Last September, Women’s Health Magazine gave Albuquerque, New Mexico, its number four spot on their list of “5 Best Up-and-Coming Cities For Foodies.” The authors claim a handful of new Albuquerque restaurants serving Cuban, Peruvian, and Costa Rican cuisines have “reenergized local palates.” While I agree that Albuquerque is (slowly) becoming a great city for gastronomes (beyond our delicious traditional fare), I would argue that this “reenergization” stems less from a concentration on any specific regional cuisine, and more from an influx of restaurant owners and chefs dedicated to organic, local, and artisan ingredients; a burgeoning food-truck scene; a rapidly expanding craft-beer industry; and an entrepreneurial subset of young farmers and food artisans.
As discussed in my previous blog post on the “hipster-fication” of the national artisan food economy, over the last decade many 20/30-somethings have become passionate about buying, eating, making, and selling speciality and hand-crafted foods. While this industry is most synonymous with hipster havens such as Brooklyn and Portland, Albuquerque has seen a decided growth in such businesses over the past few years as well. Are these local entrepreneurs the product of national foodie trends, or are their businesses just a continuation of long-held regional food culture: handmade tortillas, backyard chickens, matanzas, taco trucks, small urban farms, etc. Or, perhaps, both? To get a better grasp of who Albuquerque’s food artisans are, and how they may or may not fit into broader generational stereotypes, I decided to interview a sampling of local farmers, chefs, charcutiers, brewers, and cheesemongers. I began by inviting local cheese maker and entrepeneur Sofia Eleftheriou out for a chai and a chat.
Eleftheriou is a thirty-five-year-old jewelry designer, bee keeper, sculptor, food writer, all-around DIY-er, and, as of late, co-founder of Peasant Feast, America’s only domestic haloumi cheese manufacturer. She was born and raised in Corrales, New Mexico. Unlike many Gen Y’ers, Eleftheriou was not raised in a household full of Hamburger Helper and Pop Tarts (although she says a Happy Meal now and then was not unheard of). Her mother Heidi–of Heidi’s Organic Raspberry Jam fame–instilled in her the value of growing, cooking, and eating your own food. Eleftheriou says her love of food was also shaped by her maternal grandparents and uncles who were/are local farmers, and the greater farm community of Corrales. She fondly remembers the annual Corrales Harvest festival back when “it was actually about the harvest and local food.” She says she no longer attends; turned off by the “packaged nostalgia and state-fair food.”
Her father Stavros immigrated to New Mexico from Greece and started the highly successful jewelry company Kabana in the 1970s. Much of Eleftheriou’s extended family still lives in Greece, and growing up she spent as much as three months a year there playing with cousins, swimming in the Aegean Sea, and eating Greek cuisine.
One popular Greek dish, grilled haloumi cheese, was nowhere to be found once she returned stateside, so she began making it for herself. After perfecting her technique, she and her Australian cousin/business partner Danielle Anagnostoras, a fashion communications director in New York City, saw a void in the American cheese market and decided to fill it.
What the Haloumi?
Haloumi is a cheese from Cyprus traditionally made with raw goat and sheep’s milk. According to the Slow Food Foundation “the cheese was introduced to Cyprus by Arab mercenaries from Syria and Palestine, who settled in the island during the Frankish rule (1192-1489 AD).” It is generally a goat and sheep’s milk cheese but it can also be made from cow’s milk. The cheese has a springy texture, makes a squeaky sound when chewed, and has a distinctly salty flavor; the name “haloumi” is actually derived from the Greek word “almi” meaning brine. Legally, the name “haloumi” may only apply to Cyprus-made cheese, so other regions must refer to it as something else–Eleftheriou calls hers “haloumi-style cheese.” It has a long shelf life and can be stored for months in its original packaging, and after it is opened, in salt water. Like most cheese it is set in rennet but unique because no acid or acid-producing bacterium is used in its preparation. However, the most distinguishing characteristic of haloumi is its high melting point, making it ideal for grilling.
