A Life in Cheese

The first cheese I remember was Teleme Jack. When I bought it after so many years at Rainbow Grocery in 2018, I learned again after so many years  turns out its a rather special cheese. still made by the same people in the same way…

My mother had cheese parties. This meant moving the tin pastry table that we used for dining in the kitchen to the living room and placing gooey french cheese on it. I didn’t eat this. I liked quesadillas from Los Hermanos on Chestnut Street (they’re still there too): cheese floating in a butter-soaked crispy tortilla.

The first time cheese itself got my attention was at the shop Say Cheese on Cole Street. The founders, a sweet gay couple as I recall, had hired my mother to do their launch and in gratitude invited her and the child for a cheese tasting. I don’t remember the taste, but I remember the story. The same cheese made at three different elevations in the Alps, was three different cheeses. (The shop is still there, but quality has not survived the ownership transitions. Not a destination.)

Since cheese has now become one of the main focal points of my attention it seems fitting to try to remember them all and to document the cheeses.

I don’t really remember much cheese between the first story and the second. Mom was eating Manchego. I was putting ricotta salata on pasta. I remember anxiously smuggling brie-de-meaux back to Los Angeles from Paris in 2005. Seemed like the thing to do, but I didn’t like the cheese.

In 2006 Nicolas Beckman, picnic designer from La Brea Bakery, showed up at my underground restaurant, the viand, with cheeses and stories. I started buying cheese at La Brea along with bread. They sold Nieves (or Nieges?), a soft cheese with the look of a snow covered bush. I didn’t see that cheese again until 2017 (and can’t find it on the internet), in København’s otherwise unremarkable Torvehallerne.

In Los Angeles, cheese was a staple item in our kitchen. We always bought the same ones. La Brea was just one stop on our Sunday marketing rounds. We also bought Los Angeles Buffalo Mozzarella from Gioia Cheese Co. when they had a small outlet downtown, a mild nutty pecorino (whose quality I have never quite found again) for pasta at the Bay Cities Deli, and supermild feta cheese from Mother’s Kitchen, at the Hollywood farmers’ market.

In 2008 we moved to Boston temporarily, into the culinary embrace of Formaggio’s Kitchen. We shopped in the Cambridge store every week and subsisted mainly on cheese (as the farmers markets were woefully inadequate). At Formaggio’s we learned that cheese had seasons and subtle quality. The shop sent its buyers to Europe to choose which wheels to bring back. They taught us that liking mild cheese didn’t mean we had bad taste. In fact they learned our tastes and greeted us, calling across the shop as we entered, “I have something new for you.”

Here we discovered Reypanaer (super aged Gouda that tasted to us like caramel, the first was 18month from Beemster), Regal de Bourgogne (soft fresh cow’s milk cheese, covered in macerated raisins), and Barilotto, a buffalo cheese.

We also learned about charcuterie, even assembling a Salami Salad for Viand East Three.

On a trip to Philadelphia, at Claudio’s, we discovered Fleur Vert, a flaky fresh goat cheese congruent to a standard American birthday cake covered with dry herbs and red peppercorns.

In Wellington NZ, no one wanted to talk about cheese, but we met the founders of Cleveland Valley Buffalo Mozzarella. Their story would be echoed by the founders of AusBuffStuff in Sydney. New Zealand and Australia have fledgling artisan cheese industries. There I discovered a new cheese, the “Welsh Miner’s Cheese”, Caerphilly, (made in by Mudgee/HighValley).  Pecora Dairy is the standout of the Pacific, with their Jamberoo Mountain Blue (even I could adore this Blue). I also begged them for the fresh mozzarella which had not yet become Mezza. In Sydney I also paid $90/kilo for Ubriaco and nearly that for Pennu Bu, a buffalo brie, at Formaggi Ocello.

When I first moved to Berlin in 2014 I was blessed to live near Südwind Feinkost, where I bought Fleur de Maquis, an aged reminder of Fleur Vert, which I like only at its freshest.

