The first cheese I remember was Teleme Jack. When I bought it after so many years at Rainbow Grocery in 2018, I learned again after so many years  turns out its a rather special cheese. still made by the same people in the same way...

My mother had cheese parties. This meant moving the tin pastry table that we used for dining in the kitchen to the living room and placing gooey french cheese on it. I didn't eat this. I liked quesadillas from Los Hermanos on Chestnut Street (they're still there too): cheese floating in a butter-soaked crispy tortilla.

The first time cheese itself got my attention was at the shop Say Cheese on Cole Street. The founders, a sweet gay couple as I recall, had hired my mother to do their launch and in gratitude invited her and the child for a cheese tasting. I don't remember the taste, but I remember the story. The same cheese made at three different elevations in the Alps, was three different cheeses. (The shop is still there, but quality has not survived the ownership transitions. Not a destination.)

Since cheese has now become one of the main focal points of my attention it seems fitting to try to remember them all and to document the cheeses.

I don't really remember much cheese between the first story and the second. Mom was eating Manchego. I was putting ricotta salata on pasta. I remember anxiously smuggling brie-de-meaux back to Los Angeles from Paris in 2005. Seemed like the thing to do, but I didn't like the cheese.

In 2006 Nicolas Beckman, picnic designer from La Brea Bakery, showed up at my underground restaurant, the viand, with cheeses and stories. I started buying cheese at La Brea along with bread. They sold Nieves (or Nieges?), a soft cheese with the look of a snow covered bush. I didn't see that cheese again until 2017 (and can't find it on the internet), in København's otherwise unremarkable Torvehallerne.

In Los Angeles, cheese was a staple item in our kitchen. We always bought the same ones. La Brea was just one stop on our Sunday marketing rounds. We also bought Los Angeles Buffalo Mozzarella from Gioia Cheese Co. when they had a small outlet downtown, a mild nutty pecorino (whose quality I have never quite found again) for pasta at the Bay Cities Deli, and supermild feta cheese from Mother's Kitchen, at the Hollywood farmers' market.

In 2008 we moved to Boston temporarily, into the culinary embrace of Formaggio's Kitchen. We shopped in the Cambridge store every week and subsisted mainly on cheese (as the farmers markets were woefully inadequate). At Formaggio's we learned that cheese had seasons and subtle quality. The shop sent its buyers to Europe to choose which wheels to bring back. They taught us that liking mild cheese didn't mean we had bad taste. In fact they learned our tastes and greeted us, calling across the shop as we entered, "I have something new for you."

Here we discovered Reypanaer (super aged Gouda that tasted to us like caramel, the first was 18month from Beemster), Regal de Bourgogne (soft fresh cow's milk cheese, covered in macerated raisins), and Barilotto, a buffalo cheese.

We also learned about charcuterie, even assembling a Salami Salad for Viand East Three.

On a trip to Philadelphia, at Claudio's, we discovered Fleur Vert, a flaky fresh goat cheese congruent to a standard American birthday cake covered with dry herbs and red peppercorns.

In Wellington NZ, no one wanted to talk about cheese, but we met the founders of Cleveland Valley Buffalo Mozzarella. Their story would be echoed by the founders of AusBuffStuff in Sydney. New Zealand and Australia have fledgling artisan cheese industries. There I discovered a new cheese, the "Welsh Miner's Cheese", Caerphilly, (made in by Mudgee/HighValley).  Pecora Dairy is the standout of the Pacific, with their Jamberoo Mountain Blue (even I could adore this Blue). I also begged them for the fresh mozzarella which had not yet become Mezza. In Sydney I also paid $90/kilo for Ubriaco and nearly that for Pennu Bu, a buffalo brie, at Formaggi Ocello.

When I first moved to Berlin in 2014 I was blessed to live near Südwind Feinkost, where I bought Fleur de Maquis, an aged reminder of Fleur Vert, which I like only at its freshest.

2015 was my first trip to Italy. At Roscioli Salumeria I met my first Caciocavallo, whose quality I have yet to find again despite tasting every one offered at the Salon del Gusto 2018. I also bought a lot of cheeses whose names I couldn't record at the wonderful Campagna Amica Market, Saturdays and Sundays near the Circo Massimo.

