Usually I show you cheeses that are naked. That is to say, sans packaging. But when Prufrock and Eidolon arrived in the mail, I was struck by their attire. The packaging reminded me of the fashionable slickers that my Finnish neighbor children wear — all playful patterns and punchy colors.
Should cheese packaging matter?
After all, aren’t cheese lovers really after fudge-y interiors and glorious rinds? Consider this: most consumers buy cheese at the store. They’re accustomed to shrink-wrap and poorly designed labels that are a thousand miles from adorable. And most shoppers — unlike the people who read this blog — don’t know a Colby from a Camembert, much less an artisan Camembert from a commodity Camembert.
So, maybe the the dairy case is ready for street style.
In fact, the more I work with novice tasters — like my wonderful students and interns — the more I’m aware how they make decisions based on good design. If you are a cheesemaker who spends hours making, salting, washing, and flipping a cheese, doesn’t it make sense to somehow convey that care — that level of detail — in your packaging?
This week, I asked Molly Glasgow of Grey Barn Farm to talk about her design decisions in creating the packaging for her family’s farmstead cheese.
Read the interview...
Hi, Molly. You have such an interesting background – before you and your husband Eric started farming on Martha’s Vineyard, you worked in the corporate world for 15 years as a designer. Can you tell us about your past life?
Hi, Tenaya. Thanks so much for taking the time to interview me. I
graduated from Pratt Institute back in the mid-1990s with a degree in
sculpture having changed majors from architecture.
There were no ‘sculptress wanted’ ads in the paper, funny enough, so I moved back home — which happened to be Houston, Texas. Upon returning, I landed a job with Savage Design Group in Houston. I couldn’t believe my luck, and I think that working there really cemented my design understanding and the important role design plays in our lives, be it tangible or in the online realm. Working there also taught me how important your team is and that without the right players you are up the creek without a paddle.
My husband, Eric, and I met in Houston, although he is from Massachusetts. We moved to London the first time with my husband’s work shortly after getting married. Living and working in London really focused my design aesthetic, and upon moving back to NYC I had moved up the ranks and into an art director position. Then 9/11 happened, I was laid-off and we decided to start a family.
I always dreamt of being a stay-at-home mom and as Eric’s work became even more demanding with even longer hours, going back to work — with two little boys in tow — was not an option at that point. We moved every couple of years with Eric’s work and it really took its toll. Literally one day Eric said, ‘I want to quit my job’. I said ‘ok, sounds like a good idea’. We looked at each other, looked at our little family garden and decided we should become farmers. Sounds stupid, right? I mean who does that? We did.
We were living in London at the time and there was this great cheese shop called La Fromagerie. We loved going there and our kids called it the ‘stinky cheese shop’. We said to each other ‘lets milk cows and make cheese’. Seriously. We had no idea what we were stepping into. Six months later we had moved here to this farm. Six and a half years later, here we are farming and making cheese.
You have a stunning website, one that depicts the raw beauty of working with animals and making cheese. Yet, your “Story” makes it very clear that the transition from designer to farmer has required hard work. Can you talk about your role (s) on the farm? (I imagine that you make cheese and also handle marketing?)
Thank you so much. The website was a labor of love. The photographer I worked with, Elizabeth Cecil, is amazing. When she first brought me photos of nice chickens I said ‘these are lovely but I want to see real farming. Where is the mud? Where is the shit?’. I really feel that is where the true beauty of farming lies.
Hard work. Yes. But it’s more than that – it has been a real mental game. At first there was the fun of learning new things. Learning about soil and seeds. Learning about calving and artificial insemenation. (Yes, I took that class. Four days of my arm up a cows you know what.). When we started farming, I was to be the cheesemaker here and I went to cheese school up at VIAC (vermont institute of artisanal cheese). I love cheese. I love the process of making cheese. I love the order that goes along with running a creamery and I love how you have to keep everything clean. I love the lists and the calculations. There wasn’t anything I didn’t love about running the creamery and trying to make cheese.
But then I got sick. Really sick and couldn’t figure out why. As it turns out I have ulcerative colitis and a serious dairy allergy. Even the act of making cheese and having my arms in the vat of milk would send me to bed or to the bathroom for days.
