Monday, November 19, 2007

He Moved The Cheese: A Conversation with Ray Bair of Cheese Plus

I got into cheese pretty late in life. When you grow up in a Chinese family, very little cheese finds itself shaved onto stir-fries. (And despite the stereotypes about Asians, I am not lactose-intolerant when it comes to cheese. Whew!)

But when my culinary tastes broadened, so did my curiosity about cheese. It started with Parmigiano-Reggiano, then some smoked cheddar I stumbled upon at Whole Foods, then some Manchego at a friend’s dinner party. Eventually I was eating Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk, not offended by its musky smell and loving the buttery, rich texture.

Now I love cheese so much that I thought it’ll be fun to talk to someone who loves it even more. So I picked up the phone and called Ray Bair, owner of Cheese Plus, a cozy neighborhood specialty store in San Francisco’s Russian Hill that—like its name says—started off focused on cheese but then broadened out to wine, meats and sandwiches.

Bair spent years specializing in cheese for Whole Foods in California before opening Cheese Plus two-and-a-half years ago. And this guy knows his cheese. I visited with him recently at his store at the corner of Polk Street and Pacific Avenue to talk about the trends in the industry, his tips for buying and serving cheese, and any advice he might have for people like me who loves cheese but may be prone to high cholesterol.

The following are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Chef Ben: So how did you get interested in cheese?

Ray Bair: There were essentially two things that happened. One must have been maybe 20 years ago or so I was cooking for Whole Foods, actually. I was very friendly with the people in the cheese and wine area of the store. Someone had called in sick and they asked me if I could come over and help that night. And I liked it. It was fun. I had been in the basement cooking, making trays of food. And being up on the sales floor and talking to customers, I hadn’t done before. I thought that was very exciting. …

Couple of years later the opportunity to work at cheese happened. I started working full time and I thought I had a really good knowledge of what I was doing. … But in 1992, Whole Foods transferred me to the Mill Valley location. So I had heard there was a cheese shop in Mill Valley and I thought I’d go check it out and see what they were selling there. And it was an incredible experience. It smelled in there kind of like my store smells here. It’s one thing you can’t really get the same effect in a grocery store as you can in a cheese store. And I talked to the owner. The store was called Mill Valley Cheese Shop and the owner’s name was Forrest (both Forrest and the cheese shop are no longer around). I said, “What is that smell?” And he said, “Oh, it’s this cheese called Livarot" and he pulled this little cheese off the shelf—not out of the cooler but off the shelf. And he showed it to me.

It’s this little brown box, 4 to 6 inches round. And he says they call this the colonel. And I said, “Why do they call it the colonel?” Because it has the stripes along the outside like how the colonel has the stripes on the uniform. So he gives me a taste of it and I was really afraid because I thought it stinks; I’m not going to like this. I tasted it. He said first you have to sniff it. So it was like this whole food revelation that you would sniff your food before you tasted it.

The whole thing was just mind-blowing, even though I’d been working in the cheese world for a couple of years. So I said, “How did you know what you know?” And he said, “I’ve been doing this for awhile and you know, there are books out there.” And I said, “there’s books on cheese?” I was very much of the American mindset that cheese was dead. So it has no real value. It’s just something you enjoy when you eat it and it fills you up. I didn’t have any concept of history and geography, and all of these different things are what made me fall in love with the cheese industry. So it was that 15 minutes that I spent in Forrest’s shop that completely turned me upside down.

CB: Do you still remember how that cheese tasted?

RB: I still do remember how it tastes and we sell it in here now. It’s not exactly the same experience because the laws have changed since then. The laws have changed on how it’s manufacturer, whether it’s made from raw milk or pasteurized milk. At that time, I’m sure it was made with raw milk. Probably four to five years ago it was made with thermalized milk, which is the process of heating the milk below the standards of pasteurization. And nowadays it’s made with 100 percent pasteurized milk. So it’s lost some of its aroma and some of its character along the way.

CB: So other than reading books on cheese, how else did you learn about cheese?

RB: It was a lot of reading and a lot of tasting. At that time I joined the American Cheese Society and that was an incredible experience. In 2006 I was an esthetic judge (at the society’s conference) in Portland. We had 900 cheeses to be judged. This year, in Vermont, I didn’t attend but they had 1,200 cheeses all made in the United States and a few Canadian cheese as well. When I started in ‘93, ‘94, I went to Burlington, Vermont the first year they had their conference there and there were maybe 50 people at the whole conference, we could all fit in one bus, I remember. And we didn’t have 50 cheeses there to be judged. …

The whole industry, the mainstream culture changed about food in the 90s in a very positive way. People were coming back from Europe saying I had this particular product and I want it here, can you get it for me? … Writers were talking about great cheeses made here in the United States. The economy was completely in our favor to buy European products at that time, not like today. The economy is the exact opposite now. It’s unbelievable the exchange rate of the euro, which is the where the vast majority of all cheeses still come from—France, Spain and Italy.

