Food, Food Artisans

Askinosie Chocolate Founder Visits Zingerman’s

Shawn Askinosie Chocolate shares his story and his chocolate

Last week, we were very pleased to welcome our friend, chocolate maker Shawn Askinosie, to Zingerman’s. Shawn spoke first to an early morning audience at ZingTrain on the subject of vocation, then led an evening Chocolate 101 tasting for the public at Zingerman’s Events on 4th. The following day, he even stuck around to give a talk and lead a chocolate tasting for Zingerman’s staff.


Shawn Askinosie readies the projector.

In the hours before the public tasting event at Zingerman’s Events on 4th, I sat in Zingerman’s Delicatessen with Shawn Askinosie. In a soft-spoken voice, he told me about his realization that he no longer wanted to practice law. “I just couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “If I kept it up, I knew if was going to kill me.”

Hearing these words, I realized I wasn’t merely hearing a story about looking for a new job, but of a life shift of tectonic proportions. Shawn Askinosie had worked as a public defender for over 20 years in Springfield, Missouri, and by all accounts he was very good at his job. But two decades in a profession often filled with sadness and tragedy were wearing him down. As he put it, “It was time for me to do something else.” But what, he didn’t know. So he said a short prayer each day asking for guidance. “It was really simple, and went something like, ‘Dear God, please give me something else to do.’”

Meanwhile, he’d begun taking the steps needed to transition out of the business. He brought in a law partner to take the new cases coming to the firm, and started to wrap up his own declining caseload. He turned to grilling as his first new venture/hobby, and even shelled out for a Big Green Egg grill. Soon after, he moved into baking. “I made a lot of cupcakes,” he said. “I really like cupcakes.” With baking, naturally, comes chocolate, and Shawn was soon making a lot of chocolate desserts. As he got better, he noticed that some types chocolate delivered better results than others. He also realized that he really didn’t know where chocolate actually came from. So, he resolved to find out, and took his first of many trips to the Amazon basin. After that trip, he “went in full-force,” and traveled extensively to learn all he could about cocoa cultivation.

Sampling board for the tasting.

Sampling board for the tasting.

Askinosie spent the next few years building a network of cocoa farmers. From the very beginning, he dealt directly with the farmers and involved them in every aspect of the business. He calls this Direct Trade Sourcing. The farmers have to agree meet certain criteria, such as cocoa bean quality standards, cultivation and fermentation methods, etc. In turn, Shawn pays the farmers directly. No middleman. He visits each farmer once per year with financial statements, which he and the farmers scrutinize.

“The cocoa farming business is a cash business,” he says, “so they were always happy when I brought them cash. But when I showed up with the books, and started going through them line by line, it blew their minds.” Shawn is a believer in Open Book Management (something he practiced as a lawyer), a concept popularized by author and consultant Jack Stack, who also happens to be a friend and mentor to Shawn.

“I had this idea to take OBM one step further upstream and really give these guys a true share in the business.” Shawn went to Jack Stack with the idea and, “He loved it. We named the program ‘A Stake in the Outcome,’ which is named after one of the Jack’s books.”

Shawn talks chocolate with attentive guests.

Shawn talks chocolate with attentive guests.

Shawn is emphatic about not taking a “paternalistic” approach with the business. “The farmers receive their money to distribute, spend, or save as they see fit.” A great byproduct of this direct relationship with the cocoa farmers that Shawn deals with worldwide is that all of his chocolate is 100% traceable back to its origin farm. “I believe this way of doing business results in higher-quality chocolate,” he says.

Shawn makes a point about chocolate.

Shawn makes a point about chocolate.

But chocolate is not Shawn’s only vocation. There is also Chocolate University.
“Our factory is locate in a part of the community that’s being revitalized,” he says. “Theres a homeless shelter a block away, called the Missouri Hotel. There are 80 kids a night there. From the day we started, we wanted to engage the kids in the community, including the kids in this shelter.” And so they developed Chocolate University to do just that.

“The kids in the elementary school come and tour our factory and we visit their schools, and we teach them about our business. It’s a sort of back and forth relationship.” he says. The middle school program is similar, but some of the kids get involved in our community work and learn a bit more about chocolate making and the business. But it’s the high school program that takes quite a bit of time because Shawn takes those students to Tanzania.

Shawn at the Zingerman's staff tasting.

Shawn at the Zingerman’s staff tasting.

“It’s an every other year thing.” says Shawn of the program. “Juniors and Seniors in any Springfield high school – public, private, homeschool – are eligible to apply. They write essays and go through an interview process. And I partner with a local university near the factory to help me evaluate the applicants. We narrow it down to 13 kids out of about 70 applicants.” The students who make the cut then take part in summer intensive program, ‘Bean to Bar Chocolate,’ at the local college. “They spend a week on campus, and get to know each other. They learn about our business model, about profit sharing, about Open Book, the history of Tanzania, its language, culture, and sociology. And they learn about chocolate making, and evaluating cocoa beans. At the end of this week, they go for a day and pack. And then we take them to Tanzania.”


“Flavor begins with knowing the farmers.”

Shawn, the students, a teacher, and a college professor all travel to Tanzania where they get a first-hand look at how cocoa beans are cultivated and fermented, then prepared for shipment back to the U.S. They live with the farmers in a local village, and everyone pitches in.

“Over half the kids are funded by us, and the rest is made up by donors. It really ends up being a life-changing experience for these kids. When you help drill a water well for people who don’t have clean water, and you then drink from that well…you don’t forget that.” He then tells a story of overhearing a student texting his mother back in the U.S. that “this is the best day of my life!”

Shawn speaks with a ZIngerman's staffer.

Shawn speaks with a Zingerman’s staffer.

