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Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

People often ask what inspired me to become a food writer and cooking instructor. I think they expect to hear heartwarming recollections of a childhood spent beside my mother at the stove, and reminiscences of glorious holiday repasts, table groaning with the bounty from our garden. They anticipate my memories of milking goats, and tangy chevre on homemade bread for an after-school snack. They imagine my Russian grandmother frying latkes for breakfast (using eggs I’d collected from our flock of Rhode Island Reds).

And, to a certain degree, there is truth in these examples. Looking back, I’m quite certain my formative experiences with food are what shaped my career. But the reality is that, while I grew up on a small ranch, the daughter of a large animal veterinarian and a former barrel-racing-champion-turned-homemaker, my own culinary education had a few…inconsistencies.

I did watch my mom cook sometimes; she still has a way with instant mashed potatoes and cracks open a mean jar of Prego. Our neighbors had a garden, and at the age of ten, I established a roadside produce stand, yet Birds-Eye was still a staple at my own dinner table. The eggs I gathered each morning (when I wasn’t being held hostage in the henhouse by our sadistic asshole of a rooster) were whisked by my mother in a microwave-proof bowl, before being nuking into rubbery oblivion. I was in college before I learned that scrambled eggs aren’t traditionally made in a microwave.

My paternal grandmother was the daughter of a Russian émigré. Grandma Miller possessed a heavy New York accent, and she was—my dad will agree—the worst cook this side of Minsk. The (real, not instant) potatoes in her latkes were an oxidized grey, the resulting pancakes flabby and greasy from improperly heated oil. Small wonder I was the pickiest eater on the planet, utterly exasperating my Depression-era parents who, let’s face it, were only trying to embrace the advent of convenience foods.

The one time my mom tried making yogurt and cheese from our goat’s milk (she was having an early 1970’s back-to-the-land moment), the results were not exactly edible. In retrospect, I don’t think she realized the milk required starter cultures. So we instead drank goat milk by the gallon, and in the process my family became huge caprine aficionados. We bred our Nubian doe, Go-Go, every year, and ended up keeping several of her doelings; the bucks we donated to Heifer Project International. For my part, I adored our goats. Even when I fed Go-Go an uninflated balloon, it was with the best of intentions (it was Easter, and I thought she’d appreciate its pretty pink color).

In sixth grade, I decided to follow in my older brother’s footsteps and raise goats for a 4-H project. I bounced out of bed each morning to milk Rose, a distant relative of the late Go-Go (who died of natural causes, not from ingesting peony-hued rubber). Despite my rural upbringing, our property was located in a peaceful canyon only a couple of miles from what is today a populous, yuppified bedroom community of Los Angeles. There were a few other families with children up the road, but I was the only one living on a ranch.

The rooms at Westlake Elementary School were packed with upper-middle-class, mostly white kids, and it turned out they didn’t share my  goaty enthusiasm. It was Jason Racinelli, a criminal in the making if ever there was one, who dubbed me “Goat Girl.” It was the first week of school, and as part of our “What I Did for Summer Vacation” oral reports, I’d waxed poetic about Rose and the wonders of lactation. If memory serves, I even passed around Dixie cups of her milk for my classmates to taste.

I was waiting for my mom to pick me up from school in our geriatric wood-paneled station wagon, when Jason appeared by my side. He looked me up and down, a sneer on his handsome face. “Hey Goat Girl,” he drawled, leaning in close and taking a long, exaggerated sniff. “You smell like a goat. Why would anyone even want a goat? Why do you even go to this school? Why don’t you go back to your stupid farm?”

Mercifully, my mom arrived at that moment, but before I could escape to the safety of the car and the slobbery kisses of our three dogs, Jason yelled, “’Bye, Goat Girl! Don’t forget to wear your overalls tomorrow!”

Just some goats at Bee Tree Farm’s happy hour.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that someone, somewhere, eventually kicked Jason Racinelli’s ass to Kingdom Come or incarcerated him. Unfortunately, before that could happen, I essentially became known as Goat Girl for the remainder of the year, and developed several nervous tics that abated only after we sold Rose and I instead concentrated on raising rabbits (fuzzy, rodent-like creatures were apparently on the list of “cool” pets to own). I don’t recall exactly when I allowed my goat obsession to resurface, but suffice it to say, I’m now a contributing editor at culture: the word on cheese and live in Austin, one of those few enlightened cities that permit backyard goats (don’t get me started on the yoga).

