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Meet Alice Phillips

Alice Phillips
Chef + Traveler
Alice Bergen Phillips, the cheesemonger at Via Umbria, originally hails from Chicago, IL. Alice grew up in a family who loved to cook, eat, and travel, and spent much of her young life eating her way across England and France. After receiving her degree in International Politics and French from Bates College, Alice moved to DC to pursue a career in politics, only to discover that she enjoyed the world of specialty food much more than her chosen field of academic study. Upon this realization, Alice delved into the worlds of coffee, tea, wine, and ultimately, cheese. Alice now runs the Via Umbria cheese counter, bringing the best cheeses from far and wide to Georgetown.

Springtime means Sheep Time

I’ve been on a sheep-cheese kick, as of late. Sampling Umbria’s multitude of pecorinos while traveling through the region this past February (you can read about my trip in my last blog post) left me wanting more of that distinctively fatty and creamy, yet slightly gamey umami punch that you can only get from sheep’s milk.

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Unbeknownst to me at the time, I couldn’t have planned my return from Umbria any better –  I rolled right off the plane and smack dab into the beginning of lambing season. Springtime is the beginning of sheep time in the cheese world. Because of ewes’ lactation period, sheep’s milk isn’t available year round – the season starts in the spring and ends in the early fall. That means that fresh sheep’s milk cheeses simply aren’t available during the late fall and winter, and aged sheep’s cheeses slow down production because of the lack of fresh milk. Basically what I’m saying is, spring is a good time to come home with a hankering for sheep’s milk. Good job, me.

While lots of different cultures around the world make cheese out of sheep’s milk, pecorino is probably the best well known. That being said, it is probably one of the most misunderstood. Many of my customers come to my counter asking for pecorino, but have no idea that, a) it is actually made from sheep’s milk, and b) there are many different types of pecorinos out there. So let’s start with the basics: the word pecorino comes from the Italian word for sheep, pecora. Hence, any Italian cheese made with sheep’s milk is technically a pecorino. This means that in Italy, there are a truly incalculable amount of pecorinos – when I staged at Caseificio Broccatelli, their dairy alone made at least a dozen different styles of pecorino.

At the Via Umbria cheese counter, we’ve carried a few different types of pecorinos over the past year and a half, but three styles in particular stick out – Romano, Toscano, and Sardo. Pecorino Romano, from Rome, is probably the best well known of the bunch. With its grate-able texture and extremely salty flavor, is perfect for seasoning dishes. Our Tuscan friend, Toscano, on the other hand, is much softer, creamier, and milder – a good addition to any cheese plate and a natural fit, in my opinion, to pair with charcuterie. Pecorino Sardo, from the island of Sardinia, however, is my personal favorite. More moisture and complexity with less salt than the Romano, but harder and brinier than the Toscano, this delightful cheese is a happy medium on the pecorino spectrum. It’s good on a cheese plate, grated into dishes, drizzled with honey and served with walnuts, melted over traditional Sardinian bread – you name it, Sardo’s good for it.

I’m pleased to announce that Pecorino Sardo will be the Via Umbria April cheese of the month! Come taste this springtime favorite at our Monthly Cheese Party, next Wednesday April 5th at 7:30pmPecorino_Sardo_Cheese.

Pecorinos on the rise Read more

I've been on a sheep-cheese kick, as of late. Sampling Umbria's multitude of pecorinos while traveling through the region this past February ...

To Fondue or Not to Fondue?

Is that even a question?

So first off, let me get one thing out in the open – I didn’t always have such warm and fuzzy feelings about fondue. How can that be, you might well ask? Isn’t it just melty, cheesy goodness? Well, my friends, let me just say that fondue taught me the “too much of a good thing” lesson the hard way.

When I was in high school, my family took an epic trip around Switzerland. Just in case you’ve been living under a rock and somehow weren’t aware of this already, Switzerland makes absolutely fabulous cheese. For the Swiss, cheese is one of the central pillars of their cuisine, culture, and identity. If you think about it, this makes sense – with Switzerland’s high, alpine meadows full of lush green grass and herbs, raising dairy cows is a natural choice. From these cows, the world has been graced with cheeses like Appenzeller, Raclette, Gruyere, and Comte, to name just a few. And believe me, these are not the presliced, plastic sealed “baby swiss” that you’ll find in supermarkets across the US. Ranging from sweet, nutty, and milky to zesty, piquant, and punchy, these cheeses run the gambit of flavor, while also showcasing terroir and age-old technique.

Anyway, back to my story: From Geneva to Bern, Mont Blanc to Montreux, we saw the sites, hiked the hills, and ate and ate and ate. Our first stop on this grand adventure was the town of Gruyere, where, as you can imagine, the cheese of the same name comes from. The first night we were there, we had a fantastic dinner comprised of a giant pot of fondue and lots and lots of fresh bread.