Perhaps this isn’t what you were expecting, right? But it’s the truth and fact is I was crap at cheesemaking. Cheesemaking really is an art. Enter stage right – Jacqueline – our amazing cheesemaker. She can read milk and curd and cheese ripening in the cave the same way I understand design. It must be imbedded in our DNA.
I focus my energy on photography of the farm, marketing and packaging. I help out with the occasional baby piglet, feed the ducks with our kids and climb up in attic spaces when we have plumbing issues. I used to try and do it all, but I’m not wonder woman as it turns out. Its funny how life works out isn’t it?
What design decisions went into your packaging?
I wanted each cheese to feel like a little gift. I love beautiful little packages and I wanted our customers to really feel this when they decided to purchase our cheese. It should be special. Buying cheese should be a wonderful experience and when you get home I wanted that experience to continue.
I feel that color often frames a time period and I felt strongly that I wanted the packaging to be a variation on black and white. It felt classic. I also wanted the packaging to have a feminine touch. Without the floral pattern the packaging was overly simple and plain and was missing that little bit something special. When Lauren at P&L Media came up with the pattern we had printed on the cheese paper, it was so perfect I couldn’t believe it.
How does your packaging reflect the taste and/or styles of your cheeses?
It might seem obvious to say that our cheeses are French influenced but the funny thing is when we we’re designing the packaging I was looking at a lot of ceramic tiles. Many of the patterns I was attracted to were older French designs. I took images of these tiles to Lauren and said how can we incorporate this direction into the packaging and that is when she came up with the idea of the pattern. French cheese, French tiles – might seem odd but I guess for me two of my favorite things came together at the same time. It’s so interesting what influences us.
Do you have any design tips for small-batch cheesemakers on a limited budget when it comes to package design and marketing?
I would ask them to ask themselves what they like. Create a folder with images of packaging they like and ask themselves why. Make notes on images so you can remember. Go on Google and type in package design, package design london, package design japan, cheese packaging etc. There are so many images online and I find printing off the ones I like really helps me focus because I can spread them out, move them around and get rid of the ones that don’t work. This will save you a lot of time with a designer when you meet with them – knowing what you want – and even more importantly knowing what you don’t want and don’t like. In the beginning I took images and said “I don’t want our packaging to look like this.” It really helps the designer know what you want.
Paper. I know this sounds odd but for me paper selection is so important. Let’s say you have designed your own label and are having them printed online. There are a lot of great options out there for this. Before you place your order, get paper samples mailed to you. In real life papers feel and seem much different than examples online.
Understand the information you need on your packaging from your inspector. If you have all of the correct information from the start it will save you money as your designer will not have to spend time redesigning your packaging. Even if you have done the design yourself, time is money and not having to spend time making changes will really make things go more smoothly.
You and I met on Instagram (@thegreybarnchilmark) – can you talk about why you use that platform to share images from your farm?
For me, I am a photographer at heart and a friend of mine here on the vineyard who runs @chilmarkcoffeecompany told me I should really get an instagram account for the farm. I didn’t believe him at first but now understand why he thought I would enjoy it so much. A photograph can show what you want to show and hide what you want to hide all at the same time. Instagram allows me to tell our story visually. I see it as a way to connect our customers back to the farm where their food comes from. This is why most of my photos are not of cheese. I want people to see where their food is raised not just a photo of that food. Sharing the beauty and goings-on of our farm with others really is the best part of my job. Each morning I wonder what will happen on the farm that I can share. I love connecting with people in that way.
Finally, how did you come to name Prufrock and Eidolon? And do you have favorite pairings that you enjoy eating alongside them?
Both names are from poems. Prufrock comes from the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot and Eidolon is from a poem by Walt Whitman entitled “Eidolons.” We are currently developing a blue cheese named Bluebird after the poem by the poet John Burroughs.
Why poets and poetry? We didn’t want to name the cheeses after our location. Because we are on Martha’s Vineyard, we thought it would be too touristy and we wanted their names to have real meaning for us. Prufrock is Eric’s favorite poem – always has been. We choose the name Eidolon because we had suffered a fire in our creamery and felt this poem really represented what we had been through to rebuild. The first line in the poem Bluebird is ‘a wistful note from out of the sky’ and it just seemed to fit beautifully. We had been wracking our brains to find a poem that would fit with the loveliness of this third cheese and there it was in a book of poetry on my bedside table. Prufrock is amazing with Belgian Trappist ales like Chimay. Eric tells me the combination is akin to enlightenment. Eidolon is a little trickier. In our house it usually gets eaten with a spoonful of my sister-in-law’s mother’s homemade fig jam. I’m assuming most people don’t have a jar of Cathy’s jam so Eric would suggest a lovely glass of bubbly champagne.