So, while my somewhat dichotomous culinary upbringing played a large role in my career of choice, I usually opt for a shorter, easier, wholly truthful answer. “I became a food writer because when I was eight years old and walking my brother’s goat at the county fair, a middle-aged man asked me, “What type of dog is that?It was at that moment I realized: most people don’t have a fucking clue where their food comes from.

Thanks, Mom and Dad. And yeah, you too, Jason Racinelli.

On assignment at Pure Luck Dairy, in Texas.

On assignment at Pure Luck Farm & Dairy.

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The following is a reblog of a piece I wrote today for culture: the word on cheese. I don’t even have it in me to try and come up with a snappy hed to this post.

“I have the best job in the world. If I’m unhappy, it’s a failure of imagination.” —Anthony Bourdain

I met Anthony Bourdain in the summer of 2012, when “The Layover” was taping at my former place of work, a now-shuttered cheese shop in Seattle. Like so many, I’d been an ardent fan since reading Kitchen Confidential, his ground-breaking memoir-cum-expose on the dirty underbelly of the restaurant industry.

That book launched his career and, as has been well-documented, turned the former chef and recovering addict into one of the world’s greatest authorities on food, culture and travel.  Bourdain was a complex man of giant contradictions: Fiercely opinionated yet insatiably curious, cantankerous yet compassionate. Of the recent chef and restaurateur scandals exposed by the #MeToo movement, he’d of late seemed a curious mix of furious yet apologetic for his industry’s- and what he perceived as his own- failings.

None of us can ever know why he chose to end his life and regardless of how you felt about him, there’s no disputing the fact that Bourdain put himself out there in person and in print and on television. He deplored inauthenticity and celebrated the common man (and woman) through his deep-dive, documentary-style television shows.

Bourdain exposed millions of viewers to culinary customs and foods that have sustained regions or families for generations, and approached the traditional aspects of cooking, eating and wandering the globe with a fervor and intellect more often seen in academics trained in anthropology, sociology, political science and world history. Bourdain made food and travel greater than the sum of their parts. He changed the way we think about eating, and other countries and cultures for the better and for that, we should thank him for his not inconsiderable gifts.

Whatever personal demons Bourdain suffered- and he never shied away from admitting his quirks, neuroses and bad habits- he was also a man who adored his young daughter, was respected by his peers and was in the rarefied position of more or less writing his own ticket, it would seem. None of us can possibly fathom the pressures he faced nor the internal struggles related to being responsible for so many employees. The greatest tragedy is that he was clearly suffering and saw suicide as the only recourse.

We’re facing a mental health epidemic in this country of epic proportions and by remaining silent about our struggles (I, too, suffer from depression and this morning, after learning of Bourdain’s suicide, I made a promise to start using my journalism to help destigmatize this often-insidious disease), we perpetuate the shame.

The only good that can ever come from high-profile suicides like those of Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and countless other “celebrities” is a greater awareness of mental health issues and the need for more funding and better ways to provide help and treatment for all. A digital or print footnote for a suicide hotline isn’t a solution.

After “The Layover” taping (during which, he charmed all of us with his off-the-cuff comments and obvious love of cheese/repeated requests for “just one more” sample) at the shop completed, I shyly approached Bourdain, holding a copy of my recently published book, Cheese for Dummies (written with culture co-founder Lassa Skinner). Aware of the fact that his life was one of constantly being accosted by fans demanding things from him, I apologized for bothering him and said, “I’m in no way trying to make it look like you’re endorsing this, but would you mind taking a photo with me while I hold my book?” He graciously complied, and after I thanked him, I said, “Have a great time in Seattle.”

He put his hand on my shoulder, gave me what by all appearances was a genuine smile and said, “I always do.” And with that, Bourdain left the building.

