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Monthly Archives: October 2012

Q&A: Cherry Grove Farm Cheese and the “R&D of the chef world”

Head Cheesemaker Sam Kennedy notes the cheese’s varied rind textures on a stroll through “the caves,” where cheese is left to age.

Just as Sam Kennedy, head cheesemaker at Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville, can take one ingredient and turn it into a variety of cheeses, my one visit to the farm could yield a plethora of posts. A lot can be learned from the farm’s business model: the cheesemaking is slow, the operation is small and the process of pasturing cattle on organic grass is as sustainable as any natural cycle.

Curious about what makes cheese naturally yellow? Or why Toma needs to be washed? I pulled Kennedy away from working on the farm’s famous Toma cheese for a quick Q&A on this strange intersection of art, science and culinary nuance.

Q: What is the backstory behind the farm?

A: The owners wanted a spot where the locals could buy quality locally and environmentally produced food…We first started off as an egg-producing farm, and we still produce free-range chicken eggs. And then we went into grass-fed beef, grass-fed lamb, and eventually went into grass-fed dairy and started backing off on the grass-fed beef, because grass-fed dairy is a much more economically efficient formula in New Jersey than grass-fed beef. It takes a very large land mass to do grass-fed beef very well, and in NJ it’s just too expensive.

Q: Can you explain a little bit about what it means to say that Cherry Grove Farm is organic?

A: Well, the grass is certified organic. What that means is 98% of our cows’ diets—and even 99% depending on the time of year—comes from our land. When the grass is certified organic and that’s the predominant diet of your cows, then it really stands out in the flavors of your cheeses. In the summertime you’ll get different flavor notes than what you’ll get in the winter time, and that’s just because of what the cow is eating. It also means our cheeses are going to be a little healthier for you. …. [Our cheeses] are automatically going to be higher in omega 3’s and higher in CLA from the grass-fed quality. The yellow that you see in our cheeses is the cow’s inability to use beta carotene, so you’re getting a large dose of beta carotene when you’re eating our cheeses.

A wheel of Montasio aging in the caves. Kennedy asked that the pH measurement written in the lower right corner be blurred, as the pH of a given cheese is considered proprietary information in cheesemaking.

Q: How did you get involved in cheese-making?

A: I have a culinary arts background. Being a chef I was always interested in cheese. I started going toward the research and development side of culinary world, where you’re dealing with very large corporations making nationally known recipes … [but] a lot of the foods that are produced by those large companies are not ethically responsible. They don’t have their customers in their minds when they produce them; they just have a dollar bill in their minds. So cheesemaking’s the natural side of that. It’s the natural R&D work of the chef world.

Q: We just called you in from the cheese production area. What exactly was it that you were doing in there?

A: We’re producing jack today. We have 200 gallons in the vat. That’s what my assistant Malachy [Egan] was doing…Now he’s cutting and cooking the cheese. Today I’m doing more “affinage” work, which means “finishing cheese” in French, so you just pulled me out of washing the Tomas. I’m in there individually treating each wheel of cheese, gently washing it in a salt brine solution.

Q: There seem to be a lot of processes that take place during the aging of the cheese. What do they do? How does washing the Toma make it different from other cheeses?

It makes it more creamy and it grows that red mold that’s very specific to our farm. That’s what we’re trying to get with that cheese. What’s really interesting with those cheeses is the Herdsman and Toma are the same exact cheese when we create it in the vat, but they change in the affinage. The Toma gets washed and the herdsman just hangs out and gets that nice multi-layered rind so that’s what defines the two flavor profiles in that cheese…One of the cool and exciting things of the cheese world is that I can take one ingredient or one product and I can create many different things from using some different methods. I could create a different Toma by using a flavored liquid besides water: beer, wine, cider, any type of fruit juice, anything really. I could just put herbs and spices into my water solution and little bits of that would come out in the cheese to get that little bit of curiosity in the flavor profile.

Thanks to everyone at Cherry Grove Farm for the awesome tour, samples and information! Cherry Grove Farm’s cheeses can be found in specialty grocers all over New Jersey.


Food & Art: Foodie Comics Spice Up Food Storytelling

The most recent update for “Cocotte,” a foodie webcomic written by Kat Vapid with art by Ryan Kelly.

We kill for it, we play in dirt for it, we build reality shows and fairy tales around it: food is a great plot device. And the unique visual storytelling of the comics industry may be just what food needs to jump-start its fiction career.

Late last December, American comics artist Brian Wood predicted a flurry of food-related comics for 2012. Wood’s own food-related comic, “STARVE,” had been rejected by two publishers, both of which had claimed that the work was too similar to other comics already in the pipeline.

The cover for “Get Jiro!,” a dystopian foodie novel written by famed chef Anthony Bourdain and published in 2012 by Vertigo.