I just want to thank you for asking such great questions. I love to talk about cheese, about farming, about photography and it is so great to talk about packaging!
Prufrock: Mildly stinky with a beautiful bronze-orange rind and dense ivory paste. It needs a good sun salutation in order to soften — the sample I tried was fairly firm. But it’s stunningly delicious, a mouthful of mushrooms and cream. A beautiful example of a Taleggio style. Would be great with mostarda.
Eidolon: A tall downy creature shaped like a cylinder. Beautiful thin rind enrobes sweet, clean-tasting milk. My wheel was a bit young — dense but not quite satiny (the paste hadn’t broken down yet to become creamy). Would be great alongside a floral jelly, berry jam, or lemon balm jelly.
Disclosure: The cheeses presented in this post were sent to me as samples by the cheesemaker.
Gratitude: Special thanks to formatting czar Erin Konigsdorffer for her hand in designing this post!
It’s no secret: I love spirits. And I love exploring how to pair spirituous flavors with cheese. Over the weekend, I teamed up with Stefanie Angstadt of Valley Milkhouse Cheese (left) and Dean Brown of Rowhouse Spirits (right) for an “After Hours in the Greenhouse” event at my local urban farm, Greensgrow. What better place to studiously (ahem) sample herbaceous notes?
Here are a few gleanings, if you want to try pairing gin and dairy at home.
Gin Likes Sheep Cheese
Generally, I find that gin works beautifully with firm sheep’s milk cheeses, like Pecorino. You need a fatty cheese to stand up to hard alcohol, and you need a cheese with herbaceous notes that will be buoyed (not destroyed) by juniper-forward gin. Pecorino Ginepro? An ideal gin bunk-mate.
Gin Cocktail? Yes, Please…with Double or Triple Cremes
Soft cheeses, like the four styles we used from Valley Milkhouse on Saturday, need a caress. A caress in the form of bitters and/or bubbly. A French 75 — made with gin, lemon, simple syrup, and Champagne — is a terrific pairing. It’s the pairing I served onThanksgiving with delicate goat cheeses from Vermont Creamery. A smashing combo.
At Saturday’s tasting, we served “pink gin” — gin and bitters — to round out the flavors so the gin didn’t overwhelm the cheese. Orange bitters and Angostura worked well. If you want to play with pink gin at home, pour gin over ice, add a few dashes of bitters and a lemon peel. Rim the glass with the oil from the peel, then drop it into your drink. As the ice melts, the flavors will blend — a little dilution is necessary, in my opinion, for gin to work with delicate dairy.
Explore a Variety of Gins, from Floral to Herbaceous
A great pairing should be balanced, so look for flavors that will accentuate your cheese. Rowhouse Gin is juniper-forward with a lingering taste of chamomile. Lovely, complex. That’s why I wanted to pair it with the soft, grassy notes of Valley Milkhouse Cheeses. Angstadt uses a combination of sheep and cow’s milk from pasture-raised animals. Perfect. Her cheeses are all named after wildflowers, a good flavor tip-off.
Add Honey as a Flavor Bridge
Honey is a great bridge for uniting dairy and spirits — especially when pairing with salty cheeses. Try herbaceous honeys, like thyme, lavender, or rosemary. You can purchase these or make your own gorgeous infusions. Add some roasted nuts, like almonds or hazelnuts tossed into a skillet with some olive oil and sea salt. Voila, you have an incredible cheese and spirits board!
Longing for some pairing play? Don’t worry. We have more Greensgrow After Hours cheese events in the works. Check the Greensgrow events page (and mine!) for updates. You can also read more about how to pair cheese in my little ol’ book (link up top). Drop me a line if you discover a glorious cheese and gin pairing. I would love to hear from you.
This post is based on a talk I gave at the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference in February on the subject of Writing About Products for Market. Since several of you have asked about it, I’ve condensed my notes and included a link to my PowerPoint presentation. Please feel free to share!
Observation #1: We live in a digital dairy era.
