Josiah "Joe" Baird is Modesto's minister of cheese.
From his perch near the entrance of the Dale Road location of O'Brien's Market, the friendly and popular cheesemonger preaches the gospel of bries, bleus, cheddars and all things moldy and aged.
Baird's altar is an impressive array of imported and domestic cheeses -- some of which cost more than $30 a pound, pricier than filet mignon.
Shoppers are educated through Baird's encyclopedic knowledge of hundreds of varieties of cheese -- a repertoire acquired through years in the business. He's traveled with distributors in Europe -- the world's cheese capital -- and has worked closer to home with local cheesemakers to help develop and market their products.
Baird has worked hard, and he's achieved a degree of local fame among foodies who love fine cheese. We asked him to answer a few questions about cheese in general and his job and expertise in particular.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself, and what fueled your interest in cheese.
A: I grew up as the youngest of five children in the tiny farm town of El Nido, which is sandwiched between Merced and Dos Palos. My grandparents had a dairy farm there where we would run around and get dirty.
I graduated from Merced High School, class of 1997. After high school I played soccer in Antwerp, Belgium, then came back home to go to school. Since Merced College canceled its men's soccer program, I was asked to play at Modesto Junior college. I later found a job at O'Brien's to help pay for school and have been here since.
At school I met my wife, Lori Sanders. We've been married for 10 years and have a 4-year-old son named Evan, and a child due in October.
Q: Americans' interest in cheese has exploded of late, riding the wave of greater interest in cooking, fine dining and wine. What cheeses are "hot" right now?
A: With the renaissance of cheese in America, people seem to be seeking out artisan farm-made cheeses rather than those that are mass-produced and factory-made.
Such artisan cheeses that are being made in the Unite States that are extremely popular are Burrata alla panna by Di Stefano in Southern California -- a thin shell of fresh mozzarella filled with torn mozzarella and buttery cream. This cheese is on showcase during early to late summer, when heirloom tomatoes are in season.
Q: The San Joaquin Valley is known for its world-leading agriculture. What area cheese producers do you admire, and why?
A: We are so privileged to have some of the hardest-working farmers and cheesemakers here in the San Joaquin Valley. You can't think about cheese and agriculture here in the valley without mentioning Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese Co. and world-class cheesemaker Mariano Gonzalez. Mariano's Bandage Wrapped Cheddar is voted in the top 15 cheeses in the world. In the world! In Modesto! Fiscalini is the only non-English cheese company to have taken the trophy for best farmhouse cheddar from the English, who invented cheddar.
Also, we can't forget Walter and Liz Nicolau, who epitomize artisans. They produce boutique goat cheeses on their 100-goat farm on the west side of Modesto. Walter's Quatro Pepe Capream aged goat cheese with peppercorn has been mentioned in the San Francisco Chronicle and is gaining popularity in the Bay Area.
Q: Are there any cheeses that you think more people should try, and why?
A: The one category that I think people should be more adventurous with are the "washed rind" cheeses. These are the more pungent styles of cheeses that have been brushed or brined in a solution that has been introduced with the good bacteria Brevibacterium lenin, or B. lenin.
During the Middle Ages, Trappist monks in Europe began rubbing the beer and spirits for which their establishments were celebrated on their cheeses to keep the rinds from drying out and cracking. They found that another result of moistening the rind of the cheese was a full-bodied, sweet, albeit stinky cheese that earned space on their plates during meat fasts. This style of cheeses includes Cow Girl Creamery Red Hawk, Muenster D' Alsace and the famous Limburger. Usually these cheeses have more bark than their bite.
Q: What fueled your interest in cheese, and how did you become an expert?
A: I first started working in (O'Brien's) Roseburg Square location deli in 1999. We renovated the market to make it more modern, similar to those of the Bay Area. After realizing that I didn't know anything about cheese and I was way over my head, I picked up every book I could about cheese. I soon realized after a few months that the product that I was working with was all of my favorite subjects: science, history, geography, language and, of course, food.
Q: What's your favorite cheese? Favorite wine-cheese pairing? Why?
A: Favorites are hard to pick because no two cheeses are really ever the same. Breed of animal, diet, weather and quality of milk are all factors into what makes a great cheese.
If I had to pick a cheese at its best, it would have to be Epoisses of the Bordeaux region of France. It's a soft-ripening cow's milk cheese similar to brie that is washed in local Marc De Bourgogne, a pomace brandy from the same region in which the cheese is made. A perfect wine that pairs with this ancient cheese is Chateau De Guiraud Sauternes. This dessert wine's sweetness cuts the salty, fatty texture of Epoisses, making it the perfect finish to any meal.
Q: What's in your perfect dinner?
A: While traveling to Spain in 2007 with one of my specialty food distributors, we ended up in the ancient city of Toledo. At a local restaurant I ordered Cochinillo Asado -- crispy suckling pig that was served with grilled wild leek, garden potatoes and a drizzle of chocolate sauce. That would be my perfect meal. I ended up eating it twice in Spain.
Q: What's the best way to store cheese, and how should it be served?
A: The best way to store cheese is to first purchase it as fresh as possible. Cheeses with the highest moisture have the least amount of life. Mold loves moisture. If your cheese grows mold, that's fine; just trim a thin layer of the surface away. If it's heavily ammoniated, it's reached its peak.
Certain cheeses require different protection and different wrapping. At O'Brien's cheese counter we sell a special cheese paper that lets cheese breathe yet keeps the moisture off.
Store cheese in a special cheese drawer away from raw products. Let your cheese sit on the counter in its wrap to warm up to room temperature for about 30 minutes before serving.
Q: What differentiates a great cheese from a good or mediocre one?
A: The California Milk Advisory Board sums it all up with its slogan "Great cheese comes from happy cows." Animals that are less stressed yield higher butterfat and protein in their milk, which results in overall better cheese.
Breed of animal, geography, diet and cheesemaker are also factors in what makes a great cheese. Superior cheeses are also made of raw milk that has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization is the process of heating all liquids to kill off all microorganisms.
Q: What cheeses are the most expensive, and why?
A: Cheeses that are made of organic or raw milk are most expensive. Raw milk cheeses are illegal in the United States unless they are aged over 60 days, creating inventory for cheese company owners. Cheeses created from smaller animals such as sheep or goats tend to be more expensive because they produce such a smaller amount of milk than larger animals.
Fuel is a major factor in why a cheese is so expensive. If you are buying a cheese that is imported, most likely you are paying for it to be imported by air or ocean.
Cheesemaking is a very laborious job, so every penny that is paid to purchase a great cheese is well worth all the hard work the farmer and cheesemaker have put into it.
Q: How does one become an expert in cheese? Is there a formal training process?
A: There are a few cheese schools in California -- the Cheese School San Francisco and Cal Poly's short course on cheese. I teach cheese every day at O'Brien's. If you spend enough time with me, you can become an expert. The next best thing to do is pick up a book on cheese if you aren't exposed to it. "The Cheese Primer" by Steven Jenkins, "Mastering Cheese" by Max McCalman and Laura Werlin's "Cheese Essentials" are great cheese books.