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Taste the Cheese

December 16, 2009

Have you ever been somewhere where everyone thought something was so great, and you go only to find out that it’s not?

It’s the hype machine.  And it’s everywhere.

Right now I am thinking about one such example here in Albany.  When I mention my love of cheese, everyone lights up and says, “Have you been to the cheese counter at the Honest Weight Food Co-op?  I love it.  They give you tastes of anything you like!”

1.  Yes, I have been.
2.  No, I do not love it.
3.  They damn well better give tastes.

I’m thinking some people might be surprised by that last one.
Maybe less surprised by number two.

If you are buying cheese, good serious cheese, you must taste it before you buy it.  This holds true even if you have bought it before.  Maybe it holds especially true if you have bought it before.

The truth is that cheese is an incredibly variable product.  Every wheel can have nuances in flavor that can change dramatically depending upon the condition it was kept in, what happened to the cheese in transit, its age, and the ripeness of the cheese when it was first cut.  Some cheeses even change seasonally as the dairy animals may graze on different pasture.  And despite the consortium’s pledge of quality control and consistency across manufacturers, not all Parmigiano-Reggiano is created equal.

For a long time I was a fan of two different English cheddars: Montgomery’s and Keen’s.  Depending on the wheels my shop had on hand, sometimes I preferred the Montgomery’s and sometimes I preferred the Keen’s.  My criteria for what I seek in a good cheddar wasn’t changing.  The vacillation was simply the flavor differences wheel to wheel.

So the only way to know what a cheese tastes like is to take a taste.  Any good cheesemonger knows this.  And as a buyer, tasting is an absolute necessity.

If you are new to cheese buying, I will offer a few tips for tasting.

First, trust yourself.  You may not have the words to describe what you are tasting, but don’t feel bullied into buying a cheese just because you got a free nibble.  If it doesn’t send you down the aisle spinning cartwheels, maybe it’s not the cheese for you.  Maybe it’s not bad.  But don’t buy cheese that’s just not bad.

Second, try to really taste it.  A taste isn’t a big piece.  Really make an effort to engage your senses.  Look at it, touch it, and bring it up close to your nose and give it a big sniff.  Likely the sample will be a bit cold.  When you put it in your mouth (this may sound a bit weird) try to let it warm up on your tongue before evaluating its flavor.  Cold cheese doesn’t taste like much, which is why one should let cheese come to temperature for at least an hour before serving.

Third, try to use each taste to help the cheesemonger hone in on your preferences.  You may not have the same cheese vocabulary or knowledge as the person behind the counter, but together the two of you should be able to triangulate a cheese that is perfect for you.

Free samples at a cheese counter are nothing special.  They are the cost of doing business.  Nothing would give me more pleasure than to say that Albany had a top-flight cheese counter.  But today, we just don’t.

I hear good things about the growing cheese selection at Cardona’s on Delaware Avenue.  But I am embarrassed to say how long it has been since I have last been to that lovely shop.

As to what makes a top-flight cheese counter and where Albany falls short, well, that’s for another day.  Also Mrs. Fussy told me that now I have to write about something I love about Albany later this week, so keep your eyes open for that too.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2009 10:38 am

    I was at Cardona’s the other day. I know everyone loves the place, and as you know I am usually the biggest cheerleader for local stores, but I don’t like the place. There, I said it. The cheese selection is nothing special and their butcher was a bit twee with me once. This is from me, and I am about as friendly as your every day East German border guard and I expect about the same from everyone else. Aside from that, standard selection of overpriced “gourmet” items and anemic looking prepared stuff. When I go to the lower Hudson, Italian enclave from which my wife hails, the average deli out paces Cardona’s. BTW, not much of a selection, but Fiorello’s does a good sandwich and has some mid-priced Italian imported stuff. Kind of a stark decor, not all bright, shiny, and wood-worky like Cardona’s but good stuff none the less.

    Oh yeah, I don’t know why, but I bought their meatballs recently. Normally not something I would do, but I was curious. They sucked.

  2. kerosena permalink
    December 16, 2009 11:11 am

    Looking forward to:
    1. Reading about where Albany falls short in the cheese department.
    2. Reading some positive stuff about Albany.

    I imagine that one shortfall will be that we really only have one true cheese counter. Maybe another will be that it’s too broad- best to focus on a smaller number of super high quality cheeses rather than trying to carry every type of cheese ever created. Also, maybe it’s not necessary for Price Chopper to carry so many poor quality cheeses.

    As for cheese selection at Cardona’s, it’s not that great. It’s an unstaffed area with pre-cut and wrapped cheeses. That doesn’t mean I can resist buying a small hunk of Piave when I’m there, though.

    As for Cardona’s itself, I’ve had different experiences than Mr. Dave. I like the Butchers there. They’ll grind meat to order, and offer some insight when asked about their thoughts on the bolognese I’m planning. Plus I find the whole store to be clean and well-kept.

    I must agree with Mr. Dave that Fiorello’s makes a damn good sandwich. Even their tuna rocks my world. It always tastes like they just prepared it.

  3. December 16, 2009 12:01 pm

    I am curious to hear your reasons for not liking the cheese counter at Honest Weight. I’ve only been there a couple of times and it didn’t wow me. Some of the cheese looked a little questionable and I wondered to my self if they have a high enough turnover for things to be at their best.

  4. December 16, 2009 12:11 pm

    For me, the best cheeses come from the local dairy farm in Palatine Bridge. They bring their wares to the Winter Market in Sch’dy. BEST CHEESE CURDS EVER!

  5. AddiesDad permalink
    December 16, 2009 1:27 pm

    Profussor, have you been to the cheese counter at Putnam Market in Saratoga Springs, yet? I’m curious to know what you think. They don’t have the biggest selection, but they do tend to get some interesting cheeses that seem hard to find in the area such as AddiesMom’s fave: Monte Enebro from Spain.

  6. December 16, 2009 3:43 pm

    For everyone wondering how it should be, go to Zabars in NYC and you will experience how you should be treated. Don’t forget to get some lox (and taste those too).

  7. matt permalink
    December 22, 2009 11:56 am

    The HWC cheese selections are the best in area, they do not sell any fromage with additives. I was searching for a petite basque and was told that the producer had recently begun to introduce additives to maintain freshness longer (greed)and that the HWC would no longer carry that producers fromage. That sets them apart from the cookie cutter stores (to me) The Staff are fantastic, witty, and well educated in regards to fromage and the many accoutrements that enhance the products they sell. One should not compare a producer such as Palentine to a retailer such as HWC, to do so is irresponsible.

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