Food, Food Artisans

Mo Talks About the Country’s Oldest Food Producers

Who are our oldest food makers?

I’ve been working on a spread for next spring’s catalog about the oldest companies we work with. Some have been around for decades, some for centuries. We even have one that’s a millennium old this year. It’s been an interesting experience to think about them more deeply, bringing up lots of questions. Like, why are they still around? More importantly, how are they still around and making great food? How much did they have to change along the way? Who decided what to change and what not to change? How did they transition when their founder left the business? I ran across this article about why there are so many old companies in Japan that explains how traditional firms like Nintendo manage succession (these days it’s often done by the owner adopting an adult into the family to run the business—a surprise to me).

Some of our venerable food makers and the year they got in business:

1014 Castello di Cacchiano olive oil in Tuscany
1731 Amarelli licorice in Cosenza
1880 Usinger liverwurst in Milwaukee Wisconsin
1898 Rizzoli anchovies in Parma Italy
1900 Cope’s corn in Rheems Pennsylvania
1900 Roi olive oil and sauces in Badalucco Italy
1903 Raye’s mustard in Eastport Maine
1909 Broadbent cured meats in Kuttawa Kentucky
1925 Koeze peanut butter in Grand Rapids Michigan
1926 Martelli pasta in Lari Italy
1926 Edwards cured meats in Surry Virginia
1947 Benton’s cured meats in Madisonville, Tennessee

Sam Edwards' ham house in Virginia peanut country.

Sam Edwards’ ham house in Virginia peanut country.

– Mo

Food, Food Artisans

Following Comté from Fromagerie No. 25 to Fort St. Antoine

Fromagerie No. 25
Frutière a Comté des Hospitaux Vieux
Place de la Marie

Sebastian Muller

Sebastian Muller

The truck leaves at 3 am to collect milk from ten producers across three villages. Each farmer has about forty Montbeliard cows. This pickup run is called Ramassage. The old method, called La Coulée, where producers delivered their own milk, is practiced by at just a few frutières of the thirty-four in the area. By AOC rules, the milk must be processed within twenty-four hours. May is the big milk month.

Fromagerie No. 25, built in 1920, is run by one man, Sebastian Muller. He makes twelve wheels a day seven days a week, using 1.6 million liters of milk per year. It’s about average for a cheese maker that delivers to Marcel Petite, but small in the scheme of things. A big Comté fruitiere makes 5 times as much. The work for the cheese maker, like that for cheese makers everywhere, is endless. Sebastian can arrange for a few days off only if he reroutes his milk to another fromagerie, or gets another cheese maker to substitute for him. He extended his wet arm for us to shake. He works very fast, with few words to us. He’s probably not used to company.

The milk truck is hooked up outside in the small parking lot on the hill overlooking the valley. It has a long hose and the milk is pumped in. Inside, where things are wet and smell sweetly ammoniated, the milk isheated by a radiator and delivered to one of two big copper vats. Rennet is added, curds form, and Sebastian cuts them with a rectangular wire mesh, kind of like a big hard boiled egg slicer. This releases water. The temperature raises to 55 C, drying and cooking the curd. When the curd passes the test—the cheesemaker puts his hand in and no curd sticks to it—it’s ready to pump overhead into the cheese molds.

Comté Cheese Press

Comté Cheese Press

Until now the curds have been treated gently. The next process is brutal. A big vacuum hose lifts the curds ten feet in the air and shoots them fifteen feet across the arched ceiling, unceremoniously plopping them in one of four mold machines. Pressed for eight hours, held in their mold until the next morning, they’re ulimately brought to “The nursery” where they practice being cheese for three to four weeks, washed daily with morge, a brine made of water and the scraped crust of older cheese. It’s the mother culture of the cheese maker, like a bread starter is to a baker, one of the things that gives a cheese from a single fromagerie its unique flavor.

The baby cheeses are—ironically bigger now then they’ll be when they “grow up”, since they lose water—are stored on spruce shelves, which the skin of comté enjoys as it turns to rind. The shelves are rough cut, harvested when the sap has drained from them. You can see thick, raw grains across the boards. That lets a little bit of air pass under the cheese as it rests; wheels don’t stick. Marcel Petite’s trucks visit every month to pick up young wheels.