...and another.

…and another.

Shawn is smiling as he’s telling this story, and there’s a bit of a hitch in his voice. This is the real work. The vocation, as Shawn calls it.

“As I was telling the folks at ZingTrain this morning, meaningful work is not necessarily derived from the status of the work, or the kind of work. It’s derived the thought and attitude we give it. So we derive the dignity of the work from what we put into it, not what it gives us.” He pauses.

“If you have meaningful work, its a calling. Truly a vocation.”

Later, as I think about Shawn’s words, I take a small bite of his Tanzania Dark Chocolate and let it slowly melt on my tongue. I swear it tastes even better than I remember…


Food, Food Artisans

Z-Pic of the Week

September 19, 2014

Sampling board from the Askinosie Chocolate tasting this week.

Sampling board from the Askinosie Chocolate tasting this week.

Food, Food Artisans

My Rocky Road to Challah Perfection

Maddie LaKind shares her Challah tale

September is finally here, which means Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year—is just around the corner. For as long as I can remember, Rosh has been my favorite Jewish holiday. The fall always feels like the best time to not only reflect on the year that has passed but also look forward and set goals for the future. But if I’m being honest, what excites me more than anything about this holiday is the wonderful food, which runs the gamut from brisket, to roast chicken, kugel, matzo ball soup, apples and honey, chopped liver, beautiful desserts, and my all time favorite, round raisin challah bread. Since Rosh is the holiday for equal parts reflection and eating, I thought I’d take a moment to ask some questions about challah bread, specifically about my various attempts at baking it at home. And who better to ask than the source itself?

Dear Challah,

Why must you torment me so when all I’ve ever shown you is love and adoration? Remember the early days of preschool at Beth Emet synagogue. Every Friday morning we would prepare loaves of your beautiful self to take home for our respective Shabbat dinners. Or how about middle school, when my family discovered a new bakery in town that made the best loaves of Challah we’d ever tasted. You became the star of our household for years to come. Or college when I began work at Zingerman’s Deli and would stare longingly at all of the beautiful varieties of you in the bread box—chocolate chunk, braided, square, seeded, plain. Clearly we have a connection.

So why, Challah, given all of this respect, did you present so many issues when I tried to bake you at home? I’m a patient person with a good sense of intuition in the kitchen, but you were the one project I couldn’t seem to master.

The trouble really began about two years ago, when I prepared a Shabbat dinner for my house of eight college roommates. After four laborious hours dissolving yeast, kneading dough, proofing once, twice, thrice times, braiding, it finally came time for you to bake. The only catch was our busted oven, which meant you had to be taken over to the neighbor’s kitchen. Alas, I lost track of time, arriving too late to retrieve you. Your entire top half a was a matted-black color rather than the intended shiny golden brown. So much time and so much hope shattered in the span of five minutes.

Despite the challenges of my first effort, I didn’t give up. I became determined to attempt you once again, this time during Rosh Hashanah the following September. Using the exact same recipe as before, I methodically went through each step, making sure each of your ingredients was precisely measured and each phase of your growth intensely monitored. But, you weren’t on my side this go-around either. Instead of puffing up into a large woven braid, you rose only a mere ¼ in. or so while baking, and took on the texture of a chewy pretzel rather than a light, fluffy egg bread. Two strikes and my motivation was waning.

But even that couldn’t hold me back from taking you on once again for yet another Shabbat dinner with family. Discouraged by the failed attempts of the first recipe, I tried another this time, one that places your dough form in the refrigerator over night before baking. Intrigued by the new technique, I thought this time would bring only success. Wrong. First mistake in the process: I forgot to add sugar into your dough after kneading in all of the flour. Oops. I figured it couldn’t hurt too much to just add it back into the mixture after the fact. Wrong again. Then the real fun began. For some reason when I placed you in the refrigerator, you decided to flatten out into a pancake and, during baking, didn’t rise an inch. Texturally you were off as well, taking on a bland almost plastic-like consistency hardly reminiscent of true challah at all.

Challah, the phrase fed up doesn’t even begin to cover how you made feel all these times. I was angry, hurt, disappointed, and hungry for a taste of the real deal. That irresistible, buttery, sweet, deep flavor that held so much nostalgia. I decided some time away from you could help turn things around and give me a new perspective on the situation. A year later, I gave the process another go with a brand-spanking-new recipe, and much to my surprise, you turned out absolutely perfect.

After recreating this specific recipe nearly three times over, I finally feel at peace with you. I just wanted to share how you made me feel, and to ask why you had to cause me such distress for so long? Maybe you were trying to teach me something. Maybe you were trying to show me that good things take time. Or maybe you were just trying to tell me that mistakes are important, especially in the kitchen. I guess I’ll never know. Whatever your reasons, I forgive you and thank you for the memories, both good and bad. I look forward to baking you and sharing you with loved ones for years to come.

Much love and bread wishes,


Challah Column Pic

Erev Rosh Hashanah is September 24. 
Let Zingerman’s do the cooking this year! Check out the Deli’s Rosh Hashanah Menu for a wonderful selection of tasty treats from Zingerman’s Bakehouse, as well as a savory assortment from Zingerman’s DeliL’Shanah tovah!

Food, Food Artisans

This Week at Zingerman’s 9/16/14

Renowned Chocolate Maker Shawn Askinosie Visits Zingerman’s for Two Events!

askinosie chocolate

We’re very happy to announce that founder and CEO of Askinosie Chocolate, Shawn Askinosie will be here tomorrow to share his story, and his chocolate! Tickets are still available, so please join us!

