Interview with Michele Buster

15 Jul

Michele in Pag Island, Croatia

Today in el Senor Queso I get to interview a great woman, passionate, well-traveled and incredibly driven. I met Michele Buster years ago in Louisville, Kentucky during the ACS conference in 2005. We have been very close since then, whether it is in cheese conferences  or festivals, or at shindigs in her lovely apartment, we enjoy each others company. As the co-founder of Forever Cheese, she has been instrumental in developing markets for cheeses and brands in this country. Her remarkable palate and tenacity are admirable. I am extremely happy to feature her in my blog today.

Questions for Michele:

1.- How did you end up in Cheese?

I am in cheese because I fell in love with a cheese guy. I met Pier luigi while I was working in Italy organizing the Golf World Cup. We started going out  and it was really good very fast. Then he went to study English in NY and look after the business a bit working with his importer. I went back to Spain where I lived and worked and after the Olympics in Barcelona, I did not want a long distance relationship anymore, so I moved to NY to be with Pier luigi and when he was repeatedly  unhappy with his market coverage of  his family’s cheese, we decided to do it ourselves. I told him if he taught me cheese, i would put it where it needed to be. He was a visionary and saw specialty markets as the way of the future and not the ethnic industry.

My only deal with him was that if we were successful, he had to let me go to Spain and find what I deemed to be a good representative of Manchego, as I did not like what was available in the market then.

2.- Are there any interesting countries coming up with cheeses that we may not be aware of?

For me ,Croatia; I am focused on Paski Sir which is from there. There is still a long way to go to get people familiar with the country and to get Croatians to speak up and support the fact that they have great ingredients! I do things one step at a time so first, I will build this cheese and then I’ll see. I am a bit well-known there and on Pag island I have been in several newspapers and on Tv. Haha.

Making of a masterpiece Pecorino Romano Sini Fulvi

3.-As the ultimate professional, Is  there anything that you have not achieved yet in your career?

I feel that I have achieved more than I have ever set out to do. As I mentioned, the initial goal was to put the Sini Family cheeses on the map and in the right places we did that. The ultimate goal was to distinguish Fulvi as a Pecorino from Rome, one so different from the rest- we have done that to a good degree in our marketplace, which is what we strived for and are now working on the consumer aspect.

I went out and found the best Manchego and have been instrumental in making it an extremely popular cheese in this country and along the way, paved the way for a myriad of other spanish cheeses and built awareness for the Spanish category as a whole. To boot, after finding and bringing my beloved Marcona Almonds here and helping to create the new yuppy crack, I now have gotten my producers to make the most wonderful Marcona Almond Butter which I have been dreaming of for a few years.

Now I am working on introducing the Dehesa Cordobesa (R) line of cured Iberico pork which will take a lot of time and education. This is very much a work in progress along with building awareness for the Paska Sirana Paski Sir from Pag Island, Croatia.

4.-Can you tell us some of your best cheese pairings?

Haha, if truth be told, I am a bit peculiar about all of that. Just like I like my cheese separate from my pasta, I like my cheese standing alone!! so I will have the cheese first and then the accompaniment. But some of my favorites are not even cheese.

Casa Forcello Plum Smoked Tea Compote and Lardo Iberico

Casa Forcello Plum Mostarda and duck of any kind

Mitica (R) Arrope over fresh cheese or Ice cream

Mitica Candied Bitter Lemon and Pecorino

Cacio di Roma (R) Casa Forcello Crab Apple Mostarda.

5.-You have traveled the world, Any spots you are looking to visit soon?

I want to go to many places still; Chiapas and Veracruz in Mexico; South Africa; Laos; Cambodia; Mongolia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, the National Parks that I am missing; Indonesia; Northern France, Hungary- get the picture 😉

Michele world traveler!!

6.-If you were not involved in cheese, What would you envision yourself doing?

Managing rock bands; doing a radio program.