Okay, hold up – let’s talk for a second. What actually is fondue? Fondue – from the french word fondre, “to melt” – is the national dish of Switzerland. The earliest fondue recipe dates back to 1699 – basically, it advises the reader to melt grated cheese with wine and dip bread into it. To this day, that’s basically what fondue continues to be: cheese, wine, and various seasonings melted down together and then poured into a communal pot which has been placed over a flame (to keep it nice and melty). Long forks are used to dip bread or vegetables into the cheese mixture. Deliciousness and happiness ensue.DSCF4766

So there we were: my parents, my sisters, and me, all gorging ourselves on Switzerland’s national, and most popular, dish. The bread and cheese kept flowing for hours, and, you can rest assured that I kept going well after everyone else had reached their limit. It was absolute heaven… Until, later that night, it absolutely wasn’t. I’ll spare you the gory details, but let’s just say that I must have eaten at least my weight, if not more, in melted cheese and good lord, did I regret it. Way, way, way too much of a good thing.

It took me awhile to be able to look a fondue pot in the face again, but through hard work and perseverance, I can happily say that fondue and I are good friends again. And not a moment too soon – this February, the Via Umbria cheese counter will be shaking off the late-winter chill and celebrating this decadent and delicious Swiss dish with not one, but two events. First up, we have our monthly Cheese Party next Wednesday, February 1st, where we will be sampling some traditional Alpine fondue. Then, on Saturday, February 25th, we’ll be having our second annual MELT party – a fabulous night celebrating all things cheesy and melty, including some delectable fondue. So come, hang out with us, and indulge in these awesome events! Just don’t pull an Alice – be sure to pace yourself!

 

Alice Bergen Phillips
Alice Bergen Phillips

Gorging on Switzerland's most popular dish Read more

Is that even a question? So first off, let me get one thing out in the open - I didn't always have such ...

Harbison for Breakfast

“So what’s your favorite cheese?”

I’d say I get this question at least three or four times a day, every day. And do you know what? It is a freaking hard one to answer. I mean, I get it – customers want to know what their monger thinks is the best of the best. Sure, fair enough. But I always end up launching into a spiel about different cheeses tasting better at different times of year… Different cheeses being more or less appropriate in varying situations… The fact that my mood changes and with it, my “favorite” cheese… The fact that the words “best” or “favorite” are completely subjective.

But more often than not, I receive a reply along the lines of, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…

But really. What’s your favorite cheese?”

And that’s when I turn to my dear friend, Harbison. Named for Anne Harbison, affectionately known as the “grandmother of Greensboro”, this wonderful little cheese hails from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. And while I stand by the fact that I crave different cheeses at different times, different cheeses are good for different things, (I’m sure you get the picture…), this is the cheese that I turn to time and again as my tried-and-true, year-round, no-qualifiers-needed favorite.

So what makes this particular wheel my go-to? Well, let’s count the ways – first, it’s a straight-up beautiful cheese. Whenever people come to my counter looking for something “different” or want to impress at a party, I always point them to the Harbison. It’s striking – modeled on the famous Vacherin Mont d’Or from Switzerland, Harbison is a 9oz circle of ooey gooey cow’s milk covered in downy white mold, which has been encased in a ring of spruce bark, mottled with blue, white, and green.

harbison-2In addition to the fact that it looks gorgeous as soon as you unwrap it, the best way to serve it is also a bit different than your average cheese. Instead of cutting it into wedges as per usual, I usually advise that customers use a butter knife to slice off the top rind, thus turning it into a self-contained cheesy dip. Believe me – it’s something that’s going to stand out from your average hunk of cheddar or a wedge of brie.

And finally, let’s talk flavor – while not, in my opinion, a real stinker, Harbison is chock full of flavor, making it ideal for a wide range of people. I always find tons of meaty, mustardy flavors hiding beneath it’s surface, along with a silky, spreadable texture that just won’t quit. True story – the year that I discovered Harbison, I brought a couple of wheels home for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately for my family, one of those wheels didn’t quite make it to the holiday table – I ate an entire wheel by myself for breakfast. That whole self-control thing goes right out the window when you get a perfectly ripe wheel of Harbison.

I’m so happy to announce that Harbison will be Via Umbria’s Cheese of the Month for January! We’ll be exploring this decadent, savory, umami-filled cheese next Wednesday, January 4th at 7:30pm at our Monthly Cheese Party. You may still feel full from the holidays, but believe me, you won’t want to miss it!

 

Alice Bergen Phillips
Alice Bergen Phillips

What's YOUR favorite cheese? Read more

"So what's your favorite cheese?" I'd say I get this question at least three or four times a day, every day. And do ...

In Love with British Cheese

You guys. I have a serious relationship with British cheeses. This will come as no shock to those of you who have either read my blog posts or visited my counter – I’ve made my love known far and wide. Growing up with an English mother whose parents had a farm in the Yorkshire Dales, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where the roots of this relationship formed. Couple that with Via Umbria’s partnership with famed British cheese shop/affineur/exporter, Neal’s Yard Dairy – a partnership that has given me and my lovely customers access to the best that Britain has to offer – and my love of these curds from the UK has damn near become an obsession.

A very large portion of this love is dedicated to the one cheese that opened my eyes to the wonders of blue mold – Stilton. Creamy yet crumbly, powerful yet approachable, good on its own or incorporated into recipes, this beautiful blue cheese was my gateway blue. And no time of year makes me crave it more than holiday time.

