gordonzola: (Default)
cheese stall

Cheese eating isn't always pretty.

This is a photo of me at a cheese stall in Borough Market, London taken by the lovely and super-brainy [livejournal.com profile] sparkle_shortz while we both happened to be in the UK a few weeks ago. I'm stuffing my face with cheese. I know most of you have never seen that before.

Meeting cheese people without an introduction is always tricky. There is a balancing act that I am not entirely comfortable with; I don't think any of us cheese folks are. I want to communicate that I know something about cheese, without coming across as saying, "I know more than you". I want to let them know we can speak in professional shorthand without sounding like I'm saying, "pay attention to me, I'm special." I don't want to come off as condescending but I don't want to be talked down to either. We need a we're-all-in-this-together cheesemonger hand signal. Maybe a simulated cheese wire pull?

In the Bay Area, I can simply say where I work. We have enough of a reputation that I don't have to explain what I know. Outside the Bay though, if I haven't met folks at a cheese conference, the retailers and cheese makers who I don't deal directly with. would have no way of gauging whether I am a fellow professional.

The woman in that picture was very nice. She let me sample all sorts of things and we quickly developed a mutual respect despite my insistence on tasting the young "raw milk' cheese. It bugs me when people come into our store and limit themselves in that kind of way. We might have a pasteurized cheese that's better than what we can get unpasteurized. It generally reflects ignorance. Not evil ignorance, but a half-understood concept that raw milk = more traditional = better. For example, (since I keep mentioning Stilton in this blog) a Stilton, which is (right now) always pasteurized, will beat the heck out of almost any firm, domestic raw milk blue in a taste test. But some people don't even want to consider it. That's cheese craziness.

The cheese seller above even said to me something I say to customers all the time., "You know, just because it's raw milk doesn't mean it's better." Ooooh, hearing that burned. Even if it did make me respect and like her.

I had my reasons though. I wanted to taste the young raw milk cheese simply because we sell almost all the pasteurized versions here! U.S. law is that you cannot import and sell cheese that is aged less than 60 days and made with unpasteurized milk. Fresh cheeses and soft-ripened ones are (mostly) inedible at that point. Oh, the raw milk , illegal in the US, Coulommiers she had was so good that it made me consider dropping ours because it is such a bland crime against the name.

It smelled so strong that I had to wash my bag and my sweatshirt inside the bag as soon as I got home. (Oh and BJ, sorry for leaving the remainder in your fridge.)

If you're at Borough Market in London, and have enough English cheese from the Neal's Yard right outside, you should stop by her stall. Everything was aged to perfection. Despite the potential pitfalls, I got along well with the cheese stall seller in the picture above. The cheese world has a lot of weird competition though.

I still remember the day in San Francisco that I went into my corner store and the owner told me he was selling his store to someone opening a cheese shop. He introduced us, because he knew I was a cheese buyer. Evidently, I didn't measure up to what a cheesemonger should look like because the new owner immediately started dropping names and discussing how he, who'd never actually really worked with cheese, was going to build an aging cave and sell only perfect cheese. And yes, he pronounced it caaaaav.

"Good luck with that," I said.

He didn't respond. He wasn't listening. He didn't have good luck with that.
gordonzola: (Default)
I think this is the last vacation post.

me and BJ
My postie hostie for most of my two weeks. I wish BJ still lived in San Francisco. We used to play soccer on Sunday mornings then go back to my house to watch the Niners game. Don't we look cute? You'd think we were a couple.


three_laughing
[livejournal.com profile] arasay, [livejournal.com profile] slantedtruth, and [livejournal.com profile] beelavender three of the only reasons to visit Cambridge.

I should have taken more pictures.

Plaistow!

May. 28th, 2007 11:47 am
gordonzola: (Default)
I'm missing my vacation today. In honor of that, I am posting pictures of beautiful London while listening to Ian Dury's "Plaistow Patricia' very loud (Thanks [livejournal.com profile] luckysaddle for reminding me of that song.)

