Anne Saxelby was an advocate of artisanal farmers and their goods


E.UROPEAN VISITORS to America, this land of infinite diversity, were often surprised by strange examples of equality. For example, why are all pencils yellow, with a pink eraser on the end? Why do so many local newspapers have the same antique masthead? And why, until 2003, were all dollar bills the same size and color, regardless of face value?

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Almost up to the present century, hardly anything has surprised them more than the equality of cheese. From sea to shining sea, America has traditionally offered six. Industrial milky mozzarella, like on pizza; Blue cheese, usually as a sauce in a plastic bottle; Swiss, a block of pale, thin, rubbery slices that taste of nothing; Monterey Jack, a pale attempt at cheddar; harmless cream cheese; and then, in orange splendor, processed cheese, liquid or semi-solid, to melt on burgers or to drown in nachos.

Anne Saxelby grew up in Chicago with all that schlock. Kraft singles were the default in their house, and “Fancy Cheese” was white American cut-to-order, straight from the grocery store. But she was so intrigued by the possibilities of cheese in America that in 2006 she opened a tiny stall at Essex Market on New York’s Lower East Side selling cheese made only by farms in Northeast America. It was the first ever, and within a few years, as the supermarkets gradually increased their game, she was the most famous cheese merchant in town. By 2020, hundreds of restaurants had regular orders and nearly 50 farms, half of which were less than two decades old, were serving them. In addition to educating New Yorkers, she helped save her farm friends, herds, and sustainable lifestyles in the verdant hills of New England.

With no local cheese culture to build on, she doubted anyone would come to her shoebox at Essex Market. But it offered lots of samples (“Try as much as you can!”) And an inviting, encouraging smile. Customers were introduced to Jasper Hill Calderwood, a hay-ripened raw cow’s milk cheese, and Harbison, a delicate number wrapped in spruce bark with a flowery rind; Spring Brook Tarentaise, a spicy, firm alpine cheese, and Vermont Shepherd Verano, a mature sheep’s cheese, nutty and slightly sweet. They could finally be led to Twig Farm Old Goat, old and rare, and even boldly tasting cheese they were sure they wouldn’t like, like the smellyest kind with washed rind. Eager but slowly, she flipped her taste buds.

It also calmed more general fears. Cheese didn’t make you fat; 75% of its calories could be from fat, but it was the good kind. (And if it made you fat, how was she so lean if she ate at least four ounces a day?) The uncontrolled stickiness of soft cheese wasn’t bad or wrong, but a sign of increasingly delicious foods. Slather it on a crust and see! You could eat cheese with mold on it – just cut it off – and it would still be fine, even if you forgot it in the bottom of a backpack for a day or so, like she did back then when she carried 25 pounds of it every Saturday to the stand with her business partner Benoit Breal, who wobbles through the city on her bikes.

Cheese lived a good way. Instead of fading, it has matured wonderfully. And contrary to most Americans’ opinion, the raw milk cheese that filled their booth wasn’t dangerous. As long as the animals were healthy and the cheese production was hygienic, raw milk offered only advantages: a better taste with the full, grassy taste of the terroir and easier digestion, since all these gut-supporting microbes were no longer killed by overheating.

Her own cheese training had taken a while. The first revelation came when she was 20 on a trip to Florence when, while nibbling pecorino and enjoying gorgonzola, she wondered why she couldn’t buy these things at the grocery store at home. A few months on a farm on the Loire showed her how strictly European cheese was regulated, subsidized, localized and accepted by consumers, a work of centuries. But the American cheesemakers had one big advantage: freedom. They could make their own cheese, give it a quirky name, and get it to market with the help of advocates like you. They could create their own traditions. Woodcock Farm’s Timberdoodle was pure cow’s milk in winter and half sheep’s milk in summer. Which European would ever do that?

To learn more about cheese, through which she now viewed the world, she traveled all over the northeast. Her suppliers were her teachers, and when she visited she asked a million questions like she had on her first visit to Murray’s cheese shop in Greenwich Village. First she would make a note of what the milking herds ate apart from fresh pasture: rough grass and fibrous stalks in the first cut of hay; in the second cut, sweeter grass and flowers that flavor the cheese. She proudly highlighted the peasant women, who played such a role in modern times, especially in goat cheese, as they did in the distant past. The whole virtuous cycle, from satisfied ruminants to healthier people and thriving rural communities, wowed them with its neatness and correctness.

Covid-19 was an attempt with a milk glut and restaurants closed, but it didn’t upset them. From her warehouse in Brooklyn, she moved mostly to mail order and got back to her new, larger booth in Chelsea Market as quickly as possible. Even with three young children, she seemed to have the energy of several women and hoped to pioneer for years and gain both depth and complexity like a good loaf of cheese. But she died of a heart condition that she had never been distracted from.

As a student at an art school, she had thought she might be a painter, but the world of galleries was cold and presumptuous. Instead, she felt like an artist, occasionally making cheese herself, turning milk into quark, quark into a slippery fresh wheel, and patiently paying attention to detail. She was particularly fond of the Dutch Old Masters, and her Christmas cheese platter was another still life like hers: five Vermont cheeses, sorted by color and texture, between nuts and raisins, prosciutto and brightly sliced ​​apples. All of these elements came together to create the transcendent joy of cheese: a joy that is now wonderfully diverse, from just a small corner of America.

This article appeared in the print obituary under the heading “Say Cheese, America!”

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