When you look at lists of America’s favorite foods cheese is always ranked way up there. In fact pizza lands in the number one spot on most polls.
That’s pretty interesting seeing as there are millions of Americans with a lactose intolerance.
So is it our obsession with cheese that’s making us intolerant and sick or is it the type of dairy we are consuming?
This week I sat down with Eric Miller, a local cheesemonger who promotes high quality cheeses made by local small farms.
We chatted about his top 3 favorite local cheese makers, Mission Cheese where Eric currently works and Makers Common, which is the highly anticipated sequel to Mission Cheese expected to open next year.
I couldn’t help but to think, if Americans ate cheese like the ones Eric promotes would we be healthier with less lactose intolerance? Not to mention the impact we could make by spending our dollars supporting small dairy farmers and cheesemakers versus the factory farmed dairy industry. And finally, what if we all ate artisan cheese made from pastured animals off of a plate with a fork and knife like civilized human beings instead of cramming commodity dairy processed cheese into our face with no thought at all?. Things that make you go hmmmmm…..
How did you get interested in cheese?
EM: I’d have to say it was an experience eating Saint-Marcellin (which I loved) and Petit Livarot (which I hated – at the time.) I just started eating a lot of cheese, bringing cheese to parties, cooking with it at home. I won’t say I was obsessed but a lot of money was spent on cheese at home.
Do you have any formal cheesemongering education?
EM: I’m not sure there’s much in the way of formal education. I’d say most of the people I know started at a cheese counter or a restaurant that had a good cheese program. There are some great books like Mastering Cheese by Max McCalman, or Cheese Primer by Steve Jenkins. They’re good companions to the on-the-job training, which is going to be your best resource.
How long have you been working as a cheesemonger and how did you get into the industry?
EM: Eventually, work got to a point where I thought that it was time to get out of my industry and get into gourmet food. I started volunteering in the Murray’s Cheese classroom in New York as an assistant and spent over 100 hours there learning whatever I could. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make the change at that time – nothing was available and I wasn’t ready to take the huge pay cut. A couple of years later it was time to make the jump and leave the cubicle behind – money be damned! San Francisco was the place and Mission Cheese is where I got my start. It really counts as my first job in food. I’ve been working with Mission Cheese for over five years at this point. I’m definitely a cheesemonger.
Do you make any cheeses yourself?
EM: I’ve only made a few fresh cheeses myself. Making super small batches of cheese is more complex than you’d think when you only have a five-gallon pot at home.
In your opinion, who are the top 3 cheese makers in the bay area right now?
EM: Such a difficult question! The Bay Area really crushes it on the cheese front these days. If I had to pick a few that are shining really bright at the moment I’d roll with Bleating Heart – they just took 2nd place at the American Cheese Society’s annual conference for Buff Blue. Barinaga Ranch who took 1st place in their category for Baserri. It’s bittersweet for the industry because Marcia Barinaga is retiring. And I was just snacking on some cheese from Garden Variety – it’s been a while since I’ve had any of their cheese and it’s still amazing!
What are they doing that makes them stand out from the others?
EM: Bleating Heart is really creative and making some truly inspired blue cheese that’s different from everyone else. I love the different blues they make. They really stand out. Barinaga and Garden Variety are some amazing farmstead cheesemakers that not only love their animals, but they love their land just as much. They know that if the land isn’t cared for you’re not going to have the best cheese.
What are your favorite cheeses of theirs?
Tell me about Mission Cheese.
EM: Mission Cheese is here to celebrate they amazing work of American artisan cheesemakers. The American cheese movement is relatively young in comparison to the industry in Europe and for years has been grossly underrepresented at cheese counters in America. The owners of Mission Cheese, Sarah & Oliver, have really made it clear that we’re here to support this industry in every way we possibly can. So we serve up beautiful cheese flights, grilled cheese sandwiches, and killer Mac n Cheese, and more. I started our pickling and in-house charcuterie programs several years ago and it’s been doing really well.
Do you carry any local seasonal cheeses there? What would be an example of a seasonal cheese?
