The cheese community is such a friendly one, which is why I love it so much. At this summer’s American Cheese Society conference in Sacramento, I met blogger Matt Spiegler in person, although we’ve been following each other online for years! He is an urban cheesemaker, and writes one of the best cheese blogs around, called Cheese Notes. He’s a great reference point for me, and so many others who are interested in this vast universe of fromage. We decided to unleash simultaneous interviews on our respective blogs, the first time I’ve ever done anything like this! Sooooo, here we go!
How did you get started in cheese, and what keeps you going today?
Matt: Growing up in an alternative community upstate that was centered around a biodynamic farm with a dairy, as well as having a French mom and spending time in Alsace as a kid definitely contributed, but in all honesty my favorite cheese as a kid were those logs of smoked gouda or Jarlsberg. I became truly interested in cheese after college, at the same time that I became more interested in cooking, food and ag[ricultural] politics, the Slow Food movement, etc. Like many people at that time, [I] bought the Steve Jenkin’s book and used it as a road map for learning everything I could about cheese, and spent the ensuing years becoming a cheese nerd, as well as smuggling back the occasional wheels of raw-milk Camembert when visiting family in France.
But it wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I took the deep dive into cheesemaking, started the blog, really dedicated myself to cheese from a technical perspective, and immersed myself in the cheese world. One of my first challenges to myself was the 365-cheese challenge, where I set as a goal eating 365 different cheeses in as many days. I ended up coming out at over 400, so it was a success I’d say; as social-media-gimmicky as it sounds, it did force me to constantly seek out new cheeses and explore every cheese counter in the city in search of new wheels. Since then I’ve been making cheese, blogging daily. I completed the VIAC Cheesemaker Certification right before they closed their doors (RIP), and have done stints at cheesemakers, including a month at Woodcock Farm in Vermont, where they let me borrow their vat for a day for my own make, and I made the Finback Wheel, a beer-washed cheese, that ended up being distributed by Saxelby Cheesemongers.
I think cheesemaking feeds my driving impulses, the creative and the technical (which also come into play in my day job as a web designer/developer) and the tactile, being on the one hand such a mechanical process (bring milk to temp, add cultures, measure pH, check for flocculation time, etc), and on the other a nearly alchemical process of transformation, working with this living, fluid substance, with so many natural and environmental variables contributing to the final product. I’m also an individual with a high tolerance for repetitive activities (whether it’s washing and flipping hundreds of wheels, or scanning endless lines of code), so I think I take to cheesemaking well and really enjoy wrapping my head around the technical aspects (my only regret these days is that I studied film in college, instead of microbiology).
The blog is also an important part of my larger project, allowing me to share my tasting and cheesemaking experiences as well as allowing me to be an active and contributing member of the larger cheese community and highlight the amazing work of the cheesemakers, farmers, affineurs, distributors, and other cheese professionals doing their great work every day, often under the radar.
The funny thing is that the blog was really just a personal project for keeping my own education in cheesemaking on track, but ended up taking on a life of its own.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Matt: I always have various cheese experiments going, and at the moment I’m also finessing the Gowanus Couronne, a mixed-milk (raw goat and cow), “doughnut”-shaped bloomy rind, and working on the Gowanus Tomme, a cow’s milk tomme-style cheese. I’m also always experimenting with beer-washed cheeses, particularly with the beers from my friends’ new brewery in Queens, Finback, and would love to bring the Finback Wheel back, once I can find vat time. Urban cheesemaking is wonderful and frustrating at the same time. You can produce surprisingly high-quality cheeses in cramped and challenging spaces, but there are also limits on how much you can control your environment, and what kinds of cheeses you can produce; long-aged, large-format alpines probably aren’t in my immediate future. I’ve also avoided blues altogether, not because I wouldn’t love to make them but because the space is just too much of a closed system and it would be impossible to keep the blues isolated. Even washed-rinds are pushing it (if only because my neighbors probably wonder what on earth I’m doing in there when they catch a whiff).
The eventual goal is a proper cheesemaking facility, an ongoing project in its own right; stay tuned.
Are there any particular misconceptions or aspects of cheese that you would like to correct? If so, what?
Matt: Well, probably the most obvious and important one, that’s on the minds of most cheese people these days, would be the notion that raw-milk cheese is dangerous, which has become of particular concern with the FDA’s heightened focus on non-toxigenic E. coli, resulting in perfectly safe cheeses with insanely long track records for safety — eg Roquefort, Morbier, Tomme de Savoie — now having holds placed on them, and going missing from domestic cheese cases; not to mention Upland’s recent decision to cease production of Rush Creek Reserve due to the uncertainty of the FDA’s approach to cheeses like Rush Creek. This is a very weird time for cheesemakers and mongers in the US, both incredibly promising, with almost unbelievable growth in the industry in the last decade, and much more possible still. It’s also a time of unnerving uncertainty as to what the regulatory landscape will look like in five years. First the aged-on-wood debacle, and now this, really paint a picture of a regulatory agency that is taking action without really analyzing the science or being methodical in their decisions.
It’s particularly frustrating because so many other foods are actually as, if not more, dangerous than cheese, but if there’s a food poisoning case connected to raw seafood, or melons, or chicken, it doesn’t get treated as an indictment of an entire category of food, whereas any incident involving cheese, whether pasteurized or raw, gets treated as proof that an entire class of food — raw milk cheese — is a potential threat to public safety, instead of looking at the particulars of the case as they do with most other food-related incidences.
Have you got any words of encouragement for would-be cheesemakers?
Matt: If you want to be a cheesemaker, just jump in, start simple, and don’t worry about the results initially. Experiment liberally. But also focus on developing a solid technical foundation and understanding of the cheesemaking process. If your eventual goal is to be a professional cheesemaker, get yourself a pH meter ASAP and learn how to use it. Get books like Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking [by Gianaclis Caldwell] and Cheese and Microbes [by Catherine Donnelly]. Take classes. Also, read The Life of Cheese [by Heather Paxson] for a good reminder of the economic and cultural realities of cheesemaking as a career path. And of course visit as many cheesemakers and farmers as you can, and get up to your elbows in the curds at every opportunity.
If you had to create a 5-cheese plate of the representative cheeses of your region, what would it include?
Matt: That’s a tough one, given all the great cheeses in the larger region. But if I were to focus just on New York State, my plate might include:
- Arattom Dairy Cinder, a bright, citric goat’s milk cheese from Westchester;
- Sprout Creek Farm Eden, 3rd Place Best In Show at this year’s ACS;
- Parish Hill Creamery Humble Herdsman — technically made in VT, but I would go with the version affinaged at Crown Finish Caves in Brooklyn to keep it local;
- Meadowood Farms Ledyard, a grape-leaf-wrapped, beer washed sheep’s milk cheese;
- Vulto Creamery Miranda, an Absinthe-washed little jewel of a cheese from a former Brooklyn urban cheesemaker;
- Ewe’s Blue from Old Chatham Sheepherding Co.
Have you got any favorite tools in your kitchen?
Matt: My Viking wine refrigerator, one of the coolers that I use for aging my cheeses. It’s been super-reliable in terms of maintaining temperature and humidity. I actually bought it used on Craigslist from a guy named “Ted”; when I went to pick it up, it turned out to be Ted Allen, host of Chopped on the Food Network, so it probably housed some great wines before I adopted it ;)
Thanks, Matt, for all of that great insight! This one’s for you, all you budding cheesemakers! If you like what you just read, visit his blog, Cheese Notes!