On the Cheese Counter

Photo courtesy Bianca Verma

A visit to your local cheesemonger, if you’re lucky enough to have one worthy of the name, can be a many splendored thing. A good cheese counter is not necessarily the one with the most cheeses or the most expensive cheeses. A good cheese counter has one or several people behind (or in front of) it who delight in introducing you to a new cheese, finding the perfect cheese for the occasion, and maintaining (curating, even) an assortment of cheeses to satisfy any range of discerning and curious customers. A delightful cheese (en)counter this afternoon prompted me to think about five amazing cheese counters that have been crucial in my enculturation (hehe) as a major turophile. Obviously, a childhood full of good Wisconsin cheddar and a few months making and selling cheese did plenty to feed my obsession, but today I offer to you a brief history of my ongoing love affair with cheese and cheesemongers.


1. Formaggio Kitchen, Cambridge, MA ca. 2009

While my college years saw my discovery of the delights of Indian food, the inexhaustible range of craft beers, the joys of semi-disorganized wine tasting (Floreat Eliot House Wine Society!), one of the most culinary life-changing experiences during my time in Cambridge might have been a series of bike rides down Huron Avenue to the renowned Formaggio Kitchen. Leading the way was my initiator into the world of MFK Fisher, IPAs, and ripe cheeses, one Zach A. We lock our bikes outside and enter a small storefront packed with all that is good in the world. A cheese and deli counter in the first room, stacked high with rounds and wedges, flags denoting age and provenance sticking out, almost grazing the bottoms of the whole hams and salamis hanging from the ceiling. Zach, having worked at a cheese counter back in Philly, took charge, speaking with the cheesemonger with authority, tasting, questioning, selecting the perfect cheeses for our needs. It was the first time I had seen such a thing. Sampling five cheeses to choose two? It seemed revolutionary. In return visits, Zach continued to be the vocal, knowledgeable interlocutor, but slowly, as with beer, wine, and ethnic food, I began to learn my tastes and the language necessary to convey those tastes to the person across the counter.

2. Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Chicago, IL ca. 2011

The year after college, living with three lovely ladies in a lovely lakeside neighborhood in Chicago. Local cheese counter only three short blocks away. Periods of employment, underemployment, unemployment, and overwork. Whether I was just looking to spend a few dollars on an afternoon treat or shopping for the perfect accompaniments to our midwestern iteration of Wine Society, the cheesemongers were always ready to find the right cheese. Not quite as overwhelming as Formaggio, the smaller scale of the counter meant that on a quiet Thursday afternoon I felt comfortable enough to ask a few questions, taste a few cheeses, and make a purchase. No stranger to budgets, these young mongers were always willing to cut me a tiny slice of an expensive cheese, and I grew to enjoy going in with a specific question. What will pair with the dry German wine I have in the fridge? What about my beet chutney? My enthusiasm for Pastoral was only briefly dimmed when I interviewed for a job as a cheese counter attendant and was rejected after a three-hour “stage,” including a pop quiz at the end in which I was expected to name and describe all of the cheeses I’d tasted. But in the end, every occasion was an occasion calling for cheese.

3. La Cave a Fromage, South Kensington, London, ca. 2012

My nine months in Europe was full of unforgettable cheese experiences. That fresh pecorino sandwich shared with two friends sitting in the stoop of a centuries-old house during the annual chestnut festival. I’ve been trying to relive that cheese for the two years since with no luck at all. Funky talleggio, heavenly burrata, creamy gorgonzola dolce, farmstead toma. Freshest mozzarella di buffala straight from Naples eaten with the greenest, zestiest olive oil from olives that only three days before I had stripped by hand from the laden branches of a gnarled tree. In South Kensington, I learned to ask my now-favorite question: what’s ripe? I confirmed a long-held suspicion that there are few cheeses that I will not eat with some gusto, and that true cheese connoisseurship can become a very expensive undertaking. I discovered that I relish a soft-ripened cheese right on the brink of spoilage, when the insides ooze slowly at cellar temperature and faster in a warm kitchen, eaten in (I imagine) a French style, daubed on an airy, crusty baguette. The cheesemonger knows which cheese is at its prime and which is about to pass it, and sometimes they’ll even cut you a deal on the very ripest. 