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This was the view out the window of the room I was staying in. I'm glad there were tower blocks in the distance so I knew I was in London. I love tower blocks. But then, I've never had to live in one. I do know that even if many are expensive and privately owned now, the lifts still smell like piss.

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Here's the back view. Council flats are so cute!

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This was the Greenway that I walked on every day on the way to the tube. Well, when it was daylight at least. It's basically a sewer line that the city grew grass over and paved a little strip for bikes and pedestrians. I wish I had taken a picture of the really cute orange and pink-painted tower block off to the right but I didn't really have the nerve. What was the line? Expensive holiday in other people's misery!

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I will end with an uplifting statue in Stratford. I can't remember what it actually said, but for me it says, "nothing to lose but our chains, people!"
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I arrived late to the tour because while I knew that Borough Market was very close to the tube, I hadn't realized that the Arches was, with a couple of wrong turns, a good half hour walk. I rushed in, got into my cheese room-safe disposable jumpsuit and joined the tour already in progress.

Neal's Yard gives tours regularly to the trade. Restaurant owners and workers, chefs, grocery store buyers, maybe even food writers. It quickly became apparent to me, that this tour group was not very enthusiastic. It seemed that a fair amount of folks were there because either because the tour represented easy hours, or it was work mandatory. Some people were even refusing cheese samples!

WTF? I was worried that this visit was going to be like seeing your favorite band in their home city and then discovering that the crowd was filled with record company hacks and jaded guest-listers who would show annoyance if you tried to sing along with your favorite songs.

As in any industry that calls for some expertise, until you prove yourself as someone who knows something about cheese you get talked to at a basic level. The tour guide, a very friendly and informative guy, was patiently explaining the difference between raw and pasteurized milk cheese to the group who seemed never to have heard of the concepts before. The group was very quiet. Or maybe it was just early. Or maybe they were just English, I don't know.

I asked a question about whether the milk of a certain cheese was heated but not pasteurized and I could tell he thought I was slow. My American accent didn't help. He started explaining the concept of pasteurization again and I interrupted, "No, I mean do the cheesemakers thermalize any of the milk for the unpasteurized cheese?"*

He answered the question ("No") and gave me the you're-in-the-cheese-club nod. For the rest of the tour, for better or worse, I was that annoying kid in class who asks all the questions when the other kids just wanna get through as quick as possible. I playfully called bullshit when the tour guide claimed that Appenzaller was originally a British cheese, brought to the Swiss by a traveling monk., I confirmed, at his urging, that the Hawes Wensleydale
Edgar41-R1-020-8A
is the best Wensleydale made, delicate, creamy and lemony. I responded, to his question, that I couldn't sell the mild British cheese like double Gloucester because the factory stuff tastes like commodity cheddar and the artisan ones are to bland to command $20/lb. (the Brits grumbled at this).

I felt like the teacher's cheese pet.

The highlight of this tour, since it was an aging facility, was tasting multiple ages of the same cheese. Blue Stilton, for example, is notorious for not ripening predictably by age; younger cheeses are often ready to sell before older ones. Rough-looking outside does not necessarily mean stronger inside. There's no way to tell if a Stilton is still chalky until you cut it or use a cheese iron to take a sample. Stilton is traditionally a X-mas cheese, so during December, our walk-in is filled with wheels of Stilton, sorted by our tasting, not by delivery date. Honestly, it's not an annoyance I would go through for a lesser cheese, but Stilton, especially the Neal's Yard Colston Basset Stilton is one of the cheese greats: big, pungent, fruity, creamy, and earthy.

We must have tasted 5 different ages, all a week apart and unfortunately none exactly ripe. Then our host told us about the Stilton that they were making themselves. Mostly Neal's Yard just distributes cheese. They do the aging (affinage) for some folks and make suggestions to the cheesemakers about what the customers want and what the experience of the cheesemongers is with the cheese at the counter, but they don't make the Colston Basset Stilton, the Hawes Wensleydale or the Montgomery Cheddar. They have, however, just started making a cheese using a Stilton recipe, but using raw milk.