Growing up, my family and I would celebrate Christmas with my English grandparents. My sisters and I looked forward to it for months – an hours-long feast that included caviar canapes, duck à l’orange or roasted pheasant, my granny’s famous roasted potatoes, and Christmas pudding served with copious amounts of rum butter. The meal was so lengthy and full of so many delicious things, that we’d have to play games between courses in order to make room for the next culinary delight. As with many a British Christmas, however, no Christmas meal was complete without a very large hunk of Stilton served with port. It was heaven.

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So what is Stilton? Named for the town of Stilton, this quintessentially British cheese can trace its roots all the way back to the 18th century, although research shows that it was a very different product then than it is now. The first descriptions of Stilton cheese describe it as more of a cream cheese with no blue veining whatsoever. Over time, however, it evolved into the classic blue beauty that we know and love today.

Now a protected food, there are restrictions on cheeses that bear the Stilton name – it must be produced in one of three counties (either Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, or Leicestershire), be made with local pasteurized milk, have a naturally rinded cylindrical shape, not be pressed, and of course, have blue veins. Even if a wheel meets all of these requirements, however, it still may not make the cut. Every wheel must be graded and pass a quality test before being dubbed “Stilton”. If a wheel doesn’t pass muster, it must be sold simply as “blue cheese”.

Even though about a million wheels of Stilton are made every year, there are only six dairies that are licensed to make this classic blue. At Via Umbria, our Stiltons are made by Colston Bassett Dairy in Nottinghamshire, and hand selected by our friends at Neal’s Yard Dairy. Founded in 1913, Colston Bassett has been making Stilton for over 100 years, and has only had 4 different cheesemakers during that period. As Jason Hinds, Sales Director at Neal’s Yard Dairy, puts it, “With only four cheesemakers in the last one hundred years, Colston Bassett has maintained a tradition and quality of cheesemaking that is unparalleled in the Stilton world. It is the only Stilton that Neal’s Yard Dairy has carried for the last thirty three years.” And if it’s good enough for Jason Hinds, you better believe that you have a seriously good cheese on your hands.

All of this to say: Colston Bassett Stilton is Via Umbria’s December cheese of the month! Come and join us next Wednesday at 7:30pm for our December Cheese Party, and jump into the holiday season by tasting this fantastic piece of British tradition.

 

Alice Bergen Phillips
Alice Bergen Phillips

Discover Their Roots Read more

You guys. I have a serious relationship with British cheeses. This will come as no shock to those of you who have ...

Fall Flavors at the Cheese Counter

So you guys, it’s official – summer is finally over. And I, for one, am THRILLED. Don’t get me wrong – I love me some 4th of July fireworks, grilled meats, and summer-only cheeses paired with some gorgeous tomatoes or cucumbers. Those are all lovely things. Add in some chilled rose, and I’m a pretty darn happy camper.

All that being said, I decidedly do not love the hot, sticky, sweaty, mosquito-y weather that DC calls summertime. Holy moly. Don’t get me wrong, I really do love living here, but this little swamp-town known as our nation’s capitol is pretty darn unbearable from June until about halfway through October. Woof.

aotc-lamuse

But it’s over! It’s finally over! And with the weather graciously subsiding, not only are wardrobes changing – oh hey there sweaters, scarves, and boots! – but tastebuds are starting to change as well. When the temperature starts dropping and leaves start falling, bigger, bolder flavors that are just too darn much in the oppressive heat suddenly seem incredibly appealing.

Which leads me to one of my all-time favorite cheeses: aged gouda. For me, fall means it’s time for some butterscotchy, nutty, salty/sweet aged gouda. And no one does aged gouda better than L’Amuse.

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Let me back up for a moment – what is gouda? Strictly speaking, gouda is a cow’s milk cheese made with washed curds that traditionally hails from the Netherlands. Actually, the name “Gouda” comes from a town of the same name where the cheese was originally traded. This is about as specific as gouda gets, though. The name itself is not protected, so when you see the word “gouda” on a package, it can mean many different things. It can come from different places, be aged for varying degrees of time, be made from different milks – all things that lead to very different flavor profiles and/or textures.

So how do you know if the gouda you’re buying is the right one for you? How do you know you’re not going to end up with plastic wrapped, pre-sliced, rubbery cheese that tastes like fake smoke? My answer is the same one I pretty much give in any cheesy situation: talk to your cheesemonger. It’s our job to find the best cheeses around and then pair you with the right one.

Now, some of you may be asking yourselves – but how do we find these delicious cheeses? Well, in the case of the gouda that I carry, the answer is simple: I turn to Essex St. Cheese Co. For those of you who read my blog post about feta way back in July, that name will sound familiar – this team of fantastic importers provides the Via Umbria counter with their fabulous feta, as well as manchego, and gouda. To refresh you guys on what Essex St. does, I turn to my previous post: “Rather than importing many different types of cheese, Essex finds the best of the best and brings in only a handful of cheeses, with each type only having one producer. Their bar is extremely high.”

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Not only is this high bar met, but I dare say that it’s exceeded by the goudas coming out of L’Amuse Fromagerie in Santpoort-Noord. L’Amuse is owned and operated by master-cheesemonger and affineur Betty Koster – I had the privilege of meeting Betty during CMI and not only is she amazing at what she does, but she can also only be described as thoroughly warm and decidedly delightful.

