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As FSMA Takes Full Effect, Partnership Opportunities Abound To Improve Food Safety Practices by Larry Bell and Jim Mueller

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Amidst Pandemic, Cheese Mongers Share Holiday Favorites & Challenges

Madison—This is traditionally the time of year when Cheese Reporter sends out queries to cheese mongers and other specialty cheese industry representatives on their go-to contributions to the holiday table – which
cheeses will get the most favor and praise from family and friends.

As the world continues to soldier on through the coronavirus pandemic, however, fashioning the perfect holiday cheese board might mean buying product for a singular household, dropping cheese off as part of a neighborhood side-dish swap, or simply putting something together that looks really great on Zoom.

Considerations also extend beyond perfect pairings and accompaniments, as the cheese industry continues to grapple with loss and uncertainty. Still, many hold out hope for better days ahead, and recognize how the crisis has brought the industry together.

Mackenzie Cash, director of retail operations at Murray’s Cheese in New York City, said she’ll be spending Thanksgiving with a few co-workers.

“Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays because of how it brings everyone together over food,” Cash said. “Since it feels imperative to do what we can to mitigate the spread of COVID, I’ll be eating dinner with some people that I already see daily and that live no more than a few train stops away.”

“It’s a bit of a bummer to break away from traditions, but it’s nice
to be able to spend time with the people that I’m weathering the retail holidays with,” she said.

I can pretty confidently say that every cheese monger’s favorite cheese to serve during the holidays is Rush Creek Reserve, Cash said.
She would select something similar – a nice spruce-bound, gooey wheel that you can take the top off of and dip into.

“I love something like Rush Creek or Harbison because it can go several ways,” Cash said. “You can roast some vegetables to dip like a cold fondue, or pop open a bag of your favorite potato chips and it will be delicious either way.”

I also love to have good snacking cheese – something that’s a little more approachable and easy to munch on – particularly as a pre-game while the turkey is still cooking, she said.

“I personally like to do something like the Swedish cheese, Wrangeback. It packs more of a punch than your run-of-the-mill Alpines, and is a fun conversation starter,” Cash continued. “It’s also very easy to eat in large amounts.”

Carlos Yescas, program director for the Boston-based Oldways Cheese Coalition, will be spending Thanksgiving “inside our small bubble, trying new recipes,” he said.

“Without the pressure of having to cook for a large number of people, we are planning to try new recipes using some of the staples of the holidays, hoping to find new things to add next year to the big meal with family and friends,” Yescas said.

For example, we’re thinking of cheesecake with cranberry sauce as a way to incorporate cranberries.

Quietly and safely celebrating the holidays with a handful of people from one household does have its advantages, according to Yescas.

“When you have a lot of people coming, one of the things that normally happens is that people are waiting for long times without food because they are waiting for the big meal,” Yescas said.

This makes people hungry and difficult to eat in a healthy way, he said. Most people would snack on very sugary things, so we think this is the perfect time to put out some cheese, nuts, dried and fresh fruit, and some whole grain crackers.

“At home we tend to go for lighter cheeses for this snack, so plain fresh goat milk cheese is always an option,” he said.

“Another option is something with a lot of umami savory notes, because the complexity of flavor makes you feel full faster and then you don’t over-eat before the big meal,” Yescas continued.

“We like a nice washed rind like Ameribella from Jacobs & Brichford in Indiana or a Taleggio from Pondini Organics made in Italy,” he said.

Gillian Dana, general manager of curds&co of Brookline, MA, said the cheese shop will be open for business as usual, as well as the company’s downtown location in the Boston Public Market.

“The only thing that’s different is the masks, dividers, and party limit,” Dana said. “We possibly have more cheese selection than before and a monger team that is better than ever.”

A few favorite cheeses Dana recommends to customers – a difficult list to narrow down – include all the Neal’s Yard Dairy cheeses we bring in, with Lincolnshire Poacher probably being number one, followed by Stilton, she said.

