May We Have Gouda

by Matt Hart in Cheese

There are several cheeses I would describe as “destination” cheeses: Comté, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Manchego and aged Gouda are all destination cheeses (to name only a few). We cheese people refer to them as destination cheeses because they are the reason people end up at a cheese counter. When the cheese lover arrives at the destination, it’s then our jobs as cheesemongers to provide them with the best destination cheeses available. One importer and distributor currently offers some of the best destination cheeses I’ve tasted to date. That company is called Essex Street Cheese.

Essex St. selects, imports and wholesales several traditionally-made iconic cheeses from around the world using only four sources, therefore having an extremely intimate relationship with the cheesemakers, the affineurs as well as the farmers. The company is literally comprised of cheesemongers who’ve been in the business of cheese in one capacity or another for many years, bringing to the table a wealth of diverse experience, knowledge, passion and yes, cheese.cheeseblog1

Essex St. Cheese was founded by the late, great cheese educator Daphne Zepos and Neal’s Yard Dairy‘s own Jason Hinds. When these two were asked what cheese they’d select if stranded on a desert island, both agreed that their “island cheese” would definitely be Comté. Folks on the big island, also referred to as the United States of America, couldn’t understand why these two friends would choose Comté over so very many other amazing choices. Although it’s hard to imagine now, at the time there simply were no decent wheels of Comté available in the United States. Both Daphne and Jason had grown up abroad and each had tasted the magic that is Comté in all its ages and stages of complexity. The two friends decided that someone needed to bring true Comté to the cheese lovers of America, and on a dare, literally imported a pallet of cheese! I believe that’s 16 wheels of Comté, each weighing anywhere from 70-80 pounds! Once the pallet had landed, the two realized they’d now have to move the cheese! In a panic, they rented a small space at the Essex St. Market in New York City’s Lower East Side and began to sling the greatest Comté folks on our soil had ever tasted.

But enough about Comté for now. For the month of May, we’ll be featuring not Comté, but Essex Goudas. When I knew we’d be running an Essex St. promotion featuring the L’Amuse Goudas, I got to thinking about how much goes on behind the scenes when it comes to cheese. Like any other industry, cheese never sleeps and has multiple moving parts. Cheese begins at the farm, but ends up in your mouth. I would argue that most people who buy cheese know little to nothing about how it gets from point A (the farm) to point B (your face). Maybe most don’t care to know how? I would argue that most do care, however, as I regularly, and with great frequency, run into people from all walks of life who like to know where their food comes from. Why should cheese be any different? Cheese is, after all, the finest of fine foods! My friend Leah Lewis is technically the only full time employee of the Essex St. Cheese Company. Leah knows a thing or two about a thing or two when it comes to the behind the scenes happenings with cheese. Leah and I have been working together in cheese for quite some time. Like Jason Hinds, Leah came into my life via England’s Neal’s Yard Dairy where she used to represent their cheeses stateside.

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Instead of my conveying a bunch of info about Leah, her experience in cheese logistics and specifically with Essex St. Cheese Co., I decided to conduct a little email interview in hopes that it’d be a better read. Here goes nuthin’:

MH: I’d love to hear about how you got into cheese. Was it something you sought out or did cheese find you? What drew you to cheese? Was it a family member, a friend, a neighborhood shop or a nearby farm? Why not something else, why cheese?

LL: When I was 15, my parents bought a cheese shop in Utah and I started working there on weekends. I knew nothing about cheese at the time. I thought buying white cheddar and Boursin was “fancy.” But the more and more I worked with cheese, the more I loved it and was fascinated by the variety. I had no idea it all existed. I was known in high school as the cheese girl LOL.

MH: That’s awesome. Cheese girl, huh? I can almost hear Nelson from the Simpsons pointing and laughing his signature laugh “Ha Ha!” Cheese girl almost sounds like a Super Heroine. I hope you wore that nickname like a badge of honor! I certainly know what I’ll be calling you from now on (Nelson laughs again). So, tell me about your earliest memory of cheese or tell me about the moment you knew you’d be doing cheese for a living.

