Pioneer of Artisan Goat Cheese: Cypress Grove’s Founder MARY KEEHN

Pioneer of Artisan Goat Cheese: Cypress Grove’s Founder  MARY KEEHN

Learn how a small time producer spearheaded America’s goat cheese segment.

When Mary Keehn, a single mother of four and self-proclaimed serious hippie, adopted two of her neighbor’s goats back in the 70s, she didn’t have a business plan, or any plan, to start her own business.

“My start was serendipic and an offshoot of the land movement of the 60s and 70s,” she says. “Back then, I made my kids’ clothes, had a big garden and raised goats for milk with which I made cheeses.”

It wasn’t until 1983 that Keehn created Cypress Grove with a $10,000 loan from her family.

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Italy’s Coveted PECORINO DI PIENZA

A cheese that reflects its impressive history.

Photo by Jesper Storgaard Jensen

Pienza is one of Tuscany’s most enchanting towns. Its only 2,000 inhabitants have the privilege of living in an ancient environment full of history that was admitted to the prestigious UNESCO list of world inheritance places in 1996.

But the wonder doesn’t stop here, because Pienza is also home to one of Italy’s most beloved cheeses.

In certain parts of this country, local food products deep-rooted in tradition enhance the image of cities. This is exactly the case in the central part of Tuscany, Val d’Orcia, which is well-known for its stunning natural scenery. Here, the sweetness of the hilltops and the multiple long rows of marching cypress trees give Tuscany a touch of softness, as though nature had decided not to offend anyone’s eyes. You are able to drive around for hours while indulging in one dazzling view after another.

This is, however, also an area famous for its abundance of flavors that can be found in local recipes, wines and the many varieties of cheeses. Smells and tastes abound in the area’s cozy towns, which here are called città d’arte, literally meaning ‘art cities’. Amongst these are Siena, Pienza, Montalcino, Montepulciano and Bagno Vignoni.

Abundance is, without a doubt, the appropriate key word when you speak about the flavors of this area, including the two famous wine towns—Montepulciano and Montalcino. The first is famous for its red wine Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and the latter has gained world fame due to the “King of wines”, the Brunello di Montalcino.

But, as we all know, a good wine becomes even better if it has the intriguing company of an outstanding cheese. That’s exactly why Pienza should have an important position on your Tuscany bucket list. A place that cannot be missed because of history, architecture and a cheese that many claim to be one of the best in Italy.

Historic Origins

When traveling from Montalcino towards Pienza, at a certain point along the motorway you’re likely to find a row of cars that have pulled over and parked on one side of the road. Many of the people leaving their cars have a camera around their neck. They are all heading towards the same spot from where you’ll find the best view to one of Italy’s most iconic natural spots—a green valley with a small group of cypress trees that seem to resemble the classical Tuscan dream of natural beauty.

This iconic view of nature and beauty is actually a sort of metaphor of what awaits you after just another quarter of an hour away, when you arrive at Pienza. Here, though, the beauty is also the taste of local pride, which, without doubt, is able to bring a smile to the lips of cheese lovers.

Pecorino di Pienza is a sheep cheese that has historic origins, just like many of Tuscany’s wines. Allegedly, it’s one of the oldest types of cheese in the world. The ancient Romans and, before them, the Etruscans, produced and consumed Pecorino. And, according to Italy’s gastronomic historic books, the Florentine nobleman Lorenzo de’ Medici was so fond of Pecorino that he actually went all the way from Florence to Pienza just to get his hands on the tasty cheese.

Over time, many tales and histories have been told about this cheese that has evolved over centuries. In modern times, this is also the story about how Sardinia and Tuscany are bound together through Pecorino.

Some 50-60 years ago, Val d’Orcia was not the fashionable, sought after area it is today. Most of all, it was a rural district where no one wanted to live, especially the young people who often preferred to move to nearby towns. At the same time, many Sardinian farmers decided to leave their farms and businesses. For that reason, the Italian government started offering the Sardinians an opportunity to buy huge areas of land in Tuscany at favorable prices. Many of them accepted this offer after which they moved to Tuscany, bringing hundreds and hundreds of sheep with them.

