It is an honor to have Max McCalman answer a few questions for my 2015 “Meet The Cheese Professionals” Series.
Max, thank you for sharing your time and thoughts with my readers.
As the foremost advocate of artisan cheese in the United States and author of the book many, including myself, consider our “cheese bible”, Mastering Cheese, (which I have read cover-to-cover at least six times) it’s hard to know where to start with my questions.
I’ll start with the basics: When did you “come to cheeses”? I know my readers and I’d like to hear about what created and fueled your passion.
“One of my earliest childhood memories: while a toddler, sitting on my mother’s kitchen counter with a cold, watching her prepare a meal, I reach out to a piece of cheese. She tells me, “Do not touch the cheese,” suggesting I might “infect” it with my cold. Later, growing up in Brazil from age 5 to almost 12, my parents are advised to avoid dairy products, save for parboiled milk (which I recall detesting), dairy became the “forbidden fruit.” When we returned to the states, I could not get enough butter, ice cream and cheese especially. Sadly, a significant portion of my formative years were dairy-free so my calcium intake was small. I theorize this may be one reason why I am only 5’10” whereas my genes would bring me to 6’1″.
A milestone occurred in the late 80’s: I attended an event promoting French wines. My work at the time involved creating wine lists. Several cheeses were served alongside the wines, some of which we are unable to import today, nor were we suppose to then. Yet there they were. My focus veered to the cheeses, and to how they played off the various French wines. These were the seeds of my cheese and wine pairing record-keeping. This record-keeping is reaching fruition in my upcoming cheese and wine app. More on this below…”
I usually ask Cheese Professionals to describe a “typical” day… but I think we’d like to know more than just a day in your life… whatever, you’d like to share.
“I read about cheese. Surprised? I write about cheese, and tweak presentations for upcoming classes and sessions. Planning them takes more time than one might expect. I spend time in research and planning because cheese suffers from myths and misrepresentation. It is important to deliver the message correctly. To think of what the cheesemaker goes through to deliver a superior cheese, it is the least we can do.
I read parts of a few publications: the New Yorker, Atlantic, New York Times and Wall Street Journal. I am pretty good responding to emails, not so good at dealing with social media.
I confer with my business partner at least once a day. Our fledgling company requires a lot of our time but it is fun to watch it grow.
I eat a minimum of one pound of cheese each week, often it is closer to two pounds, occasionally more. A highlight of most days involves tasting several cheeses with wine, beer, or other beverages, making scores which I add to the databases of pairings.
My cheese “diet” makes it difficult to keep my weight up so my infrequent workouts are not aerobic; I get enough of that just living in NYC. “
“I was given the title “Maître Fromager” before I deserved it. Chef/Owner of NYC’s Picholine restaurant, Terrance Brennan, combined my functions, Maître d’Hotel with Fromager, to come up with the title. I soon discovered that a MF is a big deal in France. I was inducted into the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers as a Gard et Juré in 2002, then was elevated to the level of Maître Fromager in 2013. This occurred after publication of my third book – Mastering Cheese – almost two decades after I began my cheese career. I am thrilled that I reached that level in the Guilde after such a short time. My career was summarized by Cathy Strange at that induction ceremony where the elevation occurred. I was moved and I feel honored.”
As I mentioned above, I have read Mastering Cheese at least six times. While studying for the 2013 ACS CCP exam, I kept going back to your book to find answers and explanations to help me prepare for the exam. How do you research your books? We’d love to know more about your writing process for this book and others.
“The “take-away” whenever I speak and most times when I write is that cheese is a near-perfect food. This is the reason the opening chapter in Mastering Cheese is “Cheese is Good and Good for You.” I draw from multiple sources in my research for writing. I find more valuable information in books than online. My outlines help shape my writing but the actual writing ends up influencing the original outline. I also confer with friends whose opinions I value. This often turns the process inside out but I end up with a better product.”
And about the ACS CCP exam, share with us its importance and place in our industry.
“Monumental. The endeavor will go a long way to right the wrongs cheese suffers. The ACS CCP endeavor will serve to debunk myths; grow connoisseurship; raise the cheese bar in production, affinage, vending and maintaining; and it will promote cheese as the near-perfect food that is can be. The program also will give deserving cheesepersons recognition and provide them with career opportunities. Many CCP candidates find the exam preparation worth the experience on its own, regardless of whether or not they end up passing it.”
Please share the most unusual/interesting journey you made to find a specific cheese.
“That’s a tough one. As much as I love to visit Europe, I wish I didn’t have to go there to get the many cheeses I choose. There are more and more fine cheeses crossing my palate I had never tasted before, sadly, none of them less than sixty days old and crafted from compromised milk. It appears that most of the excitement occurring in today’s cheese world is occurring within our shores. To think how much more exciting it would be if younger raw milk cheeses were available.”
Mastering Cheese discusses your position regarding raw milk cheese. If you would like to share your thoughts, we’d love to hear more. (Much has occurred regarding this issue since you wrote MC in 2009.)
“I tried to be fair in the chapter on raw milk cheeses yet it is difficult, considering all the evidence I see on behalf of unpasteurized cheeses: their track records for safety, their histories, their shelf lives, their superior nutritive values, and their aggregation of top honors in cheese competitions. In the American Cheese Society’s Best-in-Show winners alone: Uplands Pleasant Ridge (three-time winner), Rogue River Blue (twice), Vermont Shepherd, Trade Lake Cedar, etc.”
Do you have a favorite cheese; a favorite style or favorite milk type cheese?
“I wrote an ode to Azeitão for Mastering Cheese, a cheese recently made unavailable here. The ode did not make it into the book in its original version; it was a little too raw. There are many other great cheeses but Queijo Azeitão captures the essence of ancient farmhouse cheese: one still produced today in the same painstaking way it has been for decades. A simple, unpretentious cheese, with depth of flavor and nutrients, a style of cheese often misunderstood but deserving of our admiration. I have a fondness for thistle-renneted sheep cheeses. If there were a few more goat versions, that would be another favorite category. The Gruyère types, also admirable.”
Please share a couple (or more) of your favorite pairings and platings.
“It is illustrative to have more than one pairing in a setting. One cheese and one wine doesn’t tell me much. As much as I enjoy the fruit in a wine, the fruit-forward styles with higher alcohol levels are less fascinating than the subtler ones. Those fruity wines enjoy advantages in cheese pairings but there’s more to successful pairings than balancing fruity and savory.
I am increasingly interested in “local” pairings, not because of some nativism but because there are so many amazing cheeses being produced nearby. And the local microbrew scene is equally impressive so cheeses and beers of the northeast are comprising more and more of my pairing combos.”
Please tell us the new direction you are taking your life, knowledge and passions.
“Direct cheesemaking operations into sustainable and award-winning enterprises. Help prepare candidates for the ACS CCP exam. Write another book. Launch my cheese and wine this spring. Launch a cheese and beer app before the end of 2015. Assemble a cheese and spirits app before the end of 2016. Work as guest educator for Cheese Journeys.”
Interviews will continue throughout 2015… sometimes, they will be “stand-alone” and sometimes they will be presented as virtual round-table discussions with several Cheese Professionals answering the same question. Those participating include Cheesemakers, ACS CCPs™,Cheesemongers and Cheese Professionals and Experts who contribute to this Wonderful World we call “Cheese”.
List of 2015 Cheese Professionals.
List of all Cheese Professionals Bios.
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