ZingTrain Speaker Series
On Wednesday, September 17, 8am, Shawn will take the reins at the ZingTrain Speaker Series to tell you his story, the story of how a criminal defense attorney became a chocolate maker. The story of how his business, Askinosie Chocolate, wins more awards for its chocolate than we can keep track of. The story of how his small 15-person business makes a huge positive impact on all it comes in contact with the world over. The story of how you can go about creating meaningful work, creating a business with a vocation.

Reserve your seat here

Chocolate Tasting at Zingerman’s Deli
Later that day, September 17, 630pm, Shawn will share his story at Zingerman’s Events on 4th, and lead us in a tasting of some of his amazing bean-to-bar chocolates. Join us as Shawn talks about Direct Trade, his relationship with the farmers who grow his cocoa beans, and his commitment to sharing profits with the people at the source. Shawn’s chocolate wins awards year after, and you’ll see why when you taste it. Don’t miss this chance to talk, and taste, great chocolate with one of the best!

Reserve your seat here

Rosh Hashanah Specials at zingerman’s bakehouse

Erev Rosh Hashanah is September 24.

Challah Turbans
Our fresh egg and clover honey challah bread in the traditional round shape, with or without rum-soaked raisins. Available September 17th thru October 4th.

More Rockin’ Challah
Traditional Moroccan challah, egg bread with clover honey in a traditional 5 strand braid topped with poppy, sesame, and anise seeds. Available September 17th thru October 4th.

A dense spice cake made with buckwheat honey, brewed tea, almonds and golden raisins. 6″ cake. Available September 17th thru October 4th.

Applesauce Cake
A moist cake made with applesauce and butter, full of chunks of fresh Michigan apples, toasted walnuts and red flame raisins. 9” cake. Available September 24th thru September 28th.

The name flodni (fluden in Yiddish) refers to a layered and filled pastry. This version with poppyseed, walnut and apple filling layers is a Hungarian specialty as well as a traditional Jewish holiday pastry. Available everyday.

Apple Rétes
Rétes (ray-tesh) is a Hungarian specialty, you might know it as strudel. We take our own fresh dough and carefully hand stretch it over an 8-foot table until it’s thin enough to see through. Then it’s folded and layered with melted butter and a sprinkle of cake crumbs, wrapped around fresh Michigan apples, baked until golden brown and dusted with powdered sugar. Available everyday.

Call to reserve your Rosh Hashanah specials. 734-761-2095.

Rosh Hashanah Menu at Zingerman’s Deli

Erev Rosh Hashanah is September 24.

Let the Deli do the cooking this year! Our Rosh Hashanah Menu includes a delicious selection of traditional favorites including Challahs, Honeycake and sweet pastries from the Bakehouse, Noodle Kugel, Chopped Liver, Potato Knishes, Matzo Balls, Jewish Chicken Broth, Free-Range Hanois Hens, Roast Beef Brisket and much more! Serve a holiday feast that your guests will never forget! Call to order 734-663-3400.
Rosh Hashanah Menu items available for pick-up or delivery starting Wed., Sept. 24th at noon.

New Buyers Guide and Holiday Staff Positions at Zingerman’s Mail Order

The big news around Zingerman’s Mail Order is that our Fall Buyers Guide should be in homes any day now. The Guide has lots of new products and a bunch of in-depth articles about the fabulous foods! Check it out!

The other big news is that Zingerman’s Mail Order is hiring holiday staff! We’ve posted several positions on our Jobs site and we’re taking applications now! Apply today!

Intro to Cornman Farms Tour

Enjoy a fascinating introduction to Cornman Farms’ rich history, agricultural projects and humane raising of animals. We’ll even throw in a taste of one of our seasonal vegetables! Friday, September 19, 6 pm.

Reserve your seat here

Brewing Methods at Zingerman’s Coffee Company

Learn the keys to successful coffee brewing using a wide variety of brewing methods from filter drip to the syphon pot. On Sunday, September 21, 1pm, we will take a single coffee and brew it 6 to 8 different ways, each producing a unique taste. We’ll learn the proper proportions and technique for each and discuss the merits and differences of each style.

Reserve your seat here

You Pick Sunday Supper at Cornman Farms

We’ll start the event with a hayride out to the fields where we’ll meet Farm Manager Mark Baerwolf to learn the history of Cornman Farms and harvest the food for the evening. Then we’ll head back to the barn for a cocktail hour while Chef prepares an unforgettable meal that highlights the fantastic flavors of the summer. Join us on Sunday, September 21, 4pm, on the eve of the autumnal equinox! I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye to summer than to share the fruits of the field with family and friends.

Reserve your seat here

See you soon!

Food, Food Artisans

Riding the Route de Comté

Celebrating France’s Wonderful comté cheese

When you travel in the Franche-Comté region in eastern France, you’ll see dozens of green and white road signs for the “Route de Comté,” pointing you toward the village cheese makers where you can buy well-made local cheese. They pop up on the road every couple of miles – there’s a Comté maker in most every village in the region, and the Comtois people take great pride in their cheese.

Though it’s got about as much name recognition around here as Dry Jack does in Outer Mongolia, Comté is a great, grand cheese. Above and beyond all the other stuff I’m about to tell you below, there are a trio of really big reasons why you should know about this cheese and why it’s so deserving of a chapter in this book.