Blue Stilton is name-controlled and only six creameries are licensed to make it. The Neal's Yard cheese cannot be called Stilton** because it is made from raw milk so they are calling it Stichelton right now, and so far as I know, it is available only in their shops in London. It is awesome. Since it's a new cheese, and Stilton is a finicky cheese to make anyway, they are still working on their recipe and aging process, but it had all the good qualities of the Colston Basset Stilton, with a more intensity and, at least with these wheels, more creaminess. It's hard to improve on one of the world's best cheeses, and you can't know the consistency of a new cheese for years, but this is certainly worthy of the name Stilton, even if legally it is unrecognized..

Which is kind of funny anyway since some Stilton makers, while claiming Stilton as "The King of Cheese", have allowed mediocre factory production, waxed rinded cheese, and that horrible white-stilton-with preservative-laden-dried-fruit to use the name "Stilton". You'd think that since England has only a handful of name-controlled cheeses, they would try not to dilute them. Not allowing one of the best varieties to carry the name because it must be made with pasteurized milk is ridiculous.

Moving on from the Stilton, we got to taste numerous ages of Montgomery Cheddar, Keen's Cheddar, and Isle of Mull. Montgomery Cheddar is to cheddar what Parmigiano Reggiano is to parmesan: It's what all the copies are either trying to be, or simply a distant relative using a familiar name. Though prohibitively expensive for lots of folks, (we sell it for about $20/lb.), it is amazing. Earthy, sharp, sweet, intense, crystalline, sometimes blue-veined: when you taste it you understand why cheddar is something to aspire to.

And aren't they beautiful?
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That was pretty much the end of the tour, how can you top Stilton and Monty Cheddar? I was allowed to go back and take some pictures and I promise you, Dear Readers, that in the future I will try to have some people in them. Our tour guide made me take my last one of the Berkswell, an amazing raw, fruity, sheep milk cheese that looks like little UFOs because of this sign:

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What can I say besides U-S-A! U-S-A!









*Thermalization is the 3rd way of milk treatment for cheese, neither raw nor pasteurized.. It is heated to kill of bacteria, but not to pasteurization temperatures, in order to retain the bigger flavor of raw milk cheese. Since it is not pasteurized, thermalized cheeses are still illegal to import at under 60 days of age.

**I am unclear whether it actually specifies this in the PDO guidelines (it did not in the copy I saw, but it could have been an overview, not the complete guidelines) or whether the Stilton Cheesemakers Association controls this. I am researching this for curiosity sake.
gordonzola: (Default)
For once I took a vacation without making it cheese-related. Well… almost. Since I was in London, I couldn't resist a tour of the Neal's Yard Dairy aging rooms.

Neal's Yard started in the '70s and from early on, took on the mission of selling, and saving, traditionally made English cheeses. As in the USA, commodity block cheddar was in ascendance and the traditional cheesemakers, some of whom had been family cheesemakers for over a century, were having a rough time. Through their (now) two retail stores, their aging facilities, and their domestic and international distribution network, Neal's Yard helped create awareness and a market so that traditional British cheesemaking could survive.

Originally, I was going to go along to visit farms with them while they selected cheese. However, the price of earlier plane tickets and the Bank Holiday weekend due to Easter prevented that from happening. I also was offered the opportunity to work at the retail store or aging rooms. I know some of you folks will not believe this but my response was, "Fuck that. This is vacation."

You can't question my cheese love, but part of the reason I took a month off work was to let my body heal from cheese-related injury. Cheesemonger's shoulder, tendonitis in my elbows, a herniated disc from 1996… I worry sometimes that my relationship with cheese is abusive. But when it looks up at me from the counter, with those weepy eyes and come-hither bloomy rinds, well, I can't resist.

But I did resist getting behind the counter while on vacation. I have some worker pride. However, taking a two-hour tour of the aging rooms sounded like my kind of tourist attraction.

Neal's Yard's aging facility is inside an old brick railway arch. Outside it looks like a Quonset hut, but inside, four different small coolers of differing temperatures and humidities, a large room filled with wooden shelves, a cutting/wrapping/shipping area, a large walk-in, an upstairs filled with offices and about $500,000 worth of cheese.