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To eat or not to eat (the rind that is)

5 Jul

Mixture of rinds on a plate

One of the first questions that I get asked when I am serving cheese is, Do I eat the rind? The answer is yes, if you want to.  The rind is the outside shell of the cheese which is formed during cheese making and aging process. There are several types of rinds, some of which are edible while some are not.

Bloomy rinds: They are easily recognized by the light, pillowy and white crust in cheeses like Brie, Camembert and Triple Cremes. These cheeses are often sprayed a solution of edible molds (Penicillium candidum, Penicillium camemberti) which will literally bloom in the aging rooms. These rinds are edible, I have however found them to have an off-putting taste when paired with tannic red wines.

Wax rinds: These are found in cheeses like young Goudas, Edam, Colby, Carmody. These cheeses are encased, or coated with wax. Needless to say, these rinds are not edible and should be separated or trimmed off the cheese before eating.

Washed rinds:  They are notoriously known for their aromatic profile, urging some cheese lovers to call these cheeses  “stinky cheeses” . They are easily recognized by their orange to reddish hues. Cheeses like Maroilles, Limburger, and Barick Obama are washed in a brine solution , or in alcohol, which promotes the growth of the aerobic B Linens molds (Brevibacterium Linens)  in the cheese. They are completely edible although judgement should be used, when encountering dry, cracked or overly salty rinds. They pair well with white wines and beers.

Cheese gathering

Natural rinds: These rinds are not sprayed or washed with alcohol, but are left basically untouched, until they form on their own  in the aging rooms. Cheeses like Shropshire Blue, Garrotxa, and Tomme de Savoie exhibit these rinds. In this case although edible, the rinds should be eaten depending on the tasters preference, as some might be a bit tough and have a strong earthy flavor.

Some rinds are patted with spices like paprika, and cumin and herbs like thyme, rosemary and lavender thus enhancing the cheese flavor. Some cheeses are bound with heavy layers of cloth that should be peeled or cut off before enjoying them. Some are patted with ash and some are even wrapped in leaves.

Eating the rind as we can see, is a matter of personal preference, a cheese taste will vary  from the center to the outer rind, some people might enjoy the rinds on creamier, softer cheeses than in more aged ones. Eating the paste first , and then eating a piece with the rind might be a good beggining. All in all, there is room for everyone in the cheese rind eating argument.

Waldemar Albrecht-Luna.

Interview with Paula Lambert

30 Jun

Paula Lambert and some of her creations

One of the great rewards of my profession is getting to know the cheese makers and their operations. Although I am not from America, I am a big advocate of American Artisan cheese; just about every State in the nation produces cheese, and the cheese makers are the main link to bringing to our tables, the product from the land. I met Paula Lambert years ago, in my days of cheese mongering in the Bay Area at the Pasta Shop, where Alma (Almita), and Juliana taught me a great deal about loving cheese. Paula has always been a great mentor, supporter and source of inspiration to me over the years. It is a great honor to feature her as my first guest for the blog:

Freezing morning in the Deep Ellum 2001

Questions:

1. What made you decide to begin a career in cheese, and why did you choose mozarella as the type of cheese to make?

I had lived in Italy for 5 years studying Italian and art history and I wanted to create a business that would involve Italy and food. When I thought back to my years in Italy, I recalled that I had loved fresh mozzarella and it was not available in Texas…in fact, it was barely available in the USA. So I returned to a little factory near Perugia where I used to shop and asked them “How much does a mozzarella machine cost?” Little did I know that I would never own a mozzarella machine! But they were nice enough to let me apprentice for a few week, so that I learned enough to build a cheese factory in Dallas.

2.-What is the biggest change that you have seen in American Artisan cheese making since you began The Mozzarella Company?

There are more producers of American Artisan cheeses than there were when I began in 1982. Back in the early 80s there were just a few small cheese factories… mostly in California and New England. I was the Lone Ranger in Texas. Not only has the quantity of the cheeses improved, but the variety of cheeses and the quality of cheeses increased dramatically.