Bourdain has left the building, and television- and the world- will mourn the loss, but his legacy, books, articles, interviews and reruns will remain. As the man himself once said,

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

Rest in Peace, Chef. We miss you already.

Watching the taping.

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When I was seven, my parents took me and my older brother on a ski trip to Vail. The thing I remember most vividly isn’t schussing the slopes, but rather, a restaurant named after a convicted cannibal. If you know anything about my childhood, this should come as no surprise.

In search of a place for dinner one evening, we stumbled upon a creekside eatery called Alfie Packer’s- I can recall my parents cracking up at the name. I think I had a mouthful of cheeseburger when they explained the story behind the restaurant’s moniker, thus instilling in me a lifelong obsession with cannibalism and a lust for fucked-up survival stories.

Just to clarify, it’s a happy memory.

Alferd Packer. Photo love: Lake County-Hinsdale County Chamber of Commerce

For the uninitiated, the “Colorado Cannibal,” Alferd (née Alfred) G. Packer, was a prospector convicted of murdering and eating his five companions while trapped at the base of Slumgullion Pass, outside of present-day Lake City, during the winter of 1875. (read the dirty details in my post for 5280 magazine).

Packer was eventually released on parole, and became a Colorado folk hero of sorts. The embodiment of pioneer badassery, gumption and fortitude, he’s been immortalized in everything from film and song to food service (the University of Colorado Boulder cafeteria is named the Alferd Packer Restaurant & Grill; when it opened in 1968, its catchphrase was, “Have a friend for lunch!”). My brother lives in Truckee, and I’m fond of pointing out that California could stand to get a sense of humor about the the whole Donner Party thing (note that both of us live in areas infamous for cannibalism: Coincidence? I think not).

“Downtown” Lake City. Photo love: LCHC-CCC

This Memorial Day weekend, Lake City is bringing its defunct Packer Days festival back from the dead (sorry, had to). It’s less a celebration of cannibalism than survivalism, featuring events like a Run for Your Life Survival 5k, a Mystery Meat Cook-off, and Scavenger Hunt.

Lake City is worth a visit even if you don’t consider cannibalism cool; it’s a bitch to get to, but the region’s alpine lakes, outdoor pursuits and scenery are worth the effort. The town itself is just as alluring, nestled as it is in a pocket of the San Juan Mountains. It’s a legitimate relic of the Old West, boasting well-preserved buildings, a dusty main drag, and a handful of saloons, restaurants and a truly excellent museum; just up the road is the famed Alferd Packer Massacre site and Cannibal Plateau.

Ready for a road trip? Hit up the Lake City Chamber’s site for details, and don’t forget to pack some snacks- you can never be too prepared.

When in Lake City…

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Brook and Rose LeVan raise heritage turkeys on their Colorado ranch.

Brook and Rose LeVan raise heritage turkeys on their Colorado ranch, Sustainable Settings.

Every year at this time, my family and I duke it out over the turkey. It’s not about, “Should we brine it or deep-fry?” or, “Do we baste it with cultured butter made by blind Norman nuns or massage it with a dry-rub of hand-harvested spices grown on an 8th-century Kerala plantation?”

Sorry to disappoint, but with the Miller’s, the conversation always comes down to this (the following are direct quotes I’ve received from family members this month):

“I found a pre-brined turkey at Trader Joe’s. ”

“Why would you pre-order a turkey? You’re the only one who cares about its upbringing.”

So, despite the Butterball currently residing in my parents’ refrigerator (my flying in from out-of-state makes lugging a fresh turkey from a friend’s farm logistically impossible), I’d like to share my recent Edible Aspen article on pasture-raised turkeys.

In this big, complicated country of ours- where we have so many choices with regard to our food supply–  it’s about doing the best you can. Armageddon will not occur when said Butterball lands on the dinner table- but I firmly believe that as consumers all, we have a moral obligation to educate ourselves and our children about where our food comes from. As consumers, we deserve to have access to that information, regardless of our socioeconomic status. Wholesome, responsibly-raised and -grown food shouldn’t be a luxury for anyone, but realistically, we must rely upon integrated agriculture to feed our growing domestic- and global- population.