Fort St. Antoine

Fort St. Antoine

Marcel Petite 
Fort Lucotte de Saint Antoine

“You feel like you’re coming to the center of the cheese world: of industry, quantity, quality.” – Jason Hinds, Essex St. Comté

The road leads up through the village, past some hills and a small forest. The fort is built underground, alone and invisible, marked only by a ten foot tall door built into a hill. You park and enter by walking across a moat. The smell is warm butter and pine. You’re ushered up to the lunch room first, for espresso, the cheese halls flash by on your left. A few of the staff are reading papers, eating cheese, drinking a 1998 Cotes du Jura, part of which has found its way into a plastic water bottle. Windows open onto the Mont d’Or, leaves umber and rust, but the grass is still very green. It’ll be that way until first snow in December.

Cheeses arrive from the fruitières regularly, 80% of which are in the mountains, along the Swiss border. The hills were forested ten centuries ago, now cows graze on them. First stop is the top level, La Maternelle, another nursery. Wheels are doused with sea salt to draw out more water, washed with cool water to keep the “wrong” bacteria from being active. Today there are about 25,000 wheels. They’ll stay there for 6 months when they’ll come down and join the 35,000 wheels in the lower rooms.

Fort St. Antoine's manin room, The Church of Cheese

Fort St. Antoine’s manin room, The Church of Cheese

Lights, camera—but nothing prepares you for entering the Church of Cheese. The main room of the fort, once a covered garden, holds 9,000 wheels of comté, each three feet across, seventy pounds, rising twenty feet high under a cathedral ceiling. The wheels look like rounds of wood or stone, in various stages of growth, their surfaces sometimes smooth, other times mottled, molded, warty, covered in patterns that look like lichen, rust, sandstone or bird shit. Absolute silence, once in a while broken by the whir of little electric hand carts. Or the lonely cheese washing robot that haunts the aisles. Little rooms are off to the side. They used to hold 52 soldiers each, now they store 900 wheels of comté.

I’m escorted by the affineur, called the chef de cave Claude, and his other half, Phillipe Goux, head of sales. Claude is dressed in white jacket and white hat, with nothing more than a note pad and cheese iron as tools. Mr Goux, born in Jura, eats comté two or times a day. He prefers younger cheese.

The fort has its own micro climates. There are no heaters or humidifiers, just the bricks and the earth outside them. Grass grows in some areas. Claude taps, touches, tastes. He’s trying to figure out where to send the cheese next. To the dryer room? The warmer one? Much of his life is devoted to deciding what’s best for a wheel, 60,000 decisions, one kind of cheese, endlessly repeated. Each wheel will only be with him for a year or so but more will come. He’s developed a strange coding system to keep track of each wheel’s journey. He scratches it the edge of the wheel with his iron. A little window. A cross. Codes for him alone.

We taste thirteen cheeses. The routine is always the same. Claude walks along the aisle, guided by the codes. He picks one wheel, tilts it out of its cubby, rubs its top quickly, in circles. Tap tap tap the top, insert the iron on the edge of the wheel, turn, remove. Smell. Pause. Take a piece, between thumb and forefinger, pass around. Everyone follows, on cue. Take a bit of paste, warm it, replug the whole, use the paste as a cement to seal it.

Dominic Coyte, Essex Street Comté’s selector, grades cheeses 1 to 5 for flavor, texture, longevity. Anything above 3 is fair game for him to buy. Sometimes a cheese that was asleep a month ago comes alive. FIFO doesn’t work, sometimes a November cheese is ready before an August. We don’t touch the cheese, only taste. If Dom chooses a wheel Claude marks “ESSEX” on the side with his iron.

The conversation is spare and clear. “I like it. It’s not as dry.” Maybe it seems that way because of the language barrier; we’re English speakers, they’re French. Maybe it’s because I’m with a bunch of Brits.

  • No 25. August 2005. Sweet. Full. Sour. Vegetal. Spicy at the end. Meat. Roasted, especially onions. Cream. Nut. Cocoa powder. Caramel. Wet.
  • No 4, Oct 2005 Lovely. Nutty. Full mouth.
  • No. 7. September 2005.  Dried prune. chocolate. Long flavor. Made by Christophe Parent in Narbief, Frutiere 747.