3.- Do you have any funny, quirky anecdotes in your cheese travels?

There are several:

1) When I went to Italy one January to learn to make goat cheese, I was surprised to find that the cheese factory where I had an appointment was not in the midst of production when I arrived. When I asked why they weren’t making cheese, the plant manager said “Lady, don’t you know, goats don’t give milk in the Winter!” I was socked and surprised to hear this! 2)Once, in the early days of our company, when I presented our fresh mozzarella to a French chef in Dallas, he asked me if I made the cheese from flour and gelatin! He had no clue what fresh mozzarella was. 3) Another interesting experience was when I went to Oaxaca to learn how to make Queso Oaxaca. After days and days of visiting small factories, I came to the realization that Queso Oaxaca was just another version of Fresh Mozzarella… When I showed the Mexican Cheese makers how to form the cheese balls and toss them into cold water, they were truly amazed. They had never seen or thought of it before.

4.-As one of the most dynamic people I have ever met. What drives you in your profession?

I love what I do. It is fun, and i have a great time. I love all the people I have met. I can’t think of anything I would rather do.

5.- Can you tell us about some of your cheeses? Are you working on something new right now?

Our cheeses run the gamut from fresh to aged, from simple and plain to stinky and assertive. Most are based on classic Italian cheeses, several of which I have updated with a “Texas twist” like smoking mozzarella and scamorza over pecan shells, flavoring the caciottas with chiles and herbs, and wrapping the goat cheese with a native Mexican herb. Things like that. I have come up with all the ideas and created all the cheeses. Right now I am working on a new cheese that will be flavored with an unusual herb… it is delicious! I could come up with many more cheeses than I do, the problem is that once you create a cheese, you must create a market for it and sell it.. and that is the hardest part!

6.- What would you hope your legacy to the cheese world at large be?

I  just would like to be remembered as someone who made delicious cheeses, someone who never stopped making all the cheeses by hand with the highest quality ingredients possible, who treated her employees fairly, and who had a great time because she loved what she did!

7.-What are some of the new trends you see in the cheese world?

Cheese bliss!

I see that small-producer factories that have grown larger and created great cheeses and great images are being bought by larger companies. I see the entry of many new novice cheese makers into the cheese world. I see the quality of American cheeses improving. I see more and more foreign cheeses being imported in the United States. I see distributors with larger and larger inventories. I see grocery stores with more and more specialty cheeses. I see small cheese shops opening. I see more and more demand for good cheeses, because once you have the best, it’s hard to go back to mediocre cheeses. I see a lot of new books about how to make cheese. I see a lot!

Waldemar Albrecht-Luna

The Magic of Blues

27 Jun

A little Blue cheese reunion

One of the most frequently asked questions in my profession reads like this; What is your favorite cheese? Although I like many different cheeses for various reasons, it is not a secret that I prefer blue cheeses. Blue cheeses are often misunderstood and frowned upon. Some people believe them to be overly stinky or simply are afraid of the veining in the paste of the cheese, but blue cheeses are not only visually stunning, but they are some of the most complex in flavor. They can range from sweet and creamy , to more robust and crumbly, to really spicy and challenging.

Old cheese stories tell us about the shepherd who during a very hot day, went into a cave to have a lunch consisting of bread and milk, or curds. As his rambunctious group of animals went astray, he needed to stop short his meal.

Roquefort at its best

A couple of weeks later, he returned to the cave and found that the bread had molded, and the spores had jumped into the milk; this combined with the natural temperature in the caves, allowed for the fist blue cheese to be created.

Whether this story is at all true, is anyone’s guess, but it certainly is interesting and adds to the allure of these cheeses. Roquefort a classic French sheep’s blue cheese, must still by law, be made using the spores of molded rye bread. Blue cheese veining does not occur naturally in the cheese, oxygen must be allowed in this process, this is why you often find piercing indentations in the paste of these cheeses. Veining can vary from blue, to green, to brown, and if the cheeses are not pierced, there will not be any veining at all.