In 2015 and 2016 I visited Paris, munching the whole time on chunks of Mimolette, and discovered Taka & Vermo Fromaggiers. Of course I bought the youngest chevre they offered, so young it was barely able to stand up, and a remarkable rosemary-encrusted brebis.

2016 was my first visit to Neil's Yard Dairy in London. I realized this was a new level of cheese. I kept the receipt for Cornish Yarg, Beenleigh Blue, Cotherstone, and Berkswell. The next year I had their Caerphilly, but I don't have the receipt for that one.

2016 was also my first time at Cheese Berlin, where I met a cheese Tyri tou lakkou (cheese of the grave) from the Greek island, Serifos. The curators of Kafenion found only one man still making this cheese in the traditional way, wrapped in wine must, herbs, wine leaves, and placed in a hole 3m deep for 3 months.

I also met Mike, maker of Young Buck, and SouthPark-style hero of the resurgent terroiric Irish cheese movement. Young Buck is a blue, but when it's only one month old it's called Baby Buck. This chalky, fresh, delicious cheese won my heart, but it's a rarity. They rarely cut such young wheels and didn't bring it with them to 2017 or 2018 Cheese Berlin. In 2018 he told me that if I come to Belfast, he'll hook me up.

In 2016 We went to Amsterdam where I went to all the famous cheese shops and finally ended up at Eric's Delicatessen, buying a round-edged mini-wheel of smoked goat and the extraordinary cheeses of Remeker.

In late 2016 I moved to Mitte Berlin where I could shop regularly at the Slow Food store, Vom Einfachen das Gute. I struggle with their cheeses, but in 2017 they had Pecorino Canestrato which tasted like egg pasta and a super young one, Pecorino Subasio. I also found good cheeses at the locally-0wned BioDeli, including a fabulous deep orange Red Leicester. The neighborhood's butcher, Fleischhandlung, sells just a few cheeses, including an Italian Buffalo Camembert that changed my views on Camembert.

2017 Cheese Berlin: included Fresh sheep's cheese, Hirtenkäse, from Berit & Norbert Fischer and two special cheeses presented by the curator, Käse Kober from Besdorf: Mont Vully (by a Swiss ex-ementhaler maker, washed with wine in a black rind) and Kobunder Ziege (extra belegen goat gouda with a grey rind from the North of Holland).

In mid-2018 I was back at Eric's in Amsterdam, where I convinced them to let me try a cheese that they really didn't want to sell to a tourist, a special gouda whose rind is made of butter.

2018 was my first visit to north Italy. In Modena I finally discovered Parmiggiano Reggiano, prefering a non-DOP recommended by my friend. In Torino I bought a spectacular Toma from a farmer in the Porto Palazzo farmer's section. The standouts of the many many cheeses I tasted at my first Slow Food Salon del Gusto (click that for my full report) were a fresh cheese with honey made by I Segreti di Carla, and the Vacca Bianca young Parmigganos: Maggengo and Furmai from Caseificio Rosola.

My first visit to southern france was to Toulouse in 2018, where I found Graissette de Noel and a young mimolette, "Fermier Fleur" at Fromagier Betty. There I began the quest for "The Dutch Cheese".

Still savoring cheese from Modena in July and Turin in September, I found myself at Cheese Berlin 2018, where my new passion for Red Leicester was satisfied by Neil's Yard, and I met the young Utrecht dairy, Oudwijker, who uses Egyptian Water Buffalo to make the fresh Stella (although once I got their cheeses home they were all too strong for me). The Debbene Caseificio from Sardinia, whose many ages of smoked pecorino were lovely. (I bought the smoked ricotta.) And I met Tom Calver of Westcombe Cheddar, who promised to make me a Caerphilly...

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Tattood chefs drink wine and talk shop over blowtorches, barbecues, and stockpots on portable burners at Rootstock Festival

What is Rootstock?

It’s a massive warehouse. Jazz saxophone reverberates noisily from a variety of hard surfaces. Barbecue smoke scents the air. Hundreds of blue jeans park on or hover above milk crates, the only available seating. The wine in the glasses glows gold like beer. Over in the corner in the dark at the bar we taste six wines before choosing one.