Worrying about how my Thanksgiving turkey was raised is a First-World problem, and for that, I’m thankful. Happy Thanksgiving, America.

Photo love: Epicurious

Photo love: Epicurious

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villager

A year ago today, a 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal. I missed the disaster by 24 hours. I’d been in Nepal for two weeks to trek, run the remote Tamur River, and research a feature for culture: the word on cheese, on Nepali cheesemaking. The story, which was slated to run last fall, was by necessity postponed to this spring; most of the cheesemakers I profiled were affected by the earthquake, but fortunately, they suffered only minor losses and no casualties.

Churrpi- dried yak cheese- air-dries in Gufa Pokari

Churrpi- dried yak cheese- air-dries in Gufa Pokari

On this, the anniversary of Nepal’s deadliest natural disaster, I’m sharing my culture feature in its entirety. It includes relief donation information (still critically needed), but it also it shows the beauty, generosity of spirit, and resilience of the Nepali people. It’s my dairy-centric love letter to the most incredible country I’ve ever visited.

“It’s perhaps the most unlikely spot on earth to taste locally made, French-style cheeses: the rooftop of an apartment building in the Lazimpat neighborhood of Kathmandu. It’s April 10, 2015, two weeks before a devastating earthquake will level much of the city and villages throughout this region of Nepal, causing an avalanche on Mount Everest and resulting in over 9,000 fatalities. An aftershock on May 12 will cause further devastation and increase the death toll.

 At the moment, however, I’m sitting with French cheesemaker François Driard in a high-rise urban oasis that seems a million miles from the smog and chaos below, watching the sun set and sipping Pastis between bites of his superb tomme. Driard owns Himalayan French Cheese and produces a diverse array of pasteurized cow’s and yak’s milk cheeses at his two creameries in the foothills of some of the highest mountains in the world.

 I’ve been fascinated with Nepali cheesemaking since researching my book, Cheese for Dummies, mostly because little has been written about it. Last spring I traveled there to explore both rural cheesemaking traditions and how Kathmandu-area producers such as Driard are modernizing their craft for a feature in the Autumn 2014 issue of culture. But nature had other plans. Now it’s also a story about how Nepal and the cheesemakers I met there are moving on, one year after the country’s deadliest natural disaster on record.”

Read the rest of the story here.

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Photo love: Fruit Maven

Photo love: Fruit Maven

“How do you retire from doing what you love the most?”

Glenn Austin, a 72-year-old seventh-generation peach farmer, recently posed this rhetorical question as we wrapped up our interview for an Edible Aspen feature. He and his wife of 55 years had just taken their first non-work-related vacation, and while they enjoyed the trip, they were happy to return to their 26 acres of high-altitude paradise on Colorado’s Western Slope.

Peach farming reminded me of the six years I spent slinging stonefruit at Bay Area farmers’ markets– a formative and formidable time when I was trying to find my footing as a cooking teacher and food writer. In 2000, I was four years out of culinary school and living in Berkeley- epicenter of the nation’s sustainable food movement. I was working multiple jobs to get by, while simultaneously launching a home-based cooking school and journalism career. Back then, my energy was boundless, and my back a hell of a lot stronger.

What I most wanted at that time was a job at the farmers market, both for the education and industry contacts. It was difficult to infiltrate the ranks of the vendor community, because the most-coveted farms had little employee turnover. I’d gotten to know some of these folks in between teaching, waiting tables, and working in kitchens, and I yearned to become part of the tight-knit market clan.

Home is where the farm is. Photo love: Jason Dewey Photography

Happy place. Photo love: Jason Dewey Photography

Deliverance came one afternoon when I was getting my weekly dog fix from the puppy at Frog Hollow Farm’s stand. Owner “Farmer Al” Courchesne’s peaches were the stuff of legend in the Bay Area; his luscious stonefruit appeared on the menus of the region’s most influential restaurants of the day, including Chez Panisse, Oliveto, and Zuni Cafe. A peach, Al was fond of saying, “is like sex in a fuzzy skin.”