Grilled haloumi is an immensely popular appetizer and meat substitute in Greece, Turkey, Sweden, Australia (which has the third highest Greek population in the world), and, more recently, the U.K. According to a 2013 BBC article, sales of haloumi have skyrocketed in Britain over the past couple years, making them the second-largest consumers of haloumi next to the Greeks. According to Daily Telegraph food columnist Rose Prince, Britain’s recent haloumi frenzy is “a reflection of three things – our love for Mediterranean cuisine, our eagerness to try whatever is new and the effect of TV chefs. . .It only has to be used by Jamie Oliver in a recipe and it goes stratospheric.” However, in the United States it remains virtually unheard of.
Production, Marketing, and Selling a Lifestyle
Although Eleftheriou originally wanted to make her haloumi in New Mexico, one of the nation’s largest producers of cheese, she could not find a local facility that produced this kind of private label specialty cheese. “There was also an issue of milk supply,” she says. This is surprising because New Mexico boasts 152 dairy farms, producing 677,660,541 pounds of milk per month. Eleftheriou explains that while there are plenty of cows in the state, their milk is spoken for by generic cheese-making plants, such as Leprino Foods, the world’s largest producer of mozzarella. “So we make shit cheese that all goes to Dominos?” I ask. “Exactly!”
Locally, most artisan cheeses are made with goats milk. According to New Mexico Magazine, the state’s “long history of home cheese production, goes back to the Spanish introduction of La Mancha dairy goats in the early Colonial period.” The author explains that unlike dairy cows, “the goats thrived in the state’s rough terrain and climate extremes. Today, some of the dairy goats raised for commercial goat cheese are American La Manchas, a breed developed in the 1930s from the bloodline of the original Spanish goats.” Eleftheriou’s haloumi recipe, however, uses cow milk. For now, she is using a facility specializing in ethnic, private label cheeses in Wisconsin. But she says she hopes to bring production back to New Mexico in the future. Albuquerque is not forgotten in her venture though, for it serves as her base of operations and test kitchen; it, along with Brooklyn, will be the launch sites of Peasant Feast haloumi–in local shops like La Montanita Co-Op, Kellers, and Vitamin Cottage, as well as high-quality restaurants like Farina and the Grove; and, most importantly for us Albuquerqeans, she is currently in the process of remodeling (herself!) a property she just bought in Nob Hill she hopes to make into the city’s only cheese shop.
While Eleftheriou’s business model is more national- and commercial-oriented than the other local food-makers I will be interviewing for this blog series, her company is illustrative of larger artisan-food trends in its ability to take a traditional product and make it fashionable. Peasant Feast’s marketing strategy appeals to foodies who connect with aesthetically pleasing “lifestyle” brands. The name “Peasant Feast” is meant to evoke the idea of sharing food at rustic tables. Their packaging is slick and modern, unlike many artisan products which strive to look like they were made a hundred years ago. Despite the wrapper’s Greece-evoking white and blue color palette, Eleftheriou says they are not trying to relegate themselves to ethnic grocery stores, or health food markets. They want their product in boutique food shops, featured in hip lifestyle magazines, and available via ecommerce, a la the Jeni’s Ice Cream model.
Central to Peasant Feast’s branding and outreach to young, fashionable consumers is their social media presence. Instagram and Pinterest provide valuable advertising opportunities for small start-up food businesses, but it is vital to not only present pictures of delicious looking dishes, but to promote an overall lifestyle and aesthetic that your followers will “like” and share. To do this Eleftheriou and Anagnostoras hired a fashion-photographer friend to shoot their cheese in Anagnostoras’s Williamsburg apartment. The imagery nods to Brooklyn rooftop barbecues and twee tablescapes, as well as to simple Mediterranean-style living. Eleftheriou says their next step is a grass-roots style of advertising in which they’ll try to educate potential consumers on how to prepare and eat haloumi through tastings, blogs, and social media. Their soft launch begins next month, with a wider push this spring and summer, just in time for grill-season.
Although Eleftheriou may be counted alongside many hip thirty-somethings trying to make it in the artisan food biz, this native New Mexican stands out as someone whose passion stems more from her rural, do-it-yourself, transnational upbringing than from current trends or a rejection of modern society. Her aspirations for Peasant Feast are loftier from the get-go compared to typical foodster start-ups, by reaching beyond local markets and ingredients. To what extent Eleftheriou’s background and business is indicative of other young Albuquerque food entrepreneurs remains to be seen.
Next time, we’re smoking some pigs…
*photos courtesy of http://www.peasantfeast.com/