4. Rubiner’s Cheesemongers, Great Barrington, MA, ca. 2013

During my stint last season at Chubby Bunny, every other Friday was payday, which meant every other Friday involved a trip up to Great Barrington to deposit our paychecks and go out on the town. Sometimes this involved live music and a beer at the Gypsy Joynt, sometimes sourdough pizza and beer at Baba Louie’s, sometimes a quick pass through the co-op before heading back out of the Berkshires into the wilds of northwest Connecticut. When we got to town before six, that meant a duck into Rubiner’s before closing time. A smallish fancy shop in a partly-fancy smallish town, the visits to this cheese counter were less about the actual cheesemonger and more about the farmstead products for sale around the counter. Not that I was actually buying much (again, fancy store), but I was definitely taking mental notes. Cured Italian salamis the size of your thumb for $2 a pop - quick to cure, easy to sell at a farmers market! The rustic-chic aesthetic that accompanies a local artisan product for top-dollar. Rubiner’s offers a farmer discount, which is novel and much-appreciated, but more important for me than my meager purchases was the food for thought about my own potential approach to marketing my products. Can I sell a few things to rich people at justifiably high prices while growing the majority of my food for a local customer base at affordable prices? Every cheese counter, gourmet shop, co-op, and farmers market stand is now a study in image, aesthetics, labeling, and marketing. 

5. Zingerman’s Delicatessen, Ann Arbor, MI, ca. 2014

In my many trips back and forth across the eastern half of this expansive country, I’ve made it a habit to punctuate the drive with a few days in Ann Arbor, thanks to the presence of Bianca, almost-doctor, appreciative food audience, and official photographer. Each trip was marked with a visit to Zingerman’s to marvel at the selection, taste a few cheeses and make a small but delicious purchase. Now, as my winter in Ann Arbor comes to a close, it seemed only fitting to celebrate with cheese. So, on this cold but sunny Tuesday afternoon, we walked in with a mission, and the cheesemonger was happy to accept it. We wanted to have a great little (indoor) picnic for $30 or less, mostly cheese, a smidge of meat. “Are you in a hurry?” Asked a totally dedicated Ben. Over half an hour later we had sampled a handful of cheeses and narrowed it down to the perfect combination that combined my love for soft, gooey, or funky cheese with Bianca’s preference for hard, nutty, Alpine-style cheeses. He sliced us the most delicate of slices in keeping with our budget. We sampled olives, and took a bit of two different kinds. He tried to sell us cipollini in balsamic, but my homemade ones were better. I sampled cured ham, including a slice of Jamon Iberico that I believe is the closest to gustatory perfection anything has ever been. (Ben said when I finish my first permaculture prosciutto, I should bring some by for a tasting.) A thin-sliced paesano roll completed the spread, and when we went to pay, we discovered that we’d stuck exactly to our budget! $29.56, which delighted Ben just as much as it had us when we gave him one last good-bye on the way out the door. 

Today’s visit to Zingerman’s was everything one could want from a visit to a cheesemonger, and much more. He listened to our needs, assessed our divergent tastes, cut generous samples and watched for our eyes to light up as we tried each new cheese. He was enthusiastic in sharing his passion and knowledge, and seemed genuinely interested in hearing about my salumi experiences and farm dreams. He even deferred to a more experienced hand-slicer to ensure beautiful thin slices of country ham. How many times can you say you went shopping and came back elevated, inspired, satiated, and even surprised? I think it’s time for a trip to your local cheese counter, if you’re lucky enough to have one. 

Circle of Jamón

That cute little boy is my young father, watching his favorite uncle Pepe pack a dozen hams in salt. Every year during the cold season, he would press the hams into their signature flat shape, pack them in salt for a few weeks, then hang them from the rafters for months until they were ready to eat as jamón crudo, an Argentine version of prosciutto. Pepe says he still hasn't eaten hams that good, fifty years later. Here's to hoping I'll be able to give him a run for his money pretty soon!