Marcel Petite, the man, started aging “just” 2,500 cheeses in 1966. He waged an uphill battle trying to change local cheese tastes from warm, fast-matured cheeses with big holes inside (like Swiss Cheese) to longer-aged cheeses with no holes, aged in cooler climates. Today Marcel Petite, the company, houses 60,000 wheels in Fort St Antoine, 80,000 wheels in another facility in Grenoble. Fort St Antoine, built in the late 1800s for the Franco Prussian wars, failed spectacularly when it deployed as part of the Maginot line in World War II. The French government sold it off, now it matures the country’s best cheeses, most from the Jura’s top fifteen mountain fruitières.

– Mo

Marcel Petite’s amazing Comté is available for order through Zingerman’s Mail Order. And Zingerman’s Deli is also featuring an extra aged version as part of their Vive la France promotion which lasts through the month of October!

Food, Food Artisans

Mo Talks Tuna

Do cheese and tuna have anything in common?

What happened when I selected tinned tuna at Ortiz.

Decades ago chefs used to select their preferred tuna batches from the factory at Ortiz, Spain’s highly esteemed fifth generation tinned fish titan. Cheesemongers do this with cheese, in fact it’s a specialty of some exporters like Neal’s Yard Dairy and Essex Street Cheese. But it’s something that hasn’t been done for decades with tinned fish. Last fall, I visited with my colleague Brad to see if we could revive the practice.

Sunny Spain highway

Irish weather in Spain

We landed in Barcelona on a sunny November Sunday, a couple weeks after the six month tuna season had ended. It was a four hour drive northwest to Getaria, a small town on the Bay of Biscay, where the weather got progressively more Irish along the way: wetter, mistier, greener. Tasting was 9am Monday, a fifteen foot table in the break room set up with twenty-six batches of tuna and sardines. We had a round of Nespresso pod coffees and went to work.

Tuna tasting

The first question on all of our minds—including the folks from Ortiz, who, being in their 30s and 40s, had never batch-tasted either—was, “Can we taste a difference?” That got answered quickly. The second tin we tasted was very different than the first. That continued throughout the morning with some batches being good, some excellent, and a couple extraordinary. There is a big difference between batches of tinned fish.

The main differences in flavor were complexity, balance between sweetness and brine, and length. The best tunas had a range of high and low notes, were never just sweet or just salty, and had great length of flavor. Color foreshadows flavor: if a tuna was rosier, it was often better tasting. Texture played a smaller part on these tins, just made this summer, but over time it has a much bigger role. The older a tinned tuna in oil, the softer and more luxurious its mouth feel.

Fishing boats in Getaria

One thing that you may be asking is, “What constitutes a batch of tinned fish?” It’s a little more complicated than with cheese, where a batch is a single day’s make, usually a mix of last night’s and that morning’s milk. A tuna batch is a single catch from a single boat, brought in at one time and sold to one buyer. That’s how fish are managed in the Biscay auction market and Ortiz stays faithful to the one boat one batch cooking, which means the tin you get from Ortiz is traceable back to a single boat on a single day’s catch (that said, a catch may last longer than a day, but it comes from a single shoal of fish). It may take several days to cook a big catch and, since the fish in it are different sizes and different ages, there’s bound to be more variability than with a single batch of cheese.

We decided on a single catch of bonito, caught that summer, but brought examples of nearly every tin we tasted back to Michigan so we can taste again and confirm what we thought. A second round of tasting is one of those steps that I’ve learned, over time, to be important when I’m making a big flavor decision. Sometimes, out on the road where everything may be a bit more exciting, I can talk myself into liking something that, second time around, doesn’t live up to the hype.

We’re going to cellar a few thousand tins, too. I tasted some two and three year old tunas at Ortiz and pretty much everything I liked about a young tuna got better when they aged. (This is only true for good tuna stored in oil—water-packed tuna gets worse with age.) The good thing about aging tuna is it’s a lot easier than aging wine. You don’t need a special cellar with specific humidity and temperature. Tuna in a tin is practically indestructible. Our aging room is going to consist of boxes stacked on a pallet stored high up on the racks in our warehouse, wrapped in plastic with a note that says “Don’t Touch till 2016!”

