A chat with international cheese expert Kate Arding at Talbott & Arding in Hudson

(Above) Mona Talbott, Kate Arding and the staff of Talbott & Arding Cheese & Provisions at 323 Warren Street in Hudson in a photo by Akemi Hiatt; (below) international cheese expert Kate Arding in a portrait by Annie Schlecter.

Kate Arding is a cheesemonger, which is a British term indicating “a person who sells cheese, butter and other dairy products,” but this definition barely describes the level of expertise that this immigrant from the UK carries. With more than 20 years of experience in the cheese industry, she has become an internationally recognized authority on sales and marketing, infrastructure management for small-scale cheese businesses and the art of affinage (cheese maturation). She has taught, spoken at national conferences and co-founded the consumer print and online cheese magazine Culture: The Word on Cheese.

Serving on the Board of Directors for the American Cheese Society (ACS), and as co-chair of the ACS’s Regulatory and Academic Committee, she regularly judges at US and international competitions. And since December of 2014, when Talbott & Arding Cheese & Provisions opened its shop doors in Hudson, her official title has been operations manager, which means doing anything and everything that needs to be done in a retail establishment.

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Arding comes from a family food business called Tracklements: “Proud Pioneers of Perfect Preserves” and “Curious Curators of Culinary Condiments.” Her uncle was the first person in the UK to make whole-grain mustards and sauces. “I was working in the family business, which is what led me into cheese, because one of the places I delivered to was Neal’s Yard Dairy,” she explains. “It was very much at the beginning of the British foods revolution. I was lucky enough to be in on the ground floor with that.”

Learning the ropes at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, Arding developed a thorough understanding of what it takes to create and sustain a profitable retail business. From there she made the huge leap to the Cowgirl Creamery & Tomales Bay Foods in Marin County, California, where she was head cheesemonger and buyer. Other than this intense and dedicated on-the-job training, Arding admits that her educational background had nothing to do with food. “I guess you could study dairy science, but that wasn’t my background at all. It was the art world, historic preservation; it was completely different.”

Meanwhile, Mona Talbott, a graduate of the Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon, was intensely busy cooking at the Chez Panisse Café and Restaurant in Berkeley, California, then launching Mona Talbott Catering and collaborating on special culinary projects with Alice Waters – such as the Rome Sustainable Food Project at the American Academy in Rome, where she was executive chef for five years. All told, Talbott’s extensive experience runs for decades, and she has written widely for such publications as The New York Times, Saveur, Bon Appetit and Organic Cooking. In her role as executive chef, Talbott is the entrepreneurial driving force behind Talbott & Arding.

Arding says that she relocated to the East Coast in 2009 because of her involvement with Culture magazine. “And also, it was closer to the UK. But when Mona and I got together, we both realized that the Hudson Valley is becoming this hub of agricultural small farms and remarkable produce and so on. It’s a wellspring of really interesting people who are developing deep roots.

“The Hudson Valley has historically been the breadbasket for New York City. There’s a context here, and more people are discovering it. Neither of us wanted to be in the city. For us, whether it’s cheese or cooking, it’s about the producers. We wanted to be close to the producers. Hudson felt right to us. We found the premises, and it all started coming together. It’s about the people we work with. That’s the motivating force for everything we do.”

To create and sustain a profitable business with a perishable high-end food line presents multiple challenges. Arding says, “The fact is that we’ve both been involved in the food business for a very long time. None of the retail or kitchen side was new to us. We know what we’re doing in that sense. The new thing for us was owning a business together. We have sort of sympathetic and complementary skill sets and approaches. And the learning curve has been there, and will always (hopefully) continue to be there. But one of the greatest pleasures in all this has been to gather a great team of people, to see them grow and develop and take on more and more challenges and responsibility. It’s rewarding. Yes, it’s a tremendous amount of hard work, but you don’t go into the food business unless you’re prepared to work.”

She explains the differences between “farmhouse” and industrial cheesemaking. “There are three categories in the industry. The top end is commodity or industrial cheesemaking. It’s highly mechanized, so there’s very little human interaction. Basically, it’s made by machine and is highly automated. The goal is to deliver a consistent product with no seasonal variation. The economic basis is entirely centered around volume, and it takes very little human input either in production or post-production. That’s at one end.

“At mid-level is what’s acknowledged as artisanal production, which covers a fairly broad band. It means cheesemakers who are producing on a smaller scale, generally, and have a lot more human hands on during the process. For example, it can be a natural-rinded cheese, as opposed to industrially wrapped in plastic.

“In producing artisanal cheeses, the cheesemaker might be drawing milk from a number of different sources, like industrial producers do. But with artisanal cheesemaking, the producers are carefully sourced. There’s lots of communication between the dairies and cheesemakers. Farmstead level takes it one step further: drawing milk from a single milk source on the farm. The distinction is not about quality; it’s about the way production is structured.”

I asked Arding if she still experiments in the process of cheesemaking at all. My guess was that running a retail business consumes her time and energy, which she confirmed. “I used to do a lot of consulting work, and I do have a couple of small projects I’m involved with, but really, my focus is here.” That is a good thing for anyone who wanders into the shop on Warren Street in Hudson. It’s clean and pristine and chock-full of some of the best delectables that the region has to offer.

Prepared foods, made from locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, include pastries, frittatas, soups and sandwiches, salads by the pound and large and small meat entrées. Farmstead and artisanal cheeses are brought in from domestic and international cheesemakers and sold cut-to-order. A catering menu includes a full array of heat-and-serve options, cocktail platters, cheese plates, savory pastries and soups and to-die-for desserts. They’ll wrap and bag individual breakfasts and lunches to go. And check the website for wholesale and online options.

On Saturday, February 4, Talbott & Arding will host a talk at 2:30 p.m. with author Elaine Khosrova, who will sign her new book Butter: A Rich History. When asked about any other plans to expand the operation, Arding says, “We have book-signings here as often as it makes sense. I wouldn’t say that’s an expansion plan. Mona has two cookbooks out: Biscotti and Zuppe: Recipes from the Kitchen of the American Academy in Rome; and I was one of the editors of the new book that came out in November, The Oxford Companion to Cheese. We sell these, but apart from that, we’re not a bookshop. Our primary focus is food. We’re doing this book-signing because Elaine and I worked together in Culture magazine, so we want to support her in the same way we support other local authors whose books dovetail with what we’re doing.”

Talbot & Arding Cheese and Provisions is open Tuesday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 6 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Monday.

 

Butter: A Rich History with Elaine Khosrova, Saturday, February 4, 2-3:30 p.m., Talbott & Arding Cheese & Provisions, 323 Warren Street, Hudson; (518) 828-3558, www.talbottandarding.com.

 

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