Big news just broke in the tiny world of California cheese. Swiss giant Emmi has just purchased Cowgirl Creamery. This, just months after they acquired Redwood Hill Farms, and a few years after the cheese world’s shocking purchase of Mary Keehn’s beloved Cypress Grove Chevre, makers of Humboldt Fog.
It’s not just small dairy producers, either. Specialty meat supplier Niman Ranch is now owned by Purdue of all companies, and Lagunitas Brewing is now owned by Heineken.
I have mixed feelings about all of this, which would lead to a much larger discussion about the pros and cons of artisan companies being taken over by huge conglomerates. I will focus on the Cowgirls, with whom I am much more familiar, and a little on Mary Keehn, who I also know in passing. Peggy and Sue are very nice people who care deeply about what they do and have built up a very successful local business that has expanded steadily over the past 20 years. They and Mary are largely responsible for putting the face of California cheese in the American marketplace as a whole. Mary’s story is a great one in which as a single mother, she decided to raise goats to produce more easily digestible milk for her children. She then started producing homemade cheeses from the excess milk, and built a cheesy empire from these humble beginnings. Most of you may be familiar with my opinions on the products made by these two companies. I think Humboldt Fog is a very good cheese. Great? Nope. Very good? Sure. We sell it proudly here in the shop. I think it’s a beautiful look to add to any cheese board; I think the flavors are consistently good; I love Mary’s story and she is a warm, kind person. I also believe that her Humboldt Fog is arguably the most important cheese produced in this country. Humboldt Fog sent a message to the Europhiles that we can also make stunning cheeses in this country. Now, some of the world’s greatest cheeses are made here in the USA (Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Winnimere, Rush Creek Reserve) and I’m not so sure that our artisan cheese movement would be where it is now without her pioneering efforts. When her company was bought by Emmi in 2010, my reaction was “Good for her!” It must have been like winning the lottery for her and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. I certainly noticed a drop off in quality after the change of ownership, but in Emmi’s defense, this was rectified very quickly and the quality is right back to where it always was.
Peggy and Sue (the Cowgirls) were very concerned about a dip in quality but after speaking with Mary, their feelings were put at ease. She assured them that nothing about production has changed. As for Emmi, they certainly have experience and they seem to know what to interfere with and what not to. They also agreed to keep Peggy and Sue on as President and Vice President of Cowgirl operations. The transition should be a smooth one. Now that Peggy and Sue are nearing retirement age, (good for them too) they also deserve this. I am less concerned about the direction of Cowgirl Creamery’s products for another reason though. I am not known as one to pull punches with my opinions. You may be aware that I do not sell anything produced by Cowgirl Creamery at Andrew’s Cheese Shop. I have nothing against them;
in fact, I quite like them and I think they run an outstanding operation. I find their products to be fun, but uninteresting and lacking in depth of flavor and complexity. They look pretty and with most of them being enriched products (triple-cremes), they have nice curb appeal and are tasty in the way that decent butter is tasty. I think the Cowgirs are great and make an excellent product for their demographic, I’m just not in their demographic, and I look for something else to sell in this shop. They make very good, beautiful cheeses that appeal to huge numbers of people who like the idea of a local product that is a huge crowd pleaser. If I were them, I would probably do the same. So, I’m not too concerned about a dip in quality for them, they know what they’re doing, they have a formula that works, and I can’t possibly imagine Emmi being so irresponsible as to make any significant changes.
Remember, Emmi was founded as a cooperative movement of farmers in Switzerland that was able to grow their resources by pooling together. They’re not corporate monsters and they produce some excellent products. Like almost everything, we have to look at things on an individual basis. It’s not intellectually fair to make sweeping claims before giving these companies a chance to show what they can do. Maybe they will run these companies into the ground in an effort to cut corners and slowly but consistently lower the quality of their products. I see no reason to believe that this is the case. I’m very happy that these passionate women seem to have had a bit of a financial windfall at this stage in their lives; they deserve that. Everyone in the American cheese industry owes them a debt. I’m glad they have been able to cash in.
A nameless food purveyor salesman visited the shop a while back to sample me on some charcuterie. I noticed the label on one of the packages said “uncured salami.” Strange, I have been in the food industry for quite a long time and I’m pretty sure that the definition of salami has the word “cured” in there somewhere. The word “uncured” was not in quotes either, like in soy “burger,” so I just had to ask. “What the hell is uncured salami?” said I in my most demure New Yorkese. He looked at me with all the fear of a child who promised to walk the dog and forgot. “That means that they don’t add nitrates to it” he said, quickly realizing that one of us seemed to know what he was talking about and it wasn’t him. “Soooo….? That doesn’t answer my question. Is it cured or not?” said I. “No,” he insisted, if they don’t use nitrates, it’s not cured.”
Now, I don’t have a reputation for letting things go and this went on for quite some time before I managed to convince this guy that the label is misleading and kind of stupid and if he’s trying to sell it, he might want to invest some time in figuring this out.