Plain tables and plain signs humbly announce the names of some of the most interesting restaurants in the city: 10 William St; 121BC; Berta; Billy Kwong; Cafe Paci; Ester; Garagistes; Longrain; Sixpenny; Momofuku Sei?bo; Ormeggio; Pinbone and Three Blue Ducks.

Tattood chefs drink wine and talk shop over blowtorches, barbecues, and stockpots on portable burners. A guy accosts me and my plate to ask “Is that the tartare? I’ve had six.”

We visited on Saturday night, but they were out of food. One of the organisers came to talk to us after we complained. “We’re a non-profit organisation.” This interested me, as I find Sydney so commercial. I wanted to know more, so I went back on Sunday night, ate tartare, and begged Mike for an interview. I started by asking “What is Rootstock?”

Mike Benny - Rootstock Festival

Mike Benny – Rootstock Festival

“We wanted to have a festival that wasn’t another regional celebration or Welcome to Australia, not another androgynous festival. We wanted to have a manifesto which was going to encourage people to think about the way they consume food and wine. We knew we had lots of like-minded colleagues and friends who would support us. We wanted to be not-for-profit, supporting the producers, rather than our own bank balances. We wanted the festival to help people meet people who grow things and produce things that are sustainable. We want people to be able to spend time with these people and see what they do and learn from storytelling.

“Our overarching theme is about sustainability, growing things better, putting things on tables that are better, moving towards understanding where produce and things we consume comes from, how it’s made. We wanted a festival in which you could explore those ideas while hanging out with the people who do it. We wanted to make the producers the conversational piece.

Wine is Food

“We wanted to avoid the caste system in which wine was second class in the agenda. Wine is food. It comes from a primary produce crop. It should be firmly on the agenda of food agencies. It beggars belief to me that culturally restaurants are shifting to paddock-to-plate, locavore, sustainable produce, single origin supplies, and yet with wine they throw it out the window. They buy what fits a commercial or cool wine list instead of knowing where their wine comes from and how it’s made.

“People see eggs and they ask ‘are these barn raised or free range raised?’ ‘Are they organic or not?’ It baffles me that wine is not the same. Where did it come from? How was it grown? Is it organic? People should be interested in the process and provenance of wine, the same way they are with food. Food festivals miss this. I think people should be electing to drink wine in the same way.

“There are about 60 different chemicals you can add to wine. Organic certification of wine stops at the winery door. They can still use chemicals in the winemaking process and heavy industrial machinery and whatever else. The same people who are concerned about GMOs and pesticides and free range and livestock hormones will happily sit down and drink a bottle of wine produced in a factory environment, from fruit sourced from industrial agriculture style vineyards, using excess water, and chemical farming. And then when the fruit is brought to the winery it’s produced in a way that homogenises where the fruit comes from to meet quality and consistency standards, using everything from colour fixers to texture and flavour modifiers.”

Ahhhhhh…. that explains the Orange wine bar. This wine would have to be coloured (or bleached?!) to fit into the standardised marketplace.

Mike and the other four Rootstock organisers were taken aback when 13,500 people came through the doors, up from two thousand last year. “People wanted to engage and wanted to learn, and voted with their feet to understand sustainable produce.”

“One very experienced winemaker said it was the best wine event she’s ever attended with the most curious and engaged wine audience she’d ever spoken to. Many of the international winemakers came back for their second year, because they’re so blown away by consumers being interested in wine. So many festivals cater either to trade or just pouring for people to drink a lot.”

Rootstock is a festival of wine AND food.

“A producer of sustainable produce had to be tied to a chef, so you could see the produce, buy the produce, talk to the farmer, then you could see it being used in food by a chef, and then talk to the chef about how to use the produce, and taste the food being used in a finished dish. No festival does that. All the produce was used by a chef next to the produce. It brings a more holistic feel to the festival. To be able to drink amazing wine alongside that…It was so beautiful on Sunday. It smelled and felt like a farm. It was so alive with people, with the sense of rural space. It was incredible. Food spilling over everything.”