But back to the cheese – for their Signature Gouda, the L’Amuse team hand-selects cheeses from the Cono cheesemaking plant in the northern Netherlands, and then ages them to perfection over the course of 2 years. Instead of aging them at cooler temperatures, as is done with most traditionally aged goudas, Betty keeps them at mid-temperature in order to develop fully rounded flavors. And oh man, what flavors develop! Butterscotch, caramel, toasted hazelnuts, and cream are all ensconced in this dense yet velvety paste.

In case you hadn’t already guessed it, L’Amuse Signature Gouda will be Via Umbria’s November cheese of the month, and I couldn’t be more excited! Please join us for our monthly Cheese Party next Wednesday, November 2nd, to not only taste this unbelievable cheese, but to also learn about it from Essex St. educational director, the wonderful and talented Rachel Juhl! It’s going to be a fantastic evening that you don’t want to miss.

Alice Bergen Phillips
Alice Bergen Phillips

Bigger and bolder flavors suitable for fall Read more

So you guys, it's official - summer is finally over. And I, for one, am THRILLED. Don't get me wrong - I ...

The Tale of Two Accidents

Alice and her Dad

Early last spring, my dad and I attempted to go spring skiing out in Deep Creek, Maryland. Rainy and foggy with lots of slush and mud, we were not entirely successful in our sporting endeavors. It got to the point where one day we looked up at the slopes, and decided to go to the movies instead. Let me tell you, you know the conditions are really bad when the best option is to watch a sappy, poorly written sports movie in an empty theater with sticky floors and the distinctive aroma of old popcorn clinging to the walls.

Even though the weekend itself didn’t exactly go according to plan, it was far from a bust. First of all, I got to hang out with my dad (hi Dad!), which was, as always, a great time. And secondly, I stumbled upon FireFly Farms.

We were on our way out of town when we decided to stop and get some snacks for the road. Driving through the small town of Accident, the FireFly Farms Creamery and Market sign caught my eye. I’d heard the name bantered about by various mongers in DC, and knew that they made goat cheeses. And, well, you guys know me – I’ll jump at any chance to try some new cheeses, so we stopped.

Goats at Firefly Creamery

After tasting through a bunch of their gorgeous, goat’s milk cheeses, I settled on my favorite: Mountain Top Bleu. Made in the Valencay style, these beautiful, surface ripened pyramids are a perfect gateway blue – mild and creamy with just a hint of funk. The piece that I got that day was just the way I like my soft cheeses to be – ripe, oozy, and full of flavor. During the two and a half hours it took us to drive back to DC, we easily devoured the entire thing.

I’ve learned a few things since that inaugural visit to FireFly. Firstly, although Mountain Top Bleu is one of FireFly’s original three cheeses, it was initially made by accident. It came into being when a bloomy-rinded cheese was cross contaminated by a nearby blue. Instead of throwing the contaminated batch away, the cheesemakers created this beautiful hybrid. And it’s a great thing that they did: Mountain Top Bleu is the most awarded cheese in the FireFly repertoire. With twenty individual honors to its name, including a bronze medal at the American Cheese Society conference this past summer and multiple World Cheese awards, this cheese is certainly no mistake. Saveur Magazine even named it as one of the top 50 cheeses in the nation.

Mountain Top Bleu

I was also impressed to learn about FireFly’s commitment to sustainability, both with regards to the farmers that they partner with and to the environment. FireFly is a small cheesemaking operation on the Allegheny Plateau region of Maryland, and they use milk from six goat farms within a 30 mile radius of their shop. By working closely with these farmers, and implementing a mutually beneficial contract, Firefly assures that the farmers are committed to “humane animal husbandry and restrict the use of antibiotics, hormones, and animal feeds that have been treated with chemical or synthetic fertilizers”, while also paying them a fair price for their milk that doesn’t penalize producers for “under-production” in winter months, nor “over-production” in summer months.

Additionally, FireFly is very conscious of their energy consumption. Instead of using energy-hungry machines, they’re committed to handcrafting and wrapping each of their cheeses. Furthermore, as of the summer of 2015, one third of the energy used by FireFly comes from their newly installed solar panels.

It is my great pleasure to announce that not only will Mountain Top Bleu be Via Umbria’s October Cheese of the Month, but that FireFly Farms founders Mike Koch and Pablo Solanet will be joining us for our monthly Cheese Party! Please join us on Wednesday, October 5th to eat, drink, and learn all about this wonderful local cheese and these awesome cheesemakers!

Alice Bergen Phillips
Alice Bergen Phillips

A visit to FireFly Farms Creamery in Maryland Read more

Early last spring, my dad and I attempted to go spring skiing out in Deep Creek, Maryland. Rainy and foggy with lots ...

Exploring America’s Dairyland

Wisconsin. America’s Dairyland. Home of the Cheeseheads. Guys, let me tell you…they didn’t get those nicknames for nothing.

Last week, I was lucky enough to spend a few days with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, touring around Wisconsin’s beautiful countryside and learning all about their homegrown cheeses. Even though I grew up just south of the Wisconsin/Illinois border and have traveled there quite a few times (I actually learned to ski in Wisconsin…on old landfills covered in snow…but that’s a story for another time), I was shocked by how much I didn’t know.