LL: One Saturday, when I was working at my parent’s cheese shop, the cheese buyer introduced me to Beaufort and I thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever tasted! On my lunch break, I opened Steven Jenkins’ “Cheese Primer” (it was the only cheese book around at that time) and read all that I could about Beaufort. Then the whole rest of the day I sold Beaufort like it was going out of style. I had never been that passionate about one food in my life and I thought, wow maybe I could do this for a living? That night I went home and read the whole “Cheese Primer.” I still have that book with all of its sticky notes, highlighted paragraphs and notes in the margins. It’s one of my favorite things because to me it represents the beginning of my cheese career.

MH: I still love my “Cheese Primer” too. My first cheese boss gave it to me as a gift and I continue to use it as a reference guide and pretty much always bring it with me when I’m on the road for rereading. So, most American consumers have no idea what it takes to get cheese from the farm to the counter except maybe that trucks are involved as well as cows, goats, sheep, water buffalo with the occasional odd animal thrown in for good measure. Please tell us a bit about your role as an importer and distributor. What does that role entail?

LL: As a selector, importer and distributor, I think the biggest thing that people need to know is that it is not something that happens quickly. It takes eight weeks or more for our cheeses to be selected at the source, packed on pallets, shipped to Paris, loaded on a boat, unloaded in New York City, clear customs and FDA, stocked in our warehouse and then shipped to our customers across the country usually via a distributor near the customer, such as Southern Foods who distributes Essex St. cheeses to Southern Season. Also, we do not just blindly take cheeses out of their aging facilities and ship them. Instead we taste every wheel and/or batch. We take extensive notes about production, appearance, flavors, etc. All of this helps us select the exact cheeses that fit our specific profile and reach the quality standards we require. Once the cheeses are selected, we spend most of our time talking to customers, sharing our notes, thoughts and asking for feedback. In this way we sell great cheese to great people while honoring the history and traditions of these amazing cheeses. 

I think what we do is best summed up by our mission statement which is “At Essex Street Cheese Co. we’re dedicated to making sure everyone who makes cheese, distributes cheese and sells cheese can earn a solid living. We focus on a limited number of well-aged cheeses, selected just for us at the aging caves and delivered with a minimal amount of time in warehouse. “

MH: Tell us about Essex St. Cheese. Who are the people who make up Essex and what are their roles specifically? How do you select Essex cheeses? What do you look for when selecting them? How young are the cheeses you select? Does the age of the cheese play an important role? And finally, aside from taste, how do you know when the cheeses you are responsible for are ready for the cheese counters?

LL: We are a very small company that was founded in 2006 by Daphne Zepos and Jason Hinds. Unfortunately, Daphne passed away in 2012 but we work very hard to carry on the vision that she and Jason had in the beginning. Jason still goes to Forte St. Antoine in France every six weeks to hand-select our Comté. I’ve worked for Essex since October 2008 as the Sales and Logistics Manager. After Daphne’s passing, we hired my sister, Rachel Juhl, to help with sales. Rachel has been with us for almost two years now.

Each of the cheeses we select is different, but for every cheese that we sell, we have a profile that we work very hard to find in each selection. We want to offer the best representation of these classic cheeses so we don’t just stick to a specific age, we instead look for flavors and textures that fit our profile. We also work very hard to develop and nurture relationships with the producers, affineurs and selectors of our cheeses as they spend every day with the cheeses and know better than anyone what is happening with every wheel. These relationships along with the relationships we work hard to nurture with our customers are why we do what we do. Basically, we taste cheese and we talk about it. The by-product of this tasting and talking is that we sell cheese. But if we didn’t taste every cheese and talk about it, we would not be able to maintain the quality of cheese and customer service Essex is known for.