As soon as he left, I ran to the Google machine to figure this nonsense out for my own self. Could I have been mistaken? Is there a way to make salami without curing it? Nope. So wait a tic, uncured salami is cured?
What the hell? As far as I can tell, this is just as ridiculous as it sounds. It turns out that “uncured” salami is cured, just like they have been curing it for thousands of years. Encase it in enough acid or sugar and the outer surface area gets protected by a layer which protects the product from pathogens and the interior molecules break down like you cooked them with heat, thus “curing” the meat. This “uncured” nonsense is exactly that, nonsense. What they really mean is that the meat is absolutely, definitely, indubitably, 100% cured, but not with sodium nitrate or nitrite. That’s fine and the discussion whether or not those two ingredients are somehow healthier or unhealthier than more traditional curing agents like salt, sugar, celery powder, or vinegars, is a longer one and very open for a reasonable debate. The problem I have is the imbecilic labeling of “uncured” as if this product is in some measureable way superior. It would have been far less confusing and much more honest to call it “naturally cured” or “cured according to traditional practices” or anything else but “uncured.” My large suspicion is that this is yet another example of marketing antiscience. People don’t know what nitrates and nitrites are but they definitely sound like something made by people in glasses and white lab coats, which is scary.
For those of you who are more interested, it actually gets even more confusing because the reason that we starting curing meats with sodium nitrate and nitrites in the first place is because they are the active chemicals released by traditional curing agents. So, even uncured meats which are cured without the addition of nitrates and nitrites also have these chemicals. If there is a reason that you cannot or will not consume these chemicals, you can’t eat either style. To sum up, there ain’t no such thing as uncured salami and the only difference is that they don’t add any nitrate or nitrite to the “uncured” salami but they’re totes in there anyways. YEESH!
The next person that comes in and asks for uncured salami is getting chased out of here with a stick of salami.
Number one most important and shortest answer: Taste it.
Just number two on an extremely long list (I’ll let my chocolatiers explain):
We believe that using only the best quality ingredients, along with obsessive attention to detail in production, yields the best bread and pastries and the same applies for chocolate. We spent two years sourcing our beans before we launched our chocolate and we are constantly searching for new farms and co-operatives to work with.
The terroir, variety, growth, harvest, fermentation and drying of the beans before they get to us will all affect the final flavor of the chocolate. We look for beans that come from owner-operated farms and cooperatives in fertile cacao-growing locations, with good bean varieties.
We are currently working with beans from five sources:
Patanemo Village, Carabobo State, Venezuela
Hacienda Limon, Guantupi, Los Rios Province, Ecuador
Ambanja, Sambirano Valley, Madagascar
Crayfish Bay Estate, Grenada
Finca Tres Marías, Honduras
At the end of the day, we know the farmers who sell us cocoa by their first name, we pay them a premium reflecting the extra care given to the post-harvest processing and when we finish weighing the bags, the money goes directly in their pocket with no intermediaries to pay; we are happy to call such trade fair.
The most hands-on approach we could take was to start with the raw cacao. We are able to source the finest fairly-traded cacao and perform all the steps in-house to turn the raw ingredients into delicious chocolate, all in our small factory in Eureka, California. This entire process takes approximately three weeks to complete but allows us to make some of the finest chocolate possible.
The cocoa beans come from plantations in Venezuela and Ecuador and have been individually chosen by a local agricultural expert, who monitors the harvest, fermentation, drying, and bundling. From South America, they’re shipped to Amedei’s plant in Pontedera, Tuscany, a journey that can take more than 20 days.
Fair Trade is one way of evaluating if farmers and producers are getting a fair price for a crop. Fair Trade looks at a variety of social and environmental criteria, and certifies a producer of a product. However, quality is not one of the criteria. Therefore Fair Trade, although a trusted system by many companies around the globe, is not an appropriate measure for the chocolate that goes into Fran’s products. Since we purchase chocolate that is made with the highest quality beans available, the chocolate makers that we work with are paying prices for cacao that are well above “fair-trade” standards. For more information, or for our full sourcing statement, please contact us.
Contrast this with some of the big brands that buy much, much cheaper chocolate.
An article from last year on The Daily Beast will shed a little light on this: The Daily Beast
An excerpt: “West Africa is home to two-thirds of the world’s cacao beans (cocoa), the main ingredient in chocolate—a product that’s fueled a $90 billion industry.
The first group to question the financial strategies behind the industry’s wealth was a British organization called True Vision Entertainment. In a shocking 2000 documentary titled Slavery: A Global Investigation, the group reported on the chocolate industry’s alleged connection to cocoa harvested by child slaves. The award-winning film opens on stick-thin adolescent boys in the Ivory Coast slinging hundred-pound bags of cocoa pods on their backs, followed by an interview in which the boys express their confusion over not being paid.