For example, did you know that 90% of the milk that’s produced in Wisconsin is made into cheese? 90%!!! And when you’re called America’s Dairyland, you know that that wasn’t a small amount of milk to start out with. And have you heard of the Master Cheesemaker program? Yup, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (and only at the University of Wisconsin in Madison), you can become a certified Master Cheesemaker. Also, did you know that 96% of the farms in Wisconsin are family farms? Who knew, right?

Pleasant Ridge Reserve

The aspect of the trip that struck me the most, however, was the passion that these farmers and cheesemakers have for what they do. Big plant, small farm, co-op – regardless of how each individual’s cheese gets made, that farmer or cheesemaker is doing everything they can to provide the best possible care for their animals and to make the best quality product. A few times during the trip, big, burly farmers or cheesemakers would tear up when talking about what they do and why they do it. It’s so easy for many of us, especially those of us who live in big cities, to forget that everything we consume comes from somewhere and is produced by someone. For me, meeting all of these incredibly dedicated and passionate people who have devoted their entire lives to the craft of cheesemaking really hit this point home.

One of the farms that I found to be the most fascinating was Uplands Cheese Company. Located in the Driftless region of the state – the only part of Wisconsin that wasn’t flattened by glaciers 10,000 years ago – the farm is situated on 300 acres of beautiful rolling hills and valleys. These 300 acres have been broken down into small paddocks, and each day during the spring, summer, and fall, the cows are rotated to a new field. This method, called “rotational grazing” allows the animals to have constant access to fresh, bountiful grass and herbs, while allowing the fields time to recover and replenish their vegetal stock. Because of this practice, the milk that the Uplands cows produce is chock full nutrients and, importantly, flavor.

Andy Hatch

Talking with Andy Hatch, the head cheesemaker at Uplands, it became very clear what his mission is: to make cheeses that do justice to the milk that his cows produce. Milk produced during different times of the year will have distinctive properties, and his goal is to use the cheese as a way to showcase those varying attributes. In that spirit, he only makes two cheeses – Rush Creek Reserve, which uses hay-based, heavy, fat-laden late fall/early winter milk, and Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

In the spring, summer, and early fall, the cows produce predominantly grass-fed milk, which lends itself well to alpine-style cheeses. Hence, during this period, Hatch makes the famous Pleasant Ridge Reserve, which is based on French and Swiss favorites like Gruyere and Beaufort. Something you should know: Pleasant Ridge Reserve is the most awarded cheese in America. Yep, you read that right – no other cheese in America has as many American Cheese Society or US Cheese Championship titles under it’s belt. And when you taste it, it’s clear as to why – not only is this cheese smooth and nutty, but you can also taste the green, grassy, herbaceous pasture that the cows have been munching on. It’s balance is unparalleled, and it is both approachable and nuanced, satisfying both the cheese-shy and connoisseurs.

I’m thrilled to announce that this fabulous cheese, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, will be our September Cheese of the Month! A true American classic, it’s a cheese that I am so excited to bring to the Via Umbria counter and can’t wait to share with my customers. Please join us for our next monthly Cheese Party, next Wednesday, September 7th, to taste this fantastic piece of America’s Dairyland.

 

Alice Bergen Phillips
Alice Bergen Phillips

Discovery the cheese of Wisconsin Read more

Wisconsin. America's Dairyland. Home of the Cheeseheads. Guys, let me tell you...they didn't get those nicknames for nothing. Last week, I was lucky ...

From the Pond to your Neighborhood

“Wow! Look at all this cheese! I can’t believe you have so many different kinds of Itali…Wait a minute…This isn’t all Italian cheese! I thought Via Umbria was an Italian store! What’s going on here!?”

This happens at my counter a lot. Like, every week. Well, really more like every other day. And I understand the confusion–Via Umbria is, as the name would suggest, an Italian store filled with unique, delicious, and beautiful Italian things. So what’s the deal with the cheese counter?

While it is true that Italians make some supremely excellent cheese, my little counter has been given a bit more freedom and has a wider reaching focus than solely Italian curds. Our goal is to give a platform to unique, artisanal, handcrafted cheeses from all over the world, giving our customers a chance to explore myriad delicious products that they may not have regular access to or even have heard of before.

In this spirit, I’m pleased to announce that Via Umbria will be delving into the wide world of British cheeses this fall by teaming up with famed London cheese emporium, affineur, and exporter, Neal’s Yard Dairy.

dav
dav

I’m thrilled about this partnership for a few reasons. Firstly, and most selfishly, British cheeses tug at my childhood-memory heartstrings. For much of my young life, I spent summers in the English countryside on my grandparents farm, where I ate lots and lots and lots of locally made cheese. I spent many happy hours learning how to milk goats, collect eggs, feed pigs–happy hours that were fueled by delicious farmhouse cheese. Even when I was back home in Chicago, my mum packed many cheese and chutney sandwiches in my school lunches (yup, kids at school totally thought I was weird), and we always had Stilton and port at Christmas. All of that to say, I have a very dear place in my heart for the lovely British cheeses from my childhood, and I’m looking forward to sharing them with my customers.