  1. There’s more traditional Comté being made than any other French cheese. That’s right. More on this in a minute. But to get the point out front, while Brie, Camembert, Roquefort and various versions of traditional French goat cheeses usually get the big press, there is actually more Comté made using traditional methods than there is of any other cheese in France.
  2. Comte is the cheese by which French cheese mongers judge another cheese shop. Why? Because there’s so much fairly traditional Comté still being made there’s a lot more room to move in the way one buys it. So when a French cheese pro wants to judge the true quality of a shop, she starts by buying some Comté.
  3. All else aside, at it’s best it’s simply a great tasting cheese, one that anyone who likes good food should get the chance to savor at its best a few times before they die. Eating some Comté right now. It’s buttery, smooth, soft but masculine at the same time. This is not timid cheese. It’s just not one that has to hit you over the head. At the more forceful end of its spectrum—which is where I like it, it’s got a great balance of bigness and bashfulness. It’s been ten minutes since I ate it and the flavors are staying right with me, as much in balance now as they were when I first started eating it. Buttery, nutty, nice nose, croissant?

Not Just the French Version of Gruyere

Comté (which the French pronounce “Con-tay”) has been made in the Jura mountains for centuries, long before there was a country called France; without question, it is the cheese of the Franche-Comté, the district of France which butts up against the Swiss border.

In France, the cheese’s formal name is “Gruyere de Comté.” Over there, they use the term Gruyere as a generic for any mountain cheese. But in North America the use of the word Gruyere has resulted in its often being dismissed as “a French copy of the Swiss.” This is wholly inaccurate. While they have similarities, Comté has a flavor all its own—smoother on the tongue, less salty, rounder in flavor, with less of a “nose” and not as much of the fruitiness that is so characteristic of its Swiss cousin.

Comté has more than enough history and heritage to stand on its own. In fact, it was the first of France’s cheeses to be recognized and rewarded with an “AOC”—an “appellation d’origine controllee”—to guarantee its makers and eaters’ authenticity. No small achievement in a country that takes its food and itself as seriously as France.

Made into large, flat 75-pound wheels, Comté has a rough dimpled brownish rind, and a smooth, firm white to yellow interior. The best Comté has a wonderful nutty, buttery flavor. Unlike our usual image of large holed Swiss-type cheeses, Comté has only an occasional pea sized “eye” (what we call holes). In fact many of the best tasting Comtés have almost no holes at all, but rather long fissures or cracks (known as “lenure”) that run through the paste of the cheese. In its home region, Comté seems to find its way onto the table in just about every way you can think of; on sandwiches, in fondue, melted into omelets, in sauces, on salads, after dinner. Or, of course, eaten just as it is.

Who Cares About Comté?

My first hint that there was more to Comté cheese than I might have thought, came in over two decades ago, when I visited the Franche-Comté for the first time back in 1984. I have vivid memories of walking the market in the mountain town of Besancon, blue skies overhead, the rustling of the river Doubs in the background. Almost everywhere I looked, long lean two-foot high triangular wedges of well-aged Comté cheese stood, reaching skyward, like pointed, symmetrical mountains. Tasting Comté from those cheese counters made me realize that (as usual) what was being shipped over to us in America was the youngest, blandest version available of what was really a cheese of great character – no wonder no one in the U.S. was taking notice. But the Comté I bit into in Besancon was beautiful, buttery, well-aged and richly flavored.

That first visit piqued my interest. But it was my second visit to the Franche-Comté, a decade later, that made me a devoted follower of this fantastic French cheese. And my third, just a few years ago, reaffirmed everything I learned and believed after the first two trips. This is a great cheese.

7 Generations of Cheese

The highlight of that second trip was a day with Jean-Charles Arnaud, affineur (cheese ager) and a man on a mission. He is one of half a dozen affineurs who mature top-notch Comté cheese. On my recent visit I spent the day with the folks at the Fort St. Antoine, the maturing company of Marcel Petit. Most everything I learned from Jean-Charles years earlier, the men and women at Petit echoed on this most recent trip. They have a bit of a different approach to maturing the cheese (more on that in a minute) but the passion for tradition is equally solid.

Jean-Charles is so connected to the Franche-Comté you could film a French version of Roots with him as the lead. He’s the seventh generation of his family to work with cheese. One of his grandfathers was a cheesemaker, the other a winemaker. At the time I visited in the mid-90s, Jean-Charles was in his early thirties, but despite his youth he was already running the family firm, guiding the buying, aging, and selling of nearly 20 percent of the entire production of Comté cheese.

Tall, thin, and energetic, he is a font of knowledge about the cheese he cares for so much. He comes on pretty casually, gentle, happy, a man who likes his life and likes what he’s doing. For a while he had me fooled—worried I guess if I’m honest about it—into thinking that I was in for a rather superficial day of the usual legends and lore of Comté. But beneath the soft surface, Jean-Charles is a man of deep devotion, with a core of emotional connection to the land and the cheese on which he was raised. Just as I was starting to wonder if I was in for a day of Comté cliches, he caught me with a sudden seriousness, a sense of gravity that literally made my eyes tear up (remember to imagine the French accent):

“Really my goal in my lifetime is to help preserve the integrity and quality of Comté cheese. Sometimes we add some equipment here and there, to help make it a little easier for the people, to make sure they stay in business. But the important things—the freshness of the milk, the raw milk, the Montbelliard cows, copper kettles, no silage, real rennet—these things we must preserve.”

The man meant what he was saying. To preserve the tradition for another generation, to pass the torch of craft and Comté to the eight generation of Arnaud’s is akin to an American fighting to save a piece of Redwood forest. Traditions take centuries to build up, but they can unravel at an alarming speed. Jean-Charles has undertaken a trust of great magnitude.

Unlike so many heirs to family businesses who have little enthusiasm for their work, Jean-Charles is a man with great passion and love for everything about Comté cheese; the mountains, the people who make it, the land it comes from. He seems to know all his producers intimately. When we ran into one of the local farmers delivering milk, he knew him, too. Wherever we went, he knew the cheesemakers, greeted them with enthusiasm. He knew their children. He knew their cheese.

comte 2

Arriving in Comté Country

In school we used to sing “purple mountains majesty” and I used to wonder what it meant. In the Franche-Comté the mountains in May were majestic in yellow. When we arrived, they were covered with millions of yellow, yellow dandelions, looking like the poppy fields Dorothy landed in on her way from Kansas to Oz. The locals say that the Comté cheese from the first eight days of May is very, vibrantly yellow, the inevitable and very natural result of cows munching mouthfuls of the yellow flowers.

