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Good Cheese Gets a Bad Wrap

April 25, 2011

Lots of people say they love cheese. But there are different levels of love. To help contextualize what I mean when I say love, I wrote a nine-part story of how cheese came into my life.

Here is the table of contents. Granted, it’s a little intense.

Now when you live in Albany, and people learn that you love cheese, the refrain is unanimous, “Well, you must love the cheese counter at the Honest Weight Food Co-op.” It’s considered by many to be the jewel in the culinary crown of the Capital District and is helmed by the beloved and storied Gustav Ericson.

I do buy occasionally buy things from the cheese counter at the co-op. And I’m glad it’s there, because they do carry things that I cannot get anywhere else. Most notably they have Pamplie, which remains the greatest butter I have ever tried.

But I do not love it, and consider this to be only a cheese counter of last resort.

I’ve mentioned this in passing for many months, but am finally inspired to explain my position. My hope had been that my cousin who used to be a cheesemonger himself would guest write this post for me, but after his return from Sicily he now has a big fancy job at Di Bruno Brothers in Philadelphia keeping them stocked in the finest foods from around the world.

Some guys have all the luck.

But it was a note that I got from a reader recently that really inspired me to action. What goes on at the Honest Weight cheese counter needs to be addressed so that a similar fate doesn’t befall anyone else. Here is what she wrote:

I unwrapped the Gruyere I got from the co-op. Totally tasted like saran wrap. Wow…I had to toss it, it was pretty gross.

If you live in the Albany area, and you like food, I would like to challenge you to do something. Walk into the cheese section of the Honest Weight Food Co-op, walk to the counter and take a deep breath in through your nose. Amazingly, incredibly, it smells like nothing. Nothing!

This is cheese. Aged cheese. It is some of the stinkiest stuff on earth, short of durian and fish sauce. And delightfully so. The appreciation of food is all about how it fulfills the senses. How can one possibly begin to contemplate a difficult decision about cheese without being surrounded by its aroma?

Now this kind of sterility is perfectly normal for a grocery store cheese section. But it is not typical of a good cheese counter. Even walking through the Whole Foods cheese section the smell lets you know of the heady joys that wait inside the wheels.

And I didn’t used to consider Whole Foods to have a very good cheese counter.

Like the Honest Weight Food Co-op, Whole Foods engages in the unfortunate practice of precutting and prewrapping their cheeses (although to a lesser extent, thus the glorious smell). I understand why some cheesemongers do this. At some level they are willing to make sacrifices in quality in order to keep a larger selection of cheese on hand and to improve the speed of service. But ultimately I cannot condone the practice. Neither can my cousin.

Perhaps if practiced in moderation, it is at least understandable. A busy cheese counter that goes through a significant quantity of Parmigiano-Reggiano may cut a day’s supply in the morning. It’s a hearty cheese and is resilient to a modest amount of time in plastic.

But as my poor reader experienced first hand, not all cheeses are as sturdy.

If left wrapped in plastic for too long a perfectly good cheese can suffocate. Its rind can get wet and gummy and the cheese itself can pick up a very unpleasant film. This happened to me once at a Whole Foods in Los Angeles with a beautiful piece of Keen’s Farm English Cheddar.

When we brought it home, my good friend S took a bite and hated it. I tried some and agreed it wasn’t the cheese I knew. And that’s when I noticed it had been wrapped in plastic for far too long. So I took the cheese over to the sink, and scraped it. I actually took a knife and removed the top layer of cheese from all of the exposed sides and brought it back to the table.

The piece of cheddar was transformed. It no longer had the foul bitter taste from before, and the true flavor of the cheese was able to shine.

I would much prefer to wait in a line of people three to five deep and choose from a much more limited selection of cheeses than from a broader array that have been pre-cut and pre-wrapped. Unfortunately mine would seem to be the minority opinion. Otherwise cheesemongers around the country wouldn’t be compelled to try to manage such a large inventory that relies too heavily on too much plastic wrap.

Cheeses should be cut to order from the wheel; especially the runny ones.

In the meantime, I’ll buy what I must at the co-op. But if I were going to have a party and needed to get a lot of cheese, my first stop these days would be to Adventure in Food Trading. Not only do they have some great stuff, much of which they will sell by the pound or the piece, but it’s not pre-cut and pre-wrapped. Yay!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 25, 2011 10:06 am

    Don’t knock the cheese at Whole Foods! They introduced me to the delights of Stilton Cheese, ah, the memories…

  2. April 25, 2011 10:36 am

    Your cousin is a very lucky man! I grew up with DiBruno’s (when it was just a tiny rowhome store on 9th Street in South Philly) and Claudio’s which is just a few doors down. Like you said, the aromas are downright intoxicating! I just wish I had more time (and money) to spend in quality cheese shops.

    Cheers!
    G-LO

  3. April 25, 2011 10:53 am

    My experience in the family Italian grocery store I was brought up in has taught me that plastic wrap is not appropriate for many cheeses. A dry pecorino or even a parmigianno benefits more from storage in plain paper or even wax paper (which in my opinion is a bit of a stretch) than it would from plastic. But walking into a shop that obviously carries good and rare cheeses that uses plastic wrap to cover everything is definitely a peeve of mine as well.

  4. Jessica R permalink
    April 29, 2011 3:47 pm

    At the Pioneer Food Market, the cheese monger does cut the cheese while you wait. I would like to hear from them on the success of this practice. Sometime I know just what I want, but I can’t just quickly pick it up and go – I have to wait for him. And I’m doubtful the clientel at Pioneer really appriciates the differences you describe here.

    BTW, here is the name and address of the pizza place I mentioned last night:

    Our Original Pizzeria
    1200 Crane Street, Schenectady, NY

    Go check it out!

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