Secondly, I’m thrilled to be able to give British cheeses the audience that they deserve. When most Americans think of European cheese, they think of cheeses like French Brie, Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Spanish Manchego–the UK, unfortunately, very rarely comes into the picture. To be honest, this is a bit bizarre–one of the most beloved cheeses in this country, Cheddar, originally comes from the UK. Be that as it may, British cheeses remain relatively unknown the US.

Part of that has to do with the fact that in Britain, cheese was traditionally part of a workman’s diet, not something for the rich and influential. Because of this lower status, local cheeses weren’t given the same importance as many of their continental counterparts. For a long time, these cheeses weren’t seen as significant enough to protect or maintain. Thus, with the global rise of factorization and mass production of cheese, traditional British farmstead cheeses were largely pushed aside to make way for cheaper, less flavorful, grocery-store friendly options.

Enter: Neal’s Yard Dairy. Started in the early 1980’s as a small cheese shop in London, Neal’s Yard Dairy has become, quite simply, the preeminent champion of British cheese. Neal’s Yard searches out farmers and cheesemakers, working with them to not only preserve traditional British cheeses – what they call “territorials” – but to improve the cheeses quality, age them to perfection, and expand global awareness of these cheeses. Simply put, they find (and/or help create) the best tasting cheeses that the UK has to offer, and then give them a global stage. They go out and visit each of the farmers that they work with, about 40 in total, on a regular basis in order to both taste their cheeses and to select the best cheeses to mature and sell. Farmhouse cheeses like Cheshire, Caerphilly, Lincolnshire Poacher, and Shropshire, to name just a few, now have a global presence in the world because of the efforts of Neal’s Yard Dairy. What they’ve been able to do for British cheese has been absolutely remarkable.

Our first shipment from London should be arriving in just a few weeks, so please come by and taste some delicious British cheese with me at the Via Umbria cheese counter! It’s a fantastic way to explore the world and get to know some some new and exciting cheeses!”

A new partnership with Neal's Yard Dairy Read more

"Wow! Look at all this cheese! I can't believe you have so many different kinds of Itali...Wait a minute...This isn't all Italian ...

Feta: A Love Story

Most people who eat cheese have had some sort of interaction with feta or, more accurately, feta-style cheese. They think of it as the salty yet bland crumbles that sit unnoticed on top of iceberg lettuce, or the saline blocks that adorn many a badly made pasta salad. I used to be one of these people. As a self-proclaimed salt-fiend, I didn’t mind feta, but it certainly wasn’t interesting and didn’t even crack the top 50 in terms of cheeses I liked and cared about.

Fresh Feta Cheese

And then, at the ripe old age of 20, I spent a summer in Greece, and a whole new world opened up. A world that contained copious amounts of delicious, savory, complex, versatile feta.

I was volunteering on a Skyrian pony farm on the Greek island of Corfu for the summer with my sister (and yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds). While we weren’t getting paid for our hours of manure-shoveling and pony-grooming, we did have our room and board covered. This gave us access to some of the freshest and most amazing food I’ve ever tasted, including homemade feta. Every week, a lady who lived down the hill from our little pony enclave would bring a giant ceramic basin filled with brine and a large, white block of homemade feta. I had eaten feta-esque substances before, but never anything with this much zest and character. We would cut hunks of feta off of that block and eat them for lunch with cucumbers and tomatoes from the garden, and homemade bread. It was absolute heaven.

Coming back to the US was a rude awakening for my new found love of feta. Where did the squeaky, briney, zesty, puckery cheese that I had grown so fond of go? Why were people settling for such inferior imitations? Up until 2002, the name “feta” could mean anything – anyone could use it for any cheese, regardless of milk type, origin, or production method. This lead to a lot of really, epically boring cheese bearing the name “feta”.

Luckily for the cheese world, in 2002 feta became a protected designation of origin (PDO) cheese. This means that only cheeses that are made from sheep’s milk, or a mixture of sheep and goat’s milk, and have been produced in a certain way from specific parts of Greece may be called “feta”. This makes it much easier for consumers to tell the difference between real feta and inferior imposters.

Cheese Maker

Not all fetas are created equal, however, even within the PDO designation. I’ve hesitated bringing the cheese to the Via Umbria counter for fear of choosing one that turned out to be bland or boring.

As good fortune would have it, however, I was lucky enough to meet the team at Essex St. Cheese. Rather than importing many different types of cheese, Essex finds the best of the best and brings in only a handful of cheeses, with each type only having one producer. Their bar is extremely high, and I was so excited to find out that they were importing a particularly fantastic feta from the island of Lesbos. This PDO cheese, made by third generation cheesemakers, M. Tastanis, is made entirely from sheep’s milk that has been collected from local shepherds. The salt used to salt both the cheese and the brine comes exclusively from the Kalloni salt flats, giving this feta a taste that can truly only be found in Lesbos. Additionally, the cheese makers stay as close to tradition as possible, which means that the process of making this feta is essentially the same as it was in Homer’s time. Tasting it brought me right back to that summer in Corfu – bright and fresh, with flavors of fresh yogurt, cream, and the ocean.

