Charlie the cheesemonger setting up a table at a fundraiser event at our local children's museum
If you're ever in Marquette, stop by Everyday Wines to check out his cheese counter!
It's been years since I wrote a blog! I expect many people's lives look a lot different since December of 2020; mine is practically unrecognizable.
In the midst of so much loss, I also earned tenure in 2020. Without a carrot dangling in front of me anymore, it was difficult to conceive of what was next in my career. Therefore, it felt like a good time to allow my husband to pursue his dreams. So, we made a big move, and our lives are now based in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where Charlie is running his own cut-to-order cheese counter! We actually did not know what this meant for me when we made the decision to move, but we took the leap anyways. I am lucky that it worked out that I can continue to teach for Wayne State online, and I travel to Detroit when needed.
As a food anthropologist, it is really fun to surround myself with the specialty foods he is able to carry in his shop. Yes, the foods are delicious, but the stories may be the best part of it. For instance, Wilde Weide—pronounced VIL-da VEYE-duh—is a gouda made with painstaking care as part of a 300-year old family operation. The cows, the cheesemakers, and the cheese are the only residents on a small Norwegian island. Each day, eight wheels are produced, and they are serenaded with an aria as they are set to rest for their year+ aging process (The creamery is run by a husband and wife team, and she has operatic training for the University of Amsterdam). When their product is ready to sell, it's loaded on to a row boat to be paddled across to the mainland for distribution. And of course, it is absolutely delicious.
As we got more into specialty foods it became apparent how climate change will dramatically impact the futures of some of our favorites. It's easy to imagine how increased frequency of extreme weather events could wipe out the little Wilde Weide operation. In general, extreme weather in dairying ecozones can impact availability of fresh water, which will impact milk supply. Dairy can be viewed as an "endangered food" whose future availability is at risk due to climate change.
Charlie does not just carry cheese, he carries all sorts of specialty pairings and accoutrements, and his second love after cheese is bean-to-bar chocolate. Chocolate is most certainly an endangered food, with some projections suggesting the cacao plant could go extinct by 2050. That's only a few decades away! Yet there is no inkling of a problem when it comes to the widespread availability and low cost of a chocolate candies at any convenience checkout counter. How can this be? Well, 70% of the world supply of chocolate is grown in West Africa, where costs are kept down by relying on human trafficking, slavery, and child labor. So if your chocolate bar does not specifically indicate that it was not sourced in West Africa, you can pretty safely conclude that at least some of it was, and that its purchase is contributing to these inhumane practices. Even expensive "artisan" chocolate you pick up at Whole Foods or local co-op typically use cacao mass, which is bulk produced and sold wholesale without any sourcing information.
Enter bean-to-bar chocolate. This name is just a description of the process - chocolate that is produced directly from cacao beans as opposed to bulk mass - and this small-scale production gained popularity because differently sourced beans carry different flavor profiles. However, what emerged is better sourcing information, and even growers producing their own chocolates, so although something labeled "bean-to-bar" does not promise better labor practices, many small scale producers celebrate the fact that their chocolate has been sustainably and ethically sourced and provide that information to consumers.
One of the most exciting chocolate brands we have been introduced to is To'ak out of Ecuador, who call themselves "tree-to-bar" producers. They are known as a luxury brand, and some of their offerings are absurdly expensive ($450 absurd), but many are quite reasonable in cost for what they are offering ($20/bar reasonable). To'ak started as a rainforest conservation project. The Ecuadorian cacao variety called “Nacional” traces its genetic lineage back to the first-known cacao trees domesticated by humanity, about 5,300 years ago, and today it is on the brink of extinction.
I immediately liked To'ak because they pay cacao growers the highest prices of any chocolate company I've come across: 3-9x more than the Fair Trade price. I personally like knowing that my dollars are supporting the laborers and not just the capitalists. But one To'ak line got me really excited, their Alchemy line designed in collaboration with Chef Charles Michel. I was first introduced to Chef Michel through the Netflix international cooking competition the Final Table. It was clear that he was passionate about food as a connection to nature and I immediately was drawn to him and his style. THEN he cooked with chapulines! I am used to periodically seeing insects pop up on cooking competitions and other food shows, but they are often featured in the Halloween episode, or generally sensationalized, but Chef Michel spoke about them respectfully without any exoticization. And he made them delicious! He won that week's challenge. I personally believe that the acceptance of insects as food is going to be largely reliant on chefs capturing their unique flavor profile and giving people cravable food experiences they can't find with any other product.
So I was super excited to see he was not only involved with To'ak but that he helped create an Amazonian ants chocolate. And oh my gosh, is the product sublime. Ants are notable for having formic acid as a chemical defense mechanism and pheromone communicator, which gives them an acidic, citrusy flavor. This chocolate plays with this flavor so well, and it is the distinct anty acidity that is left on your palate at the finish. It leaves you wanting to go back for another taste - the ants make you want to go back - and that's what we need more of in this edible insects movement.
Julie Lesnik received her PhD studying the role of termites in the diet of fossil hominins and has since started exploring insects as food more broadly.