Special Sauce: Kenji on Butter; Anne Saxelby and Sheila Flanagan on Being Optimistic [2/2]

On this week’s Special Sauce we’re once again talking about selling cheese during the pandemic with cheesemonger Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheesemongers and cheesemaker Sheila Flanagan of Nettle Meadow Farm and Artisan Cheese. Without a hint of self-pity, Anne and Sheila talk about the nimbleness and the optimism required to keep their businesses going. You can support both Saxelby and Flanagan by buying cheese directly from their websites, you won’t be disappointed. After our inspiring cheese talk, we once again stay on the dairy theme when Kenji Lopez-Alt answers a Serious Eater’s question about the differences between American and European butter.


Ed Levine: On this week’s Special Sauce we are once again talking cheese during the pandemic with cheesemonger Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheesemongers and cheesemaker Sheila Flanagan of Nettle Meadow Farm and Artisan Cheese. Without a hint of self-pity Anne and Sheila talk about the nimbleness and the optimism required to keep their businesses going. And after our inspiring cheese talk we once again stay on the dairy theme when Kenji Lopez-Alt answers a Serious Eater’s question about the differences between American and European butter.

EL: I don’t think people have really talked about the emotional and psychological costs of basically you all are going into three or four new businesses and you’re sort of doing it out of necessity.

Anne Saxelby: Right. That never feels good to be like, because then you don’t know if you haven’t done your research, you haven’t laid all the groundwork. You’re just kind of doing it because you have to do it. And then kind of learning as you go or afterwards what’s working or not, and yeah, it is tough. Although I will say the psychological toll that this is taking on everybody, no matter what industry you’re in, I feel tremendously thankful that I’m able to go to work every day. I don’t know how you feel, Sheila, but it’s like I know a few people here in the city who are working from home and homeschooling one or more children in an apartment and trying to do all that, and I’m just like, “Dear God, I feel exhausted, but also invigorated somehow that we’re still working.”

EL: Yeah. How about you, Sheila?

Sheila Flanagan: I would agree. I am incredibly thankful for so many things right now. It sounds ridiculous because I talk about how much our sales have fallen, but I am incredibly thankful for great employees that have really stuck to it and worked hard to keep things going. I’m incredibly thankful for the relationship I have with local banks that have been able to keep us going and believed in us that somehow we’ll get to the other side of this. I’m incredibly grateful and I worry about my friends and comrades down in New York City in such close quarters. I’m so thankful that we’re up here in the Adirondacks and it’s so easy to socially distance and there’s so many places where you can go where you don’t have to wear a mask because you’re out in the woods or you’re in the back barn where nobody’s been for six days. So it’s just we have a lot of things I think up here that we are grateful for, and we’re grateful that we can still make great cheese and we’re grateful that people like Anne are still trying to get the cheese out there because without great cheesemongers and distributors that believe in us we could have all just thrown our hands up and given up a couple months ago.

EL: Let’s describe not only the relationship the two of you have, but in general the relationship between cheesemongers and cheesemakers.

SF: All right. I can speak to that for a minute. I think it’s so incredibly important for really good three-dimensional cheesemongers to really meet the cheesemakers and see their surroundings because people can come and buy a piece of cheese at the grocery store. You can go to any grocery store and buy a piece of cheese. But when you know the story and the people behind the cheese, when you know more about the way that that farm takes care of the milk, their relationship with the animals, their relationship with their environment, where they came from, what they’re trying to accomplish, those things give value, I think, to that piece of cheese. When you have actually toured their aging cellar and you see the type of environment. Some people are super technical and have these wonderful big white tents that they use to purify all the air and I don’t know where they come up with all that money. And then there’s other people like me that we have a bucket and a basin, and we pour water on the floor when the humidity gets too low. And you have both of those worlds. And so Anne has had the opportunity and people like Anne to tour the country and talk to all of these artisans that have these different ways of producing cheese. And she can talk to her customers about what’s meaningful to each cheesemaker and what added mile they go to, what pieces of technicality they feel is important, or what pieces of nature and earth they feel is important to make that very batch of cheese. And I think it makes the cheese so much more valuable to the buyer and to the eater.

EL: Yeah. Anne, can you speak to that?

AS: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s why I got into this business to begin with. When I opened my shop in 2006 and I decided I was going to just do American artisan cheese mostly from the Northeast and kind of keep it as local as possible, and my reason for doing that was pretty selfish. I wanted to kind of have these relationships with these producers and be able to go visit and have phone check ins and in-person visits and really try to be the bridge between the farm and the cheese lover because I feel like, like Sheila said, there is so much that goes on behind the scenes, not just that informs how the cheese is made and what the end flavor is, but also the cheesemakers’ backgrounds and how their personalities and decisions come into play when they’re deciding to start a new product or try something new.