I’d gotten to know Al’s wife, Becky, as an occasional customer (their stuff ain’t cheap). Perhaps she was just sick of me molesting her dog but rarely purchasing fruit, or maybe she took pity on me. Whatever the case, Becky hired me and thus began my glorious career as a part-time peach and pastry pusher. For over half a decade, I worked three markets a week in Berkeley and San Francisco, year-round.

I gleefully did manual labor, unloading and loading the farm truck, setting up tables and pop-up tents, hefting up to 50 pounds of fruit at a time, and tying down loads. My hands were callused, my nails perpetually dirty, my body bruised, my skin a cancer-cultivating hue. Al was a mercurial taskmaster. But I loved the job. I was also totally ripped, my refrigerator overflowed with peerless product (bartering being the raison d’etre for working low-paying market jobs) and I had a wonderfully diverse group of friends and colleagues who shared my passion for food and family farms.

Death-gripping a pretzel, age two.

Death-gripping a pretzel, age two.

By 2003, I’d transitioned to food and travel writing (Becky, more than anyone, is responsible for encouraging me to do so), and contributed to several Lonely Planet guidebooks. The following is an abridged excerpt from World Food California, for which I wrote an essay on the Berkeley Farmers Market:

If…waiting tables is a challenge in Berkeley, then try selling food products at its farmers’ markets…due to any number of food sensitivities, aversions, allergies, purported allergies, or political statements. When Becky, a gifted pastry chef, started making organic jam and pastries from the farm’s fruit, she was fulfilling a longtime dream of turning the raw ingredients growing right outside her kitchen into edible offerings that reflected the soul of the farm.

I severely underestimated the high-maintenance requirements of Berkeley’s food militia, but despite the occasional verbal assaults from pissed-off vegans and early-adopting gluten-phobes, most of our customers were pretty cool. The people-watching never failed to disappoint. Entertainment came in the form of observing Berkeley’s resident weirdos, busting thieving kids and derelicts (my nickname was “The Enforcer”), and trying to prevent customers from double-dipping when tasting our jams.

The defendants at the SF Ferry Building farm shop. Photo love: Edible Excursions

Becky’s tarts on display. Photo love: Edible Excursions

“Freeloaders and freaks, homeless and housewives, children and chefs…the market is a truly special place to work. To be surrounded by people so connected to the land and so committed to preserving California’s precious resources, growers of exquisite produce, food artisans of a quality equal to any found in Europe; these are the reasons I stay...There’s a camaraderie that exists amongst the market vendors. We’re a family. We support one another. I’ll trade you some first-of-the-season Burlat cherries for some of your haricot verts.

The market offers a respite from the urban racket. It’s an oasis of green, earthly things, a refuge from the ever-growing parade of strip malls and tract homes that threaten to engulf our agricultural land. I can think of no other community so deeply dedicated to supporting sustainable agriculture, or of so many chefs and consumers enamored of cooking and eating the fresh, the seasonal, the local.”

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Some Colorado Easter Egg radishes.

As much as I loved the market, I began a slow but inevitable burn-out. I called my conundrum the “velvet handcuffs” because I didn’t know how to a leave a secure job (Becky and Al were nothing if not supportive of my writing career, allowing me to take off as much time as needed for assignments) with decent pay (Al believed in rewarding hard work). I spent nearly two years agonizing, until the combination of a bad breakup and a collapsing housing market made the decision for me. It was time to move on.

Eventually, I ended up back in Colorado, always my longterm goal. I love my rural life in the Rocky Mountains, in a valley nationally renown for its sustainable agriculture. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss being part of a market community, and the happy exhaustion that comes at the end of a long, physically demanding work day. I’ll never get used to the short growing season, lack of indigenous citrus, and crappy tomatoes. My fridge is far more anemic, since my freelance budget doesn’t permit splurges on walnut oil, fresh chestnut flour pasta, duck fat, or dry-farmed heirloom produce- bartered items I once took for granted.

Yet, moving here has finally enabled me to earn a living as a writer. True, writing softens you in ways the physical demands of restaurant and farm work don’t- muscle tone and posture are the first to go, followed by the ability to think quickly on your feet and interact with other Homo sapiens. But writing also hardens you. To rejection, setbacks, and living paycheck-to-paycheck. Writing isn’t an occupation for those with weak constitutions, a shitty work ethic, or lack of passion. But then, neither is being a chef. Or a farmer.