I personally enjoy many different blue cheeses, classic ones like Italian Gorgonzola, or English Stilton, to more challenging ones like the notorious Spanish Cabrales, or a favorite of mine the Oregon-made Rogue River Blue. Blue cheese is very versatile, as it can be used in salads or dressings, but it can also be melted into fondues or as  accompaniments to meats. My preferred way to enjoy it though, is with crusty bread and a nice glass of wine or a stout.

Blue cheeses have traditionally been paired with late harvest wines or dessert wines. As some of these cheeses tend to be slightly more astringent in the palate, wines with higher sugar residual tend to balance their flavor. Classic pairings like Stilton and Porto or Roquefort and Sauternes work beautifully. I specially like off dry whites (Albarino, Gewurztreminer, Gruner Vetliner) with blues, although heavier beers like stouts round them off nicely too.

I recommend to start with creamier , milder blues, before you move into the saltier, more flavorful ones. If you need a little help, allow fresh fruit like apples or pears to help you along the way, honeys and fruit paste are also good allies, you will be surprised to discover a whole new world of cheeses which are sure to give you many wonderful experiences to come.

Waldemar Albrecht-Luna

Mozzarella making class on a Stormy Brooklyn night

23 Jun

One of  the favorite aspects of my job is the opportunity to lead cheese and beverage tastings for the general public, and of the courses that I teach, Hands on Mozzarella seems to be one of the most popular. My friend Nissa Pearson runs a Culinary and Educational center called Ger Nis Institute located on President Street in the heart of Brooklyn, which spawned from a business in which she sources avenues for small producers around the globe, thus promoting organic and fair trade of their products in the United States. On a muggy Thursday afternoon, I embarked on my teaching adventure. Carrying over 50 lbs of uncut curds on me, I arrived at the institute to a sold out class.

Mozzarella which comes from the italian verb Mozzare meaning to cut, is a “Pasta Filatta” or Streched Curd cheese which originated in Southern Italy around Naples. Traditionally, it has been made from water buffalo’s milk (Mozzarella di Buffala) although the cow’s milk version (Fiore di Latte) might be more readily available in US markets.

The purpose of our class was to allow participants to create their own balls (no pun intended) and then work on recipes that would use their fresh creations. With our pots full of hot water and after our aprons and executioner style black  rubber gloves were donned, I  demonstrated the technique to making fresh Mozzarella. Cutting the curds in small pieces, I proceeded to add in hot water, raising the temperature in a gentle but steady manner, to allow the curds to melt nicely. After I finished the first balls, I  put them in a bucket with lukewarm water ,thus lowering the temperature in the freshly finished ones. After 10 or 15 minutes, I put the balls in a brine solution (water and salt), which enhances their sweet and creamy flavor.

As threatening lightning and thunder echoed outside, participants took turns in making their cheeses. I must admit, some were naturals at it; some others, had more challenging times, but they all accomplished the task at hand. Nissa then proceeded to make fresh basil pesto, which was integrated to a salad of fresh mozzarella and organic vine-ripe tomatoes. The result was exceptional to say the least. As a final touch, fresh grilled sandwiches of fresh Mozzarella, pesto and tomatoes were made , as if in a failed attempt to appease the rain gods that were hitting the roof like a tin can by now.

It was then, that with a full stomach, I ventured out into the typhoon-like storm, which seems to be the norm in NY these days, making stop along the bars in the hood, as if to dry for a while, while trying the different microbrews they offered.

Waldemar Albrecht-Luna.