“This year, I think people are really excited about Upland’s Rush Creek Reserve and the Brabander Reserve (formerly Black Betty),” she said.

Stan Dietsche, vice president of sales and procurement for Oshkosh Cold Storage, said a nice two-year Cheddar is standard for any holiday table.

“And you can’t beat a really good cold pack on a crisp cracker, he said. “Top it all off with a nice thick slice of Widmer’s Brick and life is good.”

The holiday season is also a perfect time to support local cheese makers, Dietsche agrees.

Artisan cheese makers, like the rest of the cheese industry, took a hit when restaurant sales slowed down, Dietsche said.

“On top of that, a lot of food shows, conventions and cheese contests have been and will be cancelled, and the opportunity to promote their cheese is lost,” he continued.

Uncertainty As Foodservice Dries Up, Retail Demand Fluctuates
Ever since COVID emerged in the US last February, physically selling cheese – particularly artisan cheese – has definitely been a struggle, Murray’s Mackenzie Cash said.

“The demand isn’t there,” she said. “And you want to do what you can to support artisan cheese makers but at the same time, we aren’t seeing the same demand for cheese from our customers and we have less customers coming into the shop.”

However, an unexpected, uplifting side effect of the crisis has been working alongside fellow Murray’s staff, Cash said.

“Working with my team has been really incredible,” she said. “The shop on Bleecker has pivoted so many times throughout this pandemic, from trying to navigate pick up orders to shutting down to fulfill e-commerce orders to reopening slowly and redefining what our space is and how we are doing business in a pandemic.”

The overall uncertainty of the cheese business continues to be the biggest challenge this holiday season, according to Yescas.

“We started the year with extra tariffs on imported cheeses imposed by the Trump administration,” he said. “This hurt small independent retailers and distributors.”

“Because the way these tariffs were announced back in 2019, it created a lot of uncertainty of which cheeses and products will be affected and when,” he said.

“Then the pandemic hit, and small national producers saw their foodservice markets disappear overnight, and there has been no government action to help cheese producers,” Yescas said.

Not knowing when restaurants and other food venues could open also created a lot of uncertainty for
producers and distributors, he said.

“Moving forward, it is again the uncertainty. We don’t know if people will be celebrating and how they would do so – this affects how people will purchase food and creates a guessing game for retailers and others in the industry,” he said.

“Thanksgiving will be a good indicator for what Christmas and New Year’s will look like,” he said
.

 

“...the pandemic hit, and small national producers saw their foodservice markets disappear overnight, and there has been no government action to help cheese producers,”
—Carlos Yescas, Oldways Cheese Coalition

 

“It’s really great to hear that many producers have been doing great at farmers’ markets and also in their farm shops,” Yescas continued. “Local consumers are the best.”

On The Bright Side, Camaraderie
One of the biggest challenges for curds&co was not having the availability of cheese tasting in the shop, Dana said.

“The positive of this? Our team has gotten great with their adjectives. We can describe cheese better than ever before,” she said.

“Along with that would be the unpredictably of busy days. Pre-pandemic, we would be able to plan projects for Wednesday afternoons, but now?
Wednesdays might be insane, and we don’t know until we’re in the thick of it,” Dana continued.

Small pleasures and unexpected opportunities have been plentiful since the start of COVID, she continued.

“Our customers have been more excited about cheese than ever, and we have
people coming in weekly as their planned pick-me-up. So, I guess the best thing that’s come of this is the community building,” Dana said.

Curds&co has actually grown amidst the pandemic, opening The Novel Kitchen with the Brookline Booksmith in the near future, Dana said.

“I think that’s just proof that great work, positivity, genuine goodness, and a desire to better the lives of the people you meet really is good karma,” she said.

“This holiday season, I’m planning some Zoom events, working on private catering events for people to enjoy at home, and just trying to curate the best selection of stuff to show people how to make their days brighter,” she continued.

 


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