“How do you retire from doing what you love the most?”

I don’t know. I hope I’m never able to tell you.

Glenn and Tony Austin. Photo love: Austin Family Farm

Glenn and Tony Austin. Photo love: Austin Family Farm

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Signage at Angkor Wat

Signage at Angkor Wat

I didn’t plan to come to Cambodia. Not that I hadn’t dreamed about it. It’s simply that Laos won the mental coin toss when I was planning my post-Nepal travel. But then I woke up one morning, two weeks ago, and hopped a flight to Siem Reap. Five days spent lazing about indulging in the charms of Luang Prabang (in my case, street food, banana shakes, and $5 massages- sans happy endings- rather than hookers and opium) had left me feeling too much the douchey Western tourist.

I craved action, adventure, perhaps a touch of almost-danger. Cambodia beckoned. Upon landing, I bought a bootleg copy of Lonely Planet Cambodia (yes, I realize many of my fellow travelers see that as a douchey Western tourist thing to do; to them I say, “I like to know where the fuck I am.”).

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I gave the Siem Reap section a quick look before hitting the streets. I noted with interest that the city’s most notorious con is the “milk scam,” in which a child or woman with an infant begs a tourist to buy them formula. Unsuspecting mark goes to store with grifter, and is talked into purchasing the most expensive brand. The proceeds are then split between the con and the shopkeeper. Seemed pretty harmless, as far as these things go.

Yes, Pub St. is douchey and touristy. Photo love: Massageprices

Yes, Pub St. is douchey, Western, touristy. But still kind of fun. Photo love: Massageprices

Not five minutes later, I was accosted by a filthy street urchin in the midst of bustling Pub Street. He couldn’t have been more than eight. He tugged my arm as I passed.

Kid: “Please, I hungry. Milk. I need milk. Buy me milk.”
Dazed from sweating out a week’s worth of electrolytes after just one hour in Siem Reap heat, I agreed. Then, logic kicked in and I realized I was being scammed. The following is a verbatim and completely unembellished account of what happened next:

Me: Um, no, no milk. Fruit. Fruit healthy, I buy you fruit.
Kid (raising voice in angry manner): No! Milk. I need milk! Milk!
Me: No. Fruit. I buy you fruit, yes? What kind you want?
Kid (pretending to weep loudly, yet obviously incredibly pissed off): You said you buy milk. I so hungry. I need MILK! MILK! YOU BUY ME! YOU PROMISE!
Me (uncertain what to do, casting nervous glance around and notice entire patio of adjacent tourist restaurant is watching this little melodrama with interest): I know what I said, but I change mind. No milk. Fruit. Yes or no?
Kid (morphing into miniature version of Pol Pot): NO NO NO! MILK. I.WANT.MILK! MILK! YOU BUY ME MILK NOW! NOW!
Me (totally over this and trying to edge away): Nope. No milk. Only fruit.
Kid (screaming at top of lungs to attract maximum attention to evil round-eye lady who hates Cambodian children of the street): YOU LIE! YOU LIE! YOU PROMISE ME MILK!
He then lowers his voice so only I can hear, and says, “You fucking bitch.” Then he punches me. Hard. On my ass.
I reacted without thinking, grabbing his shoulder and shaking it. “NO! YOU CANNOT DO THAT. IT IS NOT OKAY! YOU GET NOTHING!” [good thing I decided not to have kids, no?]
Kid (attempting to vaporize me with his demonic eyes): Fuck you, fucking bitch.

Scene.

As I stood in the street in a state of shock, the male half of a sympathetic British couple sitting on the patio told me, “We ran into him yesterday. He’s very aggressive.”
Me: He’s a monster.
Woman: “I refused to buy him milk. He stuck his hand down his pants, grabbed his penis, and wiped his hand on my face.”
Me: (rare moment of being rendered speechless)

I highly recommend visiting Cambodia, as it’s an incredible country, with warm, gracious people. Just watch out for the little bastard working the corner of Pub and Street 8.