CB: In your store, what’s the percentage of domestic versus imported cheese?

RB: I would say it’s probably 85 percent imported and 15 percent domestic. We carry what I think is a nice selection of domestic cheese, especially domestic specialty cheese with the majority coming right here in California. About 100 to 200 miles from this store we’ve got a handful of cheese makers who do a great job. … People ask me all the time, well, should you sell more American cheeses because the European stuff is so expensive? But you know what? The American stuff is just as expensive if not more.

CB: Is it because it’s mostly small producers in the United States?

RB: Yes, it’s small producers who are just getting into the business buying land and buying the animals, buying the equipment. It’s very expensive to do this kind of work in the United States. The production is small. …

The work the American cheese maker has to do to market their cheese versus a French cheese maker whose family or community or region has been making cheese for centuries is just unbelievable. The branding, the amount of free product they have to giveaway at events just to make the Humboldt Farm, for example, be a household name much like double cream brie is in France—it’s just completely different.

The costs to get it to the marketplace are much higher. We don’t subsidize the cheese making industry in the United States. And you get the small farm who’s making 10 wheels or 15 wheels a day, which isn’t that unheard of, and I can get a few wheels here and there. I have to get it shipped here somehow, and UPS has got to be the most expensive way to ship here. The economy of scale of having a container filled with brie shipped here across the water even though the distance is exponentially farther and logistically a lot more work to get the brie here from France, the American cheese just aren’t any less expensive. …

CB: In the Bay Area people are more aware of the word “artisanal.” How do you make sure the cheese providers you’re dealing with are giving you the quality of cheese that your consumers expect?

RB: You try to get to as many farms as you can, and they love to have you come out and do those things. We’ve been to a number of farms here locally, Redwood Hill, Point Reyes blue cheese up there … We go to trade shows like the American Cheese Society where you get a chance to meet the cheese maker and meet the owner of the farm. …

CB: What are some of the trends in cheese right now?

RB: In the last few years there’s a trend to have older cheese that are saltier, sharper in character, bigger bolder flavor. … So the idea of “cave-aged,” which is a word that gets bantered around, which sometimes have real meaning. It means the cheese was aged in a real “cave”—meaning stone walls. Sometimes it just means a refrigerated walk-in underground. It’s about aging the cheese, which is a process of drying the cheese so the salt comes out. And because the way of cheese making has changed over the years, cheese making is more hygienic now than it’s ever been. … There’s been a huge wave of criticism and attacks toward eliminating or further reducing the amount of raw milk cheeses that are available. So fewer cheese makers are making raw milk cheese than 40 years ago. …

There’s very little of the indigenous culture, and the culture is the bacterial culture that gives cheese its flavor. So the cheese has become much cleaner in flavor. The downside of that is they’re bland. So how do you make a cheese have more strength? You have to let it age so the flavors will develop and to boost that salt because people love salt. They love the feel of it and they love the taste of it.

The downside is you see the decline of not bland cheese because nobody wants to eat bland cheese. But you see the decline of subtle cheeses. It’s harder to sell to a customer a cheese that’s subtle and complex—a cheese with great restraint. They’ll say, “Oh, it doesn’t hit me right away.” I say, “No, just be quiet. Just wait, 15 more seconds.” And then they say, “Oh, there it is.” It’s the same in the wine industry as well. The wine has to be highly alcoholic, rich and sweet right up front.

The other trend you’re seeing in cheese right now is the idea of buying locally. We had a couple in today from Ohio and they wanted to have all local cheeses. That’s also happening in the imports as well. People want those specific cheeses from the small farms more and more.

CB: Why do you think that is?

RB: There’s a little bit of the competitiveness of food now. “Oh, I’ve had San Andreas for many years, give me something else.” So there’s that sort of new factor of wow me with something I can’t get anywhere else. The other part is people are traveling more and they’re finding out about these specific cheeses from these specific towns. The distributors are getting more savvy and they’re out there looking for more cheese to bring to market. … The world doesn’t need any more Manchego. There’s enough Manchego in the world. It’s a wonderful cheese, it’s great, but everyone has one now. So they need to find that other cheese from Spain.

CB: You’ve traveled around the world tasting cheese. Which country would you say makes the best?

