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Cheese Obsessed

December 2, 2011

There are five Saturdays in December, but only three that count. Oddly the two that I’m omitting are Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. December 3, 10 and 17 are the last three days of the Delmar Farmers Market until June of 2012.

And while ordinarily that wouldn’t be so meaningful, currently the Delmar Market is the only place to find Eric Paul, a.k.a. The Cheese Traveler, on a regular basis. Hopefully that will change, but just in case, I don’t want any of you to miss your chance to try his cheeses.

Maybe you read my little love note on All Over Albany about the man who I consider to be the best cheesemonger in the Capital Region. If not, you should go there now. Seriously. Because there I lay out exactly what makes The Cheese Traveler so special – and that piece has pictures.

Today, I’m telling you a bit more about this guy’s story. Because interestingly enough, Eric’s cheese journey began at the Honest Weight Food Co-op, in the days before Gustav.

The year was 1998 and the HWFC cheese selection looked a lot different than it does today. At the time Eric was splitting his time between the deli and the cheese counter, which resembled more of what you would see at a supermarket. There were fewer than thirty cheeses, and included the likes of Jarlsberg, Danish blue, Roquefort, and Stilton. Grafton cheddar from Vermont was as local as it got.

In the summer of ’98 Eric became dedicated to the cheese counter and was charged with its improvement.

So he began what would become a long tradition of visiting other cheese sellers to see how they ran their operations. Specifically, Eric traveled to a handful of co-ops in the North East with large cheese selections including those in Brattleboro, VT; Montpelier, VT; and Hanover, NH.

When Eric would ask who they worked with, one name came up time and time again. That’s how he would come to meet Dondi Ahearn from Provisions International.

Dondi has been a mentor to many in the field. Provisions, as Eric explains, isn’t just about selling cheese, but teaching its clients about cheese and providing them the expertise to become great cheesemongers.

This relationship lit the spark of Eric’s passion. And it grew from there. The result was that during his time there, Honest Weight Food Co-op grew a successful Cheese and Specialty Foods Department. Regrettably, at that time space and staffing constraints prevented the regular practice of keeping wheels of cheese intact and cutting pieces to order.

Eric hired Gustav at the end of 2000, and left the co-op cheese counter in September 2002 to complete his degree in Classical Studies from Bard.

So what’s the link between Classical Studies and cheese? Research and history. Even in his studies, Eric decided to find every mention of cheese in the works of Homer. And it is obvious that he delights in the stories behind each cheese. Not just the stories about the farmers and their herds, but the histories of the cheeses they make.

Every cheese has a past, even if the cheese maker is unaware of it. With a craft that’s been around for thousands of years, it’s pretty much impossible to come up with something completely new. For example, even while the Vella Cheese Company started making a Dry Jack in California that is rubbed in cocoa and black pepper, the cheese has its roots in the granas of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.

And while The Cheese Traveler currently focuses on small production cheeses from our region, Eric keeps files on farmstead cheesemakers all over the world. In his free time he reads cheese magazines, follows the news from the American Cheese Society and other professional organizations, and scours the Internet looking for interesting cheeses.

Sitting down with him to sample a few wedges of his cheeses was fantastic. I’ve mentioned in the past about how one is supposed to cut into a wedge of cheese in polite company. It actually varies by the piece. But the idea is to cut a portion off a large chunk in a way so that every slice includes a nibble from the middle and a bit of the rind.

This is why you never dig the paste out of the middle of a brie wedge, nor do you cut off its tip to put in your pie hole.

Anyhow, despite his departure from the HWFC Eric has kept active in the food world. This includes his work in the early phases of the Troy Co-op and the cheese and wine tastings he conducts both privately and for fundraisers.

The good news is that regardless of what January holds for The Cheese Traveler, February should find him at the helm of another wine and cheese tasting fundraiser. Eric tells me to check his Facebook page for updates.

In the meantime, this guy has rekindled my spark for cheese, and I have gone so far as to invite him to highlight a cheese of the week here on the FLB. I’m not sure if he’ll take me up on the offer. But if you see posts in the future by Eric Paul, now you’ll have a better sense of who he is, and why I think he’s the bee’s knees.

Saturday is tomorrow. Check out these pictures of The Cheese Traveler’s wares one more time, and then figure out how you’re going to get to Delmar to try them. Maybe I’ll see you there.

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