Here's a small sample:
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Yum. Cheese.

(Tomorrow: the actual tour. Less me. More cheese)
gordonzola: (Default)
I sent no postcards on my vacation, but I did send some expensive text messages. The mid-day one I sent to a few folks from a pub was the most evocative:

I am sitting in a pub with about 15 other men. No one is talking. I am the only one reading. They are all staring straight ahead holding their drinks. The Pussycat Dolls are playing "Don't you Wish Your Girlfriend was Hot Like Me". I fear for my safety.

It's no secret that I like drinking. In daily life, I have little rules for myself about drinking because, well, there are times I can like drinking a little too much. Those rules don't apply on vacation. On my first day in London I ran into an old housemate who told me he was treating his vacation like a trip to a tropical island: the main priority would be drinking in the sun. Hmmmm, I thought, England is an island….

Legal public drinking is still a novelty to me. I could have done without some of the drunks on the fairly empty trains late at night on my way back to East London, but I envy the freedom of drinking a non-hidden beer on the subway. When my host walked me to the train on the last day, in fact, pretty much her last words were, "Oi, I can't believe you didn't drink beer on the train. Fancy one for the road?". It was 8:00 and I was heading to the airport so I said no. I am pretty sure that that was my only day in England that I didn't drink.

Many days I drank twice. It's hard to resist a pub in the middle of the day, except for maybe the one I described in my text message. Unfortunately, I bought my pint there before I looked around. And I really needed to pee and kill some time. My plan to visit the exhibit of comic characters and superheroes masturbating (uh, Not Work Safe, duh) was foiled by the fact that the gallery was locked.

The only bummer about my trip, in fact, was that where I was that my host hated all the pubs around where she lived. According to her, none were proper pubs. Either they had themes going for a particular clientele (that didn't apply to us) or they were full of East End gangsters and we didn't want to go there. Thus I was glad I bought the unlimited use travelcard.

Winsey took me to a pub in a gentrified part of town where we saw some popstar (who I never heard of) wearing one of those Cosby sweaters that the hipsters think is ironic enough to overcome its ugliness. My host took me to a b-day party at a crowded pub with a great DJ then a late night bar with a lousy one. The late night bar desperately wanted to be American. It had a whole menu of all the girly drinks I love but with exchange-rate prices I couldn't afford. The birthday girl even made me dance to "Thriller" with her in order to make her boyfriend jealous. It worked. When she left the dance floor they immediately started making out.

Arasay and de_gustibus took me to get a proper pub lunch after a late night of Cambridge partying. I also visited the most famous pub in Cambridge, amusingly enough called "The Eagle". Like I mentioned previously, I grew up on war movies. Anyone else remember those scenes when the pilots are about to go off to war and they burn their names on the ceiling of a pub with their lighters? Well, this was the pub. Look I'm pointing, not asking for another beer.

gordon_emphatic

And I'm sunburnt. I told you the English weather was weird.
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One of the most striking things about travel is experiencing new and exciting toilets. I'm not exactly a world traveler, so I'm sure there are many more thrills I will experience in the years to come, but I realized the way to tell a regular London restaurant from a posh one: the regular ones have toilet brushes.

When you think about it, it's a really both an issue of personal responsibility and a communal thing. Cleaning up one's own shit is one of the most basic rules of life but, since it is a public setting, it is guaranteed that you are cleaning up not for yourself but for the next person. Only as the fancy places do they employ someone of a lower class to clean up after their patrons.

I will say that this seems to be more necessary in the UK than in the US only because of the design of the toilet bowls which seem to have a higher porcelain:water ratio. Not as drastic as the "viewing stand" design common in Berlin, but more dramatic than ones I come across back home.

Urinal-wise, the pubs seems to still mostly enjoy the comradeship of men pissing together on a weeping wall of feebly dripping water. I think there's a Bukowski poem about this unity of men. I only mistakenly pissed on the step-up area once, There were no witnesses so I think that's pretty good.

