July 5th, 2006
|08:02 pm - The Cheese Nun|
For the last few months, customers have occasionally asked if that was me they saw in the Cheese Nun movie. I had no idea really. Sister Noella and I have exchanged a few words, mostly involving her asking what I wanted from the bar at the SF Cheese Conference Festival of Cheese, but none memorable enough to be captured on film for a PBS documentary. I do truly appreciate her work as a cheese bio chemist and resource to traditional cheesemakers.
No one asked me what I thought though, so I knew if I was there it would be in a non-speaking, background role. I rented the movie last night and sure enough, there I am. About five minutes before the end, during the filming of the Festival of Cheese in Louisville Kentucky, they focus on some woman eating cheese. She backs up and there I am taking notes on the cheese I’m eating. I’m in my blue bowling shirt that Gary Fembot bought for me at a thrift store because "Gordon" is stitched on the front. Full frame baby!
It was a bittersweet couple of minutes because, of course, I know lots of the people in those scenes. The reason it was bittersweet is because, just before my cameo, the cheesemakers they show looking at their cheese through Sister Noella’s microscope a very sweet couple who went out of business last year. They made a great cheese that won best in its category the first year they entered it. They were wide-eyed and sweet when I first met them, avoiding all the pretentiousness that the cheese conference can bring out.
Unfortunately, the combination of a recall and a national retail chain contract put them out of business. The recall was for listeria. A test on a cheese came back positive and they had to recall and destroy everything in their aging rooms despite the fact that even though they did many, many more tests they never found another cheese that tested positive or the "source" of the contamination. A bad test? Compromised at the lab? An incredibly localized problem? No one knows. Certainly there were no reported ill effects.
As for the contract, I don’t know the specifics. But those contracts have brought many cheesemakers to the brink of bankruptcy. Basically, what can happen is this: a place like Costco or TJ’s makes an offer on someone’s cheese at a certain price. Many cheesemakers have a problem with quantity of scale so the increased production is a godsend even if they are selling some of that product cheaper. The problem comes in when dairies expand their facilities to meet that increased demand. A year later, with the dairies now carrying a much bigger load of debt on their larger production facilities, the chain comes back with an offer that is less per pound and it’s take it or leave it. Especially in these years of rapidly increased utility and transportation costs, neither option is sustainable for long if they’ve overextended themselves..
One or the other they probably could have survived, but both things in the same year put them under.
In the movie, however, they are just so excited to be checking out the microscopic activity in their product. It’s, pardon the not-actually-a-pun, infectious. It’s no wonder the film maker used that image in the film because watching Sister Noella show them their own cheese in a brand new way was exciting. It really brought home both the value of someone like Sister Noella and the hunger there is among small-scale cheesemakers for the knowledge to make their cheese better and better.
It was fun to see that cheese couple still so idealistic and excited, before the business bit them in the butt.
Thanks for the cheese nun scoop!
And ohmygod! This just in! Today I was encouraged to become an apprentice to a local cheesemaking family! And it is so so so tempting. So we'll see. If I ever become a cheese nun, you will totally get more than 5 minutes in my movie.
ha. which family?
and to be clear, I didn't have five minutes, I was in the movie about 5 minutes before the end. I had about 5-10 seconds.