Wendell Berry on a healthy farm

"...One need not be a specialist to understand the difference between good and bad farming. There is nothing mysterious or abstruse about it. It only requires enough acquaintance with land and people to have some sense of what a prospering farm and a prospering farm community ought to look like and the same acquaintance with the signs of greed, hopelessness, neglect, and abandonment.
    The health of a farm is as apparent to the eye as the health of a person. To look at a farm in full health gives the same complex pleasure as looking at a fully healthy person  or animal. It will give the same impression of abounding life. What grows on it will be thriving. It will seem to belong where it is; the form of it will be a considerate response to the nature of its place; it will not have the look of an abstract idea of a farm imposed upon an area somewhere or other. It will look cared for - groomed, so to speak - like a healthy person or animal; it will look lived in by people who care where they live. It will show no gullies or galls or other signs of erosion. The waterways and field edges and areas around buildings will be grassed, something that becomes more necessary the steeper the ground is.
    The place will look well maintained. Buildings, fences, equipment, etc., will have been kept in good repair, carefully used, protected from the weather. ...
    A healthy farm will have trees on it - woodlands, where forest trees are native, but also fruit and nut trees, trees for shade and for windbreaks. Trees will be there for their usefulness: for food, lumber, fence posts, firewood, shade, and shelter. But they will also be there for comfort and pleasure, for the wildlife that they will harbor, and for their beauty. The woodlands bespeak the willingness to let live that keeps wildness flourishing in the settled place. A part of the health of a farm is the farmer;s wish to remain there. His long-term good intention toward the place is signified by the presence of trees. A family is married to a farm more by their planting and protecting of trees than by their memories or their knowledge, for the trees stand for their fidelity of kindness to what they do not know. The most revealing sign of ill health of industrial agriculture - its greed, its short-term ambitions - is its inclination to see trees as obstructions and to strip the land bare of them.
    Woodlands, orchards, and shade trees are part of the diversity of life that is another of the prime characteristics of a healthy farm. And this principle will extend to cropland and pasture. The aim of a healthy farm will be to produce as many kinds of plants and animals as it sensibly can. This will be an ordered diversity, the various species moving in rotation over the fields. The land will be fenced for livestock, and its aspect will change from field to field.
    Related to the principle of diversity is that of carrying capacity: the various crops and animals will be sensibly proportionate to one another; the farm will strive as far as possible toward the balance, the symmetry, of an ecological system; there will not be too much of anything. The fields will not be overcropped; the pastures will not be overgrazed. It will be understood that plants growing on a farm are not just its produce, but also its protection, and so a row crop will be followed by a cover crop, the cover crop by a sod of grass ad clover.
    And a healthy farm will not only have the right proportion of plants and animals; it will have the right proportion of people. There will not be so many as to impoverish themselves and the farm, but there will be enough to care for it fully ad properly without overwork. On a healthy farm there will be the right proportion between work and rest. ...
    Finally, a healthy farm will be so far as possible independent and self-sustaining. It is necessary to say "so far as possible," for we are by no means talking here about a "closed system." Simply by selling produce, a farm involves itself with other places both economically and biologically. And unless it encapsulates itself under a glass roof - which is really to become less independent - a farm cannot produce its own weather. Many farms cannot provide their own water. The wild plants, animals, birds, and insects upon which a farm's health depends will not respect its boundaries any more than the rain. And, of course, the people on a farm will belong complexly to a larger human community. Nevertheless, a certain kind and a certain measure of independence is a practicable ambition for a farm, and it is a necessity of agricultural health and longevity.
    For one thing, fertility, the major capital of any farm, can be largely renewed and maintained from sources on the farm itself - assuming that all else is in balance. By proper tillage, rotation, the use of legumes, and the return of manure and other organic wastes to the soil, the fields can be kept productive with minimal recourse to fertilizers from outside sources. If the organic or decayable wastes of the cities, which have their source on the farm, could be returned to the farm, that would greatly increase both the health of the land and the independence, if not of the individual farm, at least of agriculture.
    Equally important, by the use of good human power, animal power, solar, wind, and water power, methane gas, firewood from its own woodlands, etc., a farm can produce by far the major part of its own energy. This, of course, calls for a revitalization of local skills. But given the skills, these sources of power are possible. They come from the past and/or from new technology.
    As a farm measures up in these various ways to the standard of health, its troubles from pests and disease will radically diminish, and so consequently will its dependence on chemicals. A healthy farm will have no more need for these expensive remedies than a healthy person has for medicine.
    Health, then, does not "come from" independence or "lead to" it. Health is independence. The healthy farm sustains itself the same way a healthy tree does: by belonging where it is, by maintaining a proper relationship to the ground. It is by this standard of health or independence that one recognizes the absurdity of a farm absolutely dependent upon a complex of industrial corporations, which are in turn dependent upon the actions of foreign governments and politicians whom the farmer did not vote for or against and cannot influence.
    The ultimate good health of a farm is in its ability to produce independently of the ups and downs of the Dow Jones Industrial averages or the vagaries of politics... Those who pride themselves on the "science" that has made agriculture an industry have found this sort of independence beneath their notice. But I have watched, in Tuscany, a plowman driving a team of white cattle to a wooden plow, and realized that I was seeing the continuance of a motion and a way and a preoccupation begun before the rise of Rome. It is not nostalgia or sentimentality or wishful thinking to say that that man and his plow and team on the hand-built terrace under the olive trees represented a value, perhaps an immeasurable value, that modern agriculture has superceded but has by no means replaced."

Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture. 1977. Third printing, San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1978. pp 181-184.