AS: There’s always a personal story that goes along with each cheese. I feel like being able to give that little perspective. And for me, too, it was really important to learn about how cheese is made and learn the technical process of that because cheese is something that can be intimidating for consumers, it needn’t be. So if you’ve got a good cheesemonger to help kind of demystify things and not be snobbish towards you when you go to the cheese counter. But then you can always say, “Well, this is why this batch of whatever might look a little different this week because the humidity was up or the humidity was down, or maybe at certain times of the year the cave is more moist and so gray mold grows on the surface and yes, you can eat that mold and it’s not going to kill you” or “The cheese looks more yellow right now because the cows are out on grass” and being able to tell all those stories is really fulfilling. And for me, I don’t know, learning about cheese and continuing to learn about cheese. I mean, I’ve been doing this for 15 years now. I think working in cheese in 2003, so my God, 17 years now. It’s like the tip of the iceberg. I feel like the more you know the more you realize you don’t know, and so it’s fun to share that experience with your customers.

EL: When I was writing for the Times and when I wrote New York Eats, which is when I first met you I think after New York Eats (More) came out, I was writing about cheesemakers and bread bakers because I wanted people to hear those stories.

AS: Yeah. And everyone has a dream of doing this. I mean, we happen to be the few crazy people who’ve actually done it, and now we’ve laid bare that it’s financially impossible and all the rest, but I feel people love that because everyone wants to experience that whether it’s for a day or an hour if they go to tour Sheila’s farm or even just visit a cheese counter and hear a little bit that way.

EL: You’re both storytellers in a way. You’re telling the story as a cheesemonger and you’re telling the story of the animals and the cheese, right, Sheila, and I think the storytelling aspect of what you do is probably really satisfying to both of you.

AS: Definitely.

SF: I do believe that it gives a cheese more value if people understand the concept behind it and where it comes from and that sort of thing.

EL: And have you, Sheila, been able to not lay people off or have you had to lay people off and then bring them back?

SF: I still have one farmer that I haven’t been able to bring back, and I feel bad about that every day. The 11 farm families that I work with they have either my cows or my goats or my sheep, and so I feel I have a duty to my animals first and foremost, and my employees. And so I’m working. Even when I’ve had to pour milk out, I’m still buying all of what they can produce. But I still have one more person that I need to bring back, but we’re just not at a point yet where I feel like we’re producing enough cheese because it’s that careful balancing to keep all my employees going. I’ve had three employees leave, two just too fearful because of all the stories they’re hearing about COVID. They didn’t want to work in close quarters. And we practice social distancing, nobody within six feet, and everyone wears a mask from day one and we’re checking temperatures for whatever good that does. But still, it’s dangerous and we should respect people. And somebody had some family issues that they had to go home for, and so we’re down three people, but we’ve also added those three people back so we stayed pretty. We had to because all that milk had to be processed, and so we’ve stayed constant. We’ve spent our entire PPP on payroll, so we need to start making money.

EL: The landscape for both of your businesses has been forever altered. You just don’t know exactly how it’s been altered.

SF: I can address it both futuristically and historically. Where we make cheese, six miles down the road from us is the remains of a cheese factory that was there back in the 1890s. And there was once an Adirondack Cheese Crescent, which was a big deal in New York State and lots of cheese makers, mostly women, more than 20 different cheese factories in the Adirondacks Crescent. And around 1900, 1906, they all just went poof and no one really knows why that happened. So bigger companies like Kraft developed and it was cheaper and whatever, but they just all went away. And so I don’t know if we’re facing that moment again. I don’t know if it was a virus, an economic recession. I don’t know what happened, but I know it can happen and I’m so… But I also know from the mongers I’ve worked with, the distributors I’ve worked with, the employees I work with every day, so many incredibly creative people, and we have more technology. We have so many more tools than we had back then, so I think that if anyone is suited to overcome this and not let history repeat itself a century later, we’re certainly poised to try to find a way to do that because there’s so many people working hard for very little money to try to keep it all going.

