Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Zingerman's, I Was Wrong About You


Bloggers like to pop off at the mouth. It's kind of what we do. Guilty!

Last summer I popped off about Zingerman's. And while some points I made were valid--who can afford the $30.00 olive oil???--I failed to account for other factors, the most significant of which being a fierce committment to having the highest quality products available even if that means they're more expensive, and recognizing that the increased cost makes for an exceptional difference in taste and quality.

Yesterday I got to speak at length with managing partners for Zingerman's Creamery, Zingerman's Coffee Company, and BAKE! with Zing (baking classes presented by the Bakehouse). I received full tours of all the facilities as well as a crash-course education in the sciences of cheesemaking, coffee roasting, and baking--and make no mistake, there is a very real science behind each one, and each of these masters of their domains are well-versed and willing to share.

In the coming weeks you'll be able to read more about my experience at these places, but for now I just felt compelled to share a little about them and, GULP, admit that I was ohdeargoddon'tmakemesayit wrong.

In keeping with the environment of education that the Zingerman's Empire has become known for, John Loomis (cheesemaker extraordinairre), Allen Liebowitz (coffee roaster extraordinairre) and Shelby Kibler (baker extraordinairre) were more than eager to take the time to explain their trades as well show me the ins & outs and explain why they have such a committment to educating their customers through classes, tastings, and tours. As Allen remarked, "An educated customer is our best customer," alluding to the idea that an educated customer will not only be willing to pay a little more for a higher quality product, but will also understand why it costs more and how the product is better.

The Zingerman's vision is to constantly be learning as well as teaching, espousing the idea that one is never done learning and that one also has a responsibility to teach what one has learned...ah, but I'm jumping ahead of myself a bit. I'll save it for the article; you'll just have to wait.

After seeing the OBVIOUS passion, commitment, and knowledge that each of these men have for what they do--as well as their general friendliness and excitement to share--I now consider myself a card-carrying convert of the "cult," as I so glibly put it.

I couldn't quite go home empty-handed, now could I?

But oh, I do like to tease...okay, just a morsel of something I probably won't be able to work into the article. One of the Creamery's signature cheeses is the Great Lakes Cheshire, one of the oldest recorded cheeses in British history. The recipe used at Zingerman's is an old one--it is a "winter" recipe, which allows the cheese to keep for about two months (as there was less concern about milk spoilage during the cold winter months so folks weren't forced to churn out cheeses in order to avoid wasting all that spoiled milk). This particular recipe was popular until World War II when the British government was forced to ration food supplies. This more delicate recipe lasted only two months, and the government wasn't able to ration it out fast enough before IT would spoil. They then required cheesemakers to produce a heartier but less nuanced recipe that would keep for six months, and after rationing ended cheesemakers just kept producing Cheshire in this fashion.

John Loomis learned this traditional winter recipe from a Welsh cheesemaker, and since that man's retirement Zingerman's Creamery has the DISTINCT honor of being the only creamery in the world producing Cheshire cheese using this particular recipe.

Added bonus: the milk used at the Creamery all comes from local producers Calder Dairy.

How about that, eh? Well, I've said it before and I'll say it again: you had me at "cheese."