“Cheese is a food, not a status symbol. Push your boundaries, but buy the cheese that makes you happy.”

This sentiment doesn’t appear until the very end of Gordon Edgar‘s new book, “Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge,” but its importance can’t be overstated. In our modern foodie culture, it’s easy to become a snob about the types of food you enjoy, but Gordon, the cheese buyer at San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery Cooperative, takes the snobbiness out of cheese with his really enjoyable memoir/cheese manifesto. Colleen had the pleasure of meeting Gordon when she visited San Francisco last October, and now I am totally jealous because after reading this book he seems like he’d be a fun conversationalist.

I’m not going to write a book report here because I’m 31 years old and stopped writing book reports in middle school, but I will urge you to pick up a copy of “Cheesemonger” at the book store or library. You don’t have to be a cheese lover to read it, though it’s fun if you are because you can knowledgeably nod your head when Gordon talks about the virtues or pitfalls of specific cheeses, but it’s accessible enough for anyone who enjoys an intelligent discussion about food. It’s fascinating to read how Gordon’s background in the Bay Area’s punk activist scene actually prepared him well for his unintended but ultimately successful career as a cheesemonger, and he does an excellent job of educating readers about the basic components of cheese (i.e. milk, rennet, mold, salt, bacteria) while weaving in colorful stories from his travels to domestic and foreign cheesemakers, cheese conferences and trade shows, and days behind the cheese counter at Rainbow. For those of us who romanticize the life of the cheesemonger, the book will leave you with a better impression of the work that goes into building and maintaining retail cheese department or store and make you appreciate your local cheesemonger even more!

If nothing else, read this book to get gems like this line: “A good cheese person can steer you to the right gateway goat cheese that won’t make you feel like you stuck your nose in a goat’s crotch.” If only we could all be so eloquent!

A cornucopia of cheese!

My family was never one in which we all went around the table and said what were thankful for that year. Truthfully, I always thought that tradition was kind of cheesy. But since this is a cheese blog, Colleen and I thought it would be appropriate to craft a short list of thanks as our blog celebrates its first birthday.

  1. We are thankful for Wine Spectator for creating the 100 great cheeses list. The idea for our blog came this magazine’s Sept. 30, 2008 issue, which Colleen discovered one day last fall, and we snowballed on it. Though we haven’t agreed with the magazine on the merits of each cheese on the list, it gave us a wonderful starting point for tasting new cheeses and relishing old favorites. Special thanks are due to Wine Spectator features editor Owen Dugan, whose kind words have meant a lot to us. Sorry we missed you when we were in New York last summer, Owen! We’ll definitely come again.
  2. We are thankful for the generosity of the cheese community. When we started this project last year, we didn’t have any special connections to the industry. We were just two cheese-obsessed women who wanted to do something fun and find an excuse to eat even more cheese. So it has been all the more gratifying to meet and correspond with many of the top cheesemakers, cheesemongers, cheese writers and bloggers and cheese lovers across the United States (and beyond). Everyone has welcomed and encouraged our interest in cheese and made us feel like we belonged. Being generous with samples is always appreciated, too!
  3. We are thankful for our readers. Anyone can start a blog, but there’s no guarantee you’ll have an audience. Hell, we’re pretty sure that our parents don’t read this blog. (Husbands, maybe?) So it has been fun to hear from readers through comments and e-mail, exchange links with other cheese and food bloggers and continue the conversations on other excellent cheese blogs. If you’ve been visiting regularly over the past year, thank you! If you’ve come a few times, thank you! And if this is your first time, thank you, too!
  4. We are thankful for Twitter. A technology that was under the radar screen until a year or so ago has much to do with the success of our blog. Not only does it bring readers to our site, it has made it easy for us to connect with other caseophiles on the Web. Twitter is how we met Tia, who scored us prime-time seats at Casellula and made sure we had cheese coming out of our ears by the time we left the restaurant. Twitter is how I reserve cheese with my cheesemonger friend Benjamin at France 44. And Twitter is how we keep on top of the latest cheese and foodie news. (No, we were not paid by Twitter for this.)
  5. We are thankful for cheese. What would this world be without cheese? Boring and less delicious. We’re lucky to be passionate about a food that offers so much variety and excitement that there is no end to the amount of tasting and talking we could do on the subject. Yes, we might have lower cholesterol levels or a few pounds lighter, but what fun would that be?

We hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday!

Colleen and Jill

This spring, a new cheese shop opened on the main street of Old Town Alexandria, Va. That makes two cheese-dedicated shops each precisely 1.1 miles from my home, plus several cheese-stocking gourmet shops, which makes this cheesewriter one happy clam. Or curd, I guess you could say. Despite its French name and inspiration —  co-owner Sebastien Tavel is a native of the Rhone region — La Fromagerie specializes in high quality, local and domestic artisanal cheeses. A blackboard behind the sales counter proudly proclaims their support for several cheesemakers in the Chesapeake Bay region, including Everona Dairy (VA), Firefly Farms (MD) and Keswick Creamery (PA).

While they have a handful of your old European mainstays, Roquefort and the like, this is not the place to go with narrow-minded intentions of obtaining a specific Alpine cheese or brand of Robiola. Rather, this is the perfect shop to spend some time letting Sebastien and his wife Mary fill you in on their latest find. They offer domestic prosciutto and charcuterie from La Quercia (Iowa) and Salumeria Biellese (NYC), fresh, local glass-jarred milk, butter and yogurt (from Trickling Springs and Blue Ridge Dairies) and a carefully chosen wine and beer selection.  They’re also planning to host classes in the near future.  And with drier summer days finally in sight (perhaps?), call in an order for a local cheese and Virginia country ham picnic basket and stroll down to the waterfront for a romantic cheese lovers’ tryst.

This Saturday, June 6, La Fromagerie will host Firefly Farms’ cheesemakers for a special meet-the-cheesemaker tasting from 4 to 7 pm, and they are having a sale on burger-ready bleu cheeses through the weekend. Visit the website for more details, or stop by the upper King Street shop en route to the water taxi if you’re headed to the National Harbor Food & Wine Festival.

La Fromagerie
1222 King Street
Alexandria, VA
Open Tuesday – Saturday, 10:30am – 8:00pm
Sunday 11:30am – 7:00pm
Closed on Mondays

Y’all know that I started writing for the Heavy Table, right? It’s the new online food magazine covering the upper Midwest. If you haven’t already, check it today – you’ll find my story about Ken Liss of the Premier Cheese Market in Minneapolis. Ken, photographer Becca Dilley and I spent a couple of hours last week trying out interesting cheese/beverage/condiment pairings, and the results may surprise you!

Little Darling certainly lives up to its name – it’s a cute little cheese! Hailing from my home state of Wisconsin, this cow’s-milk cheese may be pasteurized, but it has all the spunk and tang of a raw-milk cheese. And unlike Lou Grant from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I like spunk!

Little Darling is made by Brunkow Cheese, an artisan cheesemaker that makes a full line of Old World-inspired cheeses. The cheese is aged for six weeks and has a firm, crumbly texture that makes it an excellent snacking cheese. As usual, I enjoyed mine with apples. Its flavor, however, reminded me of Parmigiano-Reggiano – it had the same salty bite. Like Parm, Little Darling could be shaved onto a green salad or served atop a pile of pasta. It definitely has the strength to stand up a tomato sauce or vinaigrette.

I neglected to ask my friend Ken at Premier Cheese Market about wine pairings (I know, my bad), but I could see myself enjoying Little Darling with a big Italian red. Being a Wisconsin cheese, Little Darling is likely compatible with beer, but since I’m not a beer drinker I couldn’t tell you which kind. Feel free to send in your suggestions!

For me, nothing. Well, maybe diamonds. Or a purse (Burberry or Coach, please). Or a night without my kid and/or cat waking me up. But cheese makes a fantastic gift this time of year – or anytime, of course. My co-worker Deanna had the fabulous idea of sending cheese baskets to our clients and VIPs this year as our agency holiday gift, and the two of us headed down to Premier Cheese Market this morning to speak with the owner, Ken, about putting together the perfect basket.

