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Now or the Janky Alternative

Monday, 04 May 2020 23:19
Shelburne Farms Cheddar Flight:  6 mo., 2 yr., Clothbound Shelburne Farms Cheddar Flight: 6 mo., 2 yr., Clothbound

By Rachael Lucas

The artisan cheese industry suffers as Covid-19 plagues our existence. 

People are out of work; businesses are shuttered; consuming fancy fromage is often deemed a communal experience, and, well, we are supposed to stay away from each other; and consumers are not buying enough cheese.  Yet, the milk flows.

Dairy-wise, spring is the absolute worst time of year for a pandemic.  Babies are born, and the milk is going to come regardless of whether there is a way to utilize it.   Many artisan cheesemakers primarily secure their incomes from local restaurants and farmer’s markets.  Since the abrupt societal (and economic) halt, this has not been an option for them.  Dairy farmers and farmstead cheesemakers are forced to dump what would otherwise be turned into their spring profit.  Their livelihoods are literally pouring out of hoses.

Rachael cheeseboard May 4 2020 PicmonkeyThis is a cheese board that I entered into Instagram #localcheesechallenge. It's all fare (except for the California radishes) that came from Washington: Lost Peacock Halloumi, Cherry Valley Dairy Butter, and Samish Bay Labneh, Beeworks Honey from Bellingham, Seattle Chocolates, Beecher's Crackers, and Bavarian Meats Landjaeger. Oh, and home-made peach jam.

There are things that we can do to help our artisan cheesemakers. The obvious is to purchase their fromage.  Now is the time when we support the businesses and creators that we want to be around when this is behind us.  Make certain that the cheese you buy comes from a good source where the animals are well-kept, and the cheese is fastidiously created.  Farmstead cheese should be our priority because it is extremely costly to finance an artisan operation where the animals receive good care and nourishment, and the land gets replenished—all of this occurs regardless of money coming in or not.  Cheesemakers who purchase their milk deserve our support, as well; but the reality is they have the option to purchase milk, while farmstead cheesemakers already have an abundance.

Fresh cheese needs to be bought today, full stop.  I feel terrible for goat farmers who specialize in fresh chèvre.  When the kids are weaned, chèvre season commences.  This is when our beloved, caprine spready is at its brightest and best.  A lot of chèvre producers do not make aged cheese, so now is their opportunity at a profit for the season.  Please be conscientious in your fresh goat’s cheese purchases.  Industrial cheesemakers have a better shot of skidding through this than the small guys.  Find the smallest local operation, buy their chèvre, and tell all your friends.

We are witnessing a decline in purchases of young, single format, bloomy-rinded fromage, too.  These kinds of cheeses are often thought of as special occasion fare.  Even though most festivities are currently canceled, bloomies are circulating and need to be bought and gladly devoured.  Thus, we need to create our own cause to celebrate, and (for crying out loud) eat one! 

I have heard a lot of cheesemakers who normally produce softer fromage are pivoting towards creating more mature cheeses in order to salvage some of their milk and buy themselves some time.  While aging out their cheese helps, caves inevitably fill up quickly, so there is no way to save all the fluids with which they are being inundated.  Even though cheesemakers are doing their best to adapt, no situation is perfect.

 

Tom Perry from Vermont’s Shelburne Farms (one of my favorite artisan cheddar producers) shares a similar view on consumer responsibility:

Currently, there is a strong desire from consumers to support farms directly, particularly, buying from an online market place. As someone that works at a farm, direct sales and the cash infusion it brings is greatly appreciated and needed. It's also a wonderful way to get cheeses your local store may not have. For our long term survival, though, the most important thing consumers can do to protect artisan cheesemakers is to shop at local businesses, of varying sizes, that are still open and supporting us now. This means, ideally, going to a cheese shop or a counter staffed by a cheesemonger. Very often they're very well informed on the current state of cheese, what needs to move and what's good. Ask them for their guidance especially on cheeses that are locally made or are from smaller nationally distributed farms. There is a supply chain that connects my farm in Vermont to a cheese counter in Seattle. It allows us to get our cheese to you safely and affordably. This supply chain is a complete ecosystem of transport companies, distributors, and retailers that will allow us to keep the cheese moving now and into the future. To put this succinctly: Support those that support us.

 

There is no reason to not purchase some high quality, hand-made fromage the next time you go to the store.  How about making a point to construct a weekly artisan cheese board?  If you are concerned about it being overly costly, (besides considering how different purchasing a $20 bottle of wine and springing for a $20 piece of dairy goodness really is) why not ask your cheesemonger to cut it into a smaller bit?  I prefer to purchase less cheese more often, so I encourage my customers to do the same.  Most cheesemongers will happily cut small pieces of several artisan cheeses to provide consumers with a nice variety as well as the mollifying knowledge that they have participated in saving our cheesemakers at such a dire time.

Cheese enthusiasts getting actively involved is crucial in order to protect our small farmers, farmstead, and artisan cheesemakers.  Please, become informed and communicate to the masses about what is currently happening with our revered dairy producers.  Social media is undoubtedly a pacifier and time suck for many as of late—now is the moment to post pictures of your weekly artisanal cheese boards and the motivation behind them.  Light a fire under others who are merely passing time until they can return to work.  Besides, a little dopamine release from a good cheese board never hurt anyone, and we could all use a mood booster these days. 

There are people in the cheese industry who are certainly pulling their weight via social media.  Janee Muha (the_mobile_monger on Instagram), a cheese specialist in the Seattle area, did a video interview series with numerous artisan cheesemakers throughout the U.S.  about this very topic last week on Facebook.  It was an opportunity for the viewer to get perspectives from the ones who are in the thick of it.  Then there is a cheese buyer known as chelseaincheese on Instagram who has been showcasing predominantly local, artisan cheese that she is bringing to her cheese counter seemingly daily.  She busts her buns to promote hand-crafted fromage, and, as a fellow cheese buyer, it inspires me.  There are many others who are taking the reins via social media.  Just look up cheese people on Instagram (check out mmefromage), and you will find a host of individuals doing what they can to keep our industry afloat.  We need to flood the place with information and inspiration, just as the above-mentioned folks are doing.

Another great way to make an impact is to write to your congressmen about including small farms in federal assistance packages.  The more people advocating the better.  If these farmers and farmstead cheesemakers do not get the help they need, then sadly, industrial farming practices and cheesemaking will be our future.  Gone will be the days of happy, pasture-fed animals, high quality milk, unique and creatively produced cheese, and curious flavor volatility.  Dairy will be ordinary and of lesser quality.  I refuse to acquiesce to consumption of janky cheese.

Even though the state of the world might seem rather dismal, we should be encouraged in the knowledge that we can help.  There are so many factors over which we have no control.  What we can control, however, is whom we choose to support, what we opt to ingest, and whether we make our voices heard.  We cannot afford to be passive.  Now is the time, turofiles, to rescue our artisan cheesemakers.  Are you with me?

Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG

 

Editor’s note:   Rachael Lucas is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP).  She also has the distinction of being one of forty-six people in the country with the ACS C.C.S.E. (Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator) accreditation.  You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area.  When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it.  She can be reached with inquiries about fromage and food excitement in the Seattle area at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Last modified on Tuesday, 05 May 2020 17:50

 

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