The feast of East Bay artisanal food products is a grand one indeed. But if there is one guest at this table who might have reason to complain, it would be the cheese lover. The East Bay is not a dairy region, and although there are rumors of a few small-scale cheese artisans, their products have yet to make the news. However, as Juliana Uruburu, Cheese Manager at The Pasta Shop will tell us, we’re lucky here in the East Bay to be surrounded by world-famous dairy regions. Thirty-three Northern California dairies are producing farmstead and artisanal cheeses of note. Wander into any number of dedicated purveyors in the East Bay, such as Uruburu’s cheese counters at the Rockridge and Fourth Street locations, the Cheese Board in Berkeley, Farmstead Cheeses and Wines in Alameda, or restaurants with strong cheese programs, such as À Côté and Citron, and you will find a good selection of local products being sold by people who are both knowledgeable and passionate. We chose to interview Juliana Uruburu in this issue of Edible East Bay because of her role as a teacher, her credentials as a member of the ancient French Guilde des Fromagers, and her experience as a frequent panelist and cheese judge at industry conferences, such as the annual exhibition of the American Cheese Society.
LM: I know that a lot of cheese lovers come to your classes, but you are a resource for local cheesemakers as well. Why do the cheesemakers come to you?
JU: This trend started when consumers started buying more cheese and retailers started handling cheese in a way that required a deep understanding of what it should look like and taste like. It started about 15 years ago—a time when The Pasta Shop had a small but very motivated staff. We were doing everything we could to learn about every aspect of the cheese train, a process that begins with the raising of the animals and continues through the cheesemaker, through distribution, and finally through the store. We had to learn how to handle the cheese to maintain its integrity, and also how much cheese to display. This requires knowing what’s going to sell on various days of the week or year. It’s important to me that we sell two-thirds to three-quarters of our cheese inventory every week, and some cheesemakers don’t understand that. I don’t want perishable cheese sitting in my counter or refrigerator for two to three weeks before I sell it. Most cheese arrives ready to be sold, but cheese is alive, and it changes, and many things can happen to it during cutting, wrapping, and storage.
As we’ve developed a rapport with local cheesemakers, they see that their cheese gets to the customer’s hands the way they intend for it to be eaten. Many people have begun to send new cheesemakers to us because, when it comes down to it, we are the end of the line for the cheesemakers. For instance, when Christine Maguire of Rinconada Dairy in San Luis Obispo started making a Manchego-style sheep’s milk cheese, she brought some for us to taste and we explained that it was a bit stringent, a little lactic, it had a little bit too much moisture, and it didn’t quite pull together right. I was able to show her similar cheeses I was selling and might replace with hers if she could correct these flaws. She came back to us three months later. I asked the cheese staff to taste the new version, since they are the ones who sell it, and then I put my professional palate’s opinion on it, and gave it back to the cheesemaker to try again.
A few years back, a retired couple that had bought a small dairy came to us and asked, “What are the types of cheeses you aren’t getting enough variety of?” We gave them three classifications, all from California: blue, brainy mold, and washed rind. They experimented with a couple recipes and made a beautiful washed-rind cheese. (They called it Tallegiano, but when threatened with a suit by the producers of Tallegio, they renamed it Whitehall after their dairy, Whitehall Estates.) I put them in touch with producers around the country who were making washed rind cheeses, and with all this knowledge they made a great cheese that won best in its category at the ACS that year. Sadly enough, they were so successful that they became overworked and went out of business a year later.
An interesting thing about cheese is that the cheesemaker’s face is always behind the cheese—each cheese is a personal expression of the cheesemaker’s individual’s style. Their hands touch the cheese, so it really is a handmade product. That’s what I love about it. Two cheesemakers can have the exact same recipe, but the cheese is going to end up ultimately different. It happens every step of the way, from the breed of the animal, what the animal is eating, how the cheesemaker handles the curd with their hands or machinery, the aging, the flipping, maintaining of the cheese through the aging process, how it’s packaged, and how it arrives to the retailer. It’s our responsibility to take the cheesemaker’s vision and put it into fruition and sell that cheese as deliciously as we can.
LM: Can you tell us about how the cheese program at The Pasta Shop began?
JU: When we started in 1987, we had about 100 cheeses in an open case. All were pre-cut, and the most exotic cheeses were Cambozola, Tallegio, and Havarti, and a fresh chèvre with cranberries and nasturtiums from a small goat-milk producer in Idaho called Rollingstone Chèvre. It was really cutting-edge to have this chèvre, and when the cheesemakers came down to our store, we realized how much interest people had in the origin of our products. That idea has grown so much over the past 20 years, where people want to know where their food is from and how it is produced. I think it was a few years after we opened that I realized people were looking for more cheeses. We moved the cheese department from one small 8-foot coffin case to its present location, where we have two cases, one for pre-cut and another for cut-to-order cheeses, plus a display where we feature special cheeses. When we made this expansion and started selling more cheese, we realized we needed to learn more, so we started visiting distributors, touring farms, developing our relationships with the cheesemakers and with our customers as well. We had more stories to tell and were able to add an enjoyable, intellectual element and to understand more about the way we eat. Food is comfort and it’s immediate. You buy it and you eat it, and hopefully you enjoy it. It’s a very different purchase than a piece of furniture or an article of clothing. It’s about immediate gratification, so we always encourage people to buy what they’re going to eat within a few days. Once you cut a wheel of cheese open, it doesn’t get any better. Once you break the rind of the cheese, the moisture starts to leak out and the flavor eventually will be lost. Cheese is an art between the curd and the whey, and moisture content is very important. Oftentimes the sweetness or aroma comes from the moisture. If a shop such as ours wants to have and sell cheese that is fresh, it won’t be a good idea to have three different 40-pound farmhouse cheddars cut at one time.
LM: Tell us more about your relationships with regular customers.
JU: It started off slowly, but it was a very organic relationship. When you’re behind that counter you see that 50 percent of your customers are regulars who come in a couple times a week. It’s not hard to learn their names, and soon you start remembering different palates and what they bought. At a certain point we set up a card-catalog file where people can put their names down and list alphabetically the cheeses they have bought and the occasion they were buying it for, so they can use this for later reference. The amazing thing I have found is that throughout the years, gosh, name a customer and I can remember what they had for Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s like divine intervention. I don’t know. I’ll remember their menu and the thought process that led to a certain selection. For instance, I remember a customer who really wanted big cheeses. I helped her narrow in using natural associations for pairing—such as semi-soft, young, spreadable, bloomy cheeses with Champagne or white wine, aged raw-milk table cheeses with red wine, since acidity decreases as cheese ages and flavor gets more complex. We made a single pairing each to go with gravlax, nuts, Calabrian aged figs, and candied orange peels and worked toward concentrating flavors toward the end as guests get fuller.
After that party, about 16 people came in to ask for help with their own pairings, and that experience has led to the classes we now offer here at Market Hall with Paul Marcus Wines, where there is an incredible knowledge base as well. •
—Interview by Laura Martinez