Tha(Lassa) Skinner, Co-Founder of Culture Magazine and Cheese Educator
Lassa is one of my favorites. When Spaulding Gray (RIP) and I started this website as a cheese blog, Lassa became one of our biggest cheerleaders and earliest supporters. She shared her knowledge and passion which fueled our early passion. Lassa generously and patiently answered our novice questions, helping us develop our own style and love for cheese. Lassa became a mentor and I will always be grateful and thankful.
Every time we see each other, it’s like running into one of my oldest BCFFs… Lassa, thanks so much for taking the time to answer questions for my 2015 Virtual Q&A with Cheese Professionals… you’re the best!!!
1.) Briefly tell me about yourself. How did you come to cheese? When did you realize you were a cheese geek?
“My parents were always adventurous eaters—they still are. So I’ve never been afraid of food. I’ll try anything (within sane reason). As a kid I was fascinated in nature as well as different cultures and peoples, and that spurred me into a lust for travel as soon as I was able.
My major in college was archaeology (which I’d decided on at age 13) and when I traveled and studied, I found that I was completely smitten by how ingredients, agriculture, food customs and eating habits differed around the globe, including wine. I studied recipes and cookbooks, and was very into foraging and harvesting. So how food was procured and made was a passion early in my life, and I absolutely loved Cheese came a bit later.
In the summer after my freshman year of college, I went to Boston to be closer to my sister and landed a job by chance through the Globe’s classifieds in a small, start-up gourmet shop in Brookline. By chance, I was placed in the cheese counter (though I eyed the Neuhaus chocolate counter and the in-house coffee roaster) with pride and fascination, too. There was a woman hired to manage the cheese counter who’d made cheese in the Loire and was a natural teacher and food lover. She took me with her to purchase cheeses at what was then Crystal, and I had my first viewing inside a distributor. I was hooked immediately. We brought back our order and set up our first case, then she invited me back to her home for a tasting. She poured Sancerre and pulled out a wrinkled, fairly hard disk that she said was a French goat cheese from near where she’d learned to make cheese. I thought the idea of goat milk was VERY strange. It had never occurred to me that any other kind of milk other than cow was used for anything of human consumption. And here was the really odd, apparently dessicated cheese that looked nothing like the block of cheddar that we might have at home (though I don’t recall much cheese in my life prior to this time, honestly. Ice cream, yes! Cheese, not so much.) I sipped my wine then nibbled at the tiny wedge she gave me. And WHAM! That was it. Seriously, it was the flavor and the complexity of that little crottin that completely blew me away. And it was raw milk back then, too. So that was my ‘turn to cheese’ time. I almost didn’t return to university after that summer, I was so into the shop, the flavors, the cheeses, the retail. But sense prevailed.
And I did go on to major in archaeology and do it for a living, for the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History as part of the Human Origins program, working a dig in East Africa (in the Kenyan rift valley). But at the center of my soul, food remained a passion. And when I left academia, I returned to Boston and did a culinary certificate then worked both front and back of house in restaurants and catering as well as at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge.
And though I did a variety of other jobs over the next 10 years in order to make enough $ to live, it’s cheese retail (with education and taste at the center) that’s my passion.”
2.) Where do you work and what is your job title? Describe a “typical” work day.
“My title at Culture Magazine is “Independent retail sales manager” though I am also co-owner with my sister and wear a multitude of hats daily that range from micro to macro, including writing articles, overseeing columns in the magazine, acting as an editorial advisor in any/all ways needed, putting together and running cheese-centric events, taking lead in organizing Culture’s booth and staff for trade shows, attending conferences, giving classes and seminars, etc. I work from my home office (in Napa) but am always on the road. Culture’s based in Boston, and I’m the lone west coaster.
My typical day includes at least one video conferencing meeting with the Culture team, up to 8 hours on the computer, and lots of phone calls. That’s if I’m not on the road with a specific conference or event. Then things obviously shift. I ‘m a big believer in direct contact as much as possible, so I prefer in person or via telephone. I think it’s more sincere, less apt to have communication difficulties and so much easier and faster to make everyone happy. I am not a computer person, though I do love using it for research and fact-checking. And I compose directly on it, not by hand anymore.”
3.) Do you have a favorite cheese or type? What would be your perfect pairing with this cheese?
“A perfectly ripe Epoisses, aged Burgundy, French baguette, and a bowlful of fresh cherries and ripe South Australian apricots.”
4.) Raw vs. Pasteurized? Does it matter? What difference does it make in the final product?
“Raw. And yes, it matters. There are many cheeses that won’t exist without using raw milk (think AOC/PDO regulations) and for those who want the diversity and nuances in flavor that unpasteurized cheeses allow, it’s important that we protect our ability to produce and purchase raw milk cheeses.”
“Yes. There is no reason why we shouldn’t. It’ll take a bit of teamwork and cooperation to make it happen, but I think it’d be a great next step for the US cheesemaking future.”
6.) Tell me about one of your “cheese journeys”. Was it traveling for pleasure or maybe “on the hunt” for an obscure cheese you just had to taste?
“Every time I go anywhere, it’s a cheese journey. And I’ve never been to any farm or visited any cheesemaker that hasn’t excited me completely, to my core, from the smallest, start-up maker to the largest, almost fully automated maker. I’m looking forward to visiting so many more, since each one has its own unique story.”
7.) Please share with me one fun, non-cheesy fact about you.
“Can I share three? I’m the only person who’s managed certified farmers markets in two different continents. I was heavily into acting and particularly into a cappella singing throughout my childhood and university years. And I’ve got the Skinner nose; you just need to see me side by side with my Dad and you’d know.”
8.) If you could do one thing, anything, all day long, what would it be?
“Travel to new places until 3pm every day, then research, read and write until 7pm, have a fantastic dinner with someone interesting and kind, then go to bed early to start all over again.”
Again, my thanks to Lassa for taking the time to participate in my 2015 Virtual Q&A with Cheese Professionals.
My thanks to everyone participating in my 2015 Virtual Q&A with Cheese Professionals. I hope all of you, my loyal readers, are enjoying this as much as I am…
Interviews will continue throughout 2015… sometimes, they will be “stand-alone” and sometimes they will be presented as round-table discussions with several Cheese Professionals answering the same question. Those participating includeCheesemakers, 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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