Unlike most food and wine festivals, producers can’t just purchase stall space. First they have to be invited to apply. Then the organisers assess whether the winemaker satisfies the Rootstock Manifesto. Then the organisers taste the wine. Those that pass the taste test are further evaluated according to sulphur level. While there isn’t a numeric boundary, if the sulphur is high, that winemaker would be invited to present a different wine. “If they’re notably high in sulphur, it restricts the natural expression of the wine.” Finally, the winemaker is required to be present at the stall in person. PR people are not invited.

mclaren-vale-sustainable-winegrowingSo here’s a festival that is more than a form of advertising, open to anyone with the cash, a festival with principles and the rigour to stick with them, a festival that is opening up the culture of wine, and pushing forward the very definitions of organic and sustainable. On top of all that, the thing that impressed me most is Rootstock’s understanding of itself as an educational/developmental event for the producers themselves. Alongside the free marketplace open to the public, the winemakers’ events were reserved for the winemakers themselves to talk, teach, eat together, and taste one another’s wines. Rootstock provided free entries only to international winemakers, with the aim of encouraging interchange between Australian producers, new to sustainable natural wine and more experienced and established foreign producers. 110 people participated, “including some very establishment winemakers, who were there to learn.”

And in order to enhance this function of the festival, the date for the 2014 festival is being moved from February to August, a time between the global harvests, to maximise the presence of international winemakers.

Beyond the Rootstock Festival

wineboysBeyond the festival, which is an opportunity for people to meet winemakers and taste natural wines, the Rootstock collective wants to promote voluntary ingredient labelling for wine. “If everyone knew what was going on in their wine, more people might be questioning what they’re consuming in terms of their wine choices.” And beyond that is the possibility for sustainability certification. Mike points out that the 94% of New Zealand vineyards are certified under the New Zealand Wine Sustainability Compact. In Australia, only the McLaren Valley region has a sustainability charter, currently adhered to by growers of about 53% of the region’s production. “The charter includes soil profile mapping, water, and waste management, with quality standards for certain wines to get people to focus on micro-growing.” The program was developed by Irina Santiago of the University of Adelaide.

Fascinated by all this, I asked Mike about his own work alongside Rootstock.

“I’m a journalist and wine writer and presenter. I talk about wine. My background as a journalist has had me traveling the world broadly and looking at vineyard ecology projects, natural wine growing around the world, and as an extension of that beginning to have conversations in Australia with consumers, winemakers, and regional wine associations about moving towards more natural wine growing.

“Increasingly, regional associations, winemakers and winegrowers have been receptive to me visiting and talking about moving toward more natural wine growing, and showing wines that display a transparency between the grape growing and the finished product. It’s met with some skepticism at times. Australia is a very heavily science-based wine making country, led by college and research institutions that promote the use of science to manage winemaking. So it’s been interesting traveling and listening to people around Australia and New Zealand being interested in less-is-more. Whether that’s the old “la lutte raisonée”, (the reasoned struggle) or just winemakers who want to make sure the crop is healthy, but trying to move away from reliance on science-based farming. People are becoming more receptive.

“There’s an undercurrent of people in Australia –through exposure to new wines from overseas, or local events– moving toward more natural wine growing. Even big companies are putting aside small barrels or small parcels to experiment, to work through their own reasoning. Young producers working as assistant winemakers are sourcing small parcels of fruit and beginning to make their own wines in small batches and releasing them to market – effectively natural wines. There’s a lot going on. It’s a very exciting time in Australia. Because people are getting that they’ve got to be more concerned about how they produce their wine and from where they source their fruit.”

Mike is clearly still high on the kind of energy that Rootstock 2014 gathered. “We started pulling together these people important to us, and the amazing thing is that they all volunteered. No one gets paid. I’m humbled and amazed by the support from 70 volunteers who are people with extraordinarily high commercial profiles. It’s a collaborative festival that relies on spine, heartbeat, veins of program being the people who actually work at it. We provide the impetus, venue, and hopefully the crowd…I was surprised to hear commentators call rootstock a counterculture political movement. We wanted to encourage people to think differently and consume differently, without a heavy agenda. With fun and exploration.” And they did.