From Sardinia with Love

To be able to fully understand the history and quality of Pecorino di Pienza, I decided to visit the Fattoria Buca Nuova in the outskirts of Pienza. The company was founded in 1966, when Pietrino Cugusi and his wife, Mulas Maria Antonia, moved from Sardinia to Tuscany. Today, Pietrino’s son Emilio Cugusi is one of the heads of the company. He greets me as I arrive, and together we start our walk through the production unit.

“Since the middle of the 20th century, the production of Pecorino was carried out by the local farmers of this district who only had small breedings of sheep,” says Cugusi. “The sheep pastured in areas that otherwise would have been totally ignored. But, very slowly, these breedings started to be more substantial. The production became more and more important, and the markets—both the Italian and later on also some foreign markets—started to ask for higher volumes of a product that was characterized by a high quality.”

Today, the Sardinia imprint is still very present in the production of Pecorino. Sardinian sheep, which are a different breed compared to the Tuscan variety, are still used for the production of a cheese with very particular characteristics.

“The cheese is not spicy, although it’s full of character. I’d say that it has a decisive and rounded taste,” says Cugusi.

As we move further in the production unit, Cugusi stops and shows me some Pecorinos in the middle of a seasoning process.

“This orange Pecorino is being stored for 45 days. You obtain this color because of the external treatment that is used, i.e. the cheese is rubbed with a mix of tomatoes and olive oil,” he says. “This coating will naturally protect the cheese.”

Other types of Pecorinos are wrapped in a totally black coating or placed on a bed of leaves, which you are also able to see in Pienza’s numerous cheese shops. And one can also find Pecorino with a coating made on pomace from wine, which, of course, adds a very pleasant scent to the final product.

“As you can see, we have many different products and also sizes. Pecorino’s classical form weighs 1.5 kg, but we actually have cheese forms that weigh up to 6 kg. Although the standard seasoning is one and a half months, our Pecorino Gran Riserva, which is our top product, usually has a seasoning between 18 and 24 months,” Cugusi says.

In some Pecorinos sold in Pienza, you’ll even be able to see mold on the outside of the cheese. But there is actually no need to worry about that.

“The mold is actually a positive sign,” says Cugusi. “It occurs due to the fact that the cheese is not treated with chemical products in any way, and the seasoning is completely natural. The mold can easily be washed away.”

Not Protected

Pecorino is truly a unique cheese also when it comes to the quantity of the overall production, which is actually quite modest compared to a cheese produced commercially. While many of Italy’s other famous cheeses are protected by the EU-qualification DOP (Protected Designation of Origin), this is not the case with Pecorino of Pienza. Because it is not a protected brand, there is actually a risk of coming across fake products.

Around Pienza, only some 20 companies are producing the cheese made from the milk of just 3,000 sheep. As a matter of fact, if all the cheese sold under the brand Pecorino di Pienza were really the original, you would actually need 100,000 sheep.

Contributing to the problem are the sheep imported from France, which some local farmers have been using for milk in recent years. Instead of only 1 liter—the daily amount of milk coming from the traditional Sardinian sheep—the French sheep are able to produce 3 liters a day, which, of course, gives access to a larger production. However, the flavor of the final product is not like the original.

In the center of this Tuscan city, you’ll find the long Corso Rossellini, which cuts the town in two. The center of Pienza was designed in the Middle Ages by architect Bernardo Rossellino, who also worked for Pope Pio II, and it is dominated by the impressive Cathedral of Pienza, erected in 1462. From here, it is as though spirituality flows out to reach all corners of this small town, which is also known under its nickname “la città ideale”. This because Pienza was considered the Renaissance utopia incarnation of an ideal city, which, from an architectural point of view, is characterized by a rational organization of the open spaces and perspectives of squares and palaces.

Along the Corso, many small grocery and specialty stores can be found. And when you stop in front of them, you are automatically bound to be dragged inside by the inviting Pecorinos. Samples are on display to taste, and you’ll be able to try many before making your choice.

And, to complete the picture of Pienza, if you happen to visit the town on the first Sunday of September, do not miss the annual precision game ”il Gioco del Cacio al fuso”, where the participants try to role Pecorino cheese as close as possible to a pole. It takes place right in the center of town on Piazza Pio II and is an important folkloristic event of Pienza. On that day, a touch of fun and madness mixed with history and taste, will give you the perfect dimension of what Pienza is all about.