Our challenge: assembling a blend of tastes and textures when we don’t know what the recipients would prefer. Unless you’re giving cheese to a close friend or colleague with whom you’ve had in-depth discussions about cheese (other people do this, right?), it’s best to play it safe. Ken’s rules: No blues, no stinkies (a.k.a. washed-rind cheeses, like our friend Epoisses). What’s left? Not to fret – there’s a delicious assortment of cheeses at your disposal.

  • Manchego – Tune in tomorrow for my thoughts on this Spanish sheep’s-milk cheese, but in short, its mild, nutty flavor pleases many palates, including my picky husband’s. If you want to take it to the next level, look for a Manchego with rosemary. Cheesetique stocks it.
  • Gouda – A Lewis and Levine family favorite is the Prima Donna Gouda, also mild and sweet. Excellent for snacking with apples.
  • Cheddar – You all know my feelings about Cheddar. Ken recommends the Prairie Breeze Cheddar, produced by a collective of Amish farmers in Iowa.
  • If you want to go the creamy route, a basic Brie would serve you well. Ken also suggests the double-creme Fromage d’Affinois, which is also a French cow’s-milk cheese but is even silkier. Yum!
  • For the adventuresome willing to tread into goat’s-milk territory, a classic Bucheron is usually well-received since it resembles the chevre found in almost any grocery store these days. Patacabra is a good bet, too.
  • Smoked cheeses “can be challenging,” according to Ken, but they’re not off-limits. His suggestion: go for the higher-end smokies, like Spanish San Simon. It’s very man-friendly.

The thing to remember with cheese baskets: “The cheese stands alone” only applies to the song “The Farmer in the Dell.” Be sure to include a tasty assortment of crackers, dried fruit, nuts, olives, honey and chocolates in your basket. If your budget allows, add a bottle of wine. Ask your cheesemonger for a suggestion that will complement the cheeses you’ve selected.

Of course, if you’re too busy to make it to the cheese shop, there are a number of online options. New York institution Murray’s Cheese offers a variety of gift suggestions on its Web site. I know Colleen’s husband would approve of the Best with Beer package. Artisanal Cheese also has a great selection of cheese gifts – check out the American Artisanal Basket for its unique offerings. I have to give a shout-out to my home state by mentioning The Wisconsin Cheeseman’s gift baskets. I’d love to receive the Cheese Crate!

So take the plunge and go cheesy for the holidays. I bet you a hunk of Humboldt Fog that your friends will like it more than fruitcake.

So I moved to Minneapolis in the summer of 2006 and made many happy trips to Surdyk’s, which was easy because it was just across the river from my office. But I was thrilled to learn there would soon be a cheese shop opening not far from my apartment in the ritzy 50th and France shopping district. Cheese near the office AND cheese near my house? Score!

The Premier Cheese Market is owned by Ken and Amy Liss, foodies who followed their passion for fine cheese and made it a career, just like Cheesetique‘s Jill Erber. The selection was small but satisfying at first, but Ken has really built it to become a well-stocked cheese counter, and I always find something to match my craving. You can find a variety of crackers, olive oils, olives, salts and other tasty treats, and I always pick up a loaf of Rustica Bakery‘s rustic bread – the crust is divine! (Cut thick slices and layer it with fresh tomato, mozzarella and a drizzle of fruity olive oil – oh, I wish it were August again!) Coffee, sandwiches, soups and desserts are also available, but I usually just come for the cheese and bread.

I’ve tried to convince Ken to hold cheese classes in the store at night, similar to Cheesetique’s, but he told me he thinks the store is too small. (I need to bring him pictures of the original Cheesetique to show him that’s absolutely not true!) But he does conduct classes on occasion at the Cooks of Crocus Hill store just down the block, and he’s also available for private wine and cheese parties. Hmmm, good to know…

And since Premier Cheese Market does not sell wine, it’s open on Sundays! The hours aren’t long, but hey, better than nothing. (The shop is closed on Mondays, though.) Visit the Premier Cheese Market at 5013 France Ave. S. in Minneapolis.