featured-food-and-wineIssue 16

The Big Cheese Pairer

 Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 1.55.24 PMBY ALEX CANTATORE

It’s easy to mistake Joe Baird for just another deli employee at the O’Brien’s Market on Dale Road in Modesto, as he slices cheese in his white chef’s coat.

But then that free sample quickly turns into an in-depth discussion about cheese, and it becomes clear: Baird is a cheese mastermind. It’s an expertise Baird, the Specialty Cheese and Food Buyer at O’Brien’s Market has honed over the past 15 years, developing one of California’s best supermarket cheese programs.

Baird isn’t just a familiar face to local cheese aficionados. As a pairing professional for the California Milk Advisory Board – the folks behind the “Real California Cheese” campaign-he has travelledtoDenver,Orlando,andevenSpainto showcase his talents at cheese pairing.

“It’s neat to be able to show these people what to do with cheese,” Baird said.

In June, Baird will travel to Atlanta to represent the CMAB. There, he’ll showcase his talents at the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association expo, a three-day event that draws celebrity chefs and attendees from around the world. Baird’s pairing menu will highlight two-dozen California cheeses; his blue cheese s’mores drew rave reviews last year, pairing Point Reyes Farmstead’s blue cheese with toasted hazelnut chocolate on an oat cracker.

Baird wasn’t always an expert at all things cheese. But shortly after starting at O’Brien’s, in 2000, he became enamored with cheese, devoting himself to its study.

“I read as much Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 1.56.53 PMas I could and educated myself on the product,” Baird said.

It’s the craft behind cheesemaking that really captured Baird. He breathlessly recounts the history of cheese, the accidental creation of curds and whey by a travelling nomad thousands of years ago.

Today, cheesemakers are pushing the boundaries of cheese unlike ever before – especially in California. Many small dairies have started making cheese. And those new cheesemakers are embracing new flavors and trying new things; one cheese is rubbed with espresso beans and lavender.

“It’s just artistic,” Baird said. “We’re creating more unique cheeses.”

Local cheese makers are employing that same farm-to-fork, oftentimes experimental approach. Modesto-based Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese has won World Cheese Awards for its Bandage Wrapped Cheddar and its San Joaquin Gold. And they’re just one of many local cheeseries; Oakdale Cheese Company produces award- winning goudas, while Ewetopia Dairy of Denair and Nicolau Farms of Modesto exemplify farmstead cheese.

“Those guys epitomize farm-to-fork,” Baird said of the local cheesemakers.

These local artisans make cheese in the authentic, craftsman style. Their small-batch cheeses emphasize quality over quantity, providing diners with unforgettably delicious bites.

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 1.54.45 PMBaird tries to support the local cheesemakers whenever possible, recommending their products. He sees it as giving back to craft he loves, and supporting the art of cheesemaking.

“This art would die if it wasn’t for people taking a risk,” Baird said.

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