Being a city boy, I love to hear about life in the mountains. Jean-Charles obliged me:

“I remember when I was about ten years old and I was visiting with my grandfather in his village and there was so much snow that we were completely cut off from communications for eight days. No telephone. Nothing. But every day the farmers brought the milk—with sleds, with dogs, with horses—and everyday my grandfather made cheese.”

The mountains mystify me. As a kid I was terrified of getting lost, separated from my mother when we went to big public places like the beach, or downtown department stores. But it’s almost impossible for me to imagine being completely cut off, left behind by the rest of the world in a village with 22 homes for eight snow-drifted days, no outside world, no newspapers, no mail, no TV, no nothing. Just the family, the Comté cheese, bread, dried country ham, wine, and some potatoes to get by on.

Tied to the Region

During the cold winter months in the mountains, cheese was one of—or often the only—serious source of protein available. Cheesemaking is woven into the fabric of life in ways which are not easily abandoned. Jean-Charles explained, “The Comté cheese was made in this area because we have everything you need to make it in the Jura mountains. The cows, the milk, the wood to make the fire, the salt.”

We take salt for granted nowadays, but in days of yore, salt was hard to come by. You’d never know it from the cheap cardboard drum of Morton’s, but salt was once something people fought wars over. The Franche-Comté was once one of the most important sources of non-sea salt to be found in Europe. For more on this, see Mark Kurlansky’s excellent book, “Salt.” To this day, large storage buildings, including one of the Arnaud cellars, can still be found that only a few hundred years ago were used exclusively to house salt.

Without trying to sound like a commercial, I can tell you that the best Comté cheese today is still made much as it was when Jean-Charles’ grandfather was making cheese. Milk is still delivered twice a day, real rennet is prepared only from local calves, and the curd is cooked in copper kettles. The copper contributes to the flavor of the finished cheese. In the smaller dairies the cheesemakers still pull the finished curd from the kettles the old fashioned way. They tie two corners of a large cheesecloth like a giant lobster bib around their necks. Then, bracing their feet against the wall, they lean over the kettle like one of the Flying Wallendas preparing to leap. Reaching deep into the hot cauldron, they drag the other two corners down across the bottom of the kettle to pull out the curd. Remember these are 75-pound wheels of cheese.

The Milk

As we were driving into the village of Arbois for what was to be an incredible lunch at the Taverne La Finette, Jean-Charles mentioned that, “this is the home of Pasteur.” He waited a minute or two, chuckled a little Comtois chuckle, and added, “But we don’t pasteurize the milk here.” There are no coincidences. Instead of pasteurizing, the Comtois have gone to great lengths to make pasteurization irrelevant, by setting up standards for milk production that make a mockery of what we tolerate in our bacteria phobic, hi-tech society. There’s an arm long list of rules and regulations set up to insure that the milk that goes into Comté is exceptional.

It starts, of course, with the cows. By law, they must be the traditional local breed of Montbelliards. A beautiful russet and white, they have been the main milk producers in the Franche-Comté for centuries. In the Comté cows are treated with the care and concern that we normally associate with the Hindu. Cars stop as the bovines parade across country roads, strutting like the local gentry that they are, cowbells ringing off leather collars. Strict codes dictate what the cows are allowed to eat (no silage), and where they can eat it.

Every facet of the milk handling is monitored. No pumping of the milk is allowed, in order to protect the delicate fat globules so crucial to good cheesemaking. The milk must be fresh (from the morning the cheese is made and the previous evening) and unpasteurized. Bacteria counts must be very, very low.

It’s interesting that in the U.S. cheese made from unpasteurized milk has been wrongly accused of being a health hazard. Jean-Charles thew up his hands in frustration at the mere mention of it. “In America the laws require a bacteria count of less than 1,000,000. One million! This is ridiculous. But because they pasteurize the milk no one knows or cares that it is of such poor quality. To make Comté cheese we must have milk with a bacteria count no higher than 2,000!”


If you journeyed back into the cheesemaking world of 200 years ago, you’d find that most every farm in Europe and North America would have been independently making its own cheese. Comté is—and always has been—an exception. Since the middle of the 13th century Comté has been made, not on farms, but in fruitieres; small village dairies which are found throughout the region. What brought about such a unique system? The cold mountain climate and difficult terrain led the Franco-Comtois people to make large well, aged cheeses which could be stored for eating in the long winter months. The emphasis is on “large.” A wheel of Comté cheese takes about 600 liters of milk, much more than the average small-holder’s herds could come up with in a day’s “work.” The result was a natural movement towards cooperative cheesemaking.

The fruitiere system has a simple elegance to it. Each village would have a fruitiere, and each fruitiere has a cheesemaker. Each morning and each afternoon farmers from the surrounding countryside would bring fresh milk to the fruitiere. Each morning the cheesemaker mixes morning and evening milk, adds the rennet and starts the process of making Comté cheese. The fruitiere keeps the new cheeses for only a few days. The cheeses are then taken to an affineur (an “ager,” like Jean-Charles) who cares for the cheeses from then until the time they are sold – anywhere from three months on up. Affinage is a profession that has only recently been revived in the U.S., but in France it is an accepted and essential part of the cheese world.