When people buy a cheese, they google it to find pairing ideas and to learn about its history. Marketing your cheese, or any artisan product, means connecting – connecting your eaters to the information they are looking for. If you share your story, your favorite pairings, your process, they can re-share it with their family and friends, and this creates a network of fans. I know because I rely on that very network here.
Six years ago, I started blogging about cheese to educate myself about something I loved. Then I sought out cheesemakers. I found them online and showed up at their market stands. I posted pictures of these experiences, and eaters started following. That led to tasting parties, which turned into workshops, which turned into a book where I shared pairing tips and cheese stories, which turned into a trip to Italy for blog readers, which turned into this moment.
Think of social media as the night sky – you’re a point in it. By reaching out, you connect to others and build your own constellation.
Observation #2: Eaters are Instagrammers.
In 2014, the largest demographic of specialty foods buyers were aged 25-34, according the Specialty Food Association. Of all specialty foods purchased, cheese was #3 — after chocolate and olive oil, and before coffee, ice cream, and salty snacks.
Think about how to connect to your future eaters. They’re digital, they’re visual. This group, more than ever, is interested in learning about where their food comes from. They love craft beer and interactive experiences, like tastings and hands-on classes where they can be makers. Most know nothing about farm life; they’ve grown up eating processed foods, and they’re in search of authentic experiences and products.
I teach theses students in my food writing classes at Saint Joseph’s University. Many of them can not recognize a radish.
Observation #3: Hand-crafted cheese shouldn’t look like commodity cheese.
MIT anthropologist Heather Paxson has studied the renaissance of cheese making in America and written about it in her fascinating book The Life of Cheese. The challenge for artisan cheesemakers, she says? To distinguish themselves from commodity cheese by giving their cheeses identities.
How do you do you give your cheese an identity? I reached out to my Facebook network and to students in my classes for feedback. Here’s what they said…
Give it a memorable name. (Humboldt Fog, Vampire Slayer, Prima Donna.)
Avoid shrink-wrap. Look at the innovative packaging by Mystic Cheese Co. below, for example. Why hand-make a beautiful cheese and stuff it into an ugly wrapper? How will young eaters be able to recognize your craft?
Observation #4: Look for collaborators if you are too busy for these observations.
I recognize that many cheese operations are run by a single brilliant person. They don’t have time to Tweet or design clever packaging. If you are one of them, find a collaborator. Offer to trade cheese for some social media expertise or hand-lettered signage. Reach out to your eaters, your market-goers, your neighbors.
In the collaborative economy, makers often trade with makers. This breeds goodness. You learn something about their world, and they learn about yours. Don’t be afraid to reach out to local college students for interns. Trade a pound of cheese for an Instagram account, for a simple logo, for a farmers’ market sign. By inviting them to participate, you’ve created an interactive pathway. Isn’t that what led you to where you are?
Click here for my PASA PowerPoint slides. And tune in over the next few weeks for follow-up posts with a series on digital dairy identities. These posts are designed to help cheesemakers navigate the world of social media and branding. Please feel free to chime in with questions and stories.
Some meal memories never fade — I can still taste the milk dinner prepared by Philadelphia Chef Chris Kearse of Will BYOB four years ago on my birthday. A milk dinner. (Sigh.) Can anything be more beautiful?
That’s why I am thrilled to be giving away two tickets to the pop-up dinner Kearse will roll out on March 5, 2015 as part of Dinner Lab.
What is Dinner Lab?
One part laboratory, two parts social experiment, Dinner Lab provides unorthodox dining experiences for its members. Membership costs $125 (see discount link below for MF readers), which gives you access to a calendar of pop-ups around the country (Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago…most recently Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). Each pop-up costs around $65.
I met the company’s CFO, Bryson Aust, a few weeks ago to learn more about his vision: to elevate up-and-coming chefs through underground dining experiences around the country.
Aust explained how he and his partners (fellow MBA-ers at Tulane) developed the concept out of necessity — when they moved to New Orleans, they surfed the pop-up scene but learned how taxing it was for chefs to organize. “No one made any money,” Aust said. So, he and his peers focused on building a sustainable platform. The company handles ticketing, location scouting, staffing, and even food sourcing. And yes, chefs get paid. This is not about free labor.
Curious about Dinner Lab? Win a 1-year membership + 2 tickets to the Chris Kearse dinner in Philadelphia by leaving a comment about your most memorable meal in the comment box below. The giveaway ends at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015.
