Two city cheesemongers, Caldwell Linker, buyer at the East End Food Co-op, and Alix Wiggins, manager, at the Wheel and Wedge counters in the Pittsburgh Public Market and at the East Liberty Farmer's Market Cooperative, were, as far as anyone knows, the first cheese pros from Pittsburgh to take part in the annual American Cheese Society Conference held this year July 29 to August 2 in Sacramento.
The 35-year-old organization is respected for its annual competition and judging of North America’s farmstead, artisan and specialty cheeses. This year there were 1,685 entries.
The Pittsburgh delegates were revved for a marathon tasting of the winning cheeses but also a little jittery about being face to face with legends in cheesemaking they had long revered.
They both got over their star-struck nerves.
At registration Ms. Linker met Mateo Kehler, cheesemaker at the famed Jasper Hill; a minute later, Allison Hooper of Vermont Butter and Cheese; on the way somewhere got into a chat with Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery; in a line for wine and cheese bumped into a personal idol, wine writer Laura Werlin; and compared notes at a pairing seminar with David Gremmels head of Oregon's Rogue Creamery. And that's how it went.
Many cheesemongers are the only “cheese person” in their workplaces. “I’ve never worked with someone who knew more about cheese than I do,” says Ms. Linker. “Having people I can just call, strike up a friendship with, is monumental.”
"They made it easy," Ms. Wiggins said. "The attitude of these people was, 'Talk to any of us -- we love answering questions for cheesemongers.’ I felt I could email Brian Keyser of Manhattan’s Casellula, known for expert cheese pairings, and find out exactly how to duplicate a very creative tasting exercise they presented at the conference that everyone loved.”
The two sell American cheeses from across the country, but are known to beat the bushes for outstanding cheeses made within an hour or two of Pittsburgh or in other parts of Pennsylvania. They were able to pat themselves on the back for cheeses they already had in their cases before the tasting in Sacramento — many boasting multiple ACS awards, even a couple award winners from Pennsylvania, which, except a handful in the eastern part of the state, is short on ACS honors.
At the Co-op, ask to taste St. Malachi a cow’s milk cheese from The Farm at Doe Run in Chester County. In the cheesemonger’s words, “A tenderly aged cheese bursting with the flavors of butterscotch and umami; akin to the marriage of an aged gouda and a clothbound cheddar, packed with tasty little crystals.” Doe Run won an ACS second this year for its Dragonfly, a white rind cow and goat milk mix. You can taste it at the Co-op and Wheel and Wedge shortly, along with other winners on order, including first-place winner Black Diamond, a goat cheese from Yellow Springs Farm, another Chester County creamery.
You should ask Ms. Wiggins for a taste of Gran Queso, a seriously seductive cow’s milk Manchego-style cheese, rubbed with cinnamon. She has stocked it for months and was pleased to see it win a first this year for Wisconsin maker Roth Kase. She is on the trail of another Wisconsin cheese, the Klondike Cheese Co.’s cow’s milk fetas, which won multiple awards this year. “They blew all the fetas out of the water,” she said.
Not only did they build confidence in their palates at the conference. They learned practical ways to run their stores better. Ms. Wiggins learned what she needs to be doing now in anticipation of Wheel and Wedge’s growth.
There is something of the librarian in a cheesemonger’s need to keep order, observe and record, noting dates and changes in flavor and condition as cheeses arrive, mature and sometimes spoil. There are ways to remove molds you don’t want and to “rescue” a cheese that may have arrived after a perilous journey not in the best possible state.
For Ms. Linker, it was also “getting the right vocabulary to talk to customers, train employees, give good feedback to cheesemakers on everything from cracked rinds to cold packs that don’t sweat so much for shipping by mail.”
There was good news for all cheese lovers at a session with the FDA. The Co-op cheesebuyer said: “The regulators seem willing to work with cheesemakers on aging issues. They seem to be looking at European studies and re-examining the requirement that raw milk cheeses must be aged 60 days. They sound as if they do not plan to enforce the ban on aging cheese on wood at all.
“I told everybody I was sent to the conference on scholarship by Slow Food Pittsburgh and they thought that was very cool.”