“People ask ‘Can you bring Rootstock to Melbourne?’ No. We’re in Sydney. We’re about Sydney, enlivening the city, being part of it, creating culture in the city. We’re not for profit; there’s no reason to go anywhere. It would be nice to roll a national program out. The agenda is focusing on this city and making this city a place that leads by example.”

Visit Rootstock’s website

View Photos from 2014 Rootstock Festival

View Sustainable Wine Growing website

View Mick Bennie’s website

Read article by mike on wine and sustainability

PHOTOS of Rootstock: James Broadway


This interview is an article written for the Australia Food Sovereignty Alliance.


Australia’s state government of Victoria has pledged $25 million in subsidy to Coca-Cola/Amatil to keep the SPC/Ardona produce cannery open in Shepparton. The federal government refused to match the funds to meet Coca-Cola’s demands. But even if the factory stay open for another period, with the farmers dependent on short-term contracts from the factory, their farms are insecure and their future precarious. Without domestic production, Australians become dependent on imported produce, and global market prices.

Here are 25 ways the state government could spend that money which would contribute to the long-term security of farmers, farmland, domestic food supply, and distributed infrastructure.

  1. Provide education, training, and financial resources to help farmers convert to sustainable agriculture so they can offer a superior product to Australian consumers while protecting the ecosystem and reducing greenhouse gasses caused by petrochemical production and fossil-fuel based agriculture.
  2. Fund regional ecological agriculture extension agents, facilities, collaborations between universities and farmers.
  3. Help farmers diversify their production, which protects soil, insulates from pests, and decreases farmers’ dependency on single buyers.
  4. Help farmers set up regional Community Supported Agriculture programs to enable consumers to have direct relationships with farms.
  5. Educate consumers about the superior healthfulness and flavor of fresh, ripe foods over processed and stored foods.
  6. Run an “eat Australian” campaign.
  7. Require state institutions (schools, hospitals, prisons, elder care facilities…) to serve fresh Australian produce, purchased direct from Australian farmers.
  8. Offer training program for public and private sector procurement officers in contracting systems that will work for small and mid-scale farmers.
  9. Pay chefs to train cooks at institutions on how to make the most of fresh unprocessed foods.
  10. Dedicate transport infrastructure to assisting farmers in direct marketing to population centers.
  11. Fund non-profit brokers to create direct relationships between farmers and restaurants.
  12. Create a certification scheme available to all restaurants whereby they can acquire a symbol indicating they serve only Australian produce, processed fresh on premises.
  13. Create a certification scheme for all food retailers whereby they can acquire a symbol indicating that 75% or more of their produce is Australian-grown.
  14. Work with Centerlink to provide vegetable boxes, cooking classes, babyfood-making classes to low-income families to improve nutrition.
  15. Build incubators for new food entrepreneurs, providing access to certified kitchens for value-added processing of artisan foods, plus marketing and distribution assistance.
  16. Create regional demonstration farms for agroecology and sustainable living to interest young people in farming.
  17. Help large farms scale down to higher-value intensive cropping, provide funding to new farmers to help with setup costs.
  18. Analyze the Australian food system and fund development of crops currently imported.
  19. Create regional food policy councils to analyze the foodshed, promote regional foods, and ensure that what can be grown locally is eaten locally.
  20. Create urban composting programs to return nutrients to regional farms.
  21. Create a national internship program to fund young ecowarriors to assist farmers in transition. They can especially help with new marketing tasks involved in direct marketing (driving to farmers markets, manning farmers market stands, contacting restaurants to arrange direct contracts, doing community outreach regarding new sources of fresh food, cooking classes, etc.)
  22. Facilitate the development of regional farmer-owned cooperatives for small-scale produce processing and marketing.
  23. Create a genre of regional food festivals aimed at lower and middle-income consumers, Good Food for All, Taste for the Rest of Us…
  24. Send celebrity chefs on a national tour to promote local foods by setting up pop-up restaurants and teaching cooking classes for chefs and consumers to generate loyalty to quality Australian produce.
  25. Create an Asian food task force to educate farmers about Asian produce and to create networks between Australian Asian restaurants and food retailers and Australian farmers.