Just add milk. Photo love: Crave Online

Just add milk. Photo love: Crave Online

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A. So a truck could run it over, enabling a guy with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth to scoop it up 30 seconds later and cook it for breakfast.

True story.

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Yes, this was necessary.

As a former cheesemonger, marketing director for a cheese company, trade show ho and educator, I’ve done my share of schlepping dairy products. While packing cheese into a cooler requires some organizational skills, it’s not exactly rocket science. This, of course, excludes the time I accidentally left an empty box from a shipment of washed rinds (read: stinky cheeses) in my car overnight during a heat wave. I spent nearly 15 minutes the following morning crawling underneath my car and peering into the fan belt and engine block trying to find the dead animal causing the unholy stench, before cluing in to my error.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to sit sort-of shotgun on a cheese delivery in the Kathmandu Valley. I was working on a Nepal cheese feature for culture: the word on cheese, and was on my way to Himalayan French Cheese (owned by entrepreneurial genius Frenchman Francois Driard). It’s located eight kilometers north of Kathmandu, epicenter of the quake. Accompanying me was Francois’ Nepali business partner and a driver, who was later going to drop me at Francois’s sister’s farmstay on the other side of Kathmandu.

How many wheels of cheese does it take to fill a Suzuki Maruti?

How many wheels of cheese does it take to fill a Maruti Suzuki?

Let me explain something about driving in Nepal (beside the fact it’s done on the left). It’s motherfucking terrifying. I had just come off of a 17-hour ride in a clapped-out Indian bus (I suspect Uttar Pradesh traded it to Nepal for a plate of dal bhat), returning to Kathmandu across the Terai (Eastern Plains) after a 12-day trek/whitewater trip on the Tamur River. Tip: Xanax is also essential for developing nation long-haul bus rides, especially in cultures where the main objective is to drive as fast as possible whilst playing chicken with oncoming semi’s and other buses on high-mountain passes with blind curves. Good times.

These were our bus seats. No worries, we also had 500 lbs of rice on the floor which made for good sleeping.

These were our bus seats. No worries, we also had 500 lbs of bagged rice on the floor which made for comfy sleeping.

I digress. The point is, when you have a car the size of a Maruti Suzuki- essentially a SPAM can on wheels- there’s not much room to spare. With three passengers, my 40-pound backpack,  a loaded daypack, and what turned out to be over 300 pounds of cheese (hefty wheels of lusty Belkot- Francois’ signature creation- as well as dozens of tommes, Reblochon, camembert, St. Marcellin, some trial bries, and buckets of yogurt, cream cheese, and ricotta- there wasn’t much room to spare). It was also hellishly hot and humid.

After the cranky driver tied my backpack to the roof of the car with a piece of twine, I folded myself and my daypack into the back seat (which was broken, so it flipped forward at every application of the brakes, which in Nepal, like the use of the horn, is constant). Behind me were two loaded coolers and boxes; beside me was a cooler and a weathered cardboard box of tommes that split at the corner seam the first time our driver slammed on the brakes to avoid an oncoming suicidal motocyclist.

Francois' lovely cheeses at rest

Francois’ lovely cheeses at rest

Thus, I spent the next 90 minutes with my left arm awkwardly bracing the torn box to prevent the pristine tommes from flying through the windshield, and having 175 pounds or so of Bellecotes slamming into my back and effectively bending me in half every time we braked. Because Kathmandu’s pollution (hello, inversion layer) is so epic, most locals wear face masks; I developed what I affectionately called KTM black lung on day two of my arrival. Thus, I was forced to wear a scarf around my nose and mouth to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning whilst holding down the dairy fort, so to speak.

Eventually, after bumping (shock absorbers? Hells no!) through back alleys and potholes big enough to swallow a water buffalo, we made it to the Kathmandu office of the cheese company, from which our precious cargo would be distributed to nearby restaurants and hotels.

All in a day’s work for an immgrant cheesemaker in Nepal, and a terrifically entertaining cultural experience for me. My thoughts are with all of my new Nepali friends and cheesemakers; thank you for an incredible trip and for showing me, in the words of churppi maker Mitra Kala Khanal, that, “In Nepal, cheese is life.”