EM: All the cheeses that I mentioned before would be examples of seasonal cheeses. Pretty much all of the sheep’s milk cheese we get is seasonal – sheep aren’t as cooperative at breeding outside of their natural cycle like goats and cows. There are a lot of cow and goat cheeses that are seasonal but probably almost as many that are made year ‘round.
Tell me about Makers Common.
EM: I’ve partnered up with Sarah and Oliver to open Maker’s Common and couldn’t be more excited! We’re going to take everything we’ve done at Mission Cheese and expand upon it. We’ll still focus on American artisan cheese, charcuterie, wine, and beer but will also have a full kitchen, and a dedicated retail area with a cheese and charcuterie counter and more.
We’ve already signed a ten-year lease in downtown Berkeley and construction will start in the beginning of November. The space is about three times bigger than Mission Cheese and will have a nice big outdoor patio. This will allow us to do family-style dinners, produce more in-house charcuterie, and increase our pickle production.
We’re still raising money through a Direct Public Offering so anyone in the state of California can actually invest. To date we’ve raised over $400,000 that has come mostly from the Bay Area. I encourage everyone to check out the Maker’s Common website and get involved. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
What is your role going to be there?
EM: Well, it’s a small business so it’ll definitely be some of everything, ha! But I’ll be taking the role of GM, Culinary Director, and Charcuterie Guy. Of course, the plan is to get someone on board that can take on more menu development and such but I’m working on the opening menu. I’ll also have to become a state certified Meat Processing Facility Inspector for our charcuterie production. Jealous?
That’s cool! Which local vendors will you be using at Makers common?
EM: We work with a lot of cheesemakers directly in the Bay Area but we’ll also use Tomales Bay Foods, Cream & The Crop, Food Matters Again, Chef’s Warehouse, and a few others for cheese and charcuterie. For produce we’ll do as much farm-direct as we can. For meat we have some great relationships with some of our cheesemakers that keep hogs but also look forward to working with Llano Seco as much as possible. We haven’t even gotten into the wine and beer side!
Tell me more about the charcuterie program you are developing for Makers Common.
EM: We’ll have cooked items like pates, terrines, and such but for fermented items like salami or whole muscle cuts like a coppa I want to make everything we do transparent. It drives me crazy that there are still so many restaurants that make delicious meats but keep it all hidden from the inspectors – and the public! Having staged at Olympia Provisions as well as Trou Normand in production makes me want to make the best product I can make.
I hope to work with Llano Seco as well as some local farmers that will be able to hook me up with some of their hogs, lambs, and goats.
What is your favorite thing about working in the restaurant industry in San Francisco?
EM: I really love that every one I’ve worked with shares their techniques, recipes, and processes. This is how we all learn to be better cooks and producers. We’re all trying to up our game and you just can’t do that if you’re not willing to explore ideas with others. When you work in a vacuum you’re working with one hand tied behind your back. You need people around to provide inspiration.
After talking with Eric besides, being hungry for cheese, I was inspired. People like him and restaurants like these are the driving force behind supporting your community and farm to table foods. I am in love with Mission Cheese and can’t wait for Makers Common to open.
I know when I am in the mood for some cheesy goodness I would much rather eat a product that was made by hard-working people who take pride in their work and care about the impact they are making on our environment than something that resembles rubber and is made from sick animals. But hey, that’s just me.
Eric is the director of the in-house charcuterie program and cheesemonger at Mission Cheese. After escaping his former cubicle life, he is now creating traditional charcuterie with an American flair, along with pickles, and desserts, and other delicious items as part of his new project, Maker’s Common. A native New Yorker, Eric has spent numerous hours helping educate the masses about the art of meats and cheeses at the legendary Murray’s Cheese. As an enthusiastic transplant to the west coast, he’s always excited about bringing his New York know-how to San Francisco’s fresh food scene.
Sarah Burchard is the author of The Healthy Locavore, a natural foods chef and experience host whose writing focuses on cooking, holistic health, supporting community and eating locally grown and made foods.