One of these comics was Vertigo’s “Get Jiro!,” a gory parody of food culture that follows rebel sushi chef Jiro as he carves out a name for himself among the master chef-mobsters of a futuristic L.A.. Co-written by Anthony Bourdain, author of “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” and host of the Travel Channel’s “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” and “The Layover,” the comic boasts the biggest name in foodie-ism to have yet ventured into the comics industry.

The unexpected Vertigo-Bourdain pair-up may have sent the comic to the top of the Bestseller List, but the comics industry knows that there are limits on what can be sold in the age of free web content.

Though food-related webcomics are few and far between, they are out there. Wood’s lamentations on the failure of “STARVE” were spurred by illustrator Ryan Kelly’s attempt at a foodie webcomic of his own. The project, called “Cocotte” (a French term for “casserole dish” and an old-fashioned word for “prostitute”), is a gritty slice of life story about a line cook at a stylish Minneapolis restaurant. Though the project intended to prop open the double doors and expose the culinary hierarchies of a restaurant kitchen, the comic hasn’t been updated past its first chapter. Cancellation of this quirky little comic seems inevitable; in August, Kelly posted the most recent “Cocotte” update on his blog, writing “I’m not even going to waste time begging you to read it. It’s a good comic…I’ve done everything I can.” 

Even before the explosive success of Bourdain’s “Get Jiro!” was Image Comics’ “Chew,” the Eisner Award-winning series first published in 2009. Written by John Layman with art by Rob Guillory, “Chew” follows FDA agent Tony Chu as he utilizes his psychic abilities to solve food-related crimes. But Chu’s psychic powers don’t come to him as clairvoyant whispers in the midst of meditation; rather, Chu must learn about food and people by…eating them. The comics provide a psychic spin on many aspects of food culture: in addition to “Cibopaths” like Chu, Effervenductors are baristas who control minds through the foam on their specialty drinks.

Food may not do well in a cape and tights, but its visual appeal and storytelling potential make it great new territory for the comics industry. Let’s hope the success of undertakings like “Chew” and “Get Jiro!” will lead to a cornucopia of foodie webcomics that (aside from being free) will provide a fresh new take on food storytelling.

Grass-fed Cheese at Cherry Grove Farm

To Americans, cheesemaking is one of the more cryptic processes of food production. Perhaps because of the rubbery “cheese food” that has become so commonplace in American grocery stores, it’s easy to assume that there is something of the unnatural—or at least the unpalatable—in cheese production.

A trip to Cherry Grove Farm taught me that cheesemaking is indeed a strange process full of strong smells, odd chemistry and microbial chefs, but all of these factors work wonders in producing what is ultimately a delicious, well-storied product. And, in Cherry Grove’s case, a walking tour of the farm and facility is essentially a tour of cheesemaking itself, from the organic grass and the cows that eat it to the store where the final product is sold.

With Head Cheesemaker Sam Kennedy as my guide, I was able to tour the facility and farm, snapping pictures along the way of the animals, land and labor that create a Cherry Grove cheese.

Starting from scratch with The Sweet Life Bakery’s Stephen Wilson

The Sweet Life Bakery owners Stephen Wilson and Jill McClennan pose for a picture in front of the Vineland bakery.

The Sweet Life Bakery owners Stephen Wilson and Jill McClennan pose for a picture in front of the Vineland bakery.

The Sweet Life Bakery, located on East Landis Avenue in Vineland, has been on my radar for quite a while now, as slow foodies and casual food fans alike have often spoken in hushed voices of this “little place” in Vineland. Though the bakery-cafe certainly has the homey feel of a modern general-store-meets-coffee-shop, the constant string of awards and press coverage has assured that South Jersey is paying attention.

With its locally sourced ingredients and its (sadly uncommon) commitment to taking the words “from scratch” seriously, the Sweet Life Bakery has been recognized by many as a delicious example of South Jersey’s slow, small, and sustainable. I sat down with Stephen Wilson to find out more about what makes the Sweet Life the talk of the town.

Q: How long has the Sweet Life been open?
A: September 1st was our fifth anniversary, but my wife and I are both trained pastry chefs, so we’ve been in the business since high school. For a while we were living in San Francisco and working for other people …When we started out it was just the two of us in 2007. Now I think we have about 13.

Q: I’ve never really seen this kind of bakery-cafe combination before; I guess I was expecting the Sweet Life to be more of an industrial bakery. Why go with a bakery that is also a cafe?
A: The bakery cafe is becoming more prevalent because it’s a good way of diversifying your income. The biggest in that industry is Panera, which is the leader of the bakery-cafe world.

Q: Sweet Life’s received a lot of awards; they’re all over your Facebook posts and taped in the windows here. What’s some of the most flattering recognition you’ve received?
A: On Trip Advisor, we’re ranked the No. 1 restaurant in Vineland, and then a couple months ago Cat Country Radio voted us #1 in Vineland.

