At the time of my interview with him in April of 2015, David Robinson had been the cheese buyer at Formaggio Kitchen for about five years, and had been with Formaggio Kitchen for nearly eight. So it’s safe to say that, with the economic downturn in the late 2000s and the upswing a few years later, he’s seen quite a few changes in his shop, in the products, and in the cheeesemakers whose products fill his shelves.
Formaggio Kitchen – South End, the shop where Robinson can most often be found, is a culinary anchor in the community along Shawmut Ave., just south of downtown Boston. While customers stop in at all hours for the occasional specialty food items and to consult on cheese and wines for special events, it’s common for Robinson to see the same people all week long as they pick up a sandwich, a salad, or some other prepared food for their dinner.
Despite the work involved in keeping up with dozens of regional, domestic, and international suppliers as well as running the day-to-day operations behind the cheese counter, Robinson (as with all of the Formaggio staff) is incredibly generous with his time and took a few minutes to talk with me about the changes he’s witnessed in the cheese trade over the last few years.
Local Flavors – Regional Sourcing, Products, and Relationships
Robinson says he likes dealing directly with farmers and tries to visit them on their farms as often as possible. He wants to talk to and get to know the source of what he’s going to offer his customers. But, as time is precious, he admits that farmers often have to make time to come see him. And many suppliers feel that if they can get in at Formaggio, it will be a stepping stone to cracking the Boston food scene. And as a result, he’s seen a lot of local suppliers grow into much larger businesses, while still maintaining close connections and friendships years later.
When asked how artisan cheesemaking has changed over the years, Robinson is quick to point out that, American cheeses are no longer just copies. Leaning against a glass counter filled with cheese, he tells me, “They are no longer all just copies. Back in the day, it was, this cheese is ‘this’ style.” And, for Robinson that was okay, because that’s when Americans were learning to make cheese and were modeling their products on cheeses from abroad. Robinson recalls that initially it was necessary to sell cheese by telling customers, “It sort of resembles this European cheese you may have heard of”. And that’s not necessarily the case any more. According to Robinson, “What’s happening is American cheesemakers in the artisan movement are developing cheeses that are unique. These are now American cheeses.”
As an example he cites Maggie’s Round (from Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts) – a cheese that’s, “sort of alpine, but it’s not. The rind that she develops is unique, and the taste is different. Everything about it is just slightly her own.”
Robinson also counts Ellie’s Cloudy Down (a goat’s milk cheese from Ruggles Hill Creamery in Hardwick, Massachusetts) as another example of a cheese that is uniquely its own thing. The penicillin dusted rind on this cheese is not “new”, but the flavor profile is uniquely her own, and no longer modeled on other styles as some of her earlier cheeses were produced in a French style.
The techniques used by Ruggles Hill (and other local/regional Massachusetts cheesemakers) are not necessarily new, but the end products are theirs alone, and no longer “copies” of other products. Robinson believes the artisanal movement (in the U.S.) has turned from, “Let’s see what we can do to get people to buy this, and keep it familiar with names and styles” to “Alright, we’re doing our own thing. We are unique. We don’t have to copy the French or the British when it comes to cheeses.”
Robinson has also seen a move from hobby producers to mature businesses, as they (artisan cheesemakers) have had to learn to work as a business with things like marketing, sales, and distribution, and not just creating. That said, some of Formaggio’s suppliers are still very small batch producers who focus much of their sales on summer farmers markets and are only able to give Formaggio a limited supply of their products. Nevertheless, Robinson works with a wide array of producers to keep specialty items in stock. Working closely with producers, and relying on the trust and relationships he’s built with local makers has been the key to everyone’s success. Robinson asserts that, ”We’ve been a catalyst for a lot of restaurants (as far away as New York City) who have come in and found products (such as Four Star Farms in Northfield, Massachusetts) through us.” “We’ve been able to help them, which helps everybody. It drives the whole thing.”
The Economics of Artisan Cheese
I asked Robinson how life at the cheese counter changed in the late 2,000s, when most of us had less money to spend on specialty foods. And on that subject he added, “What I saw with local producers was that it was a little more difficult with things like farmers markets, so we had more people (producers) trying to step in and come to shops. That was a big thing with local producers – trying to get into brick and mortar places because it’s more stable. At a farmers market which only lasts for 6-8 months of the year, it’s harder to sustain a business when there’s just less money floating around.
And brick and mortar (shops) mean they get paid right away. There may be a little less money because you can retail it differently than you would sell it wholesale. But it’s much more sustainable in the long run. But in the last 18 months farmers markets have picked up again. And that’s a whole part of the artisan movement. With farmers markets there are more of them, and people (customers) are much more attuned to them. And that’s helped out a lot of small producers as well.”
When asked to define “Massachusetts cheese”, Robinson was a bit more reserved, but told me there are hundreds of local and regional cheese producers (mostly cow, and a handful of sheep cheese producers). A third are goats milk producers. When I pressed him to define a Massachusetts style, he responded that, if there is a “Massachusetts style”, it’s because they (producers) are learning from similar sources, and it’s short-lived. They quickly move on and do their own thing and learn the ins and outs of what their customers want.
When asked, how many Massachusetts cheeses customers will find on his counter at any one time, he responded, “Usually three or four. Not as many as I’d like, but we have 15-20 domestic cheeses that are coming from all over New England, so four is a high percentage, but not the highest. There are two that we always have. The Ruggles Hill (Ellie’s Cloudy Down), and the Cricket Creek Farm (Maggie’s Round). These are two producers that we just have to have.” That’s both by Robinson’s choice, and customer demand.
As the counter began to get busy around midday, Robinson told me, “Artisanal cheesemaking is still so new in the U.S. I think in 20 years it’s gong to be completely different”, and then he tended to his loyal customers as I shopped for my lunch.
Follow this link to read more about Formaggio Kitchen.
[Formaggio Kitchen offers cheese classes at its South End store, at the Cambridge store (which includes a temperature controlled “cheese cave”), and at their learning annex (a dedicated teaching space, also in Cambridge).]
text and photos by Glenn D. Kaufmann
Formaggio Kitchen – South End
268 Shawmut Ave.
Boston, MA 02118
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