Welcome to the blog of the Rehoboth Beach Cheese Company. Pull up a bar stool and experience our Counter Culture!

I'm Andy Meddick, Owner and President of the Rehoboth Beach Cheese Company. In 2005, I left my corporate I.T. job in Washington DC, to relocate with my spouse's business to the DE beaches. What to do now we live in a state where chicken houses can often outnumber human? Faced with a four hour round trip to the closest decent food market, I opened my first store, Good For You Market, a full service grocery store, focusing on organic, natural, and gourmet foods. In the worst economy since the 1930s, I won Best of Delaware awards three years running. After four years, I decided to simplify the business, re-aligning to focus on what we did best. The result is the Rehoboth Beach Cheese Company. We sell (retail and wholesale) artisan/farmstead cheeses, charcuterie, organic produce,and other specialty foods such as spices and seasonings. We also teach cheese classes, cater, sell online, and consult with other businesses to build their cheese programs.

I've learned much since starting out. For example, staffing was a steep learning curve, and I discovered that a savvy sales and marketing professional lay dormant in an I.T. geek! Systems analysis, business analysis, database design and development, data architecture, web design, specialty cheeses and foods, organic farming, catering, and cooking. What do all these threads have in common? Curiosity! It begets technique, which in turn begets better solutions to commond needs. Why complain about lack of choice, if you're not willing to offer an alternative? Our move, and my business development has taught me to participate in life, and to be ever curious! Enjoy!

Oct 20, 2009

If you’re fortunate, you wake rested, the kids aren’t bouncing on your bed (your kids, your bed, not the neighbor’s), the dog hasn’t peed/thrown up on the comforter, and faithful spouse did not give up and go in the spare room leaving you alone snoring! You lay there, drifting in and out of that nice dream, not the scary one about high school, tests, and nakedness at speech day! I had a peaceful awakening this morning. I could hear the birds twittering outside: real birds twittering for real, in the real world.

I drifted in and out of a dream about our beach cities ‘encouraging’ the replacement of all plastic bags, plastic and Styrofoam takeout containers with recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable options. Imagine the environmental shift, the support of many small businesses developing alternatives to plastics, the jobs, the reduction of oil usage, and the taxes? Hmm, press snooze and dream on!

I don’t know why I had this dream last night: part deadlines; part faithful spouse’s comment that change seemed to be in the air. You’ve heard the quote, “There is nothing permanent except change.” Heraclitus. Isn’t it how we plan for, and accept change that determines how well we function in the present? We get overwhelmed with the present reality and the sheer volume of what needs to change. The true visionaries (and faithful) amongst us attune to the subtle breezes of change in the way a dog or cat lifts its nose to seemingly undetectable aromas on the breeze. Visionaries respond to that change with innovation, the true American entrepreneurial spirit. Then they continue to be motivated and function, despite naysayers.

Let’s point our collective olfactory equipment (noses) skyward, and sense the change wafting along the breezes. Flying into Dublin, Ireland, in 2003, I read an in-flight magazine article about the introduction of a countrywide (Federal) tax on plastic bags in January 2002. For every plastic bag the consumer used at checkout, a 33 cents (Federal) tax was levied. The monies collected went into a ‘green’ Federal fund for environmentally sustainable initiatives.

Let’s leave the politics of Federal (or and/or a state/local) taxes to the Tea Parties, and instead, look at the collective, public benefit. Within weeks of Ireland’s new tax, there was a 94% reduction in the use of plastic bags. By August 2002, a staggering 3.5 Million Euros (2.37 Million dollars) was collected and redirected into green initiatives. Source: BBC. A citizen commented, “Banning the bag was painless… The streets went from being littered with plastic bags to clean virtually overnight.” Source: http://www.thedailygreen.com/. Note this was a tax on plastic bags, not a ban on use.

While in the UK recently, I noticed at checkout that there was a new 33 cents ‘price’ on plastic bags. As a tourist, I had no option but to ‘buy’ the bag: enough of a sting, that I pondered the issue. I think the banning of plastic bags and replacement with reusable, and biodegradable options is next. Government has interceded, enforcing change to jumpstart public adoption. In the Environmental Stake races, the entrepreneurial horse is already out of the gate, the public adoption horse lagging, the convenience and mass availability horses are in the lead, and the future gain horse is barely in the picture.

Other countries are following Ireland: Chinese and Australian schemes have yet to meet with success and even local efforts have foundered on strong opposition. A puzzling reaction to change. China estimates a saving of 37 million barrels of oil by banning plastic bags. Source: The Daily Mail. Uganda, Bangladesh, Taiwan, and Singapore have banned or discouraged use (Source: BBC). In March, 2002, Bangladesh banned polythene bags after it was found that they were blocking drainage systems and had been a major culprit during the 1988 and 1998 floods that submerged two-thirds of the country (Source: BBC). Every continent has seen efforts to ban plastic bags for the environmental load is huge. Globally we use 42 billion plastic bags a month (Source: http://www.reusablebags.com/). That’s billions and billions of barrels of oil (massive energy use), clogged waterways, and air/soil pollution.