The Sweet Life Bakery offers its own bright, modern interpretation of the coffee shop format.

(A full list of awards and recognition for the Sweet Life was available until recently on the bakery’s website. Rest assured that there are many, including the Best Wedding Cake award from South Jersey Magazine)

Q: What kind of foods do you buy from local sources?
A: (The coffee is) roasted in Millville, so it is locally roasted. It comes from a company called KMO: Kafe Magnum Opus. All of our house coffee and espresso is fair trade and organic. We get a lot of local produce, when it’s in season. So now we have a lot of apples, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes. … Two people, both in Vineland, will give us eggs. So if there are good, tasty, local options, we’ll go for that first.

Q: Are there any misconceptions about the Sweet Life, or about what it takes to make a cake?
A: The cakes are sometimes more expensive than people think they would be. Partly because it takes longer to make a cake than people would expect. A lot of layer cakes, that’s three layers of cake and then two layers of filling. And the artwork takes a lot of time. And we don’t use mixes or anything like that.

A peek into the Sweet Life fridge shows an array of cakes dressed in the “crumb coat” that will keep cake from crumbling into the final coat of icing.

Q: Really, people in the bakery industry will use mixes?
A: The vast majority of places use mixes. Every bakery says they make everything from scratch. They don’t. … Here, bakery companies will sometimes send reps around, and they’ll say, “We have a great danish mix,” and I tell them “No, we make everything from scratch.” And they’ll say, “Oh, well we have a great fruit filling” or “We have a great donut mix.”

Q: What is the appeal of using mixes? Is it just cheaper? Or are they higher quality than the ones you can get in the grocery store?
A: It’s cheaper that way. Most people are very price-conscious. And there is a market for that. A lot of people are used to cake being made that way anyway.

I hope to post some more of the pictures from the Sweet Life on here soon. While on a tour of the bakery, I was offered a bit of carrot cake with praline icing—an unprecedented flavor combination in my sad little TastyKake-and-Little-Debbie existence. I’ll be sure to plan a stop at the Sweet Life Bakery on my next trip down to Cape May; my only regret is not having eaten more!

The Salem City Community Garden: Where Rural Meets Urban

This sign alerts passerby that, yes, someone put these vegetables here on purpose.

In April, the corner of Hires Avenue and New Market Street was just a vacant demolition site sitting sad and barren in front of the City Clerk Office in Salem City. Today, a border of wooden shipping palettes—stacked, hammered, and painted into 4 foot high raised beds of soil—surround a tidy oasis of greenery called the Salem City Community Garden.

Salem residents Krystal Hall and Britney Lillya first conceived of the garden after signing up to volunteer for similar projects at the First Annual Philly Farm and Food Fest in April. “Britney and I found ourselves signing up for other community gardens that weren’t in our community,” Hall says. “We thought, ‘Why not do it in our town?’”

With the support of City Council, Lillya’s connections at the Salem County Sunbeam, where she works as a photographer, and a notice posted on Facebook, initial support for the project far exceeded the pair’s expectations. “When we did our build, there were probably 30 people out here,” Hall says. “ I was really surprised that day how many people came out to help.”

Now, the gardeners harvest long hots, roma and regular tomatoes, eggplant, okra, and bell peppers that they have yet to find homes for. Charitable purposes like Meals on Wheels and educational programs have been considered, but the group is still pondering, wanting to ensure that the garden’s effects reach as far into the community as possible.

Britney Lillya and Krystal Hall working on some Mexican Sunflowers, which are, at the very least, visually delicious.

I can appreciate the extent to which the Salem Garden blurs the rural and the urban: the garden is a piece of the agrarian in the middle of “Salem City,” which is itself a semi-urban island in a sea of farmland. Surprisingly, as fellow founding gardener Ken Blades explained, the reality of Salem is not one of a town in which farmland and city always blend graciously. Rather, a cultural divide exists between some of Salem’s city-dwelling and farm-dwelling residents that gives some incentive to critique the community garden project.

“People [from the country] were asking us when we started this, ‘Why would you want to do that?’” Blades says. “There’s a lot of negativity out there.”

Of course, every well-meaning project always has its senseless detractors, but what about residents who feel a little too welcome to the garden’s produce?

“Sometimes people would come with shopping bags and just take whatever they wanted,” Hall says. “We’d prefer it if they did that differently, but…”

Blades completes Hall’s thought for both of them. “I’m over it,” he says.

Over the winter, the group hopes to secure access to a public greenhouse, but its plans don’t stop there. “We’re not big enough to be a nonprofit yet, but it might be a future goal,” Hall explains. “We’ve just got to figure out what we’re doing with the food first.”

A last resort, of course, is to donate it to the causes of this vegetably destitute blogger, who is now one bag full of eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers less hungry.