RB: There’s no doubt that France is the king, even though every country I’ve been to has a great cheese. Stilton (a blue cheese from England), in my opinion, is a better cheese than gorgonzola, which is the predominant cheese in Italy. But I can’t say it’s any better than Roquefort, which is just an incredible cheese. The culture—not the bacterial culture—but the culture of the community in France you can’t compete across the board. … It’s just too powerful. There’s too much cheese and too much history in cheese making in that country to not give it top marks.

CB: Do you think the American consumer has become more sophisticated when it comes to cheese, enough so to support the artisan cheese industry?

RB: I think it has grown a lot. But coast-to-coast? No. I’ve traveled around the country to know that we live in a wonderful place, the Bay Area, where food is a tremendous part of the positive culture here. ... You can go into any large city—Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, New York—and you’re going to find all the same kinds of things you have here. But when you get outside of those communities, it’s not happening. It’s orange or white, and that’s really it. You have Philly cream cheese and you either have orange or white cheese. And what’s happening is even though consumption of cheese is at an all-time high in this country, it’s mostly fueled by pizza. So all that tonnage of mozzarella and cheddar is going into pizza.

CB: Let’s talk about some basic tips for cheese shopping. Is there a certain smell you want to look for when shopping for cheese?

Yes and no. There are certain smells which you don’t want to have a lot of. Cheeses by nature when they’ve been wrapped up, there’s a lot of gas in that cheese that needs to come out and sometimes ammonia is one of those aromas. A little ammonia can be good. A lot of ammonia in all instances means no good. Sometimes it’s really just a judgment call. Some people might say, “that cheese smells so rotten and so bad I just never can imagine eating it.” And other people will go, “it smells like mushrooms, and leather, and straw and cauliflower,” and they’re all excited about all those aromas. So if it seems fowl to you, I would pull away for sure. … The positive things you’re looking for are those things: straw, grass. Maybe you want it to smell like yogurt, which is what we call lactic acid. So you want it to smell like fresh milk or yogurt. Toasted hazelnuts and almonds is a real predominant aroma you sometimes get, certainly in sheep’s milk cheese and goat’s milk cheese. Sometimes you get strong, herbaceous notes of thyme, lemongrass, depending on the cheese.

CB: Is it necessary for cheese to have a smell?

RB: It’s good to have a smell, but it’s kind of like fish. They say fish shouldn’t smell, but fish always smells a bit like fish. The secret is if you’re at the store, even if you’re at our store here, when we take the cheese out from the refrigerator and give you a taste of it, it’s too cold. It needs a little while to warm up. If you leave it in your hand and fingers, it’ll warm up a little bit and starts to pick up that aroma. But if it’s overwhelmingly strong for you in the aroma, you may not like the flavor. The majority of what you taste is what you smell. But it is important to give it a smell first so you have an idea of what you’re putting in your mouth.

CB: I’ve noticed some cheeses that have a strong, almost offensive odor. But then you taste it and it’s amazing.

RB: Yeah, a lot of the wash-rind cheeses are like that. The wash-rind is a process of washing the exterior of the cheese with a solution, usually a salt water or herbs and alcohol. And it develops another bacteria culture on the cheese. And that’s kind of like a little security guard. It stinks, it’s big and it’s brutish. But the interior of the cheese can be sweet and delicate.

CB: After you buy the cheese, how should you store it?

RB: The longer you want to keep it, the colder you want to keep it. But you don’t ever want to freeze cheese. It just doesn’t work. It does not thaw properly. So forget about freezing your cheese. But you want to keep it as cold as possible if you want it to live as long as possible.

If you’re going to eat it in a couple of days, if your house is cool enough, you don’t even need to refrigerate it. Just leave it on the counter. You do need to think about the fact that it’s going to need to breathe. So you don’t want to put it under a glass dome. It’s going to get steamy; it’s going to cook. But most people’s refrigerator is just fine.

If it’s not already wrapped in either parchment paper or wax paper, you want to unwrap it from any plastic wrap. The plastic wrap is sort of a necessary evil of the industry because people want to be able to see their cheese. And we want to be able to have a real air-tight seal on that cheese so that moisture doesn’t develop and air pockets aren’t admitted because that’s what makes the cheese start to spoil when there’s moisture and air trapped inside of the plastic. So unwrap it and rewrap it in either wax paper or parchment paper and then you can either put that into a Zip lock bag or a Tupperware container or just wrap it again in plastic wrap. …

CB: How long can cheese last?