The fruitiere today remains a critical part of maintaining the viability of village life in the Franche-Comté. To this day it dominates the agricultural life of the region. Letitia, who works at Marcel Petit, told me that she grew up nearby on a dairy farm. I asked if her parents had sold the milk to a fruitiere for Comte making. “Here if you produce milk, you sell it for Comté,” she answered matter of factly. “That’s just what you do.” In total there are about 3200 farms contributing the milk of their Montbelliard herds (the only type of cows one can use to make Comté) to the system. The average herd is still very small, many having only 15 or so cows. The Comté codes require at least one hectare of land per animal in order to allow sustainable grazing without overburdening the pastures. Since a single wheel of the cheese takes about 530 liters—the yield of about 30 cows—the system is set up to support the small farms while still making traditional large wheels of cheese a daily reality.

Jean-Charles is dedicated to preserving as many of the fruitieres and the farms as possible, a commitment that comes from a common care for the quality of his cheese and for the quality of traditional life in the Franc-Comtois countryside. As we drove he spoke with passion: “In the village now there is only the fruitiere. There is no more school, no more church, only the cheese making. If we lose the fruitiere, we will lose the village.”

An Ancient Tradition with a Modern Business Bent

As old as it is, there is a compelling, cooperative genius in the fruitiere system, one which we in our “progressive” wisdom are working hard to reinvent in the modern American business world. The Comtois system is set up so that all three of its components (“stakeholders” we might call them in business school these days) have their success interlinked. The affineur depends on the cheesemaker to deliver a well-made young cheese. The cheesemaker relies on the farmer to bring in the best quality milk. While each is free to pursue his (and it is a predominantly male world from what I saw) particular passion and style, none of the three can be successful without comparable efforts from the other two links in the chain.

To seal the shared “stake” in the deal, the final price that the milk producer and cheesemaker are paid is linked to the price the affineur gets for the cheese when it is sold. The better the quality of the cheese, the better the price, the more everyone makes. Voila. What goes around comes around. A medieval system where stakeholders are working cooperatively to create quality, where the reward system reinforces the drive for quality, where all hold a shared vision of what success and quality is. Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?

A Living Tradition

Part of what made such an impression on me is how much the Comté producers have done to make their tradition a living, and thriving modern enterprise. There are nearly 200 fruitieres left in the Franche-Comté. This is truly a phenomenal number of small dairies still operating. By comparison, there are only about 500 dairies left in the whole rest of France! To give you a frame of reference, in Somerset, home of English cheddar there are fewer than a half dozen dairies left making traditional raw milk cheese! What accounts for this? Since the Swiss have accomplished a similar feat, it seems to me it must be something about the mountain cultures (Rootedness? Separateness? Distance created by mountain barriers?) that has kept more of the cheesemaking traditions intact than in any other area. Whatever it is we ought to learn from it. They have done so much to preserve the integrity of their tradition, yet they’ve done so in a way that’s not stubbornly opposed to modernity, or to making an effort to learn, to grow and to improve.

There are two ways you can learn to become a cheesemaker in a Comté fruitiere, and both require a good bit of time in the school. The “short route” is that you can go to work for your father who, in this case would have to be a cheesemaker, for two years of apprenticing. Then you go to the dairy school in Poligny, the capital of Comté country, for two years (along with upwardly mobile cheesemakers from all over the world), then out to do an apprenticeship in another fruitiere for a year. Finally you go back to Poligny for final year of formal schooling. In total it’s six years training! And if your father isn’t a Comté cheesemaker? Then you need to go to the school for an even longer run of study and apprenticeship.

comte 1

Proper Aging in the Caves

Comté aging caves (or “cellars”) are quite a sight. Thousands upon thousands of wheels of Comté carefully laid flat, like thin milky millstones, on unfinished wooden shelves. The shelves, which by law must be made from local pine, reach up a good twenty five feet high, and stretch fifty yards or so across the rooms. There are a dozen different enormous aging rooms, each with its own unique combination of temperature and humidity. The affineur moves the cheeses through the rooms at various stages of aging, to bring out the best in each wheel of cheese.

To reach the apex, the mountain peak of majestic flavor, that makes it worth paying the higher prices charged the cheese, Comté has to be aged for, to my taste, at least ten or twelve months. Only then is it really ready to be savored. Best of all really are wheels that have been in the caves for over eighteen months.

To properly age a wheel of good Comté cheese takes more than just patience. After the young wheels arrive at the Arnaud cellars, each wheel is turned 3 times a week for 3 weeks, then twice a week for the rest of its stay on the aging shelves. By my rough calculations, that would mean that before it gets to us at 12 months age, each wheel is rubbed, washed and turned about 107 times! On top of that each and every wheel is tapped with a hammer, plugged and tasted two or three times during the aging to check it for quality, and class it accordingly. Compare that to the average American factory cheese whose only turning comes as cardboard cases of it are loaded and unloaded from sixty foot semi-trailers, cheeses that are tasted for the first and last time by the unsuspecting consumer that bought them.

A Trained Comté Palate

Although the cheese of many dairies is aged in the same cave, each retains its original character. “Every fruitiere makes cheese with its own flavor,” Jean-Charles told me. “And each wheel is slightly different. If you give me Comté cheese to taste (at random) from the caves, 95 percent of the time I can tell you from which fruitiere it comes, and when it was made. But,” he hastened to add before I might conclude he was bragging, “so can this man over here (the taster working his way down the rows). I must. It’s my job.” That may not seem all that impressive until I tell you that the Arnaud caves are filled with about 70,000 wheels of Comté cheese made by 60 different fruitieres.

