Approximately 2,200 years ago, Yehudis – the Chanukah heroine – used cheese and wine to induce the Greek general Holofernes to fall asleep in his tent, after which she chopped off his head and saved the residents of her city.
For most American-born Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews, cheese is an ordinary food not usually given much thought. But to food connoisseurs, a good cheese is not to be snuffed at, and the difference between, say, American cheese and a high-end blue cheese is just as great as the difference between a bottle of grape juice and an expensive French dry wine.
High-end kosher cheeses were hard to come by in America in decades past, but Brent Delman – founder and owner of “The Cheese Guy” brand – has aimed to change that. The Jewish Press recently spoke to him to learn more.
The Jewish Press: On your website, you note with pride that you make “artisinal cheese.” What’s artisinal cheese?
Delman: It’s cheese made using traditional methods that very often go back many generations. The cheese is often hand-crafted and involves lots of manual labor. So it’s higher quality, a lot of attention is paid to small details, and the cheese is made in small batches as opposed to being mass produced.
When and why did you start your cheese business?
About 18 years ago. I was in the specialty food business and marketed and sold many specialty cheeses from around the world. I personally have a passion for these cheeses, so when I became kosher about 20 years ago and realized there was a lack of good kosher cheeses available, I decided to [do something about it].
In the last two decades, the quality of kosher wine has improved, arguably due to the increasing number of baalei teshuvah. Is a similar development playing out in the world of kosher cheeses?
Absolutely. There’s been a surge in the number of young people who have discerning palates and disposable income. Baalei teshuvah have probably eaten some of these [higher end] cheeses and [want to continue eating them now that they keep kosher].
Also, people are traveling more – or were prior to Covid – and when they travel to Europe and elsewhere, they see all these wonderful products available out there and want to [have them back home] in the kosher marketplace.
You make some of your cheeses in Italy and Argentina, correct?
Right now, none of them are made in Argentina, but in Italy, yes. I also make cheese in Spain, Denmark, and New Zealand. I started out as a small company, so I was primarily partnering up with people in upstate New York and Vermont. But then the company expanded and I partnered up with small-batch artisanal producers in Italy and on Amish farms in Ohio, where I grew up.
Many of the Italian cheeses come from the island of Sardinia, and I have a business partner in Italy whom I go to visit a couple of times a year. We meet with farmers and put together a production [plan]. We then oversee the cheese production, and it’s shipped to me when it’s young; I then do the aging on the cheese here in the United States.
Why does the cheese have to be made in Italy? Why can’t you make it here?
The Italians are known for producing some of the best cheese in the world. They have traditional methods – methods that have been handed down over the course of many, many generations.
There’s also a concept in food production in general – not just cheese – called “terroir.” It’s a French word, which mean the soil, the microbes in the air, etc. [The quality of the cheese can depend on] the breed of animals grazing on specific fields in a particular area.
Also, many of my cheeses are made from sheep’s milk, and some of the best sheep milk in the world comes from southern Italy. There isn’t a whole lot of sheep milk available in the United States.
So these cheeses wouldn’t taste the same if they were made here, in other words?
It depends. Part of [the reason some of them can’t be made here] has to do with their names. I often give the example of Champagne: Legally, you’re not allowed to produce Champagne in, say, California. It has to come from the Champagne region of France. And why is that? Part of it is marketing, but it’s also because there are certain perceptions associated with the name that people respect.
It’s true of the best quality of other products – like Swiss watches or Belgian chocolate. Can these things be duplicated? Possibly, but there are reasons why regions in the world are known for certain products.
So, for example, there’s a cheese called Pecorino Romano. That’s a protected name. “Pecora” means sheep in Italian, so any time you hear “Pecorino Romano,” it’s a sheep milk cheese that has been aged for an extended period of time, and it comes from a couple different regions in Italy.
One of the key ingredients in producing a traditional Pecorino Romano is animal rennet [which can’t be used to make kosher cheese], so my partner and I went to the Italian and European consortium and asked, “Can we have permission to produce this cheese with the same methodology and milk, and in the same equipment, but with non-animal enzymes and rennet?”
They said, “Go ahead, and then bring it back to us and show us how it comes out.” We did, and they thought it was fantastic cheese, so they gave us permission to call it Pecorino Romano.
Is getting a hechsher for your products difficult?
Well, many of the ingredients – like [some of the] enzymes and bacterial cultures – were never used in kosher production before, so we had to do a lot of research, and I asked a lot of questions from people like Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer from the OU.
Also, all of my cheeses are produced in year-round non-kosher facilities, so that often means completely isolating our production run, aging the cheeses in separate rooms, or purchasing brand new cheese-making and cheese-aging equipment. So there are a lot of hurdles that have to be overcome in order to make a kosher version of a lot of these cheeses.
Is making kosher cheese harder than making other kosher food?
In halacha, the foods that require the most supervision are meat, wine, and cheese. Now, within the cheese category, not everything is as difficult to make as my cheeses. For example, fresh ricotta, cream cheese, sour cream, etc. do not require the addition of rennet and therefore require much less supervision.
Rennet is a big issue. Most non-kosher artisanal cheeses are made using animal rennet, which is an enzyme that comes from the lining of a stomach of a calf or lamb. We don’t use animal rennet, though, because it’s halachically permissible only under very extenuating circumstances. We use a non-animal rennet.
Up until about 30 years ago, non-animal rennet wasn’t even available in the marketplace. It’s only because of developments in the last 20-30 years that I am able to produce some of my cheeses.
Another problem is that many salty cheeses – like feta or blue cheese or Swiss cheese or some of the Italian cheeses – are what are considered “brined cheeses,” so after they’re produced, they soak in a salt water solution. This solution develops bacteria, and that bacteria is an asset to the production of good cheese.
If we’re going into a non-kosher facility, however, we can’t use the same brine as the non-kosher cheese, so we have to produce our own brine tanks, and that’s another challenge.
How many different cheeses do you make?
What percentage of them are chalav Yisrael?
About a third.
The logistics and expense of making cholov Yisrael cheese is often prohibitive. You have to have multiple mashgichim sitting for many, many hours, which gets very costly. And then, what if the cows or goats don’t produce enough milk in one day for a cheese production?
Also, the logistics of trying to get mashgichim out to specific farms in a neighborhood is very challenging. If it were done on a mass scale, it would probably be different, but when you’re talking about artisanal productions, it just doesn’t make sense.
Are there are other companies that produce the kind of high-end cheeses you make?
There are a couple, but in the United States, I have a unique niche. I actually have a cheese cellar – a cave in the basement in my house – where I experiment [with various products].
Some people specialize in certain items. For example a couple of French producers specialize in French kosher cheeses and a couple of Israeli producers specialize in specific types of Israeli style cheeses, but nobody has the breadth of selection of artisinal kosher cheeses in the world like I do….
I like to think that I’ve done for the cheese world what the Herzogs did for the wine world. The Herzogs were sort of the first to bring kosher wine in America to the next level. I hope I’m able to do that for the kosher consumer in the cheese world.