The Cheese Chronicles

August 28th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Liz Thorpe

Ecco/HarperCollins 2009

$15.99 

Review by Christopher Thompson 

Sometimes, the planets align beautifully and the good nature of the universe is apparent.  Elsewhere in this issue of Cheese Enthusiast is Meaghan Colleary’s report on her interview with Steven Jenkins, Cheese Czar of New York’s Fairway Market.  And a week after Meg filed her story, this is what we find on page 6 of Liz Thorpe’s highly engaging and thoroughly enjoyable The Cheese Chronicles:

Enter a no-bullshit guy named Steve Jenkins.  Steve is an incredibly ornery, semi-deaf and therefore loud, often filthy mouthed always sarcastic guy with a wicked sense of humor, who happens to be primarily responsible for the introduction of great imported cheese into New York City, and therefore the United States. 

And this, on page 7, as Thorpe, just out of college, goes to Jenkins in search of a job:

Steve walked me around, showed me the cheese corner, with its warm and pungent cloak, and then took me up to his desk, where he made The Offer.  The Offer was that I could come work part-time on the cheese counter with the middle-aged men who’d been there for years.  I could earn minimum wage and fumble to cut exact pieces of crumbly blue cheese while…pushy ladies glowered and warned me against pawning off old cheese or too much cheese or the wrong cheese.  And if I was good, Steve said, we could see where things went.  I was twenty-one.  I took six seconds to look around before I thanked him and got the hell out of there.  Clearly, I was going to work for a dot-com.

Cheese Enthusiast is lucky that she tried again, this time with Murray’s Cheese, downtown in New York’s Greenwich Village (see CE 2 for more on the wonders of Murrays).  There she met, and delivers to us, a host of characters and circumstances that open up into an entertaining encyclopedia of cheesemongers, cheesemakers, and cheeses from across the U.S.  Thorpe eventually became the “chef handler” for Murray’s, and is now a Vice President of the company, so her career in cheese takes us from fields to barns, and caves to kitchens.  Along the way she pays for a night of celebratory drinking with a dizzy morning making sheep cheese with David Major at Vermont Shepherd, and has the high honor of being loudly insulted by chef Alain Ducasse in front of the entire kitchen staff at his restaurant in New York. 

Thorpe successfully and wittily uses the narrative thread of her career as a way of introducing thematic topics for each of the chapters of her book.  The Vermont Shepherd hangover morning is in a chapter that tells the newbie about how cheese is made, and the strengths and limitations of sheep’s milk for the cheesemaker, and then opens into an overview of her favorite American sheep’s-milk cheese makers.  The Ducasse episode, in her chapter, “Fighting the French:  Conquering America’s Chefs,”  opens into a subsection called “Notes Inspired by New York’s Chefs,” in which Thorpe presents farm-by farm (or cheesemaker-by-cheesemaker) insights and anecdotes that not only enliven what could have been a dry rendering of notebook pages, but also make for a good read.  Each chapter is organized this way:  narrative opening, turn toward relevant general topic (e.g., the sudden upsurge of interest in goat cheese in the U.S. in the 1980’s), an overview of, in this case, the ins and outs of goat-cheese making, and a survey of the makers she knows best. 

Along the way we learn much about the general process of cheesemaking, much of which regular readers of this journal might already know, and some crucial themes emerge.  One is that it all begins with grass.  Dairy animals turn grass into milk.  Cheesemakers turn milk into cheese.  Thorpe stresses the feeding stage as crucial to the difference between artisanal cheesemaking and factory cheesemaking.  She generously allows in her chapter on factory (or commodity) cheese, that good cheese can be made mechanically in large quantities, but that too often the mass-market considerations of factories are played back into the milk-production stage, and the desire to standardize the milk leads to unpastured animal abuse and inferior milk.  She allows that pasteurization isn’t inherently destructive of good cheesemaking, but that if you are pasteurizing to sterilize your milk then there is something wrong with the milk, and your operation, to begin with.  Thorpe notes that sterile milk and clean milk are not the same things.  Sterile milk is all too often the product of animals whose living conditions and feed produce milk that would make you sick if it weren’t sterilized.  Clean milk is natural milk, made by animals living and eating as nature intended.  She argues that there is nothing inherently wrong with pasteurizing clean milk for a cheese whose nature and market destination call for it.  But in one of the many writerly flourishes that make The Cheese Chronicles such a pleasure to read, she says this about raw milk:

…I drank pastured milk.  Then I drank pastured raw milk.  You know what it’s like?  It’s like smelling mown grass and licking sweet-cream ice cream….The first time I drank pastured raw milk I had that instant–healthy feeling I get when I go to Life-Thyme market on Sixth Avenue and the Rasta guy crushes me an amazing mixed juice of whatever veggies he’s got around.  Perhaps a better way to say it is that you can taste a connection to the land.  (277)

The Cheese Chronicles also benefits from Thorpe’s 32 sidebars, conveniently included in their own Table of Contents.  Although the last ten or so are just notes about at what markets to find certain cheesemakers, the rest are thoughtful sidelights on such topics as the chemistry behind cheese flavor elements (glycol and fatty acids), the relative legitimacy of freezing cheese curds so you can make the cheese outside the natural milk season of your animals (OK for goats, doesn’t work for sheep, don’t need to for cows), and one extremely persuasive piece on The Magic of Crème Fraiche.  We read all of the sidebars before we read the rest of the book…it’s a good way to get a sense of her overall project.

And Cheese Enthusiast is sure you are wondering what ever came of Thorpe’s panicky retreat from Fairway.  Did she make an enemy of Steve Jenkins in her career at Murray’s?  Happily, no.  Jenkins provides one of two forewords to The Cheese Chronicles, in which he self-effacingly points out all that Thorpe’s book delivers about cheese that his own book did not.  The second foreword is from Rob Kaufelt, owner of Murray’s Cheese.  He credits Liz Thorpe with advancing cheesemongering into the modern age, taking what had been a living and turning it into a passion and a true profession.  That she could do all this, and also write about it so engagingly, is remarkable 

Originally appeared in Cheese Enthusiast 6

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