AS: Oh, gosh, I don’t know. I always think it’s so great that you can’t see the future because none of us would be doing what we’re doing. You’re like, “Really? I’m going to have to deal with that bullshit in three months. Like, no, thank you.” But I feel like we’re looking into a crystal ball where the picture is changing every two minutes, and it’s what we’re imagining and what other people are imagining and what the government is saying, and there’s just no real way to know but we do know that we will keep going and that we’re very scrappy and we’re very dedicated to our cause. And so our business will look different and it will continue to change. Where my head is at right now is still more with mail order. I’m like how can we grow that side of the business because that’s something that we have control over. We have a direct relationship with customers. It’s contactless. For the foreseeable future, that seems like a good way to go, but we’re up for anything.

AS: Another thing that I did want to mention, and I know this is kind of like a shameless plug, but there’s a group of people in the industry who have started something called Victory Cheese. Sheila, I don’t know if you’ve heard about it yet, but I can send you all the info on it. They’ve started the website, victorycheese.com. And the idea is it’s like the victory garden, like how can you kind of do your part to support the American artisan cheese industry. And so a bunch of retailers and makers and restaurants and CSAs, and whoever else wants to, has started creating these Victory Cheese boxes. And the idea is by kind of uniting everything under this common flag of Victory Cheese is that you can sell a Victory Cheese box and benefit local farmers, and then donate a portion of the proceeds of the box to some local charity of your choice. And so a bunch of people have signed up already, and I know that now that it’s kind of officially launching a bunch more people are going to get on the bandwagon. And so I think that’ll be an important and cool movement to keep an eye on because across the country people are going to be getting into this.

AS: And just locally here in the city. I mean, I know we’ve gotten several restaurants interested in this idea, which is really cool. Dan Barber and his team at Blue Hill, they’re doing a box as part of their resource program to support Victory Cheese. The Dig Inn group is going to be getting on board with it as well. Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Hospitality, they’ve expressed interest in it. So I think it’s a really neat way to kind of close that loop again between farmers, retailers, distributors, and chefs to say like, okay, let’s all speak together and let’s all figure out how to reach people and explain to them how important their support is so we can all keep going.

SF: Yes. And Linda Luke, who works with us, she does a lot of sales work for Nettle Meadow. She’s involved in Victory Cheese, and I think she’s setting up some of our cheeses on their new site where they’re doing it, so I agree and certainly it’s an important plug because that’s one of those creative areas where so many people in this industry are getting together to try to help each other and that’s certainly one way to branch to the other side. And another creative way that we’re doing here at Nettle Meadow is that we can’t get out there in the public. We can’t go to food shows and tell people about new cheeses, and so we are trying to do kind of a streaming video at least once a week on our Facebook page that says, “Here’s this new cheese” or “Here’s this new dish” or whatever. It’s not something we ever did before and maybe it should have occurred to us, but these are those creative ways that we’re branching out to try to sell more cheese.

EL: It sounds like what most people don’t understand is that it requires a combination of passion and naiveté to sort of keep going when everyone you talk to and ask say, “No, you can’t do that.” It’s like, “Oh, you gave up a corporate lawyering gig to buy a cheesemaking operation? Have you lost your mind, Sheila?” And I’m sure Anne, weren’t you like a champion long-distance runner?

AS: No, no. I was a very mediocre long-distance runner, but it was the only team that wouldn’t cut me in high school. I tried out for everything else and got cut from the team, so then track, they didn’t cut anybody. I pretty much graduated from art school without any job prospects and started working in cheese. I went to intern at Cato Corner Farm in Connecticut, and then I worked at Murray’s for a little while and kind of just got bit by the bug, and then decided to do my own thing.

EL: There is probably a moment in everyone’s life when you realize this is the world you’re meant to inhabit. Well, this has been great. Thank you both for taking the time.

AS: Sheila, it’s nice to hear your voice and see you, too. I saw you for a second at Cheesemonger Invitational in San Francisco, but you were on your way out and I couldn’t catch you.

SF: Right. It’s good to see your face, too. That’s one of the nice things in doing this and there is at least some connection between people again.

EL: Yeah, and maybe this is a good way to close this. It seems clear that the cheesemaking world and the cheese world in general is very much a close-knit community. And you all realize that if something is going to be good for one cheesemaker or one cheesemonger, it’s probably going to be good for everybody.

AS: Exactly. Yeah. It’s like a rising tide floats all boats. People are tremendously supportive and open and collaborative, and it’s one of the things that I love best about this work.

SF: Oh, absolutely. Yes. And I think it’s important. One of the things I thought that oh, well, out of absolute necessity of not watching good cheese rot, we started giving cheese to all of these regional food banks. And I thought, “Oh, well, isn’t this a great thing. And I feel good about this and whatever.” And I started reading and watching some of these podcasts, and I realized there are dozens and dozens of really small artisan cheesemakers across the country that had the very same idea that also couldn’t afford to be giving away so much cheese but really had no other option, and at least they’re feeding families in their local state or whatever who otherwise were dealing with some real food insecurity issues right now. So it’s that big community and I think that it really is. We hopefully all will either survive this or the ships will go down together.

