A Different Kind of Culture in Queens
“Everyone loves the free beer guy!” said John, a middle-aged man wearing glasses and an earnest grin.
And he was right. Despite the more than 75 cheeses to sample from nearly 20 different creameries at the New York Epicurean Events’ 2016 Great Northeast Cheese and Dairy Festival, everyone was undoubtedly head over heels in love with John, the man handing out plastic cups of keg beer with compliments and jokes while patrons waited in line to sample some of New England’s best dairy.
The lines were long, but no one complained. John-the-beer-guy, who turned out to be an old friend of NYEE’s president, couldn’t take all of the credit there. In part, the relaxed temperament was due to the dedicated–but likely also very tired–folks who traveled to Flushing on a cold December night to kindly hand out samples to the more than 200 event attendees. Perikly explaining the difference between pasteurized and unpasteurized cheese while patiently coordinating the assembly of bite-size samples over the course of four hours may seem daunting to most, but these cheesemongers were as refined as their age-old craft.
Eager patrons listened carefully to the makers, letting words like “peppery character” and “buttery paste” linger in their eager ears as cheese melted on their tongues. Inside the warmth of Flushing Town Hall, the makers were patient with the patrons–and the patrons were patient with the makers–all with mutual respect, adding to the success of the event. People waited their turn for bite-sized tastes, as they did it over the course of several hours. It sounds easy for anyone over the age of six, but for New Yorkers, it’s really not. Here, instead of sighing loudly or playing on their phones, people toasted John and shared bottles of Barefoot wine. Friends sipped cider and caught up on their lives while waiting to taste what awaited them next.
A cheese tasting event could easily be a stuffy affair, but thanks to folks like the man dressed in a t-shirt that revealed his sleeve tattoos as he beautifully played the Steinway, we were subtly told we were not allowed to take the night too seriously. Rather, we could just enjoy the simple act of sharing good food with those around us.
Chefs from Casa Del Chef, a family-owned bistro in Woodside, passed out butternut squash soup topped with dollops of goat cheese and the charming man who controlled the foam from a canister enjoyed his own allowance of showmanship. Donned in a Santa hat (it was the holiday season after all), Vermont Farmstead shared their grown-up s’more: Castleton graham crackers topped with velvety brie-like Lillé cheese and dark chocolate.
Moving on from samples served on a plate with a photo of a goat from Beltane Farms’ Connecticut farm peeking from behind, the consummate finish to any meal is its goat cheese topped with espresso and chocolate powders. Mohawk Drumlin Creamery’s the thick, Sheep’s Milk Greek Yogurt was melt-in-your-mouth-smooth, while the Bufarolo, a water buffalo-mozzarella imported from a family-run water buffalo farm in Northern Italy then cave-aged in Crown Heights, was not to be forgotten.
The “I Heart Cheese” t-shirt-wearing staff from Interlaken’s Lively Run Goat Dairy took home the People’s Choice Award that night after handing out craft knowledge with their cheese samples. The audience tasted and explored the concepts Lively Run explained: how cheese is made from only four ingredients (salt, culture, milk and resin) and the complex role cultures play in creating cheese.
For any fine restaurant worth its salt (and culture, milk and resin), the cheese of choice, known as Bayley Hazen Blue, was carefully displayed on Jasper Hill Farm’s cutting boards shaped like the cheese’s home state of Vermont, though it’s Harbison, a spreadable cheese wrapped in spruce bark, was the best cheese I tasted all night.
Awards not completely aside, the star of the night was undoubtedly Hugue Dufour, chef and founder of Michelin-starred restaurant M. Wells Steakhouse in Long Island City. Dufour conceived a concoction of cheese curds and mashed potatoes that he stretched like elastic high above their pan (once as high as three feet when he theatrically stood on a chair) before finessing out a portion for each patron with a flick of his wrist. The show was always the same, yet mesmerizing each time, and the food felt equally as magical when it was finally in my hands.
Hours of tasting later, the lights strung high above Flushing’s famous Main Street welcomed me outside and guided my way back to the subway. Crossing over the river, I wondered whether this event would have cultivated the same sense of community in another borough (I’d wager my souvenir jar of sheep’s milk yogurt not.)
As the 7 train entered Manhattan, I again encountered a Santa hat, this time atop an alcohol-stained early-twenty-something heading home (well, I hoped) after a long day at SantaCon.
I already missed my time in Queens.
The next NYEE event is the Charcuterie Masters on February 25 at Flushing Town Hall. The event will feature two dozen makers of charcuterie-- hams, bacons, sausages, pates, and salumi. More information here.