Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sonoma Cheese Conference

Where ever do I begin? After two days of chatting cheese, I am overflowing with curds of joy and information to share.

Monday began with an open conversation with Ari Weinzweig, Co-founder & CEO of the widely celebrated Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, MI. Building a sustainable business was the topic at hand focusing heavily on creating positive energy & having a sound vision. Ari's experience & knowledge are infinitely valuable for those of us searching for our "why." If you have any interest in creating a business of your own, or becoming an expert on a variety of food related topics, I would highly suggest heading out to Michigan for a Zingtrain course. I would love to be able to pass on all the knowledge shared by Ari on Monday, but this post would soon become a book & a girl only has so much time. Here are some of my favorite curds of info, in bullet form...
  • An inspiring, strategically sound vision leads to greatness - What is your vision?
  • Successful business/people do things others know they should do, but generally don't.
  • Pick your problems...instead of letting them pick you.
  • Don't be an outlier - If you know something is fishy, or just straight wrong, speak up. You never know what type of disaster will be avoided.
Some of this may be seemingly obvious, but so rarely put into practice. Plus, it's not every day that you get life tips from a hugely successful entrepreneur & author. Thank you, Ari!

After lunch and a lovely panel on affinage, the care taking & aging of cheese, we chatted with Mateo Kehler, Co-founder of Jasper Hill & The Cellars (yes...the same Jasper Hill & Cellars that I visited out in Vermont on the GATC). The topic was the importance of locally produced cheese, terrior & how it relates to cheese, and what we can learn from the European cheese model. The last point is the most interesting for me. Europe's model is largely based on geographical protection & large affinage caves. It has centuries of tradition behind it & is quite different from the independent artisan & farmstead cheese making of the US. However, the efficiencies of their process allow them to make large quantities of handmade high quality cheese (some more quality than others...for sure) & in many cases the name they are using is protected by law. So, could we benefit from this idea? Mateo used Bayley Hazen Blue, a delicious blue cheese made by Jasper Hill, as an example. They could license out the recipe to nearby small farms in Vermont, age it at the Cellars, and perhaps make enough to meet the demands of the growing US market. Then, due to the terrior of the Northeast Kingdom, perhaps someday down the road they would be protected & be amongst the company of Roquefort, Stilton, Gorgonzola, Bleu d'Auvergne, and many more. Phew...well that was a mouthful. Interesting concept, but of course no definite consensus amongst cheese troops.

Following another panel discussion from rookie & veteran cheesemakers about bringing a new cheese to market, during which all confessed to zero market research (just make it & they will come), we head to the bar to be greeted by an insane cheese tasting & local beer to wash it down. I have to say, not bad for a day's work. Check out the updated cheese hit-list for new cheeses that you should not wait to get your taste buds.

Day 2 kicked off with a panel of Wisconsin cheesers. Summary - If you want to make cheese & do not mind winter, you should pack your bags & start studying up on the Green Bay Packers. It is no secret that the cheese crown has been challenged in recent years, and Sconi has answered with vigor. The state offers an amazing support network for start-up & veteran cheesemakers from marketing support to special project teams for recipe & brand development. Pretty sweet. On Wisconsin!

As if I needed a reason to love ze cheese, Max McCalman, Dean of Curriculum at Artisinal Premium Cheese Center in NYC, was next on the agenda to feed us information on the health benefits of the pressed curd. That is benefits. This is another task for the bullet point...
  • Tyrosine, an amino acid first discovered in cheese, have proven to be useful to combat stress
  • Taurine, also an amino acid in cheese, helps a dehydrated (a.k.a. hungover) brain
  • Lysine, an essential amino acid found in cheese, prevents outbreaks (later cold sores!), aids in forming collagen for young skin, & is needed in the production of hormones & bone growth & maintenance
  • Riboflavin, or vitamin B2, in cheese plays a key role in metabolizing fat, carbohydrates, & protein
  • Biotin, a B-vitamin...found in cheese, supports healthy strong hair growth & some believe it to combat hair loss (Q: Why do you think every Greek person you know has a full head of healthy hair? A: They consume the highest number of lbs of cheese per person. There MAY be other contributing factors, but I would like to give credit to the curd)
I could go on & on. It was a dream come true (tears were shed) finally validating cheese as an ingredient in all 3 meals...most days.

Max, and all of his delightful knowledge, was followed by a panel discussing the future of artisan cheese to close the conference. Forecast - Sunny days ahead, as long as we keep our local artisan's busy. Make sure you do your part!

It was an amazing 2-day affair of sponging cheese knowledge. Curds of thanks to Sheana Davis for putting the shin-dig together! I really wish I had more pics to show for it, but I felt too cheeserazzi taking photos during the discussions.

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