Tuller in the papers
MORE CHEESEMAKERS HOOKED ON THE 'BLUES'
By Joanne Friedrick
The combination of a surge of interest in all things American, along with the
explosion in new U.S. producers, signals good times for American-made cheeses.
"(America) is establishing a foothold in cheesemaking unlike anytime before," stated
Laura Werlin, the Berkeley, Calif.-based author of The New American Cheese. "I'm
getting a lot of new cheeses sent to me that are fantastic."
Werlin, who is working on The All American Cheese & Wine Book, a book about
wine and cheese pairings and entertaining ideas scheduled for publication in
February 2003, said the spurt in new, high-quality American-made cheeses
"indicates to me the learning curve (for new cheesemakers) is less. There are more
people to model after or learn from than there were five years ago."
Kathleen Shannon-Finn, chairman of the board of the American Cheese Society and
cheese specialist for Columbus Distributing, Hayward, Calif., concurred there has
been a surge in American cheesemakers. "It has gone beyond the point of being a
fad," Shannon-Finn said, "Just as we built specialty cheese departments on imports,
now specialty stores are adding American cheeses."
Ruth Ann Flore, a partner in the sales and marketing firm Flore, Price & Associates,
Cross River, N.Y., said American cheesemakers have expanded their selection to
include more aged cheeses - "a direct result of consumer demand for more complex
Cathy Strange, national cheese buyer for Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas,
noted a growth in regional American producers. With fluid milk prices continuing to
fall, farmers are looking for ways to add value, she said, and cheesemaking is one of
those opportunities. But many producers are so small they aren't able to sell
beyond local farmer's markets or specialty stores.
Such producers often come to the attention of Whole Foods' seven regional buyers,
said Strange, who is based in Arlington, Va. "We like to be the leaders in getting new
things on the market," she said.
Werlin, while enthusiastic about the scope and selection of American-made
products, cautioned that problems with consistency and higher pricing may still
make imports more attractive to cheese department buyers.
An American-made cheese can often be twice the price of its European counterpart,
Werlin said, because "everything is more expensive here—shipping, labor,
equipment." In addition, she said, European makers may benefit from their
governments' subsidies, which are designed to keep prices affordable.
On the product consistency issue, Werlin attributed it to the American industry's
newness. The European cheesernakers, she said, have had hundreds of years of
experience vs. 20 years or less for many of the American specialty producers.
Shannon-Finn suggested buyers and consumers look beyond the inconsistency and
instead regard cheese as a living, adaptable organism.
"We should savor, relish the fact that cheese changes seasonally," she said. "It's not
a character defect."
Within the category of American cheese, blues are emerging as the hottest subset.
"If a cheesemaker is looking to make a mark, blue is the category to go into,"
Shannon-Finn noted. And the development of American-made blue cheeses, she
added, "is another sign of the maturing of the American industry."
Werlin said consumers seem to love blue cheese—"the stronger, the better."
Among those blues garnering attention are Ewe's Blue from Old Chatham
Sheepherding Co., Old Chatham, N.Y.. the first U.S.-made sheep's milk blue
cheese; Vermont Blue from Green Mountain Blue Cheese, Highgate Center,Vt.;
Original Blue. produced by Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. in Point Reyes
Not yet on the market, Werlin said, are a gorgonzola and goat's milk blue cheese
from an artisanal producer in Louisiana.
Robert Tuller, owner/operator of Tuller Premium Food, a 770 square-foot
specialty store that opened in Brooklyn in late September, has already featured
Ewe's Blue in his store and stocks other American cheeses such as those from
Capriole in Greenville, Ind.; Bellwether Farms in Petaluma, Calif.; and Cypress
Grove Chevre in McKinleyville, Calif.
But with room for just 100 or so cheeses in his tiny shop, Tuller said he must be
discriminating in his selection. "I want cheeses that make a statement in and of
themselves," he explained.
"It all comes down to taste." he added, noting his selections encompass cheese
from Britain, especially those from Neal's Yard Dairy; France, Italy and Spain
along with the United States.
To help promote products, domestic and imported, Tuller said he makes it a point
to meet the cheesemakers. "I like to talk to and spend time with the owner and the
maker," he said. "And if you're a distributor, I want to talk with the owner."
The reason for this hands-on approach, he said, is simple: "I want to make sure
what I put out there is the best it can be."
The selection he offers, Tuller said, "is a nice balance of what customers want and
what we want to sell them."
Strange noted she, too, visits cheesemaking facilities. About 5 percent to 10
percent of her time is spent inspecting plants, she said, "especially if it's an
exclusive to us."
Proper handling is critical. Strange said, noting Whole Foods has working Hazard
Analysis and Critical Control Point programs in the receiving departments of its
stores. The retailer also works with distributors so the cheese is properly handled.
"We monitor the full chain," she said.
|SPECIAL REPORT: CHEESE
American-made cheeses earn spot at table