Plastic bags are just a large tip of an equally large iceberg. I believe we’ll see mandatory replacement of plastics and Styrofoam food service containers with biodegradable, compostable alternatives soon. Also watch the plastic water bottle industry. Let’s hope we see some exciting innovation there before a ban is imposed.

How does this all apply to us in the USA? Look West young man (and lady). Some cities in California have already instituted bans on plastic grocery bags (Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland in 2007). The City of Los Angeles is considering the banning of Styrofoam takeout containers. The New York City council aimed for a bag ban, but settled for a requirement that companies that hand them out must also take them back.

Let’s not wait for our government to step in and slap our wrists with a tax, and decide for us. Aren’t our wrists already sore enough from the plastic bag handles and from picking the darn things up around town? Let’s show our leaders we’re responsible enough to institute change bottom up. Let’s form community groups using all the free tools and skills we have in our own communities to encourage the early adoption of this change that is on the breeze. There’s Facebook, Twitter, local private business owners full of entrepreneurial spirit, business and technical skills. Let’s work with our local, state, and yes, Federal governments to implement a grass roots adoption of biodegradable compostable packaging, food service, grocery and restaurant takeout, before the environmental load of this makes the cost even higher.

Incidentally, quietly, without fuss or customer backlash, Good For You Market was the first grocery business in Delaware to self-impose a ban on plastic grocery bags in January of 2003. It’s no coincidence we’d just gotten back from Dublin, having seen the results first hand.

I’ll close with a few of my favorite quotes on change.

“People are very open-minded about new things - as long as they're exactly like the old ones.” Charles Kettering.

“Change your life today. Don't gamble on the future, act now, without delay.” Simone De Beauvoir

“Cut the "im" out of impossible, leaving that dynamic word standing out free and clear-possible.” Norman Vincent Peale.

Finally, my favorite, “Change is inevitable, except from vending machines.” Unknown.

Have a safe day, full of exciting possibilities. Stay warm; those fall breezes are bringing changes.

Last posting, I introduced an ongoing culinary series exploring the origins of much of the food we take for granted, but rarely experience in its true artisan form. I mentioned pasta and threatened semolina. In the pattern of beginnings, I’ll be focusing on semolina this post, for it is the starting point of one of the world’s favorite foods: Pasta.

The thought of semolina makes me shudder. You see when I was a bachgen (little boy) in Wales, our school lunch program would inflict semolina on us in the worst possible way: a lukewarm slimy off-white pudding, with a dollop of strawberry jam in the middle. What culinary genius came up with this dish for us I know not? I do know I was too scared to say no to the, “Dinner Lady.” Now there were many little boys who delighted in mixing the jam into the semolina and making a ‘bloody’ mess (literally). This little boy would eat the jam, carefully avoiding any contact with the semolina pudding. Both scenarios had the same result: waste of money, poor nutrition, and an appalling lifelong association for semolina with inedible foods.

Many decades and thousands of miles distant, I was delighted to discover a much better purpose for semolina, and here our journey stops at a more edible destination: Pasta.

To understand semolina is to understand the process from which wheat is turned into flour since semolina is really a stage in the process called, “Milling.” Semolina is a milled, coarse mix made from hard winter durum wheat. The mix is ground to make flour from which pasta is made. Semolina is also used to make couscous, bread, and, unfortunately for many schoolchildren in Wales in the 1960s and 1970s, puddings! Now if we’d only followed the Greeks and made their delicious Galaktoboureko semolina dessert, I would have been one happier (and rounder) bachgen!

So, how is semolina produced? These days, wheat is milled into flour using grooved steel rollers. The grains of wheat are slightly wider than the spaces between the rollers. As a result, the rollers slough off the bran and the germ from the wheat kernel. The wheat bran is the hard outer layer of the wheat grain. Wheat germ is the reproductive part of the grain that germinates to grow into a plant. The bran and the germ are integral parts of whole grains, and is a by-product in the milling of refined grains. Removing the wheat and the bran for a lower nutritional profile since the bran in particular is rich in dietary fiber, omegas, starch, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Bran is present in any grain and can be milled for example, from rice, corn, maize, oats, barley, and millet, in addition to wheat. Bran has a high oil content, which turns rancid easily. For this reason I keep bran in the freezer. Remember the saying, “Separating the wheat from the chaff?” Wheat bran is not chaff, for the chaff is the coarser scaly material surrounding the grain, but not part of the grain.

Once the bran and germ have been removed from the wheat, the remaining part of the grain is the starchy endosperm, which is cracked in the process. This coarse, cracked endosperm is semolina.

The semolina is then ground into flour, from which pasta is made. The same process is used for any type of flour. The endosperm can be broken into different grades, since the inner part breaks into smaller pieces than the outer. This difference allows for differing grades of flour to be produced.

Semolina has an interesting lingual origin, deriving from the Italian word, Semola – a derivative of the Ancient Latin Simila, which means flour. It does not end here. The Latin is actually from the Semitic root Smd, meaning to grind into groats. Semolina is only ever made from durum wheat and should be a dull yellow color. When flour comes from softer wheat, it is white and is not semolina. Huh? Herein lies the confusion with semolina! Is it flour, or a grain? Actually, as we’ve seen above, it is neither, since technically, Semolina is a stage in the milling process, turning whole grain wheat into flour.