Do you know that trough urinals are against health code for San Francisco county now(for new approvals, old ones are grandfathered in. Geez, now there's an image…)? The London communal pub urinals bring back memories of being a child and having to piss elbow to elbow with other, older males. Usually this was at the Oakland Coliseum (for the Warriors or the Seals) or Candlestick Park (for Giants or Niners games) and since all those teams were awful in my youth, the men would be staggeringly drunk and I'd need to fight for my place and watch out for splashback. The troughs were filled not only with smelly, dark yellow piss which collected through the game but also with cigarette butts, beer cups, and change. Once I dropped my oversized Golden State Warriors button in. I was very sad but luckily old enough to know not to go in after it.

On a serious note, the real major cultural difference I noted was the lack of accessibility being part of the culture. I understand that construction dating back 1000 years makes for some different issues than in our young cities but man, stairs everywhere! In the tube, in restaurants, and yes, for bathrooms. I would hate to be in a wheelchair and have to pee in London, seriously.
gordonzola: (Default)
Sometimes themes appear by accident. The Friday before I came home was my day of contrasts. How else to describe a day filled with going to the Imperial War Museum, an anarchist info shop, and Harrods?

I resisted the idea of the Imperial War Museum because of the name. I probably should have listened to my instincts. Most of the museum is made up of war-glorifying propaganda and de-fanged killing machines. The exhibit on intelligence gathering is full of corny videos and display cases eliding Nazi propaganda with "Communist-controlled" union rallies.

However, the reason I went was for the special exhibit on camouflage. Did you know that the use of camouflage patterns came from Cubist-inspired French infantrymen experimenting in the field of battle? Or that during WWII the Allies painted all their ships with crazy patterns to confuse the German submarines? Well, me neither. The exhibit wasn't long on theory, I would have loved to know more about whether more well-known Cubists knew of this and what their thoughts would have been, but those tidbits were worth the trip. They also had a whole Public Enemy S1W outfit as an example of "modern uses" of camouflage.

From there I walked to the anarchist info shop. Info-shops are anarchist community centers and almost every big city has one. While there are often some CDs, books, and zines to buy, the main purpose info shops serve are as a community center and a place to hang out for free. Flyers adorn the walls, there are often libraries and they are open to, if somewhat wary of travelers. This one was much like every other info shop in the world except that it also had a food co-op attached to it.

Happily, it was open. When I did some traveling back in the early '90s, especially in Eastern Europe, for many of the places we visited we only had an info shop address to connect with the local goings on. This was about a 50:50 proposition. If the info shop still existed, it was often locked. Those were also the days of frequent street battles between anti-fascist radicals and skinheads so there was an element of suspicion and fear in standing outside or trying to get into one. I don't recall what country it was but after searching for an address and climbing up stairs of a deserted, un-windowed building I thought we had finally found the right door… and then the lights went off, leaving us in pitch black. I really thought I was going to get attacked or mugged. But nothing happened. Eventually we worked our way back to the entrance and it turned out the lights were just on a timer that needed to be reset.

At this London one, I resisted buying CDs by The Ex and just picked up a couple of zines on London radical history. Otherwise what happens in an info shop stays in the infoshop.

From there I rode the Tube to Knightsbridge. Now, as any good American political punk of my generation would, I can't help hearing Clash lyrics as I walk around London. Police sirens remind me of "White Riot", The Hammersmith and City Tube line makes me hear "White Man in Hammersmith Palais", I even get that stupid "This is England" song from the Fake Clash in my head. The stop for Harrods was no exception, the line from "1977", "Ain't so lucky to be rich/ sten guns in Knightsbridge" played on an endless loop in my head.

When I walked in I realized I had confused Harrods with Marks and Spencers which, while still overpriced, is not quite so extreme. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to figure out where that was so I was committed. Harrods, which bills itself as "The World's Most Famous Department Store" is fancy-fancy. There's a doorman, of course, but that's only the beginning. It's opulent, if not actually exclusive. Plenty of tourists like me were there buying overpriced presents for relatives. Still it was upper-crusty enough that I was clocked by the undercover security as soon as I walked in and followed around the chocolate department until I made my purchases.