In search of the “perfect” Comté, I tasted, and tasted, and tasted some more. Well over 25 different cheeses by the time we were done. I treasure the opportunity to taste like this, because it’s the only way to truly appreciate how significant the differences are between one wheel of Comté and another. Finally we settled on the cheeses from a particular dairy one of Jean-Charles favorites. Since the cheese varies from day to day, and year to year with the vagaries of weather, dairy farming, and cheesemaker job continuity, it really doesn’t much matter which dairy it was. What does matter is that it was one of the fruitieres which makes cheese only in the summer months, when the cows are high in the mountain pastures eating the wild flowers, herbs, and greens. This is the kind of cheese that makes good Comté a favorite of connoisseurs.

Marcel Petite: Long Aging, Cooler Temperatures

I first learned about the Comté of Marcel Petit from Jason Hinds, who’s long been a key component of the crew at Neals’ Yard Dairy in London, where traditional cheese is as much of a religion as anything else. I can’t remember how Jason first hooked up with them, but generous spirit that he is, he’s been selling their cheese, and telling everyone else he knows in the cheese world, about it for a number of years now.

Visiting the Fort St. Antoine to see the folks who make Marcel Petite’s cheese a reality today, it’s easy to see the same passions, and the same expert palates that impressed me a decade earlier in meeting Jean-Charles Arnaud. While I’m sure there’s a level of competitive spirit in the region amongst the various affineurs, the great thing for the rest of us is that the competition seems to be taking place on a very, very high level of quality.

Petit started his business up in 1966 and from everything I saw on my visit, he did a great job of founding an exceptional company that stands behind his values and commitment to quality. His biggest conceptual contribution to the world of Comté though was to create what he called “affinage longue.” What M. Petite did was to lower the temperature at which Comté was being aged from the then typical 15°C to a much cooler 7-8°C. The reduced temperature allowed the cheeses more time to develop at a gentler pace, maximizing flavor while holding on to moisture and butter fat that might otherwise be more quickly lost. He also had the foresight to buy the Fort St. Antoine, a huge stone structure buit in the 1870s that had been abandoned since WWII. Of course the thick stone walls and high vaulted ceilings of the Fort made it ideal for maturing large wheels of cheese and today it’s filled with roughly 65,000 75-pound rounds, stacked neatly on spruce shelves all the way up to the 30-foot high ceilings. The company buys from about 35 different fruitieres, of which 13 are considered good enough to have their cheeses aged in the Fort.

Of course, stone walls alone aren’t enough to mature the cheese properly. Affinage remains very much a craft, and the quality of the affinage is very much dependent on the skill of the man or woman doing the work. In this case, that would be Claude Querry. Quite a guy. Small and thin but with an enormous energy coming out of him. About 5’ 7”, maybe in his mid thirties, with a thin Van Dyke beard, long sideburns and bold, almond-shaped brown eyes. I’d been warned before meeting him that his style is often to grill visitors to see if they’re really serious about Comté before he’ll share his secrets with them. For whatever reason—I was with Jason, our time was tight—I was spared any interrogation. We got right into cheese. Although there are 65,000 wheels of cheese under Claude’s command, amazingly he seems to know most everyone. His work is first to maximize the flavor of each cheese, and then, of equal import to match the tastes of Petite’s customers with the cheeses.

To that end, we tasted twenty different cheeses within an hour. Walking down row after row of cheese, he would stop for reasons known only to him to taste and take notes. Our purpose was two fold really—Jason was choosing cheese for his Burrough Market stall in London, and, at the same time, Claude was trying to get a handle on what I was looking for. We met both goals, and at the same time I got a very good sense of why Claude is so damned good at what he does.

As we walked he’d slow down to rub any number of cheeses, first with his hands, then often tapping with the handle of his cheese tryer. “This is still really a mystery,” he reminded us early on. “We don’t know a fraction of what we want to know.” And, I can safely say, the rest of don’t know a fraction of what Claude knows. Many of the wheels we walked by had a series of scratches in them. Why? I asked. We mark each cheese after we taste. And we don’t want to pull from the same cheese too many times.

He’s also something of artist. Every once in a while he stops to scratch a drawing into the rind of a wheel of cheese, sort of cave art of a more modern sort than what Claude’s Gallic ancestors might have been doing a few million years ago. The first was a four axis sketch of the flavors we taste—bitter, salty, sour and sweet at each end of each of the two axes. “I am an architect of flavor,” he explains, using the diagram to show how he must manage the various natural flavors in the cheese to develop them properly.

Perhaps more than anything else, I was blown away by Claude’s palate and his ability to put amazingly precise and often unusual flavor descriptors onto what we were tasting. While the words may seem off the wall, the truth is that the flavors were there in the cheese. I kept looking up at him with amazement but sure enough he was right on in what he was saying. “Buttery, nutty .. . these are typical descriptors. Accurate but not surprising. Claude started in with stuff like “citrus,” “cacao,” “cooked cream,” “grapefruit,” “smoked ham,” “dried fruit,” “hazelnuts,” “peanuts.” Damn the guy is good. But then he really blew me away when he said—totally accurately—that one particularly good cheese had the aroma of “croissants, of fresh patisserie.”

As we move forward tasting young cheeses someone asks if a particular 10-month old cheese is going to mature out to be really great at two years. He shakes his head. I can’t tell if it’s with humor, cynicism, or . .. . Regardless, he scratches another of his diagrams in the rind of the cheese in question. This one shows how some cheeses peak out at 10 or 12 months, while a minority of other wheels go on to mature more meaningfully. Then he adds with a touch of a cynical smile, “If you can predict scientifically where the cheese will be in three years from where it is now, then shut the Fort and I retire.”