So recap, why would we eat pasta if it not whole grain wheat in origin? Ah, for that you’ll just have to tune in for a future posting. Got to go, I’m hungry!

We have lots to thank the Italians for, especially from a culinary perspective. I also thank the Italians for their perspective on life: family, food, the sensual appreciation of life itself, but also hard work. Pleasure does not come without hard work. To combine hard work with 6 weeks annual (paid) vacation, that’s living! Enough of the wishing, back to the working.

This week I introduce an ongoing culinary series that will appear here periodically. I’ll be exploring the origins of much of the food we take for granted, but rarely experience in its true artisan form.

I’ve been working hard at sourcing pasta for G4U Market: starting with dried and expanding into the texture variations offered by fresh. It seems that, just like cheese, there’s a lot of OK pasta out there, but few great pasta reproduced in the true artisan style. So much of our culture is a ‘dumbing down’ seemingly for mass appeal, when in actuality, it’s not mass ‘appeal’, but mass ‘availability.’ I prefer quality over quantity since for me more is less. What does this mean? Buying something that is a pale, poorly done imitation of the real thing, is no experience at all. Think about how much supermarket cheese you’ve bought and what did it taste like? Put bluntly: a waste of money. How is this, ‘mass appeal?’ I’d go for less of more any day. Less cheese, higher price maybe, but more taste, better nutrition and infinitely closer to the real thing. True value for money any day of the week. Notice I said, “Value for money.” I did not mention cost, which is relative, as in relatively different from store to store, from business to business. We should understand what we’re buying, and why. Only then can we evaluate cost fairly.

I’m often asked why is ‘organic’ more expensive? The answer is, it’s not always, and not everything at G4U market is organic. It’s relative, and for me somewhat irrelevant. Gasp; did the world just fold in on itself? Did the giant agro-chemical companies rub their hands in collective glee? Has G4U Market gone over to the dark side of our agrarian and culinary underbelly? Can there be no metaphor that I leave unmixed?

A common question we get at our Artisan cheese counter is, “Are these cheeses organic?” Mostly, no. Why? Because it’s irrelevant. Irrelevant, Organic? Irrelevant in the sense that the concept of organic and all that goes along with it, is taken as a given, since what I look for from my vendors is a complete disclosure of practice. How is your product made? Where are the raw materials sourced from, and so on? Only then can I evaluate the quality and cost of what I’m buying for my food market, decide if we carry it, and come up with a fair price.

True artisans faithfully replicating great food often include or exceed organic practices, since so much of our food culture pre-dates mass availability of agro-chemicals. A popular cultural issue currently is the wider availability of food versus local. For me this is not an either/or: a big business versus a small argument; it’s a sourcing issue - understanding where the food came from. Is it a system of small farms in the Italian countryside from which a bigger company is faithfully reproducing true Umbrian regional ingredients and dishes, such as Bartolini? Or is it that lovely neighborhood couple that have sunk their life savings into a bakery, restaurant, or cheese monger, reproducing an authentic experience for a local community?

G4U Market has back-ordered Montebello Organic Pasta. Montebello is true artisan pasta made by the Alce Nero Cooperative, close to Urbino, in the Marche region of Italy. The cooperative, based in the former Montebello Monastery, uses Old World techniques to create distinctive flavor and texture in their pasta. Instead of flash drying in ovens, Montebello dry their pasta slowly in traditional drying rooms. This produces a delicious hand crafted pasta with a unique porous texture that cooks evenly and holds sauces beautifully. The durum wheat semolina that Montebello uses for their pasta is organically grown on small family farms in the rolling hills overlooking the Adriatic Sea. The semolina is then carefully ground and combined with pure mountain spring water to produce a fine dough, which is extruded through hand-made bronze dies to create a rough texture. I ordered this pasta from a large US food distributor, but it is sourced from Montebello’s small-scale operation in Italy. We have to wait until the end of October for distribution since Montebello handcrafts the pasta.

A huge benefit of G4U Market carrying this pasta, outside of the culinary experience, is that the Alce Nero Cooperative has revitalized a rural area outside Urbino. This has provided jobs and hope for rural youth reversing the exodus of youth from the community, not to mention at this point, 30 years of farming without the use of synthetic chemicals. In a larger sense, this is what I mean by, “It’s not an either/or.” It’s not an anti-big business either/or. It’s not a 100% local versus widely distributed either/or. Instead it’s a bit of both and part of my evaluation of cost and fair pricing.

To clarify, I’m not justifying the cost of organic pricing, or G4U Market pricing. If you’ve stopped into the store in the past couple of weeks and noticed our new shelf labels, you’ll see true value for money, for G4U is blowing the lid off of concepts about the pricing of authentic food and organic food. What I am justifying here is the experience of food. If I’m going to spend my carbs on pasta, or allot my fat allowance to a cheese, the food had better be sensually appealing, authentic to the artisan who originated it, free of toxic chemicals, and darn good value for my hard earned money.

Up next, the starter for pasta: Semolina.

Salute! Andy Meddick for G4U Market.

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