Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Food origins, my farewell to being a Cheese Monger

As an undergraduate student of Food Science, I spent one year interning in the product development kitchens of a large North American food company. I dealt with foods that I rarely consume myself and seldom recommend to my friends and family. This is not to sound pessimistic, because most of us realize that our fast pace society demands convenience foods, which tend to be mass produced. Although I more often enjoy what I would consider to be slower foods, I understand that processed faster foods are here to stay.

Whether you are a fast food junkie, an inquisitive foodie, or a 100% natural-organic-local envirogastronome, you probably ponder the origins of some of your foods. Perhaps not the physical origin—as in cow to cheese, seed to fruit, et cetera—but the entire gastronomic origin: why is it that a particular edible exists? Sure, the food you are eating was grown somehow, there is some physical science to describe that, and somehow the economics contiguous with the food brought it to you at a certain price. Is the food on your plate there because it is abundant in your area, because you and your family like the taste, because most people don’t have time to cook their own dinner, or perhaps because a small time farm wanted to get creative with some of their milk?

For the last few months I had the opportunity to work as a cheese monger at the Di Bruno Brothers specialty grocery store in Philadelphia. I had such a wide variety of outstanding cheeses laid out in front of me each day at work. I got to taste, learn, and taste some more; followed by some necessary reading to learn a bit about the individual cheeses. The store carries a large selection of both classic European cheeses and artisanal products produced in the United States. One can find cheeses of all shapes, sizes, flavors, and personalities at a store like Di Bruno’s.

When you start to learn about cheese, learning the about origins of the product is key. Many places throughout Europe produce a traditional product that is unique to the area of production. Many cheeses are mass produced in factories, but there is still a great selection of cheeses produced in small quantities on family farms. The taste of the land, or terroir, really can set agricultural products apart; a cheese made in Vermont has the potential to taste quite different than a cheese made in Sicily because of the types of grass and feed that the animals consume. I remember receiving a cheese shipment from the folks at Vermont Sheppard one day. The cheese came with a lovely little card that told the story of the particular wheel. It was part of the farm’s Xth batch, aged for exactly X number of months and, as the card stated, before being milked the cows had been grazing on the greens of a particular pasture. I felt something new when I took my first bite of the cheese wheel because I had a sense of admiration for the cheese makers’ efforts. But, even more so than the local milk used, the cheese makers’ recipes and cultures (both microbial and ethnic) will always be influencing the final products.

I will never forget my short time working as a cheese monger. It was a valuable learning experience, especially for my stomach. Now I will always look for new cheeses to try, especially unique and obscure products from different locales. It is so fun to take a tour of the world by tasting new foods, whether they are fast foods or slow foods, it is nice to know what is out there. And with a good cheese monger, you can take a different tour de fromage each time you need cheese.

1 comment:

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