Also, the folks at Dinner Lab have been kind enough to offer discounted membership to MF readers. Click here to receive a membership discount ($75 instead of $125).
Hope to see you at the dinner!
Note: the location of this dinner will be unveiled the night before. (See menu below.)
Dinner Lab presents Chris Kearse …
Cuisine : Classique Moderne | Reverence for tradition, respect for progress
Location: to be released a day before
About Chef Chris Kearse
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Menu Concept: This menu focuses on its season, respecting French traditions along with classic and modern techniques to build a dining experience that evokes excitement and emotion.
Current Gig: Chef/Owner, Will BYOB
Work History: Tru (Chicago) | Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel (Philadelphia) | Pumpkin (Philadelphia) | Blackfish (Conshohocken, PA)
Education: The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College
Menu for March 5, 2015
1 Pistachio Soup : puffed grains | king crab | burnt cream
2 Grilled Bay Scallop : beech mushroom | green tea | meyer lemon & espelette emulsion
3 Okinawa Potato & Foie Gras Tortellini : oxtail marmalade | chestnut | oxalis
4 Duck Cassoulet : lentils & pumpkin | fennel crème
5 Spiced Guinness Cake : red wine caramel | miso & brown butter ice cream | pear
Photo credits: Jeff Thibodeau, Ryan Green, Aaron Lyles. Photos courtesy of Dinner Lab.
Some cheeses inspire you the moment you unwrap them. Their freshness beckons, their rinds beg you to run your fingers across them. Surfaces speak: ripples call to mind tide pools, ridges suggest barnacles.
I am speaking about Lakins Gorges Cheese from Rockport, Maine. When I opened the box from their maker, Alison Lakin, I was struck by how sturdy they looked, like a crew of weathered mariners. Solid. Salty. Stoic. Even the ricotta held its basket curve.
Last Sunday, Erin, who is interning with me this spring, helped me gather a basket of props for our photo shoot. We tasked ourselves with expressing the personality of these rounds, and so we collected husky things – shells, wool, wood.
We wanted you to be able to taste these cheeses in your mind.
Imagine eating them with dark preserves – Allison Lakin likes to serve them with blueberry chutney, which we approximated with some ridiculously juicy pickled plums put up my friend Marisa McClellan.
We recorded our notes and starred our favorites.
Lakin’s Gorges Cheese Notes
Light, fluffy, immaculate, sweet. This ricotta retains the shape of its basket mold, such a nice touch. You can taste the quality organic milk here, from the 8th generation dairy (yes, that’s right) where Allison sources her milk.
Soft and creamy, like a peppermint patty with mushroomy notes. It’s the perfect size to pack on a winter picnic. Allison Lakin says this year’s Allagash Fluxus is an ideal bunk mate.
Prix de Diane*
Supple and oozy, delicate and mild. This luxurious cake is made for jam – it’s named for Allison’s godmother who encouraged her to become a cheesemaker (earlier in life, Allison worked as an anthropologist and a stage hand.)
Here’s the rugged scalawag of the bunch, all onion breath and a little bitter. Opus 42 smells and tastes like scallions just pulled from wet earth, like damp moccasins. It needs dark bread, marmalade, a side of pemmican. Not for the meek.
Earthy and salty, with a compact flaky texture and lovely sour cream and mushroom aftertaste – a drizzle of honey (try pine honey) is fitting for this stern bob named after a wooden whaling ship. What’s a stern bob? Well, just imagine. Incidentally, Morgan likes a nip off a flask of gin.
About Lakins Gorges Cheeses
“I’ve worked as a stage hand, and I studied anthropology,” Allison told me on the phone, a few days after she sent her samples. No wonder her cheeses live somewhere between the museum world (crustaceous) and the stage world (theatrical).
Allison’s operation is a one-woman show. She purchases organic milk from an 8th generation family farm and uses organic vegetarian rennet, making cheese in a rented space two days a week. On other days, she salts and ships. Most of her cheeses go out the door to wholesale accounts to co-ops and restaurants. She also sells them on her website.
If you live in Philadelphia, look for Lakin’s Gorges cheeses at Talula’s Daily next week.
And, of course, invite your friends to a snow picnic.
Curious about Maine cheeses? Check out the Maine Cheese Guild.