Saturday, July 21, 2007

Cheese Shop

My local Stop and Shop has a big sign on its facade that says "Cheese Shop". Inside the store, there's an area near the deli with some open refrigerator cabinets containing wrapped pieces of cheese. Nothing exotic, but still some variety. These products are, for me, not actually food. Initial quality aside, they are not cared for properly. In a pinch one could source a piece of something relatively indestructable such as utility-grade parmesan or cheese for tacos, perhaps. But mostly, this is not actual cheese as I know it - and I categorically dispute their claim to being a cheese shop.

But ok - there are stores that actually are cheese shops. They're few and far between, but they do exist. Even within the ranks of this small group, there is astonishing variation in quality. Let me propose to you what I have been surprised to discover is the acid test. I never thought this would be a hard question, but it turns out that it is. Next time you are served at the cheese shop (remember this has to first be a bona fide cheese shop) - I suggest you begin by asking your server:
"What's great today?". By far the most frequent response (I've conducted a poll over a large sample) is: "Everything!" Often this is followed by "What do you like?" or some such. If your cheese monger (sic) has actually said "Everything!" - this is not a cheese shop (or at least this server is not a cheese monger). This phase of the test is pass/fail - and they have failed.

There are places where this simple question will reliably elicit an intelligent answer. At Wasik's in Wellesley, MA for example. The kind of response you're looking for is of the form: "I'm really liking the (cheeseThat'sActuallyInGreatFormToday) today." Cheese lives, breathes, grows, shrinks, stinks, dies. Cheese has seasons. Cheese has good days and not so good days. Cheese sometimes needs to be thrown away. Cheese mongers select their products deliberately. They age their products. They cut them when they're ready. They don't wrap them indiscriminately. They taste their products. They know what's good. And if you work with them, they will come to know what you like and will steer you what's best and occasionally to wonderful new experiences. Great people.

Some supermarkets have begun the practice of stocking a much improved variety of cheese. Whole Foods, for example has made a big commitment to the category. But the kind of service they can offer, the care they can (actually can't) provide for the product, do not and can not provide a substitute for a well run proper cheese shop. Find a good one, taste the products attentively. I don't mean buy them and see - I mean taste in the store. Do the same at WF. If you ask, they will cut you a taste. Ask for help, assess the thoughfulness of the answers, taste the products.

You'll make the time to take the extra stop.

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