.”
There’s little question that soft cheeses made from raw milk are potentially more dangerous than hard cheeses made from raw milk. Studies indicate that the risk of illnesses may be orders of magnitude higher for unpasteurized dairy products than for those that have been pasteurized. “In France, you can’t legally sell Camembert beyond 55 days. Why? Because it’s too dangerous,” Donnelly said. She’s concerned that the FDA might now decide that no cheeses should be made from raw milk even though the harder cheeses are much safer. “I’ve studied listeria for a long, long time. I share the concern about the growing incidence of listeria in elderly and susceptible population. Soft cheese is just one category of products that the FDA has determined to be a risk,” she said. “I am just concerned that this might carry over to other varieties of cheese made from raw milk that have been shown to be very microbiologically safe – things like the harder cheeses made from raw milk.”
She points to a 2014 study conducted by scientists affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that distinguishes the types of cheeses involved in 90 outbreaks caused by cheese between 1998 and 2011.While 38 of the outbreaks (42 percent) were caused by cheese made from unpasteurized milk, 44 (49 percent) were caused by cheese made from pasteurized milk. Queso fresco was the most common cause of the outbreaks, including 18 due to cheese made from unpasteurized milk and one due to pasteurized cheese. An additional seven outbreaks reported an unspecified type of soft Mexican-style cheese. “Homemade” cheese was the second most common type reported for the outbreaks due to raw milk cheeses.
The soft unaged cheeses imported from Mexico were responsible for 13 outbreaks – more than a third of all outbreaks associated with cheese during the period. Nine of those were caused by Listeria. In five outbreaks, all due to cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, the cheese was produced or sold illegally. Commercial importation from Mexico of cheese made from unpasteurized milk is illegal unless the cheese has met FDA aging standards, although travelers are allowed to bring in limited amounts of raw milk cheeses for personal use. However, these raw milk cheeses imported for personal use are often illegally sold once they’re in the United States.
The 2014 study concluded that “In addition to using pasteurized milk, soft-cheese-making facilities need to ensure strict sanitation and microbiologic monitoring. Labeling of cheese should include whether the milk used to make it was pasteurized or unpasteurized, whether the cheese was aged and for how long, and the license number of the production facility.” The report adds that, “Efforts to reduce production and sale of illegally manufactured cheeses as well as continued binational collaborations are needed to address the issue of illegal cheese importation.”
“This is where the real risk lies” stated Donnelly.
Lifeway Foods, Inc. has signed on as a national sponsor of the James Beard Foundation’s third annual Taste America®: “Local Flavor from Coast To Coast” national epicurean tour. As part of the program’s 2015 itinerary, a line-up of world-class chefs will demo custom recipes using Lifeway Kefir products at local Sur La Table® locations in select Taste America cities. Reservations for the free cooking demos will begin two weeks prior to each event. For more information, visit jbftasteamerica.org.
“Our partnership with the James Beard Foundation is an incredible opportunity to introduce our kefir to a new audience and to demonstrate its versatility as a hot new ingredient,” said Julie Smolyansky, Lifeway’s President and CEO. “Working with innovative chefs who are at the forefront of their industry will allow us to prove that kefir is much more than a drink and allow them to bring a new flavor profile to menus across the country.”
Spanning six weekends between September 18 and November 7, 2015, the program will kick off in Miami and visit a total of ten dynamic culinary cities across the country throughout the fall. Each stop will feature a special Friday night benefit dinner crafted in collaboration with a Taste America All-Star and a Local Star chef, during which guests will enjoy a palette cleanser of Lifeway Frozen Kefir products. The Taste America agenda will continue the next day with free, in-store consumer events at a local Sur La Table location. The lineup of public programming will include “cooking with kefir” demonstrations in select markets (Boston, Chicago, Miami, and San Francisco) led by celebrated chefs from the area. Lifeway representatives will also be sampling kefir products before and after the cooking demonstrations in all 10 Taste America cities.
“Taste America was created with the goal of bringing together top innovators in our food world to educate and entertain Americans about local flavors from coast to coast, ” said Susan Ungaro, President of the James Beard Foundation. “As many people might not be familiar with kefir, we are delighted to have Lifeway Foods on board as a national sponsor providing our guests with a deeper understanding of the product, its rich history, health benefits and the delicious ways it can be used. We can’t wait to see what recipes the chefs come up with!”