Our first selected tunas will arrive this May.


Mo Talks About Compensation

*From time to time, we share the writing of our friends and co-workers on this site. Today’s guest post comes from the blog of Zingerman’s Mail Order Managing Partner, Mo Frechette. You can read Mo’s blog here

Let’s Outsource Some CEOs

“American executives argue—conveniently enough—that their compensation should be compared to what other American executives are paid. This argument has tended to be persuasive to American boards, which—conveniently enough—are made up primarily of American corporate executives. And big American investment management firms—also led by American corporate executives—likewise think this makes sense. Which is all quite nice, but if you tried convincing one of these very same executives that he shouldn’t replace an American factory worker with a cheaper Chinese one, he would laugh you out of the room.”

From Matt Yglesias—who’s almost always worth reading—about how US CEOs are paid way more than CEOs in other countries. Wages have been on my mind a lot lately as I’m writing a vision for a new way of thinking about pay at Zingerman’s and simultaneously watching income inequality in America hit levels that would make a robber baron blush.


Thanks Mo!


No Waste = Great Salad!

*From time to time, we share the writing of our friends and co-workers on this site. Today’s guest post comes from the blog of Zingerman’s Mail Order Managing Partner, Mo Frechette. You can read Mo’s blog here

Chilled Salad

If you regularly buy too much at the farmer’s market and the results crowd out your fridge all week here’s one way to cut the clutter and help ensure you don’t end up throwing a lot out. Spend half an hour blanching your haul in a single pot of heavily salted water, dropping each batch of cooked vegetables into a fresh bowl of ice water. Seal ’em up and use throughout the week. Then make something like this.

My whatever-works kind of farmer’s market salad. The one pictured has blanched asparagus, peas, favas; boiled potatoes, chickpeas and egg;  ricotta, anchovies, capers and basil ripped from an indestructable plant that’s been surviving on my sill for five months. I doused it in good olive oil, salt, pepper. (Sometimes I dress it in a vinaigrette of torn basil leaves pounded with a clove of garlic, Txakoli vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil.) Serve it cool.

It also works great with green beans, tinned tuna, shreds of cured ham, chunks of salami, flakes of Comté, a squeeze of lemon, and probably a hundred other things.

Blanched Salad

Mo Frechette Talks Calendars

*From time to time, we share the writing of our friends and co-workers on this site. Today’s guest post comes from the blog of Zingerman’s Mail Order Managing Partner, Mo Frechette. You can read Mo’s blog here

Ancient calendar technology

I don’t know when seven day week calendars began — they predate the Romans — but I don’t think it’s a stretch to call them ancient. Or maybe I should say heirloom. Whatever the word, calendars work crazy well. Everyone knows how to use them, the structure is the same worldwide so you don’t need to understand a local language to read one, and they’re super fast to scan and pick out the exact info you’re looking for. When you want to tell people something specific to a day of the week there’s nothing better. So I’m always surprised how many times people choose to ignore them and force customers to wander their word maze to find the information they’re looking for. Like this restaurant:

Mail Order hours window

Here’s the same information written as a calendar:

Mail Order hours calendar

New calendar technology

Mail Order line

A follow-up to yesterday’s post about calendars. We’ve started testing a project timeline calendar that looks like a bit like a Gantt chart, which is a newfangled calendar technology (meaning it’s a hundred years old, not several thousand). It has a special jagged red line “right now” feature you’ll see below. They key thing is that, like a calendar, time starts on the left and moves to the right. Whenever you need to visually represent time progression that’s the best way to go.

Here’s an example of it (hat tip to J Atlee). It was used to plan and report on our progress as we performed a multi-day rearrangement of our warehouse floor. The red line, where we’re currently at, moved every few hours. Here it shows where we were Day 1 at 1pm (ahead of schedule on the part of the red line that angles a “V” to the right, the rest on schedule):

Mail Order 1pm

At 4pm (behind schedule on the part that angles to the left, ahead on the angle to the right, the rest on schedule—also the line is drawn at the chart’s 5pm, not 4pm, because they stopped an hour early):
Mail Order 4pm
Thanks Mo!