I once dated a guy who didn’t like cheese. The demise of our relationship involved a lot more than his disdain for dairy – but that didn’t help. :) Fortunately, the man I married is a fan of fromage in all of its tasty glory – and variety.
Cheese is one of those items that possesses an almost unlimited number of options. It seems that every time I stop in to the natural food market, I see several unknown-to-me types and styles of cheese. For example, until very recently I had never heard of “Skyr” [Iclandic] or “Cojita” [Mexican] cheeses. And don’t even get me started on all of the different permutations of “cheddar cheese” that exist! (You’ve got your mild, sharp, and extra sharp cheddars; then you’ve got your semi-matured, matured, and vintage varieties; then you’ve got the various permutations like Steppen and Cheedam and Cheshire… it’s out of control!) In the world of cheese, so many wonderful options exist – so why do I find myself habitually defaulting to the known domains of generic ‘cheddar’, ‘Swiss’, and ‘mozzarella’? Sure, occasionally I’ll mix things up with an Irish Dubliner (cheddar variety), or bocconcini (tiny balls of mozzarella); but more often than not, the cultured dairy that lives in our fridge is a boring ol’ block of nondescript cheese.
It’s time to expand my palate, and give my taste buds something new and unexpected to experience.
But instead of gambling with some random chunk of cheese from the supermarket cold case, I decided to employ the assistance of a full-fledged cheese monger, and have him (or her) guide me on a fermentation journey. This way, not only would I get the experience of trying a new-to-me food, but I would also get to partake of the services of a cheese professional for the first time, too. I also decided to complete this task with my sweetie, because 1) he’s a cheese guy; 2) I thought he might enjoy the experience; 3) I like doing things with him. We could even turn the outing into a date! (Which is exactly what we did.)
On a cold, rainy, and gray Saturday afternoon, my husband and I drove to the city and walked in to a well-known, well-respected wine shop that also boasts an impressive assortment of other artisan fare like chocolates, cigars, and cheese.
I had never been to the store before, so I possessed zero ideas around what to expect from this experience. As my husband and I walked through the front door, we immediately came face-to-face with a crowd of shoppers. The store itself is rather small, and their volume of offerings is massive, so most of the floor pad is occupied by product – which leaves little room for customer walkways between the display shelves. The shop reminded me a lot of a European market, actually: with the small packages of hand-crafted, artisanal fare, and the large-but-not-overwhelming number of busy-yet-still-pleasant customers, the space had a vibe and a feel that was truly unique compared with anywhere else I have been in this city. The environment was simultaneously rare-yet-comfortable (and comforting).
After getting our bearings, my sweetie and I located a “take-a-number” stand, and we extracted a small paper tab with a big black “42” on it. Looking up at the “now serving” board, we saw that the store was currently tending to customer number 35. That’s not too bad, I guess… My husband and I stepped to the side of the main cheese case, and tried to stay out of the way of other shoppers while we waited our turn. In just six minutes, customers 36-41 all received friendly and personalized, yet fast, service – and then our number popped up in big red lights.
A youngish (20-something) man smiled at my sweetie and I, and said, “What can I get you today?” I quickly explained that my husband and I were here to try something completely new to us – so we were looking to our cheese man to recommend something excellent. The cheese monger asked us what general types of cheeses we enjoyed, and I said that my husband likes sharp cheddars, whereas I prefer a bit more mild-tasting (yet still texturally hard) cheeses. The man thought for a second, then put his hand in the case between the three of us and extracted a pale yellow block. He shaved a bit of it off with a very large, very sharp knife, and put a sample of cheese on a square of parchment paper – which he then handed to us. As my sweetie and I sampled the cheese, the monger said, “This is artisanal cheddar from England that has been aged for six years. It’s sharp, but not overly so. What do you think?”
As I placed a bit of the cheese into my mouth, I was literally left speechless for half a second. I have never consumed cheese that tasted this good. Seriously. Yes, this was a cheddar cheese (which made me chuckle a bit to myself), but it was unlike any cheddar I have had before. Without consulting my husband, I blurted out, “We are definitely getting some of that!” I then looked to my right, and saw my sweetie nodding eagerly in agreement, his mouth also having a flavor party.
The monger seemed very happy that we were so happy, and wrapped up a portion of the cheddar for us. As he was packaging our portion of cheese, I saw a customer next to us getting a slice of what looked like a cheese cake:
With wide eyes, I asked our monger, “What is that?”, nodding in the direction of the multi-layered cheese wedge. He explained, “That is called ‘Huntsman’, and it’s a combination of Double Gloucester [yellow] and aged Stilton [white-blue] cheeses. Do you want to try it?” My husband and I both nodded “yes” rather enthusiastically, and the monger smiled, shaved a small portion of this selection onto another parchment square, and offered it to us. I made sure to get both the cheddar and the blue cheeses in a single bite, and POW! Total flavor explosion in my mouth. Incredible. I looked at my sweetie, who found his voice and said, “Um, yeah – I really like that one. Want to get some of it?” he asked me. “Definitely,” I responded. And our cheese monger packaged up a second portion of cheese for us.
Seeing how much we enjoyed the stronger flavor of the Huntsman, our monger pulled a very veiny cheese from the case, and said, “Here, let’s have you try this one. I’ll warn you that it’s pretty powerful – but I think you might really like it,” and he handed a sample to us. I took a small bite of the incredibly pungent cheese – and almost coughed. Wowzers, it was a crazy-intense blue cheese. My husband enjoyed this sample, but me – not so much. Sensing that this cheese was a miss for one of us, the monger said, “Hmm… let’s go a different route.” Yes, let’s.
The cheese man offered us a very bland Romano next; it was lackluster at best. Sensing that he might be falling out of synch with us, the monger remembered that I had mentioned liking harder-yet-milder cheeses – so he gave us a sample of a butterscotch Gruyere. I wasn’t sure how this cheese would taste (would I really be able to identify a ‘butterscotch’ flavor in a cheese?); I was surprised (and a tiny bit startled) to bite into a savory food that tasted like it could almost be a dessert – that’s how much the butterscotch flavor was present. It was interesting to taste such a bizarre combination of food qualities, but after just one bite I had enough of this choice. I couldn’t imagine bringing home a significant portion of this cheese – I knew we would likely never eat it.
Feeling like we might be reaching the end of our cheese adventure, I asked the monger, “Do you have a nice Gruyere that you might recommend? I generally like that style of cheese…”. Quickly our cheese man offered us a cave-aged sample from Switzerland, and my husband and I agreed that this one was a keeper – and that three cheeses were probably all we needed to bring home with us. Our friend-across-the-counter wrapped up our final selection, handed us our last package, and wished us a good evening. My husband and I thanked the young man for his time and patience with us, and turned to find a bottle of wine for my sweetie to enjoy with these new cheese choices.
Once home, my husband and I began experimenting with various applications of the cheeses. Melted cheese on eggs. Cold cheese with apples. Cheese shredded on cooked vegetables. We found some combinations that were more ‘successful’ than others, but even the most awkward pairings were still pretty darn incredible. Such is the power of awesome cheese.
I’m delighted that my sweetie and I now know of this very special cheese shop, and imagine we will make more of an effort to buy high quality food from them in the future. I suspect that I might now be a little bit ‘spoiled’, and may be wary about transitioning back to basic-grocery-store-bland-block cheese. And for now, this is okay by me. :)