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Fall 2012
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CALS Notes

Wegmans Gift to Bolster Training in Artisan Cheese Making

By Amanda Garris, Ph.D. ’04

Wegmans Cheese
Photo: Provided

In a few years, Cathy Gaffney ’89, director of specialty cheese, delicatessen, and kosher deli for Wegmans Food Markets, hopes that shoppers will still find a distinctive and diverse cheese selection—but with a greater number of labels that boast “Made in New York.” To make this a reality, Wegmans is funding a three-year pilot program at Cornell to bolster training in artisan cheese making around the state.

“This strategic partnership with Wegmans will help us deliver on agriculturally based economic development for New York,” said College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Kathryn Boor. “We have been looking for the right opportunity to partner, and we concurred that by taking on this project together we could have a significant impact on artisan cheese production in the state.”

Wegmans is the principal funder of the program, which will include the hiring of a new, dedicated artisan cheese extension associate position in the CALS Department of Food Science. The artisan cheese curriculum is intended to serve entrepreneurs in addition to the state’s many large cheese producers.

“We are very excited about the opportunity to work with Wegmans to boost the artisan cheese industry in New York,” said Martin Wiedmann, Ph.D. ’97, professor of food science. “This gift not only strongly demonstrates Wegmans’ commitment to the development of local food systems, but it is also a reflection of Cornell’s strength in cheese making and dairy extension.”

Cornell currently offers certificate programs in basic dairy sanitation and safety, fluid milk processing, yogurt and fermented products, and cheese production. The new extension associate will allow the program to expand its offerings in artisan cheese making, which is an important—but demanding—niche.

“The number of artisan cheese producers is growing by leaps and bounds, and we need to support that industry,” said dairy extension specialist Rob Ralyea, M.S. ‘98. “Making a great, aged artisan cheese is an art, but it takes practice, science, and know-how.”

The new artisan cheese extension program will focus on the skills required for both basic and advanced cheese making through hands-on workshops and coursework. Beginners will start with the basics of dairy microbiology and sanitation, while more advanced cheese makers can train in processes including molding, brining and curing, and quality assurance.

Gaffney said cheeses need to meet several criteria to find a home in the Wegmans’ cheese portfolio, which currently includes about 300 products. Being unique or different is one path, but if the cheese is similar to one already in Wegmans’ cases, it must be as good as or better than what they’re selling, at a price point that consumers will accept. However, an output large enough to supply the growing number of Wegmans stores is not required.

“We have some cheeses that are carried in only a single store,” Gaffney said. “What matters more than the quantity is cheese makers who can work with us to meet our retail needs, such as altering their product size or quality characteristics, such as a cheese’s acidity.”

“What sets an artisanal cheese apart is the expertise of the cheese maker, who can adeptly adjust the recipe in response to differences in the milk. The milk chemistry may vary from day to day because of what the cows are eating at that point in the season, for example,” Gaffney said.

Gaffney, who grew up on a dairy farm and is a former Dairy Princess, is passionate about creating a New York cheese culture rivaling that of Vermont and Wisconsin, starting with increasing the number of Wegmans’ house-brand cheeses made entirely in-state.

“This is a shining example of how collaboratively developed business partnerships can help CALS deliver on the land grant mission of the university,” said Joseph Vinciquerra, director of corporate and foundation relations for CALS. “We are excited to begin our work with Wegmans right away.”