Cheese Thoughts

Cheese Day 11/11/2017: My Reflections on Processed Cheese

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"Processed cheese feeds the masses."
When one of the most prominent figures in the cheese world said that to me in September, I realized I had never considered that perspective. Instead, I demonized processed cheese. I would even cringe internally at the thought of plastic wrapped cheese slices, lifeless yellow blocks, and their lack of beneficial microbes. Once I fell in love with artisanal cheeses, with the farmers who toil and the animals who give us their milk, I shunned all processed cheese as ignorance of the real thing.

I want to blame such a compunction to vilify the things I don’t agree with on the American Christian culture I was raised amongst. (Again, demonizing, I know.) Everything was always black and white, good or evil, yes or no. I realized I had fallen into that same sense of judgement. In the same way I feel that that understanding is misguided, I started to accept that processed cheese is not evil. In fact, it might actually be necessary. 

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And so, on 11/11, Japan’s National Cheese Day, I found myself standing in a very long line headed into the annual "Cheese Festa” held in Ebisu. The yearly event is organized by the Japanese Cheese Importer Association to promote import cheeses and some domestic ones. I attended last year and recognized again that this event was where my drive to start The Geography of Cheese sprang forth. 

Almost every cheese represented was incredibly processed. Cream cheese from the United States, Gouda from Holland, Feta from Greece, and Camembert from France. There were cheeses imported from countries all around the world, but they were the industrial versions, shrink-wrapped in plastic with no PDO in sight. There were lines out the door with crowd control.  So many Japanese wanted to try, buy, and learn about integrating cheese into their daily lives. That’s why they came! Why was I such a buzz kill?

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With consideration for the sheer number of Japanese people in attendance, I understood the importance of processed cheese in Japan. It is the first step, the introduction of any cheese into an individual's Japanese diet. Processed cheeses are more accessible with their cheap prices and milder flavors. It is an easy place to start because grocery stores are filled with these options. Once they’ve learned a little, then hopefully they will explore the depths of what cheese can be. 

The thing I did love at “Cheese Festa" were the booklets about incorporating cheese into Japanese cuisine. The recipes were developed by Japanese chefs and are just the kind of experiment I’d love to delve into myself. Even though they consistently promoted processed cheeses because of their superior melting characteristics, intriguing flavor combinations were suggested that I’d never consider on my own.  

I spent the day building new levels of understanding and holding back judgement. And still, I went back to my tiny little refrigerator in my small Tokyo apartment and practically hugged the small collection of artisan cheeses I always have waiting for me. The masses can have the processed cheese. I want the good stuff. 

CPA Event: Cheese and Bread

久しぶりだ ー Long time no see

In Japan, the most-well known non-profit organization for cheese is the Cheese Professional Association (or CPA). It hosts events, runs seminars, and conducts the Cheese Professional Certification Exam once every year. The standards by which people work and understand cheese in Japan is measured with their yardstick. And they have their own cheese character (as any respectable organization in Japan does), aptly named “Cheeseman”!

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This past weekend the CPA hosted an event around cheese and bread. The room was filled with artisan bakeries, cheesemakers, and small cheese shops from Tokyo and Kyoto. There was a strong sense of passion and commitment to artisanal products in the room. Each bread displayed a sign with “Cheeseman” recommended pairings and information on its particular type. Bread styles ranged from French pain de Campagne to German bauernbrot, with many original creations like a bread made with Earl Grey! Samples were plentiful. Bakers and cheesemakers were as enthusiastic to share their craft as guests were to enjoy it.

To complete the trifecta, numerous wine shops, beer producers, and a whiskey culture group were in attendance. One glass of wine was included in the event ticket, and there were many opportunities to purchase another or enjoy free samples. To maximize enjoyment, special neckties were provided to hold wine glasses and event maps, lest hands not be ready to enjoy the bread and cheese. 

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Every 20-30 minutes, a new pairing was featured at the central table. Brie and croissant, young Saint Maure de Touraine and toast, Mont d’Or and pain de Campagne, Gruyere and focaccia, Roquefort and pumpernickel, Japanese mascarpone and Melon Pan (iconic Japanese bread) — with one of each pairing, endless samples, and a couple glasses of wine, dinner was never a question that evening. Our bellies were full!