The great thing about tasting like this is that there is a good cheese for most every palate and that most every palate likes a different style of cheese. Jason I know likes his Comte softer, gentler, sweeter. These are the kinds of cheeses I think you could eat every day and that’s exactly what he’s doing with the cheese so successfully in London—selling it at the market at a rate and in away that’s fast making it every eating for food lovers in the area. Me, on the other hand, I like my Comté with more guts, more earthiness. We tasted together until we found something I liked. Loved is probably better. My notes, a conglomeration of my own comments and Claude’s, say it was “Big, long, round, a bit of leathery blue Stilton, nuts, walnuts. Butter, hint of butterscotch, but it’s not sweet. This is what I like!” Claude nodded, smiled a small smile, put his fist up to tap his chest and said, “This is a cheese for a montagnard..” I’m not sure, but I think that’s something I like. I know I like the cheese. I know I like good Comte. I hope you do, too.


Food, Food Artisans

This Week at Zingerman’s 9/9/14

Intro to Cornman Farms Tour

Enjoy a fascinating introduction to Cornman Farms’ rich history, agricultural projects and humane raising of animals. We’ll even throw in a taste of one of our seasonal vegetables! Wednesday, September 10, 6 pm.

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Beans: A Chocolate and Coffee Pairing at Zingerman’s Coffee Company

Two great hings made even better when paired together! Here is your opportunity to join Zingerman’s expert enthusiasts and taste a variety of chocolates and coffees side-by-side. On Saturday, September 13, we’ll explore several different pairings to find the most complimentary combinations. Zingerman’s Coffee Company Retail Manager, Anya Pomykala and the Chocolate Lady from Zingerman’s Deli, Emily Case, will be your guides for this dark, delicious excursion. How can you say no?

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Cake of the Month at Zingerman’s Bakehouse and Zingerman’s Deli

24 Carrot Cake
We peel and grate forty pounds of carrots to make one batch of this cake. All those carrots add an incredible moistness and a fresh sweetness to the cake. Combine them with toasted walnuts and aromatic spices and you get a great cake that’s totally delicious on its own. Cover it with a generous amount of cream cheese frosting and it becomes irresistible. All carrot cakes, whole and slices, are 20% off this month!

Pop-up Mustard Store at Zingerman’s Mail Order

It’s Mustardpalooza! Now through September 30Zingerman’s Mail Order is hosting a special mustard pop-up shop on our website! We’ve added a dozen new mustards to our collection for summer sandwich slathering, salad vinaigrettes, hot dogs, hamburgers — you name it. This is a one-time only event! When the new mustards sell out, they’re gone. Check it out today!

Next week and Beyond:

Comparative Cupping Class at Zingerman’s Coffee Company

Join us Sunday, September 14, 1pm as we sample coffees from the Africa, Central and South Americas, and the Asian Pacific. We will taste and evaluate these coffees using the techniques and tools used by professional tasters. This is an eye-opening tour of the world of coffee!

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Renowned Chocolatier Shawn Askinosie Visits Zingerman’s for Two Events!

We’re very happy to announce that founder and CEO of Askinosie Chocolate, Shawn Askinosie has rescheduled, and will visit two Zingerman’s businesses in mid-September to share his story, and his chocolate!

ZingTrain Speaker Series
On Wednesday, September 17, 8am, Shawn will take the reins at the ZingTrain Speaker Series to tell you his story, the story of how a criminal defense attorney became a chocolate maker. The story of how his business, Askinosie Chocolate, wins more awards for its chocolate than we can keep track of. The story of how his small 15-person business makes a huge positive impact on all it comes in contact with the world over. The story of how you can go about creating meaningful work, creating a business with a vocation.

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Chocolate Tasting at Zingerman’s Deli
Later that day, September 17, 630pm, Shawn will share his story at Zingerman’s Events on 4th, and lead us in a tasting of some of his amazing bean-to-bar chocolates. Join us as Shawn talks about Direct Trade, his relationship with the farmers who grow his cocoa beans, and his commitment to sharing profits with the people at the source. Shawn’s chocolate wins awards year after, and you’ll see why when you taste it. Don’t miss this chance to talk, and taste, great chocolate with one of the best!

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Intro to Cornman Farms Tour

Enjoy a fascinating introduction to Cornman Farms’ rich history, agricultural projects and humane raising of animals. We’ll even throw in a taste of one of our seasonal vegetables! Friday, September 19, 6 pm.

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Michigan Cheese Tasting at Zingerman’s Creamery

Zingerman’s Creamery is very pleased to welcome special guest cheesemakers Ben Tirrell of Tirrell Farmstead Specialties in Charlotte, MI and Amy Spitznagel, founder of Idyll Farms in Northport, MI. We will highlight and taste some of the very best cheeses that the Mitten State has to offer. Ben specializes in raw milk sheep cheese while Idyll Farms focuses on French-style goat cheese. Stop in on Friday, September 19, 6pm to hear what these cheesemakers have to say about the great state of Michigan cheese.

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Brewing Methods at Zingerman’s Coffee Company

Learn the keys to successful coffee brewing using a wide variety of brewing methods from filter drip to the syphon pot. On Sunday, September 21, 1pm, we will take a single coffee and brew it 6 to 8 different ways, each producing a unique taste. We’ll learn the proper proportions and technique for each and discuss the merits and differences of each style.

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You Pick Sunday Supper at Cornman Farms

We’ll start the event with a hayride out to the fields where we’ll meet Farm Manager Mark Baerwolf to learn the history of Cornman Farms and harvest the food for the evening. Then we’ll head back to the barn for a cocktail hour while Chef prepares an unforgettable meal that highlights the fantastic flavors of the summer. Join us on Sunday, September 21, 4pm, on the eve of the autumnal equinox! I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye to summer than to share the fruits of the field with family and friends.

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See you soon!