I’m beyond thrilled to announce that this feta from M. Tastanis in Lesbos, Greece is going to be our August Cheese of the Month! It’s a spectacular way to explore a true taste of tradition and place, and also a beautiful compliment to late summer’s bounty of fresh produce. Come taste it at our monthly cheese party on August 3rd and learn all about how gorgeous feta can truly be.

Alice Bergen Phillips
Alice Bergen Phillips

Transport yourself to Greece with this cheese Read more

Most people who eat cheese have had some sort of interaction with feta or, more accurately, feta-style cheese. They think of it ...

The Cheesemonger Invitational

As some of you may remember, I wrote a post a few weeks ago about competing in the Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI) – a cheesemonger competition held twice a year, once in New York and once in San Francisco. Well, this summer’s CMI has come and gone, and I only have one thing to say about it – it was a truly incredible, inspirational, and humbling experience that I feel so lucky to have been a part of. It was fascinating, terrifying, and I absolutely loved it.

Preparing to Plate Cheese

Okay, I lied. I have way more than one thing to say about it. Let me set the stage for you: Fifty of the curd-nerdiest cheesemongers from all over the country – from Vermont to Louisiana, New Mexico to Chicago – converged upon the Larkin Cold Storage facility in Long Island City, Queens. There were people from myriad backgrounds – some who had been working in cheese for 10 or 15 years, and some who had been in the game for only a few weeks. Some work at really well known, long-standing places like Murray’s in New York, DiBruno Brothers in Philadelphia, and Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, and others work at much smaller, newer counters. Many people had competed before, and a few of us hadn’t. Regardless of our differences, the camaraderie felt between all of us was amazing – everyone there loved their job and couldn’t wait to geek out with a bunch of other passionate people who spoke their language.

The first day was an education day where we spent 8 hours in small groups talking to cheese producers – farmers, cheese makers, affineurs, importers, and everybody in between. There were people from Neal’s Yard Dairy, Jasper Hill Farm, Vermont Creamery, as well as the producers of the Manchego, Gruyere, Comte, Cravero Parmigiano-Reggiano, and many of the Swiss cheeses that Via Umbria has at our counter. There was a lot of discussion about tradition and culture, but also a ton of hard science – chemistry and biology talk about various bacterias, microbial processes, and the like. It was really incredible access to people who are generally pretty inaccessible. By the end of the day, all of our brains were full enough to burst.

The second day, Saturday, was the competition – nine preliminary challenges, followed by five final challenges for the top six competitors. Everyone was extremely nervous – I got to Larkin a full half an hour early, thinking that I would beat the crowd and settle in, but found that about half of the competitors had had the same idea. As on edge as we all were, however, the feeling in the room was nothing but supportive. For me, this was the best part of the whole event – everyone was there to cheer on their peers and help each other out. For example, the edible flowers that I brought for the Perfect Plate Challenge got soaked in ice water the night before competition, which rendered them completely useless. Another cheesemonger heard about my plight and gave me a whole bunch of extra flowers that she had brought for herself so that I could complete my plate.

The first nine challenges were hard. Really, really, REALLY hard. There was a written test, blind taste test, aroma test, cutting perfect 1/4lb pieces, wrapping in paper, wrapping in plastic, salesmanship, perfect beverage, perfect plating, and perfect bite. It was exhausting and exhilarating, and by the time the crowd of about a thousand got let in for the party and to watch the finals, I was sure that the hard part of my day was over. I was sure that I would be standing in the crowd with my mom, watching the finals. I grabbed a beer and started to relax.

CMI Finalists

Then they called my name.

I made the finals.

I had not prepared for this.

Sure, I had looked over the handout they’d given us of what the finals would entail, but I had decided to focus on the challenges I knew I was going to have to perform rather than the ones I probably wouldn’t be required to do. All I can say is that it seemed like a solid strategy at the time.

So, I winged it – I got up on stage and had discuss my favorite cheese, come up with a cheese pairing on the fly when given a random accompaniment, talk about a cheese that epitomizes a randomly assigned country or region, cut as many perfect 1/4lbs of cheese as possible off of a large wheel in 60 seconds, and wrap as many small, soft cheeses in paper as possible in 60 seconds. It was exhausting, but I have to say, by the time it was all over, my cheeks ached from how much I was laughing and smiling. It was a blast.

I ended up getting 6th place, which is an unbelievable honor. To be listed under the words “Summer 2016 Champions” on the CMI website literally gives me goosebumps. And to be the first cheesemonger from DC to ever make the finals is just icing on the cake.

You better believe I’ll be back next year.

Alice Bergen Phillips
Alice Bergen Phillips

A retrospective on the cheesiest weekend Read more

As some of you may remember, I wrote a post a few weeks ago about competing in the Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI) - ...

‘Tis the Season for Some Cheesin’

Many of my customers are shocked to find out that cheese is seasonal. Yep, you read that right – cheese is a seasonal food product. “But Alice,” you might be asking yourself, “how can that be? Cheese is not like a fruit or vegetable that pops up out of the earth or suddenly materializes on a branch – how can cheese ever be “out of season”?”