A Pandemic’s Impact on Imports

Coming to terms with the effect of COVID-19
on cheese imports to the U.S.

It’s difficult to find a historical parallel for the COVID-19 outbreak and its dramatic, wide-ranging impact on the cheese import industry.

Adam Moskowitz, owner of Larkin Cold Storage in Long Island, NY, offers the possibilities of World War I, World War II and the Spanish Flu because of their comparable global ramifications, but it takes returning to the first half of the 20th century to find episodes worthy of discussion—a time when the cheese importing industry looked much different.

Philip Marfuggi, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Cheese Importers Association of America, says the pandemic simply represents unchartered territory.

“There have been segments of business, impacted by strikes, value of the dollar, tariffs, oil prices, supply issues and bacteria outbreaks that we have faced, but this COVID-19 outbreak totally encompasses all aspects of business and life as we know it,” Marfuggi says.

He adds that the pandemic’s emergence began to be felt on cheese imports in the United States as early as February 2020. By March, the entire U.S. economy had been thrown into turmoil—cheese imports right along with it. Marfuggi says the initial impact of the pandemic included canceled orders and the loss of sales related to the closing of restaurants and lodging facilities. And cheese that was more perishable became “a liability at the retail level.”

Compensating & Adapting

Many retailers shut down their cut-and-wrap programs, increasing the demand for prepackaged, exact weight and random weight cheeses, while reducing the demand in bulk orders, as consumers and stores practiced social distancing. Importers couldn’t sell some perishable cheeses even at reduced prices and were forced to destroy some product.

“COVID-19 has certainly made its mark,” says Lassa Skinner, who oversees a new branch of Switzerland Cheese Marketing in the U.S. “It is too early to really understand the monetary impact, but because all tastings, cutting to order and even customer handling of pre-packed cheeses has been stopped at the retail level, sales have certainly slowed.”

Moskowitz says cut-to-order cheese is “in dire jeopardy now,” and he worries the short-term problems in that area will lead to long-term challenges.

“The labor shortage coupled with there being a concern about COVID-19 has made everything around cut to order just tighten up,” Moskowitz says. “Everything’s being wrapped right now; the demand is for pre-packs or nothing. And I wonder how that will play out long-term. Are we not going to see cut-to-order cheese shops anymore? Are we going to see it in a modified form? What is that going to look like?”

The supply chain’s abrupt unpredictability also immediately created a host of issues for importers. Moskowitz says freight costs increased on April 1 because of an equipment imbalance surcharge tied to reduced freight moving from Asia and a subsequent decline in available empty containers to ship goods.

“So not only is there an increased cost per container, but you have to work rather diligently to actually even be able to get the containers that you want to put cheese in,” Moskowitz says.

He also has seen freight delays related to a slowdown at the ports ranging from a few days up to a week.

“Freight delays have been a very big deal,” he says.

Moskowitz adds the disappearance of catering to offices and parties has been a blow to both independent and chain retailers who depend on that revenue source for their business models. Food distributors who worked with restaurants are among those most directly and hardest hit by the crisis.

“They lost 90 percent of their business overnight,” Moskowitz says. “These are companies that have been around for years, if not decades, and they have built up this business and then in a matter of a couple of weeks, they’ve literally lost all their business.”

Because the distributors ceased to buy cheese, among other products, for their restaurant clients, importers instantly felt the blow as orders stopped and distributors struggled to pay the bills they owed.

“A lot of cheese is bought weeks in advance based on what we’ll call advance orders or just general buying patterns,” Moskowitz says. “And so a bunch of importers were buying under the impression that they would be selling what they normally sell. Now their customers just disappeared. Yet that product is still coming in, and they still own that product. So there’s a scramble in terms of, ‘what do I do with all this product that I have now?’”

Meanwhile, Marfuggi says one of the most important tasks importers face is attempting to keep employees on the payroll in the face of “lost sales, lost customers, bad debts and lost profit.” And they have been attempting to accomplish that while ensuring the safety of employees and transitioning some in office staff to remote working.

