To say that Sarah and I ate a lot of cheese last Saturday wouldn’t be doing the evening justice. The truth of the matter is that I probably put more cheese into my belly that night than in the last 4 months combined. Besides being an awesome experience, you may have already asked yourself why I would stretch my stomach to such cheese coma-like ends. The answer is easy. To help save local artisan goat cheese maker Smoky Valley Goat Cheese.
I don’t always like using the term foodie, but in many ways, I think it describes Kevin Kossowan perfectly. While I find myself continually trying to research, develop, and hone the many aspects of our food system, Kevin is a step above. He takes a leading roll in the community and seems to live with a serious food passion. From gardening to butchering, Kevin is quickly becoming more than just a conscious shopper and very much a benefit to the city, the farmers, and maybe most importantly, his friends and family.
Kevin is currently running a series on his blog called From Local Farms. Besides getting out and discovering the local farm scene for the rest of us, he is developing strong relationships with the creators. One of these burgeoning friendships happens to be with Holly Gale, the passionate cheese maker behind Smoky Valley Goat Cheese. With her products only available at the City Market, Holly has realized that without the opportunity to sell in one of the cities year round markets, her cheese making dreams may be lost to the world of overhead and missed opportunities. Which is why Sarah and I found ourselves invited to Kevin and Pam’s gorgeous home, and his hatched plan which is now known as – Operation Save Our Artisan Goat Cheese.
As Sarah and I settled into our seats, what we saw before us was daunting. I started to think that the cheese selection was emitting secret delicious messages that would make even the most lactose intolerant diner jealous. Holly’s goats, and the milk they produced had, at the very least, produced a delectable looking tray of eats. The rules for the evening were to the point, and focused. After all, we were here to think about cheese.
With Holly hoping to benefit from a Community-Supported Agriculture program (CSA), Kevin had taken the step to invite a group of people that would eat through the entire product line; documenting everything from the initial bouquet to the taste, texture to suggestions. These results, however scientific they would be, would hopefully give Holly a fair amount of honest insight from everyday consumers, while providing her with additional direction and cheese notes. After all, if you want to sell your product you will need to know what works and what doesn’t. What tastes good and what doesn’t. What..oh I think you get the picture.
With note paper along side our plates and freshly sharpened HB #2′s in our hands…wait a second, I forgot about my fellow diners. Going counter clockwise from my position, Sarah, Slow Food’s Edmonton Convivium Leader Thea Moss, Button Soup blogger and local culinary student Allan Suddaby, Cellar Door blogger, freelance writer and certified sommelier Mel Priestley, Kevin’s brother Jason, Kevin’s mother and her husband, local teacher and thermomix dealer Valerie Lugonja (who was only able to stay for the soft cheeses), Kevin’s lovely wife Pam who came in and out as the family’s young kids would allow, and lastly one of Kevin’s close friends, Yen.
While I could get into the fine details of every cheese, I don’t think the words would accurately reflect the experience. Kevin had constructed the tasting notes for our evening to go from the softest of products to the hardest. Which meant eating (in order); Yogurt, Feta, Chevre (including plain, roasted pepper, chili & peppercorn, herb de Provence), Annette, St. Maure, Valencay (young & ripe versions), Tomme, Farmer’s, Gruyere & Bleu. Thinking I would start, and maybe end for that matter, the night sampling little delicate bites, I was wrong. It reminded me of when you finish your meal at a restaurant, but end up picking at the remnants on your plate until the wait staff takes it away. Except here, no waiter ever took the cheese away. Instead, as one cube, block, or pyramid of cheese was eaten, Kevin replaced it with another from his never ending cache. Cheese we ate and we ate a lot of cheese.
If it wasn’t enough to simply dine on cheese, I think it’s safe to say our table conquered at least a few loaves of rustic breads and a mix of garden vegetables. The evening was then stepped up another notch when our host cranked up the range and started to cook. That’s right, more food, and it started with delicious beef from Nature’s Green Acres. I mean, why not sample cheese along side some of the best meatballs you could put in your mouth. Not just meatballs though, the dish was finished with mushrooms that put me into nirvana. Shaggy parasols from Kevin’s front yard, sautéed down with leeks made me almost weep. Fingerling potatoes…why not mix in a few tub’s of chevre, a chunk of farmer’s and serve with browned butter and nodding onions. That’s right, who wants some mashed potatoes with your cheese. Have I created a growing hunger in your stomach yet? It didn’t even stop there. With all of the main sampling notes taken care of, and more wine and beer circulating the table, we discussed bar food. How about eating chunks of fried cheese…because we did that too. And bacon, how can I forget the amazing chunk of pork belly that Kevin just happened to whip out of nowhere. Homemade bacon….sign me up. Heck, why not fry some bread in bacon fat, add cheese, more bacon, and eat. So wait..I think that makes them bacon fried cheese & bacon sandwiches. Can you hit a food wall? Can you slip into a cheese coma? These were serious questions I started to ponder.
Finally the night slowed down, our belly’s sat protruding, and we discussed the state of Smoky Valley Goat Cheese. There is no question that some of Holly’s products are good, no make that excellent. The Valancay and St. Maure for example, were my two picks of the night. Offering slightly musky odors and a goat richness that clings to your mouth like peanut butter, I may have found a new cheese crush. On the other side of the spectrum, a few of her cheeses are definite misses. Anytime you start pushing the product quantity or the increase the number of varieties, you run a dangerous risk of producing some ill-advised products. As much as this may hurt to hear, I think part a good portion of our conversation helped to offer some advice about such things.
Finally, no matter the product these days, it seems you have a great chance of finding a giant behind the doors. And that may just be the main problem. Gone are the days when you knew where your milk came from, or where your vegetables were grown. Before you jump on me, I’m upfront about not living a 100% local lifestyle, nor do I think it’s the be-all-end-all solution these days; we are in a global world after all. In fact, the one downside to such slow food style events like this evenings, is that I think we run the risk of preaching to the choir. We, the local food community, are already aware of options. We know that it’s possible, if however unlikely, that our neighbours can grow food. We know that there is a difference between the tomato you pick off the vine and the one that traveled 2000 miles. We know that a stress free animal will produce better meat. But, what about others? I often wonder if my friends, who could care less about food, will or can make time to start caring. Can the generation that eats from a frozen container of pasta and vegetables really come around. For everyone’s sake, I hope they do. Because just like Kevin mentioned, we desperately need more producers like these folks, not fewer.