Here We Are: One Year In
Hi! How are you? We are in a hopeful mood as more of our employees get vaccinated, more restaurants start opening up, and the weather warms. It feels good to think that the day we see your faces again won’t be so distantly far in the future. Although we’re moving forward and good things are starting to happen, we can’t escape some of the consequences of the global pandemic. We’ve all had to adapt to survive, and we’re impressed with some of the creative solutions our producers have come up with in the face of great stress. We are so appreciative of your patience, compassion, and support right now and we know our producers appreciate it too. We’re hopefully in the final stretch, and though more challenges lie ahead, we’ll get there together – none of us are alone.
As a company, we feel like we’re in a good place, many thanks to our employees and producers. Like many small businesses, we’ve had to make a lot of adjustments. We have focused a lot on our retail products, from pre-cut cheese wedges to our mini tubs of nuts. We’ve altered our purchasing, and we’ve had to push a lot of young cheeses with shorter shelf life. We’ve made many donations of cheese to organizations like City Harvest, Rethink, and Table to Table to get it out of our warehouse and into the hands of people in need in our community. It’s always a joy to source new products, but since we can’t travel, that subsided significantly, though we do have some new things on the horizon!
With the absence of events (oh, how we’ve missed you!), we focused on projects that coincidentally, were already underway, like the complete revamping of our website and the redesign of our Mitica® line of dry goods like fig cakes and honeys. We celebrated the “Summer of Sheep” with a special promotion of sheep’s milk cheeses as a way of bringing awareness to some of the cheeses left in the lurch. In the midst of all this, several new people have recently joined our team, and we’re very fortunate to have their expertise as we work through it all. The Forever Cheese team, in Long Island City and Secaucus, has gone above and beyond and we’re grateful for their flexibility and hard work.
Our producers have had similar challenges throughout the year, compounded by the fact that they may only make a few products and have few resources. Italy and Spain were especially hard hit and are still reeling from the losses there. It’s been a slow burn, and the effects of the lockdown are reverberating even now, especially now. We wanted to highlight some of the challenges our producers have faced to give you a little understanding of what happens behind the scenes. We can’t sugar coat it; it hasn’t been easy for anyone and the losses are devastating. But more than ever, we’re proud to call these makers our partners as we make our way out of the darkness.
One producer who has had to adapt this year is Quattro Portoni, a family-owned company making buffalo milk cheeses outside of Bergamo, Italy. In their case, even though buffalo have a much lower milk production than cows, sales of their cheeses dropped off dramatically and they had lots of excess milk to manage. The Gritti family needed to come up with creative ways of using it. They sell a wide variety of cheese, from fresh ricotta and scamorza (only in Italy) to 1-3 month aged cheeses like Casatica® and Quadrello®, to 8+ month aged cheeses like Porta Rocca and Gran Bu. Firstly, they began making more aged cheese to buy themselves more time. But they also could not completely stop production on their younger cheeses, so they experimented with some short-term changes to mitigate the losses, like so many small businesses did in the past year.
After careful and successful tests, Bruno Gritti, the head cheesemaker, figured out that he could slow down the aging of Quadrello® di Bufala a bit. Normally aged around 80 days, he found that he could extend that to 120 days if he lowered the temperature in the cave. This change did affect the cheese aesthetically and the flavor intensified. But as a way to avoid tossing milk, it was what he needed to do. He was very aware that he needed to make a quality cheese no matter what, and that it needed a long shelf life in order to travel to the U.S. As he tells us, all of this was present in his mind as he made his decision.
If you’ve ordered or eaten Quadrello® recently, you will notice a darker rind – one of the changes that came with the extended aging. The flavor is a bit more intense, but still within the proper flavor profile for the cheese. The cheese has more weight loss in Italy, but according to Bruno, this was a necessary sacrifice. This is the nature of artisan cheesemaking. Unexpected issues come up, and producers need to adjust. A global pandemic was an extraordinary circumstance, but Quattro Portoni is surviving and we will navigate these changes together. The good news is that things are moving in the right direction, and these changes will only last a little bit longer; in a month or so, we will get the cheese at is usual aging. It’s all part of the experimental pivots we’ve all been seeing.
Sometimes producers have the resources to help others in times of extreme need. One that’s made a creative change during the pandemic to help their community is Queso Los Cameros in La Rioja, Spain. They purchase milk for their artisan cow, goat, and sheep’s milk cheeses from local farmers. However, there are goat farmers in their area whose farms are very remote and inaccessible by their refrigerated trucks, so Los Cameros was unable to purchase milk from them as they couldn’t physically pick up the milk. These farms are very small, with herds between 40 and 100 goats. The village where those farms are located, Jalón de Cameros, is ideal for goat farming because of the natural pastures with a wide variety of plants and wild herbs. But because they’re so isolated, they had a hard time selling their milk and suffered, especially during the pandemic.
Los Cameros made the decision this year to create a milk drop-off point to help rescue this milk and support the small farmers. The point is centrally located between five farms, so that no one has to drive more than 15 minutes to deliver the milk. They bring fresh milk to the drop-off point, where each has their own refrigerated tank. Los Cameros then picks up the milk three times a week and uses it for their Queso de Cabra Semicurado, an aged cheese that they created for this purpose: to support their local agricultural community. It keeps farmers in business, boosts the region’s economy, and ensures an incredibly high-quality milk source that leads to delicious cheese. The cheese also has a very distinct terroir, as the milk is from only five adjacent farms. Los Cameros plans to expand the program, investing in other drop-off points so they can service other tiny farms within La Rioja. This is a win-win situation that may never have happened without a push from the pandemic.
Although we don’t carry that goat cheese at this time, we are introducing a new cheese from Los Cameros next month. You may have tried their gorgeous Oveja Añejo, a one-year-aged sheep’s milk cheese made with the milk from one specially selected herd. We will now also carry their Señorio de Vaca Añejo, which is made following the same concept, but with cow’s milk. The milk comes from just one herd of Friesian cows, meaning wheels are limited. In 2016, a farmer challenged cheesemaker Javier Martínez to make a cow’s milk cheese with a more “European” flavor profile, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Each tasting reveals new nuances, and the long aging allows the cheese to develop the crunchy tyrosine crystals that are such a hit. Notes of brown butter and toasted hazelnuts dominate, with a sweetness that comes through in the finish. This is a very special, limited production cheese that we’re thrilled to soon have in stock! Los Cameros is doing a lot of cool things and you should check out their other cheeses, Los Cameros Mixed Milk, Queso Camerano DOP, and Riojana, if you haven’t yet.
Yet another consequence of the pandemic that we’re seeing is shipping delays. We get the majority of our products by boat, and as may have heard or experienced recently, shipping ports are a mess around the world. This one is supremely frustrating since it’s something largely out of our control. We order product, are told it will arrive a certain time, and then arrival dates continually get pushed back. You’ve probably seen this yourself, with personal packages arriving far behind schedule. It’s something we’ll just need to take as it comes, but be aware that these delays will continue for the foreseeable future. We’re doing our best to mitigate the problems through our careful buying. Eventually things will improve and we hope that the ports clear through the logjam quickly.
So although these changes can make things difficult, we remain grateful for what we do have right now. We’re inspired by the ingenuity and new ideas we’ve seen in the industry recently. Keep your head up, enjoy the happy moments, support artisan cheesemakers, and order a cheese board from a local restaurant or cheese shop. The cheese world may be forever changed but we will recover over time.
According to the La Rioja tourism site, Jalón de Cameros, the site of Los Cameros’ milk drop-off point, has just 48 inhabitants (most of whom work in either livestock farming or forestry).