RB: In the modern world, a lot of cheeses have been treated with an antimicrobial agent, which keeps the mold from growing on the outside of the cheese. And it’s not always real clear on the label what has or hasn’t been treated. So some of these cheese I’ve had I’ve taken them home and they’re in the back of the refrigerator and a month later I’m like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it’s still there and it’s not molded.” Usually they’re drier cheeses that are salty like parmesan that will last the longest. …Moisture is the biggest killer of cheese. If it’s really a wet cheese, it’s going to spoil quickly. If it’s drier, it’ll last longer. But you should be able to have from any store you go to, you should be able to go home and enjoy your cheese in three to five days. …

The other thing that’s important for the customers to know is that they may come into a shop like mine, any shop where they can actually speak to an employee, and have someone cut the cheese to the size that they need. So if you come in and see that there’s a half a pound of cheese cut on the display you can always ask if you can have half of that. ... And the other side of it is now cheeses are $40 a pound, you simply can’t buy half a pound of cheese any more. You need to buy just a couple of ounces at a time to make it affordable.

CB: How should cheese be served?

RB: Best thing I can say about serving is to get a big plate. Don’t crowd the cheeses on the plate. Put it on your platter, cutting board, or whatever surface you’re going to use. … then take them out of their wrapper and put them on to there and maybe loosely cover with a little bit of tin foil to keep the air out and put some wax paper on top and let them sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to two hours. That’s when your house is going to smell, the aromas will come to life, the flavors are going to be nice.

And I recommend that you have a couple of different utensils. There’s nothing worst than having a blue cheese and a goat cheese on the same platter and using the same knife for both. What’s happening is you can’t taste the subtlety of each of the cheeses when there’s blue cheese on your goat and goat on your blue. … Again, don’t crowd your cheeses. They need to be enjoyed singularly. Three cheeses is enough, five is fine. It’s not a salad bar. For accompaniments, I say, keep it simple as well. You know, honey, maybe some orange marmalade, walnuts, a few slices of fresh fruit, you’re done.

CB: When you eat cheese, do you usually just eat it by itself?

RB: I do, sometimes with a little bread, not as often with crackers. Bread I find to be a better palate cleanser.

CB: Do you notice whether you like to eat more soft or hard cheeses? What’s your favorite cheese?

RB: I like the more subtle cheeses. I like some of the sweeter styles of cheeses, a lot of those end up being milk cheeses. They have a more nutty character to them. I’m a big fan of cheese like Taleggio and Epoisse. Taleggio is sweeter than Epoisse. Parmigiano-Reggiano is probably one of my all-time favorite cheeses to eat, for sure. But I like them all.

English farm cheddar is the best. It’s salty, grassy, has this wonderful flakiness to its texture. It’s slightly musty and earthy in its complexity. So I like those cheeses. I love all kinds of goat cheeses. The goat cheeses typically have a high level of acidity so it wakes up your mouth and gets you salivating.

CB: Earlier you said the trend on low-fat cheese has phased out. Do you have any tips for people who might be concerned about their cholesterol?

RB: We encourage them to find a cheese that has the most amount of flavor that will satisfy that hunger for cheese. So you just don’t eat as much. … But cheese isn’t the culprit. French fries and hamburgers are the culprit. And that’s the thing people have to realize, if you’re going to eat a piece of cheese, don’t have a steak in the same meal. Just eat the cheese. Have the bread, fruits, olives, however you like to have it, but you can’t eat salami and hamburger and sausages and eat cheese. Don’t make cheese the bad guy.

I know I definitely won’t make cheese the bad guy. After our chat, Ray showed me around his store, including an entire refrigerated section of 25 different varieties of blue cheese. I also got to sample some cheese, including this incredibly subtle, creamy, grassy cheddar cheese from England. I always thought cheddar was so one dimensional, but not any more.

Many thanks to Ray for taking the time out of his busy day preparing for the holiday rush to do this interview for my blog.

If you’d like to further your education in cheese, I’d recommend you visit your local cheese store such as Cheese Plus where you can talk to the employees, ask for tastings and have them cut the cheese to the amount you need. Then take it home and smell it till your heart’s content.

Cheese Plus, 2001 Polk St. at Pacific, San Francisco. PH: 415.921.2001. Open daily. Web site:


agent713 said...

This is officially my favourite entry ever. I {heart} cheese. And I *love* what he says about not making cheese the bad guy when it comes to cholestrol. So true.

Anonymous said...

I learned a bunch of things in your interview (had no idea about wrapping in parchment or wax paper first). And how come you aren't writting for some big newspaper or magazine? You do good :)

Single Guy Ben said...

Heidi, yay to the cheese lovers of the world!

Mrs. L, thanks! And I'm not working at a big newspaper or magazine because they're the past, blogosphere is the future! ;-)