Food

A Life on the Wedge: An Interview with Cheesemonger Gordon Edgar

Edgar know cheese: he talks about taste, the difference between factory-made and artisan, and the future of the cheese movement.

One of my favorite things in the world is a good, oozey goat cheese on a cracker. I'm the girl who beelines to the cheese table at a cocktail party. I'm blind to the little brownie squares with their valiant toothpicks. I'm un-phased by the cookie trays and the little cupcakes with their doilies. Take back your pigs in a blanket, your blasphemous little wieners with their drooping dough. Give me the brie. Give me the Humboldt Fog, the Mount Tam Cowgirl Creamery wheel, the Cabot cheddar, the pecorino. Give me cheese! Oh lord, give me cheese.

So you can imagine my excitement over interviewing Gordon Edgar, author of Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge. He's the cheese man at the largest independent grocery in San Francisco, and lives and breathes the stuff. He knows what he's talking about, and he's not a snob. He's a former punk rocker and has an imaginary white schnauzer for a pet. He's hilarious, and who knew cheese could be so hilarious! Most importantly, he's easy to talk to, and can teach you everything you ever wanted to know about cheese--with a language you can understand. I talk to him about taste, the difference between factory-made and artisan, and the future of the cheese movement.

Makenna Goodman: What's it like being the cheesemonger at the largest independent grocery in San Francisco?

Gordon Edgar: The beauty of working at a worker-owned cooperative is that I know that I don't have to do everything. My job is to source cheese, buy it, and to organize when it comes in, but I know that the people I work with every day are just as committed. As a worker-coop we have very low turnover - especially when compared to, for example, non-union natural food chains that may carry similar products - so we have a lot of experience and expertise behind the counter every day. Because of the nature of my job, I probably wake up with cheese anxiety dreams more than my co-workers but I also have to cut and wrap a lot less than I did 15 years ago.

MG: How does your love of cheese affect the way you live?

GE: I must admit that I have geared a lot of vacations around visiting cheesemakers over the last decade. In addition, I am always asked by friends to bring cheese to parties. Also, my parents order the cheese plate at restaurants now in order to tell the waiters that I'm a cheese buyer. The waiters never really care, but they pretend to, which is the most reasonable reaction.

MG: When you're considering farms to buy cheese from, what's the first mark on your checklist?

GE: The cheese itself is always the first thing, not the farm. What is original about it? What does it taste like? Is it better or worse than other, similar cheeses? Is it unique or would something have to be discontinued in order for it to have a space on the shelf?

Usually something else will have to go if I bring a new cheese in so I ask: is it local? Is it US-made? What's the size of the operation? Do they have a policy on the use of bovine growth hormone? What's the wholesale cost? Does it have some kind of special niche? I'll add all these things up in my head and assess whether I will buy it or not.

If a cheese is small-production, made in the US, and I haven't had to deal with any obnoxious sales reps or brokers, it will definitely have a leg-up.

MG: What's your take on factory-made versus artisan cheese?

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?

GE: The best thing about cheese is exactly that there is no one perfect cheese. Or rather, that many cheeses are perfect in their own way. No one cheese can fulfill every need.

MG: How do you see farmers and cheese buyers working together in the future?

GE: Well it's a dependent relationship, really. Taken to its extreme, it's really interesting. While no one cheesemaker is by any means dependent on our store, we sell a lot of cheese, pay on time, and try to promote smaller farms so people want to do business with us. So we -- an urban multi-racial collection of freaks, homos, and commies - are sometimes in relationships with white, right-wing, fundamentalist Christians that are important to both parties. I believe that food production and selling is actually one area where this increasingly polarized country comes together. Sometimes that gives me hope for the future.

In terms of concrete ways for farmers and cheese buyers to come together, I think at some point we have to address each other's common needs to form urban/rural partnerships. For example, often stores demand more age or more flavor from a cheese. I've done it myself. I think if stores are demanding this kind of thing, they can put down deposits on aged cheese or otherwise help cheesemakers invest in infrastructure that the cheese makers will need to produce it. Clearly there's a limit to how much can be done - and the potential nightmare of what happens when cheese goes bad - but cheesemongers can't complain about cheese not being mature enough when the farmers/cheesemakers just really need to get a return on their investment. Age, generally speaking, means more concentrated flavor in a cheese but it also means the cheesemaker going longer without getting paid. Chipping in on the expense is one way urban people can help small cheesemakers survive.

I think dairy farmers need to take the concerns of urban people more seriously, including environmentalists, to try and understand why people are asking about hormone use, feed, ratio of acres to cow, and groundwater contamination. I think the truth that often underlines a what-the-hell-do-those-folks-know-about-farming-or-hard-work attitude sometimes also obscures real issues.

Instead of going into a lot of specifics for the future, I hope that an increased awareness of our interdependence will lead to solidarity between the two groups. I'd love to see urban retailers helping rural folks protect their zoning designations from developers and farmers coming to city planning meetings to help their retailers fight off mega-chains. It's a beautiful dream, isn't it?