Venezuela, first cheese memories

22 Jun

One of the first questions that I get upon meeting a customer, or anyone in general is where I am from. I tend to joke that I am from the land down under and not it is not Australia, but Venezuela a tiny  country in the Northern tip of South America. Putting aside all the political turmoil and instability created by a totalitarian regime that has seen a massive exodus of talent leave the country, Venezuela is simply a land of beauty. In a very small surface area, (less than 400.00 sq ft) you may find some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. From breathtaking beaches, to snowy peaks, to the flatlands (llanos) and the rain forest.

Before oil became the number one export from Venezuela, there was a burgeoning agricultural movement in the country, States like Lara, Guarico, Portuguesa, Apure, Carabobo, and Aragua to name a few, have traditionally been the agricultural backbone of Venezuelans. I am from the capital city of Caracas, but as a little kid, I often spent Summer vacations  with relatives in the country side. My first introduction to cheese, must have been suero, which is basically  sour milk kept and maturated in a wooden gourd (tapara) and that is widely eaten with arepas and different typical dishes. My uncle a renowned veterinarian, based out of Lara State made always a point to take me to see the different farms he worked at; to show the  kid a bit of what life out of the big city would be like. I enjoyed getting to know the different types of cows, Brown Swiss, Jersey, and Holstein, plus different types of goats he attended to. I remember tasting Queso de Mano, a delicious mozzarella type cheese, which is incredibly sweet and moist and it is eaten with cachapas (corn based) pancake style rounds,( just to think of it makes my mouth water) as well as fresh goat cheeses always some of my favorites, that were made for the farm workers consumption.

I would also go to my uncle Nico’s house in Aragua State, he was an avid fisherman who would take long camping trips to the Llanos near  Colombia and as far as to the jungles of Amazonas State by the Brazilian border. Although staying in camps with no running water, sleeping in hammocks and eating the catch of a day for weeks at a time were foreign concepts to me, i enjoyed them tremendously. We would always stop in Guariquito where some of the best Queso Blanco and Queso de panela, which are basically rindless , brined white cheeses, were sold, i simply devoured copious amounts of it, as it seemed a better option to eating baba ( baby aligator) or Chiguire (biggest rodent in the world) foods which i actually enjoyed later on in life.

Who could think that food could bring such a nostalgic element to life, but remembering where you are from and the  memories that are connected to what you eat, are a wonderful gift to cherish.

Waldemar Albrecht-Luna.

My life as a cheesemonger

21 Jun

Me y mi vaquita loca

I have been told many times by people i meet that they find my profession quite out of the ordinary, i try to imagine if the word cheese inherently brings a funny  imagery to people who hear it, or it just seems too out of whack for them to comprehend, but i can tell you loud and clear, that i have never had such a great ride. Hanging out with farmers, and animals alike, slicing, cutting, stretching, melting different types of cheeses, in different settings, has always left me satisfied with my line of work. There is something special about working with the product of the land, that takes you back to generations long gone.

In the last 15 years, there has been a drastic change in the way people view food, specially with regards to where it comes from and how it is made. Cheese is one of the purest foods available, provided we are talking about handmade , artisan cheeses. The controlled fermentation of milk can render from silky and moist cheeses like Mozzarella, to elegantly nutty and creamy cheeses like Ossau Iraty to grand and utterly flavorful cheeses like Gruyere.

The biggest lesson that i have learned through this journey, is that i keep learning everyday, while 15 years ago, i would turn my nose at the idea of eating cheese with something else than a hard crusty bread, has been greatly enhanced by adding different accompaniments like mostardas, honeys, olives and fruit preserves. I have also learned that i should not try to influence people’s tastes; i can only suggest. In a rapidly growing profession in the US, people’s palates need to be understood and curated just like an art piece would.

In my line of work, life can be sometimes frustrating, strikes, weather phenomena, and lack of cheeses at any given time can make sourcing cheeses a difficult undertaking. Working long hours, moving heavy wheels, cuts and nicks can sometimes make the job a bit hazardous. However, seeing the faces of my customers in awe , or the pleasant smile of a group of friends when eating a new cheese, makes my work worthwhile.

Waldemar Albrecht-Luna.