MH: I want your job! Actually, I’ll take Jason’s please. I want to visit the Forte and hangout with Phillipe and taste Marcel Petite Comté all day! Now, it’s time for the cheesy cheese question. Are you ready? If you had to select one cheese which best describes you as a person, which cheese would it be? Or, since we’re talking Essex St. Cheese here, what’s Leah’s “island cheese”?

cheeseblog2LL: I actually have to say that one of my all-time favorite cheeses is Comté. Perhaps that is why I love working for Essex Street Cheese! Comté is the most widely consumed cheese in France and I believe that is because it’s so versatile. You will see these French women in the grocery store, buying four different selections of Comté – one for breakfast, one for lunch, one for dinner and one for after dinner, because each cheese exhibits specific characteristics they are looking for. The Comté Association has identified 83 flavors that have been found in Comté, and to me that means that there is no wrong answer to the question, what do you taste? The fact that one cheese can be THAT complex and different from wheel to wheel is a beautiful thing. I think it would be perfect for the island because you would need something that doesn’t taste the same every time you eat it and Comté is that cheese!

 

As I said before, this month we’ll be featuring the Essex St selection of L’Amuse Goudas, which are selected and cared for by world-renowned affineur, Betty Koster. Betty is also the co-owner of the esteemed L’Amuse cheese shops, both of which are located in the Netherlands. 

Like Leah Lewis, Betty is an irreplaceable “moving part,” representing several facets of what goes on behind the scenes in cheese, and thanks to Leah, I was lucky enough to interview her for the blog as well:

MH: I’d love to hear about how you got into cheese. Was it something you sought out or did cheese find you? What drew you to cheese? Was it a family member, a friend, a neighborhood shop or a nearby farm? Why not something else, why cheese?

B: I am in cheese already for well over 35 years. My grandpa and grandma were in cheese and had a shop in Haarlem where I used to work in holidays. That’s where I developed the cheese fever! I had the urge to know more and more, and that’s where I am now. A shop owner, affineur, exporter and even as a teacher…

MH: Keeping it in the family! You and Leah both! I love that you each are second and third generation cheese people (respectively). Please tell me about your earliest memory of cheese or tell me about the moment you knew you’d be doing cheese for a living.

B: My father was a sailor, a captain on a ship. Our holidays were spent travelling on board with him. As a child at sea, there was not much to do so I chose to spend my time in the kitchen. I learned to bake bread, how to make a heavenly stock as a base for sauces and soups, and depending on the crew, learned to appreciate either Portuguese, Indonesian or Chinese cuisine.

When I was 25 years old, and succession in the shop of my family was not in order, I applied for every chef position available in either wholesale shops or for restaurants. After talking to several chefs and potential employers, it became obvious, I belong in cheese… I AM cheese! Nowadays they say I don’t have blood in my veins, but milk instead. But let’s be honest: coming into cheese from the perspective of a chef is not that out of the ordinary. After all, with which product in the world can we make so many various dishes as with cheese? This year, 25 years ago, I started Fromagerie L’Amuse.

MH: Amazing! Twenty-five years of L’Amuse! Congratulations Betty!!! One of the many things that separates your shops from others is the fact that you not only have your own line of cheese, but actually care for and age the cheeses yourself. Most Americans have no idea what the practice affinage is. Please tell us about your role as affineur. What does that role entail? How do you select cheeses? What do you look for when selecting them? How young are the cheeses you select? Does the age of the cheese play an important role? And finally, aside from taste, how do you know when the cheese you are responsible for is ready for the cheese counters?

I am a mother as well… caring for cheese is not unlike raising a baby; it comes to you as a blank lily-white, sometimes pinkish young thing. Hardly being able to handle him or her, we gently give it all that it needs. With tender care, washing, drying, turning, trying to prevent it from cold, wind and force, we nurture it. As it grows up, one can handle it much easier, though the problems get bigger {lol}! I always say a poorly produced cheese can be saved for sales by a good affineur, but that cheese can never be saved for the connoisseur. A beautifully produced cheese can be destroyed by a bad affineur. The first days, up to two weeks are the most important. You can see whether the producer’s job was a job well done or not. This is the reason why a lot of farmers choose to age their cheeses themselves. The next three weeks are where the affineur’s final influences are of great importance. With firmer cheeses it often takes longer. As far as selecting cheeses goes, they are all chosen on flavor, purity and character. The process begins with selecting a producer. Some producers are too unstable. When we find one we like, we then sample their cheeses. We don’t necessarily look for perfection, but obviously don’t want dullness. On the other hand, we want excitement, but certainly no instability. Promising cheeses, that’s what we want! Character… again, like a baby, right? No faulty molds… no signs of over-salting… no Poilles des chats, cat fur as we name it (long fuzzy hair-like mold found on some goat cheeses for example). As far as age goes, it’s actually our customers who determine the age of a cheese… we mature the cheeses until they are ripe, or sometimes even very ripe or slightly dry. In other words, we mature them to perfection regardless of their age!