EL: It’s not going to go down.

SF: Let’s hope not.

AS: No way. Bail it out. One bucket at a time.

SF: I’m still building the new cheese plant, so I remain optimistic.

EL: Well, that’s all great. That’s good to hear. All right. You both take care now. Thank you so much.

AS: You, too. Thanks, Ed. Thanks, Sheila.

SF: Bye.

EL: All right. Now it’s time for our question of the week that people send in for our chief culinary consultant, author of the Food Lab, Mr. Kenji López-Alt.

EL: James Walker has the question of the week.

Kenji López-Alt: All right.

EL: I’m an ex-pat living in the UK and therefore really only have access to European butter. I understand European butter is generally higher in fat content and try to accommodate for this by decreasing the quantity called for in American recipes and filling in the remaining weight in water. However, this can be hit and miss depending upon the recipe and what role the butter plays. Are there any tips you can recommend to adjust American recipes typically in the baking world to account for European butter? This could be another BraveTart question. If not, are there particular styles of dishes or baked goods that will actually turn out better when using European butter?

KLA: So this is an interesting question because I actually just did a bunch of testing for this. I’m actually working on an article right now for the New York Times about European versus American butter. So for people who don’t know the difference, European-style butters tend to be a little higher in butterfat. So in the U.S., butter is usually around 81% butterfat and then about 5% or so protein and sugars and then the rest is water, so maybe 13-14% water or something like that. Whereas in Europe, it’s about 83% butterfat and more like 11 or 12% water.

KLA: First of all, if you’re fully incorporating the butter into a recipe, say you’re putting it into like a cookie dough where you’re going to be creaming it or you’re putting it into a pan sauce where you’re melting it, it’s not really going to make a huge, huge difference whether you use one or the other because there’s not that big a difference in 81% versus 83% fat and not that big a difference in 11% versus 13% water. Especially because consider that if you’re using a recipe that calls for two sticks of butter, the difference in 2% of that weight is probably a couple milliliters of water. It’s enough that if you accidentally splashed it over the side of a measuring cup, that’s probably making more of a difference than the butter’s making. So in most recipes where the butter is fully incorporated, it’s not going to make a difference.

KLA: The times when you do potentially want to use a European-style butter where it’s especially useful is for handling laminated pastries because European-style butters with their higher butterfat tend to be a little softer and more malleable, easier to roll out than American-style butter which seems to be a little bit harder. So when you’re doing something like making a croissant dough when you’re trying to make a big even rectangle of butter and you’re going to be folding it and rolling it and manipulating it in ways where you want it to really behave sort of plastic where you want it to behave malleable, then European butter can make that much easier to do.

KLA: Oh man, I have these interesting testing results, but I don’t think I’m even allowed to share them yet. But anyhow, maybe by the time this podcast comes out, my article with these testing results will have been published. Anyhow, the answer is, yeah, really the main difference in European and American-style butter is that European-style butter is going to be more easily malleable. Some European butters also tend to be cultured, which means that they’re made out of fermented cream as opposed to fresh cream. So like a sweet cream butter is unfermented whereas a cultured butter is butter that’s made out of essentially like from fresh so that’ll have a tangier flavor to it, kind of cheesier flavor. Depending on if you like that flavor or not, you might want to use a European butter. In most applications and most baked goods, you’re not really actually going to taste much of that flavor unless it’s like a very, very butter-forward recipe like shortbread.

EL: Got it. You’re not giving us any more insight into your research?

KLA: I don’t think I’m allowed to. I think my other editor would kill me, but I think I am allowed to leave teases like this.

EL: All right. Well, I think James is now a lot smarter when it comes to butter and we will talk to you next week, Kenji.

KLA: All right. Talk to you next week.

EL: You can support both Anne Saxelby and Sheila Flanagan by buying cheese directly from their websites, saxelbycheese.com or nettlemeadow.com. And before we go we feel compelled to remind Serious Eaters that the recent surge in COVID-19 cases further imperils the five million farmers, cheese makers, cheesemongers, distillers, fisherman and meat purveyors that supply America’s 500,000 independent restaurants. So please support all these folks any way you can. That’s Special Sauce for today. So long, Serious Eaters. Please do whatever you can to stay safe and healthy during these difficult times. We’ll see you next week.