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The seasonality of cheese depends on two main components. The first factor is the lactation period of the animal who is providing you with the delicious milk for your cheese. Different types of animals give milk for varying amounts of time after breeding – for sheep, it’s eight months, goats clock in at about eleven months, and cows have a lactation period of about 13 months. Since animals tend to breed at the same time during the year (as opposed to farmers being able to stagger their animals breeding cycles throughout the year), this means that for a few months out of the year, cheesemakers working with goats or sheep have no fresh milk with which to make cheese.

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The second component has to do with how long the cheese itself ages for. For fresh cheeses like chevre and sheep or goat’s milk ricotta (which require no aging time), this means that they are only made when fresh milk is available – usually March through about October. For cheeses that do require aging, seasonality plays a part as well, but you need to factor in the aging time to figure out when that particular cheese’s season starts and ends. For example, if you have a goats milk cheese that’s aged for three months, it’s going to stop being available at the end of the milking season plus three months. For cheeses that are aged for a much longer time, the seasonality isn’t as much of a factor and are available more or less year round.

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There’s another seasonal factor in cheesemaking that has less to do with milk availability and more to do with the quality of milk produced – what type of food is available to the animals during their milking season? As we all know, we are what we eat, and there are few instances where this is as obvious as with milk. The difference between milk from an animal who has been eating lush, fresh grass and herbs during the spring and summer, and an animal who has had dried, uniform fodder during the winter is night and day. The flavor of that summer milk showcases the terroir of the region – particular combinations of wildflowers, grasses, herbs, and other greenery that the animals consume all become apparent in the milk. This nutritious summertime feed also has a positive effect on the milk’s protein and butterfat content. As such, certain farmers will only make cheese using spring and summer milk and forgo cheesemaking with inferior winter milk.

Whew! So what does all of that mean for Via Umbria’s cheese counter? Well, we’ve got a seasonal treat to showcase for our next Cheese of the Month – delicious, fresh sheep’s milk cheeses from Landmark Creamery in Wisconsin. These little one ounce buttons, named Petit Nuage, or “Little Cloud” en francais, are only made April – September, when the sheep are being milked and are munching on delicious spring and summer Wisconsin grass. Bright and citrusy with clean flavor and a distinct, sheepy tang, these little wonders are gorgeous summer treat that are great paired with heirloom tomatoes and olive oil for a simple salad, topped with fresh or grilled stone fruits like peaches or nectarines, or simply smeared on a baguette and enjoyed on their own.

Don’t miss out on this gorgeous cheese – sign up for our Cheese of the Month Club and get a half pound of Petit Nuage to enjoy during July. Swing by our next meeting, Wednesday, July 6th, and to taste and learn all about your new favorite summer cheese!

Alice Bergen Phillips
Alice Bergen Phillips

The seasonal factors in cheesemaking Read more

Many of my customers are shocked to find out that cheese is seasonal. Yep, you read that right - cheese is a ...

The Cheesemonger Invitational

At the end of June, a very special event will be taking place at a cold storage facility in Long Island City, right across the river from Manhattan. If some of you are thinking about some kind of clandestine meeting of big-shot mob bosses, well, you’re not far off. Well, except that instead of the actual mafia, it’s the cheese mafia. And instead of cold-blooded killers, the attendees will be competitive cheesemongers. And it’s not clandestine at all…Okay. So it’s nothing like a secret mafia meeting. It is, in fact, The Cheesemonger Invitational, and yours truly will be one of the competitors.

That’s right, folks–there are indeed competitive cheesemonger competitions, and the cream of the crop is CMI. Held twice a year (once in New York and once in San Francisco), CMI is the ultimate cheesemonger test. Amongst the fourteen (!!) total challenges, the competitors are tested on their cheesemaking and affinage knowledge, their ability to cut cheese to weight, wrap cheese in both plastic and cheese paper, their salesmanship and charisma, ability to pair various cheeses with both beverages and accompaniments, and plating skills. It’s a cheesemonger marathon–a true test of skill and knowledge for those who make their living selling cheese.

While it’s true that CMI is a competition, it is first and foremost about creating a sense of community amongst mongers from far and wide. As they state, “Our mission is to inspire cheesemongers. Selling cheese is a profession that spans centuries. Great cheese does not exist without great cheesemongers…. This profession requires an unwavering commitment to practical skills, as well as, a never ending desire to learn more about history and science. The Cheesemonger Invitational is that rare opportunity for amazing cheesemongers to be celebrated by their community.”

In the spirit of celebration and adding to the mongers knowledge, CMI also offers mongers a chance to learn from the best, in addition to the competition. Cheesemakers, distributors, affineurs, and other accomplished cheesemongers teach classes and provide guidance for the competitors during an education day before the competition takes place. It’s a great opportunity to learn and hone the cheesemonger craft.

I’m excited to be a part of this amazing event, and even more honored to be a part of the cheese community. I can’t wait to come back and regale you all with my stories. If anyone is interested in heading to New York and cheering me on, CMI is open to the public, so buy your tickets soon! More information can be found on their website.

Wish me luck!

 

Alice Bergen Phillips
Alice Bergen Phillips

AKA the cheese mafia Read more

At the end of June, a very special event will be taking place at a cold storage facility in Long Island City, ...