Friday, July 31, 2009

Feelin' the love

I was talking to a friend last night about the blog, and she was asking how often I update it. "Well, it all depends, usually not much unless I have some news or something is happening." Then I went on to tell her a slew of little things that are on the horizon, and even though they're not necessarily anything all that big, I woke up this morning wondering why the hell I hadn't been updating them here? Point being, I'm not great at updating but I'm now making a vested effort to be better about it.

Last week I had a quick, fruitful meeting with Peter of Poco Wine Room. Last year I met with him simply to get his story about starting up a new small business, which he was happy to share. Little did I know there was a great relationship opportunity right under my nose; Peter is incredibly sweet, down to earth, and has been very excited about what I'm doing. He also does an excellent job with Poco, I have found his rotating wine selections to be consistently impressive, and it's clear that he loves what he's doing. So a month or so ago, when it became clear that I wasn't going to be opening shop for yet a few more months at the least, I propositioned him to partner with me in co-hosting some wine and cheese pairings at the bar. It's a real win-win situation; I get to do what I love, talk about cheese to a group of food lovers, and at the same time get my name out there before I've opened shop. Peter gets to do what he loves, talk about wine and bring more customers into his space. We both agreed it's a real no-brainer. So with that we have slated the first cheese and wine pairing event to take place on Thursday, September 17th. Naturally details to come as we get closer to the date.

In the meantime, I'm getting ridiculously jazzed for the American Cheese Society conference next week in Austin, TX. I was originally going to wait to attend this annual event until next year, when it will be held in Seattle, but this year's even focuses on retail and I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to gain even more knowledge before I take the big plunge. There I'll be soaking up the advice of experts from all around the country on retail strategies, affinage, serving and pairing, the list goes on. Not to mention getting to taste hundreds of cheeses! I'm also tickled pink to meet many of the personalities I've become familiar with on twitter in person. Nothing gets me going like being surrounded by a bunch of fellow cheese geeks.

Upon my return home, I'll be getting down to the nitty-gritty of finalizing my SBA loan, crossing t's and dotting i's with my lawyer, and hopefully by September I'll be hitting the ground running. It's all happening so fast, yet at the same time I'm way off my original schedule, which is something I've come to learn is completely ok. Yesterday I had a long conversation with one of my mentors and biggest supporters, my incredible mother in law, and I had to revel a little at the arc this journey has taken that I never could have predicted. Probably the best piece of advice I got in the beginning was from a fellow small business owner, who gravely warned me against getting stuck on anything specific in terms of how this would all come to fruition. I took his advice to heart, and it has kept me open and flexible to all of these amazing opportunities that in one way are far from me actually opening the shop, but at the same time are moving me towards my goal of eventually owning a business that will succeed and sustain because of the foundation I'm building now. It's already one wild ride...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

aah, the good old farmlife

Back from my week of sheep cheesery goodness at Black Sheep Creamery, still soaking it all in. For or your viewing pleasure, a photo tour of my week.

I can't believe how much I learned in just one week. Naturally, having never made cheese before, my learning curve was pretty substantial, but even so I felt like a sponge just soaking up every minute of it. Days were long and packed with milking, herding sheep, making tons of cheese, and cleaning cleaning cleaning. Brad joked in an interview once that he often spends more time cleaning up than actually making the cheese, and it's entirely true. In fact, a lot of cheesemaking is pretty much a hurry up and wait game. Milk heats for 30 min. or more and when it reaches a precise temperature starter is added, then wait again for a very specific amount of time before adding rennet, then wait again and closely monitor the coagulation so the curds are sifted out just at the right time. I can see it becoming a pretty zen process, and it definitely requires a lot of patience and the personality of someone who doesn't mind a pretty solitary work environment.

Brad is just that in a nutshell, which is one of the many reasons their cheeses are so delicious. He and Meg really put an immense amount of hard work and dedication into their craft, yet they both give off such a relaxed, content vibe I was constantly amazed. They told me all about their experience with the horrible flood a couple of years ago, and I just can't imagine how it must have been to live through that, much less to pick right back up and go on. But as Meg said, that's just what you do in the face of disaster. The experience of getting to know them and their family was just as valuable as getting up close and personal with their cheese. In such a short time they really made me feel like part of the family, and by the time I left I was so comfortable there and just getting into the groove and routine of farmlife that I must admit I was a tad misty-eyed as I drove away.

The really beautiful part of this experience I take away from it is the very intimate connection I now have with these cheeses that I've tasted and loved. Now when I cut into a round of Mopsey's Best (may favorite), I'll think of the farm, and I'll know that I had a first-hand experience in making it, from milking the sheep all the way to brushing that last dust of mold off the rounds before cutting and packing wedges for market. I wish I could have this kind of relationship with every cheese that I sell, and so I'm working into my business model the ability to take one week away every year to work at a dairy. I could easily do it for the rest of my life and never even begin to cross off all the amazing cheeses I love, but it's a start.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Just a quick update from farmland at Black Sheep Creamery, or as I'm calling it, Sheep Camp. Naturally the minute I arrived in Chehalis my laptop decided to croak, so I'm limited to the use of the computers at the local library, which while generous since I'm not paying for it, is endlessly frustrating because I already have half a gig of pictures I'm just dying to post. Alas, they will have to wait until next week, so please check back then for a week in the life of cheesemakers in pictures.

