Monday, May 24, 2010

Managing the Cheese Department - John Ferarra

Behind the Cheese Counter at the Brattleboro, VT  Food Co-op

Learning the Trade
John Ferarra was just a part-time worker at the Brattleboro co-op when Henry Tewksbury (author of "The Cheeses of Vermont: A Gourmet Guide to Vermont's Artisinal Cheesemakers") asked him to work fulltime at the cheese counter. That was 11 years ago.  Henry was a loving, caring, supportive mentor and he believed in local cheesemakers.  He taught John everything about cheese.  Sadly, after John had worked with him for 5 years, Henry died unexpectedly at the age of 79.

His Responsibilities

Ordering the Cheese

Thanks to the efforts of Henry, John says he has a direct relationship with most of his Vermont producers.  He simply calls them at their farms to order.

He also buys some cheeses through distributors and some come by UPS.  There is even a company with a refrigerated truck that picks up and delivers any quantity for a flat rate.
John explains that he manages to offer a huge selection of local cheeses because the profit margin on the "commodity" cheeses from the large companies pays for the lower margins on the local, artisinal cheeses.

Storing the Cheese
Fortunately, John is able to keep his inventory low so the cheese is fresh when he sells it.  With artisinal cheeses, there are no “sell by” dates.  John’s assistant, Joy Carder, keeps track of the packing dates.  She has worked out an elaborate rotational schedule.

When it’s time, they open the wrappers and check the cheeses.  Sometimes they plein off all the sides which have been in contact with the wrapper.  Other times, they discount the cheeses or put them out  as “tasters” for the customers.  They keep the walk-in cooler at 38F.

Cutting and Wrapping the Cheese
They frequently cut the cheeses and re-wrap them so the customers can buy smaller pieces.  When they do this, they sometimes put a layer of cheese wrap on the cheese, then wrap it in plastic.  That way the cheese doesn’t take on the taste of the PCBs in the plastic.  This is particularly true with the aged cheeses because they are looking for moisture.  Fresh cheeses are not a problem because they are giving off moisture.

When a cheese comes cryovaced, there are no PCBs in the plastic, so there is no taste.  The softer cheeses can’t be cryovaced, however, so many producers also put paper between the cheese and the plastic wrap.

When a 75 pound wheel of Reggiano with a 1” rind, comes in, John cuts it with a band saw in the meat department (before the meat is cut for the day). Fortunately, he only goes through one wheel every 2 months!

Helping Customers
This is John’s favorite part.  He loves to talk about cheese.  As it should be, he is a wealth of information.  He points out that in grocery stores, you are on your own.  Here, he can usually give you a taste before you buy.  He can tell you every detail about where the cheese was made, how it was made and what to pair it with.
Recently, the store brought in Isabella Figs and Almond Cake from Spain to pair with a Gruyere or a creamy goat spread.  They also sell Fox Hollow Mustard which he recommends touching lightly on any cave-aged hard cheese.  Their Bella Pera jams mix well with chevre or may be spread between a cracker and soft, fresh cheese.  John’s favorite is the Pear Spread with Acacia Honey.

Every week he has a favorite cheese (his own preference).  He confided that this week it’s Jasper Hill’s "Winnimere."   What a great job!   

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