But there is a bright spot. Moskowitz says cheese professionals were already following strict hygiene practices that have made them prepared to manage food safety efforts tied to the pandemic.

“Many of us in the industry have already been practicing deep cleaning, sanitation, using gloves, etc.,” Moskowitz says. “I think we were ready for this in terms of how to conduct ourselves in the workplace.”

Searching for a Recovery

According to Marfuggi, the unpredictability of the outbreak and its eventual resolution makes forecasting and planning for the future particularly difficult and complicates decision-making. Purchasing is a challenge, as it becomes more difficult to maintain inventory with lead times ranging from five to eight weeks to bring in product from overseas, he says.

“The impact will be felt for some time,” Marfuggi says. “I do not think the restaurant, hotel and foodservice sector will respond favorably when this outbreak subsides. I feel that companies in whatever business they are in will cut back on travel and entertainment as well as the general public, and that does not bode well for the hospitality trade. The retail sector I feel will bounce back much quicker, but I do think the trend will be towards more pre-packaged product.”

Marfuggi says it is too early to project when a recovery could even begin for the imported cheese industry, as this depends on a range of factors tied to COVID-19, including the availability of a vaccine.

“At the present time, with what little we know about this virus, along with the cancellation and postponement of all trade shows, sporting events, concerts, live broadcasts, no travel, etc., the world is shut down. Some parts are just opening up but with face masks, restrictions, etc.—it is very difficult to be optimistic for the near future,” Marfuggi says. “But I do feel when we actually are 100 percent certain of the cause and start by eliminating how and where this started, find a suitable treatment and develop a vaccine, we will as a world or nation come back strong. But it will be a while.”

Part of the challenge in envisioning a pandemic recovery is the many players around the world in cheese importing and the ways they are closely linked. The fate of one company can send ripples around the world.

“This is global, right?” Moskowitz says. “This is having an effect not just on us but on the producers and exporters in foreign countries. Everyone is going through something similar.”

In general, Moskowitz says, it’s difficult to anticipate what the new normal in the imported cheese industry will be.

Marfuggi similarly wonders what a recovery will look like. Will customers continue to buy specialty cheeses? Will there be fewer consumers with the funds to buy imported cheeses?

Skinner says importers will need to be innovative in the challenging climate.

“We are looking toward creative ways to introduce our cheeses to buyers at all levels, both digitally and through partnerships,” Skinner says.

According to Marfuggi, it will be crucial for cheese importers to stick together through the difficulties.

“It is a time where all cheese importers can help make a difference by keeping your employees safe and working wherever possible to ensure a safe product for the consumer,” Marfuggi says “And even though we are all competitors, sometimes even customers of each other, we should try and help each other where we can.”

Skinner says the appeal of specialty cheeses will not dim, even as these obstacles emerge.

“COVID-19 will leave its mark on the consumer in ways we don’t even understand yet, but it doesn’t stop people from wanting to eat well and indulge in specialty cheeses,” Skinner says.

And, in fact, if there’s a glimmer of optimism to be found amdist the chaos; Moskowitz says it has been clear that people continue to find comfort in food, even in the toughest of times. “Those in the cheese business are a resilient and positive community,” Moskowitz says. “And cheese has been a staple food for humanity for thousands of years. Cheese brings pleasure. With cheese, your meal feels better. So, if there’s a silver lining, hopefully this will inspire people to slow down and spend more time with family and enjoy their meals a bit more. I’m hoping that we all learn what’s most important in our lives and look to spend more time on that. And a great, great way for that to happen is over some cheese.”

A Domestic Cheese Mecca

A Domestic Cheese Mecca

For almost a decade, The Cheese Shop of Des Moines has cultivated its offerings of mainly regional and domestic artisanal cheese.

The impetus for C.J. Bienert opening The Cheese Shop of Des Moines was simple; after years of working in the cheese industry for different retailers, he was tired of being told no.

“I had worked at various cheese counters, markets and a wine shop that went out of business, and was sick of being told ‘no, you cannot have a closed case for American artisan cheeses,” says owner C.J. Bienert. “I knew the demand was there, and there was nothing like it in the area, so I decided to go on my own path.”

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