Meg and Brad are amazing; funny, down to earth, at once everything I expected of sheep farmers and yet completely the opposite. Their kids are fun, they have a completely neurotic cattle dog that makes me miss my schnorky doofus even more, a great cat and about 70 of the most awesome sheep ever. My first morning on the farm I helped Brad with the a.m. milking, which involves walking up the road to the rolling green acres that the sheep inhabit, then herding them back to the barn. Of they all know the drill, and they know that milking time means sweet grain, so they are eager to bolt out of the fence and trot and clop their way with very little prodding. No pun intended. Every now and then one of them would stop, stare right at me and let out a forceful "BAAA!" Apparently they enjoy checking out a new person, it was adorable.

The milking process isn't too complicated. It involves hooking up two sheep at a time to the modest milking machine while they inhale their helping of sweet grain. The sheep aren't producing nearly as much as they were a few months ago, so Tuesday morning's yield was a mere 45 lbs. compared to highs of 100 or slightly more back in May and June. With the two of us, milking took about 3 hours, then sheep were herded back to their area to chomp clover and we were back to the milk house to finish pasteurizing many gallons of milk for a new cheese that Brad is trying out. It's a soft Libyan cheese that ages only 3 months with an olive oil brush on the rind. I'm anxious to hear how it turns out, and hopefully it will become something regular.

Wednesday I hit the Portland Farmer's market scene at the Moreland Market. I love talking to people about cheese, even more so when I can hand them a bit of what I'm gushing about, so this was an incredibly fun, albeit exhausting experience. Meg is charming and has many regulars who come by just because they know she'll be there with products promised from last week's market; in this case, fresh unsalted ricotta that I actually made and hung the evening before. I could eat the stuff by the handful, it is so incredibly fresh and just a little sheepy, throw that in a bowl with some fresh berries and mmmmm. Even though I didn't get home until 10 p.m. (and up at 5 a.m. mind you), I couldn't wait to get back today bright and early.

This morning Brad already had the vat full of milk that had just finished pasteurizing, and we got set into making a batch of their Christmas tomme, which is their tomme with green and red peppercorns sprinkled into the pate of the cheese. Set those to press, cleaned everything and did it all over again with they remaining whey for a batch of fresh ricotta. Clean everything again and it was onto hanging 80 lbs. of fresh cheese for packaging tomorrow. Their fresh cheese is just what it sounds like: pasteurized curds and whey that sit for 24 hours, then hang in cheesecloth for another 24 for whey to drain, then mixed with various ingredients on the third day and sold to eager customers. The base has just a little salt for flavor and reminds me of something between a chevre and a really good marscapone. There are a handful of other flavors like Chipotle and Tomato or Dill and Garlic, all of them delicious and it's so much fun to come up with ideas of things to spread them on, for instance, anything that doesn't move.

That's it so far, one quick computer break and I head back to sterilize bottles and make mother starter for the weekend cheese. Vive la brebis!

Friday, July 3, 2009

'Tis the season for cheese tastings

Last night I met with fellow neighborhood business owners Peter and Bart of Poco Wine Room. Months ago when I was interviewing small business owners for information gathering and advice, Peter was very charming and helpful. He was willing to share his story in detail of getting the bar up and running, all the challenges they faced and the successes they celebrated in just 18 months. I knew then that he would be a contact to keep close to, though I wasn't sure exactly how it would all play out, but yet another terrificly sage piece of advice I took home from Steve jones at Cheese Camp was the idea of hosting cheese tastings and events before even opening my shop. Fantastic, I can do this, but I needed someone else to provide the essential space and proper liquor licensing to do so.

So I contacted Peter, telling him I had some ideas to throw at him, and we made a date to meet at Poco and discuss. I got to meet his equally charming life and business partner Bart, and the conversation flowed just as easily as the many glasses of delectable Beaujolais. We talked a lot of shop, I got to practice some of my spiel on Bart, which was great, got a ton of great feedback and a few more references to work with. Then I plunged into my pitch for co-hosting cheese and wine pairings in the bar. Poco is the perfect place for this; not only do they have a wine selection I'm always impressed by, but they have a lovely little upstairs area that is sequestered enough from the main entrance to provide necessary privacy, but just public enough to make other patrons wonder what's going on up there? Peter and Bart were both just as excited as I was about this partnership, and I couldn't be happier.

We will reconvene after I return from my short stint at Sheep Camp this month, and I'm hoping to set a date for the first event in August. We've a lot of details to hammer out, but suffice it to say it will be fun, affordable, full of delicious cheese and wine, and just exclusive enough to make us all feel a little privileged for an evening. Vive la fromage!