Later the filmmakers meet with 19 children who were said to have just been freed from slavery by the Ivorian authorities. Their guardian describes how they worked from dawn until dusk each day, only to be locked in a shed at night where they were given a tin cup in which to urinate. During the first six months (the “breaking-in period”), they say, they were routinely beaten. “The beatings were a part of my life,” says Aly Diabata, one of the former child laborers. “I had seen others who tried to escape. When they tried, they were severely beaten.”
The boys’ stories are sickeningly graphic. Before beatings, the boys say they were stripped naked and tied up. They were then pummeled with a variety of weapons, from fists and feet to belts and whips. In the film, some of the boys get up and imitate the beatings. Others stand to reveal hundreds of scars lining their backs and torsos—some still bloody and scabbed. They get quiet when the filmmakers ask whether any are beaten today and say some are simply “taken away.”
Asked what he’d say to the billions who eat chocolate worldwide (most of the boys have never tried it), one boy replies: “They enjoy something I suffered to make; I worked hard for them but saw no benefit. They are eating my flesh.” Toward the end of the segment, the filmmakers meet with one of the “slave masters,” who admits he purchased the young boys and that some of his men routinely beat them. His reasoning: He is paid a low price for the cocoa and thus needs to harvest as much of it as he possibly can.”
Also, you can watch a fairly recent documentary called “Shady Chocolate” here: Shady Chocolate
I don’t know if I can totally blame these large companies (Hershey’s, Nestle, Mars,…) because of this “race to the bottom” business model that we all are complicit in creating. Let me explain. I’m sure that these companies would prefer to not use slave labor to produce their products. They may even really, really want to not do business with such companies. Unfortunately, most of us here in The States have no idea what’s going on in The Ivory Coast, I would be willing to bet that most of us (Americans) have never even heard of The Ivory Coast. Because of that, there is actually a reverse incentive for them to stop buying these products. If Hershey’s decides that they can’t tolerate these practices, they will have to spend more to buy the beans and raise their prices accordingly. But if Nestle turns a blind eye, they can keep their prices low and take a huge chunk of the market away from their competitors. This is why I get so frustrated when I watch our Presidential Primary debates and the candidates keep claiming that they’re going to make sure that we produce more things right here at home. Really? I don’t feel like paying $2,000 for my iPhone and I’m pretty sure that most of you don’t either. Maybe Mr. Trump can afford it but I’m not that lucky (and I didn’t inherit $200,000,000). They don’t have the same minimum wage laws, insurance laws, or working condition laws in China and the labor is flat out a fraction of what it is here. The playing field is simply not level. I promise you that if we could somehow force or convince China or The Ivory Coast to improve things for their employees, the big businesses will just race over to another area where things can be done more cheaply again (India, South Sudan,…).
It looks like the hope was that when the American public found out about these practices, we would stop buying such products and force the big companies to babysit their producers better. That clearly has not happened. We seem to think about our bottom line when making purchases, and that’s understandable. Who has the time to research the provenance of everything they purchase and honestly, rent is high, insurance is high, taxes, cell phone bills, Internet bills, gas, car payments,… Who could blame us for wanting to save wherever we can? It takes about $1,000,000 at a minimum to be able to retire in this country at this time without too much of a hassle, and I’m not talking about swimming in luxury either. That’s just hoping that you don’t have to move in with your kids and to be able to live for about 25 years or so on interest and savings. How many people do you know that will be able to do that?
The other solutions I can think of are fairly simple. We can investigate the sources of the products that we buy and if we find that one of our companies is supporting producers who use such appalling tactics, you give them a warning, and a fixed amount of time to correct the situation however they’d like. If they don’t, fine them heavily and ban their products until they can prove that they fixed things. Another idea would be economic sanctions against the countries where these practices occur. But, the companies in question are quite large, quite wealthy, and have lots of lobbyists. My point is simple: We are all complicit in this. You and I both. We have to put people in office who can get things done and who care. I don’t find the Presidential Primary debates funny anymore. I get depressed. For crying out loud we have a guy who may control the most powerful military in the history of the world, and he’s bragging about the size of his penis! Can’t we please elect an adult? Trust me, I’m not in love with any of the other candidates either but this is really too much.
Wow, I do like to run off on tangents, don’t I? Anyway, that’s’ one of the many, many reasons why chocolate is expensive here. I won’t even bother going into the craftsmanship and passion that it takes to produce these things. I also don’t need to go into the fact that I flat out just love chocolate. If I sold diamonds, they’d all be antiques that are already in circulation. I sell food. The least I can do is to make sure that number one, it’s delicious, and number two, as far as I know, nobody gets hurt making it. I’m not rich but I’d rather pay $9 – $19 for a world class chocolate bar that tastes transcendent and was produced by a farmer and employees that were treated fairly, than $0.75 for a piece of forgettable, waxy junk that was produced by abducting and beating an unpaid, starving eleven year old. It’s literally the absolute least I can do.
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