 MH: Please tell us about your shops. Why are they so special? What kinds of cheeses do you pride yourself on carrying?

B: Our shops are like cheese heaven… the selection is endless, no client is able to choose, so we advise them. What will they drink with it, when will they eat it, how many guests? These are the questions we ask them. We have our clients try the cheeses they buy, because a Camembert might be Normandy style, with a slightly chalky heart, or Parisian style, rich and creamy all over. Does one prefer the caramel-coffee flavor found in a Comté aged 30 months or the fruity, nutty Beaufort Alpage? One doesn’t know until they taste it. So many clients, so many flavors!

MH: If you had to select one cheese which best describes you as a person, which cheese would it be?

B: My cheese of course! Imagine; you look at it, looks interesting, but it’s not everyone’s friend! Some even detest how it looks! One is tempted to cut it in the heart, and I can never resist….I think I am allowed to do this as a cheesmonger. No bread for me thanks, just cheese. Cheese melting on the tongue, firstly fresh and salty with earthy flavors, then velvety soft textures, leaving you urging for more! A glass filled with Lapsong Souchon on the side to complete the experience! 

The May Goudas

L’Amuse Two-Year Signature Gouda

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If you’ve never tried the L’Amuse Two-Year Aged Signature Gouda, I’m here to tell you that this cheese is HUGE! It’s the kind of cheese we give a passerby a taste of, they walk to the very end of the counter or just beyond, turn around and ask “what was that?!” This is one of a handful of cheeses I refuse to live without. If you were to come over to my house right now and take a peek at the contents within my refrigerator, you would find a hearty chunk of L’Amuse staring back at you. My kids eat it, my wife eats it and of course yours truly eats it or I wouldn’t be sitting in front of this screen typing away about it, right? L’Amuse Two-Year is smoky, sweet, has hints of bourbon and malted grains, the perfect amount of salt and the longest of long finishes. It’s really lovely. You should buy a piece and find out for yourself. They broke the mold with this one!

Brabander Gouda

cheeseblog4Introducing the latest to the L’Amuse line of Goudas, the mighty Brabander! This gorgeous goat cheese is aged between six and nine months, has a ghostly white, creeeeeamy and delicious paste and is easily one of my favorite new cheeses! The thing I love most about this goat Gouda is that it doesn’t hide the fact that it’s made from tangy goat’s milk. Brabander is a mellow cheese. Mellow, but powerful, with a caramel-like sweetness. It is absolutely our pleasure and privelage to introduce the people of the Southern U.S. to this beaut! Yum!

Wilde Weide

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Last, but certainly not least, we’ll be featuring Wilde Weide. This organic cow’s milk Boerenkaas (farmhouse) Gouda is aged 15 months and comes from Southern Holland. The farm where Wilde Weide is made resides on a lake island called Zwanburgerpolder (awesome name, right?). If memory serves me (and often it does not), the couple who own the farm make no more than 25 or so wheels in a week and those wheels are crafted with a hand-cranked press! Pretty awesome stuff. The name Wilde Weide means “Wild Meadow” in Dutch and is a reference to the pastures that the Montbeéliarde cattle graze upon year around. Although this farmhouse cheese is firm, it immediately melts on the tongue, releasing beautiful boozy and buttery flavors… good lord it’s good! Don’t believe me? Come by for a taste!