2015 was my first trip to Italy. At Roscioli Salumeria I met my first Caciocavallo, whose quality I have yet to find again despite tasting every one offered at the Salon del Gusto 2018. I also bought a lot of cheeses whose names I couldn’t record at the wonderful Campagna Amica Market, Saturdays and Sundays near the Circo Massimo.

In 2015 and 2016 I visited Paris, munching the whole time on chunks of Mimolette, and discovered Taka & Vermo Fromaggiers. Of course I bought the youngest chevre they offered, so young it was barely able to stand up, and a remarkable rosemary-encrusted brebis.

2016 was my first visit to Neil’s Yard Dairy in London. I realized this was a new level of cheese. I kept the receipt for Cornish Yarg, Beenleigh Blue, Cotherstone, and Berkswell. The next year I had their Caerphilly, but I don’t have the receipt for that one.

2016 was also my first time at Cheese Berlin, where I met a cheese Tyri tou lakkou (cheese of the grave) from the Greek island, Serifos. The curators of Kafenion found only one man still making this cheese in the traditional way, wrapped in wine must, herbs, wine leaves, and placed in a hole 3m deep for 3 months.

I also met Mike, maker of Young Buck, and SouthPark-style hero of the resurgent terroiric Irish cheese movement. Young Buck is a blue, but when it’s only one month old it’s called Baby Buck. This chalky, fresh, delicious cheese won my heart, but it’s a rarity. They rarely cut such young wheels and didn’t bring it with them to 2017 or 2018 Cheese Berlin. In 2018 he told me that if I come to Belfast, he’ll hook me up.

In 2016 We went to Amsterdam where I went to all the famous cheese shops and finally ended up at Eric’s Delicatessen, buying a round-edged mini-wheel of smoked goat and the extraordinary cheeses of Remeker.

In late 2016 I moved to Mitte Berlin where I could shop regularly at the Slow Food store, Vom Einfachen das Gute. I struggle with their cheeses, but in 2017 they had Pecorino Canestrato which tasted like egg pasta and a super young one, Pecorino Subasio. I also found good cheeses at the locally-0wned BioDeli, including a fabulous deep orange Red Leicester. The neighborhood’s butcher, Fleischhandlung, sells just a few cheeses, including an Italian Buffalo Camembert that changed my views on Camembert.

2017 Cheese Berlin: included Fresh sheep’s cheese, Hirtenkäse, from Berit & Norbert Fischer and two special cheeses presented by the curator, Käse Kober from Besdorf: Mont Vully (by a Swiss ex-ementhaler maker, washed with wine in a black rind) and Kobunder Ziege (extra belegen goat gouda with a grey rind from the North of Holland).

In mid-2018 I was back at Eric’s in Amsterdam, where I convinced them to let me try a cheese that they really didn’t want to sell to a tourist, a special gouda whose rind is made of butter.

2018 was my first visit to north Italy. In Modena I finally discovered Parmiggiano Reggiano, prefering a non-DOP recommended by my friend. In Torino I bought a spectacular Toma from a farmer in the Porto Palazzo farmer’s section. The standouts of the many many cheeses I tasted at my first Slow Food Salon del Gusto (click that for my full report) were a fresh cheese with honey made by I Segreti di Carla, and the Vacca Bianca young Parmigganos: Maggengo and Furmai from Caseificio Rosola.

My first visit to southern france was to Toulouse in 2018, where I found Graissette de Noel and a young mimolette, “Fermier Fleur” at Fromagier Betty. There I began the quest for “The Dutch Cheese”.

Still savoring cheese from Modena in July and Turin in September, I found myself at Cheese Berlin 2018, where my new passion for Red Leicester was satisfied by Neil’s Yard, and I met the young Utrecht dairy, Oudwijker, who uses Egyptian Water Buffalo to make the fresh Stella (although once I got their cheeses home they were all too strong for me). The Debbene Caseificio from Sardinia, whose many ages of smoked pecorino were lovely. (I bought the smoked ricotta.) And I met Tom Calver of Westcombe Cheddar, who promised to make me a Caerphilly…