I felt like I finally understood why the IRA bombed this place in the '80s. But hey, my Mom likes her marzipan.
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This is the second straight time I've been to London in the midst of a heat wave. As I was leaving, the papers were panicking about the London Marathon participants. In the typically restrained style of the press there, they seemed to be preparing for body counts and faux-campaigns of accountability if anyone got heat stroke.

I know my experience is not normal. The first time I went to London, [livejournal.com profile] jactitation and I had flown there in March after being snowed in in upstate New York and Brooklyn because of the weather ("Superstorm '93!"). When we arrived, we spent a few days in a squat with coin-fed heaters that didn't really work and not enough hot water for a full bath. It was so cold that not only did I sleep in all my clothes but the condensation from my breath froze the pillow so that every time I shifted in my shivery half-sleep I had to crack through a thin layer of ice.

I don't think I actually got warm in that entire visit even while consuming tea constantly and warming my hands while cooking toast in the over-the-oven broiler.

My last two visits though: a very different London. In 2003 we seriously had to hide in the middle of the day. That we could only find pubs to take refuge in was just a happy coincidence. I did not pack for that kind of weather this one of the first things I think about when reminiscing about that trip is sweat.

I tried to write about the differences in racism between the UK and the US that I noticed on that trip, and was never able to successfully, but the heat provoked one of the notable differences. As we sat waiting for the train one day, a white woman in the racially diverse gang of people I was hanging out with saw a Black goth. The goth woman was in full goth gear despite the weather: at least three layers of black frilly clothing. The white woman said, "Oh my god, look at her, she must stink." The Americans, white and Black, bristled. Black people "stinking" is not a causal throwaway line, it's a phrase laden with historic racial implication. The Englanders, white and Black, discussed the matter in the way you discuss things while waiting for public transit to show up. Different.

Of course while I was in London this time, Tony Blair blamed the recent wave of knifings on "black culture" (meaning hip hop culture") so go figure. I mean, god knows, England never had any youth cultures associated in the press with violence before this, right?

Back to the weather, on this trip I actually brought and wore shorts for a large part of the trip. Even though it was hot I was pretty much the only adult who did. I felt very Californian. But hey, that's one of the reasons to go on vacation: it reveals things you take for granted in your daily life.

I'm back

Apr. 23rd, 2007 05:12 am
gordonzola: (Default)
It's 5 AM and I'm done sleeping but that's ok since I passed out around 8 last night. I would rather still be travelling, but my own bed, my own couch, and my cup of tea (that somehow isn't as good as it is over there) were pretty comforting to come home to.

Hopefully I'll have pictures soon. I brought my big 35 mm, real film camera but barely used it so I'll have to rely on the kindness of friends... [livejournal.com profile] arasay, [livejournal.com profile] beelavender, [livejournal.com profile] sparkleshortz, the woman at the birthday party that promised to send me pics but isn't even reading this... cough 'em up. Pretty please.

I'll write something that pretends to be more substantial later, right now I'm just enjoying being the only one awake.

(Woah, should it freak me out that when I was gone my computer's clock re-set itself to 1970? WTF?)
gordonzola: (Default)
I just booked tickets to London from 4/8-4/22. I will be up in Cambridge around the weekend of the 13th and should have a dairy trip or two scheduled somewhere in there but otherwise I'm relatively plan-less. One of my best friends, deported from the USA 8 years ago, is a postie and works Mon-Fri so while I would love to know exciting things to do at night, I'd also love to meet up with some of you folks in the daytime if like, you don't have jobs. ;)

I've been to London twice, once in 1993 and once about 3 years ago, but any tips for fun stuff to do from residents or fellow travelers is welcomed.

Also, heh, I just realized that I arrive on Monday morning instead of Sunday morning so if anyone wants to host me crashing at their place on Monday for a few hours in the late morning while I sleep off some jet lag I would owe you big time. Still, by being an atheist I saved about $125 by flying out on Easter Sunday. But I really don't sleep on planes.

Oh man, I'm really excited.

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