Yak in the mist

Yak in the mist

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Crooked Stave's divine Surete Provision Saison

Crooked Stave’s divine Surete Provision Saison

Today kicks off Denver’s Great American Beer Festival (GABF), so what better way to get all y’all inspired than to give you some guidelines for pairing beer and cheese? Few folks realize that  cheese is easier to match with beer than wine. The tannins, acids, and oak (when used for aging) in wine can be problematic when pairing with cheese, whereas beer and cheese have similar production methods (they’re both grass-based, fermented products, and tend to have similar flavor profiles- toasty, malty, yeasty, nutty, etc.).

Despite being a long-time Colorado resident, I confess I only got into beer fairly recently (my aversion being due to the usual generalized chick reasons: bloating, sleepiness, emotional scarring from too many warm, shitty, skunky brewskis at college keggers, and a still-rampant dislike of turbo-hopped beers). Fortunately, being in the cheese industry and living in a state home to some of the nation’s top craft brewers has set me straight.

While there are some key tips to follow with regard to pairing, there are exceptions to every rule. I say, eat and drink what you enjoy, dissenters and haters be damned. The cheese police are not going to come kick down your door. Still, a good match is, in the words of my lovely Cheese for Dummies co-author Lassa Skinner, like a good marriage. Both parties should have their own, distinct, positive qualities, but when combined, magic happens. Here are some tips to bear in mind when you’re shopping for a pairing:

  • Match intensities. A chocolatey Stout will completely overpower many cheeses. Conversely, a soft, delicate varietal will be lost when paired with a super funky or sharp cheese.
  • Bear terroir in mind. Don’t just assume “this beer style will go with this cheese,” because variations in climate, geography, vintage, and production method vary greatly. The same is true of cheese. Ultimately, tasting before you buy or serve is the best way to determine if you have a match; barring that, talk to your cheesemonger (or buy my book!).
  • Aim for similarities or contrasts. A rich, buttery cheese such as a triple crème or brie will go well with a beer with similar qualities. That said, too much butteriness is overkill. You want your palate to be refreshed and cleansed by the beverage.
  • Strive for balance; when in doubt, I’d go for something light and effervescent, be it a cheap Mexican brew or a killer lambic or saison.
  • Think about what you’re trying to achieve. If you have a super bomb, special cheese, talk to your local wine shop about what to serve with it. Conversely, if you have a limited edition import, make sure you find a cheese that does it justice.
Hello, Cantillon Kriek.

Hello, Cantillon Kriek.

I’ve compiled a little cheatsheet for you, to help you wrap your head around some basic beer and cheese love matches. Give these a try:

  • Fresh cheeses like burrata, mozzarella, or chevre: Lager or Pils.
  • Camembert or othery earthy, mushroomy bloomy-rinds: A fruit or vegetable beer, like Rumpkin barrel-aged pumpkin ale, from Avery Brewing Co.
  • Floral, grassy, or ash-coated bloomy rinds, like La Tur and St. Marcellin: Lambics, Saisons, or a Trappist Ales.
  • Blues: Try a fruity, non-assertive variety like Rogue River Blue (which is washed in brandy-soaked Syrah leaves) with a Kriek (cherry lambic) like Crooked Stave Mama Bear’s Sour Cherry Pie.
  • Nutty alpine styles or hard, aged cheeses like Cheddar, Gouda, or Pleasant Ridge Reserve, from Uplands Cheese Company: Go for a Porter or Stout; the deep, rich, complex flavors will play well of the buttery rich, umami notes in the cheese.
  • Washed rinds like Epoisses, Livorot, Pont l’Eveque, or funky domestics like Grayson, by Meadow Creek Dairy: Trappist ales, hard ciders, lambic, or floral IPA’s, baby.
  • Semi-soft, mild cheeses like Jack or Havarti: Lager, Pilsner, or a Mexican cerveza.
  • Aged cheeses like Beemster XO Gouda, robusto, or an alpine style like Gruyere will do right by a Porter or Stout.
Photo love: Murray's Cheese

Photo love: Murray’s Cheese

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