A Life on the Wedge: An Interview with Cheesemonger Gordon Edgar
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GE: Factory-made cheese is all about producing the exact same product every time. I'm not here to put down factory-made cheeses like some snobby foodies out there. Factory cheese feeds people, provides jobs, and helps preserve rural communities. I mean, if you can afford to regularly make mac and cheese for your kids out of the Cabot Clothbound Cheddar that's aged in the Cellars at Jasper Hill (one of my favorite cheeses) that's great. It is just not reality for most people. There's a reason that our (rBGH-free) Mild Cheddar that's made in a factory is our biggest seller in terms of volume. Depending on the price on the Cheddar Block Market, we sell it between $3-$4/lb.
Artisan cheese is almost by definition more interesting. It can vary depending upon the season or the whim of a small producer. If the animals graze, the cheese flavor is locked into a community based on the local grasses and flowers. It's also a great way for small dairies to make a living because, while the price for milk is often controlled elsewhere, an individual can control their price for a finished product like cheese.
MG: What does taste have to do with it?
GE: Pretty much everything. If people don't want to eat it, it doesn't matter whether it's local, organic, sustainable, multi-generational, made by the nicest people in the world or whether the cheese is washed with the urine of local honor students. You can compel people to by something once with a great cheese "story", but no one buys food they don't like twice unless it's really cheap.
MG: For someone who knows nothing except how to put it on a cracker--tell me about brie. How does this cheese go from cow to the counter?
GE: Well, first you're assuming it's a cow's milk cheese when it could be goat, sheep, or water buffalo. But even going with cow, there's a lot of potential variation on the path from cow to counter. That's one of the things my book is about and why I organized the whole first half with each chapter discussing a different cheese ingredient.
A cheese like Sweet Grass Green Hill is basically a small Brie, but made on a family farm in Thomasville, Georgia. The milk comes fresh from pasture-based Jersey cows, extra cream is added to increase the fat content and flavor, rennet is added to separate out the curds from the whey, cultures and salt are added so that the cheese will age correctly and taste like a brie, candidum (which eventually makes the bloomy, moldy rind) is put into the milk directly and will grow when it comes in contact with air, and the curds are hand-scooped with care into forms to make make sure that they don't break in the process.
Then the Green Hills age for about 14 days, being turned so that they ripen evenly and watched for the correct amount of bloom and ripening. Then they are wrapped and begin to ship from. I like 'em about 35-40 days but it varies a little batch-to-batch, as pretty much all hand-made cheeses do.
On the other end of the spectrum, a factory-made brie that you'd find in your average grocery store is not a very hands-on product. The milk will be pooled from many farms and trucked to a processing facility. This, obviously, can increase the volume of cheese made, but will lose the distinct flavors found in the milk from an individual farm. Also it is unlikely these will be Jersey cows, which produce smaller outputs of richer, fattier milk than most other breeds. The basics of the recipe will be the same: rennet, cultures, salt, and added cream (most Brie sold in this country is 60% butterfat or double cream. Traditional French Brie is 45-50% butterfat). However, the process will be done in large factories, cut, formed, and flipped by machines. Then they are sent across the ocean in cargo containers, "ripening" along the way.
Don't get me wrong, there are some very tasty bries made in large-scale French factories: Isigny, Guilloteau etc. but the most common brands available are further stabilized by washing the curd and further removing any traces of personality. Some of these are simply terrible, they never get soft or oozy or develop any interesting flavors. You might as well buy a Jack or Havarti and spend a lot less money.
And I didn't mention it above, but if you are eating that brie and cracker snack in the USA, the milk for that cheese will have been pasteurized before the cheese production started because these cheeses ripen and go off before the 60-day period of mandatory pasteurization ends. If you were in France it may have been made from raw or thermalized milk and have a very different flavor. But that's really another subject.
MG: Tell us about the cheese world. If you had your way, what would this world look like in 10 years?
GE: I would hope that every region would have its own favorite, local cheesemakers producing a diverse array of cheeses. Like co-ops and punk scenes, a strong local community of mutual support can really help bring out people's talent and creativity and help create momentum. That's happening already. A decade ago not many people would have pointed to Oregon as a center of great cheesemaking but there's no denying it now. I think the growing popularity of cheese is sowing seeds right now that we won't see for a few years, but when we do, watch out!
I would hope by then there also would be more agreement (if not regulation) about the terms that the cheese business throws around every day: "artisan", "grass-fed", "sustainable", "small-production", even "family farm". All these words and phrases have meaning, but can also just be used for marketing purposes which will render them useless in time. I mean if you take them at their word, Jack in the Box is serving "artisan" ciabatta bread, right?
And of course I would like to see food co-ops doing a better job of buying and selling cheese. Actually, I'd love to see worker co-ops playing a much bigger role in the distribution and selling of cheese and other foods, but that may take longer than ten years to be noticeable.
MG: If you could create your own "perfect" cheese, how would it taste and how would it be made?