More Than Just Cheese
Fancy foods and health foods are not the same thing. And this may be hard to believe, but amazingly delicious things come from other countries than Italy. I mention this because many stores that sell the best ingredients in the world are often muddled by other interests. Thanks to Adventure in Food Trading I haven’t longed for a specialized fine foods purveyor, but now that we have one in the form of The Cheese Traveler, I’m overjoyed.
Health foods and fine foods on some level share a similar ethos. They both tend to favor small production, without a lot of chemical additives. And there is plenty of overlap as well. Take something like Ronnybrook creamline milk. Is it special because it’s made without antibiotics or hormones? Or is it special because healthy animals are given great things to eat and slowly turn it into rich, delicious milk with a decadent layer of cream on top? Naturally, the answer is both. But a health food store might stock the dairy’s butter, while a fine foods market would realize there are better butters elsewhere.
It’s gotten to the point where one doesn’t even blink at considering Whole Foods a source for fine foods. But in its heart of hearts it’s a health food store. Just walk in the door, take a deep smell, and you’ll know. I have no idea what that smell is, but I suspect it comes from the herbal supplements aisle.
Here in Albany most of our fine foods markets are Italian delis. And they are great. I wish there were a few that specialized in the foods of a particular region and went deeper into those cuisines. But they do have some tasty things and have served me well.
Still, it was with immense pleasure that I made my first purchase from The Cheese Traveler’s retail store yesterday. If you love food, you have to go. Even if you hate cheese, you have to go. Even if you are too broke to buy fancy food, you have to go.
Really? Yes, really.
The store is still in its soft opening phase. There are plenty of cheeses to choose from, but more products are still coming in to fill the shelves. And not all of the wheels have been opened. Also there isn’t any meat slicing being done at the moment.
But do not let that deter you.
The cheese selection is impressive, and I don’t impress easily. We know all about the local cheeses that Eric and his family bring to the farmers market. But now he has a chance to sell cheeses from farther afield, and is absolutely focused on finding small production raw-milk versions of cheeses wherever he can.
That means if you like Taleggio, you’ll love his Stracchino. Or if you’re a fan of Stilton, get ready to be wowed by Stichelton. When you are there, talk to the man. Don’t be shy. Be honest. Give him a sense of what you like (plus what you don’t), and let him be your guide.
Eric turned me onto some small production hard cured salumi he had in stock from Olympic Provisions, and cut a couple samples from open packages. The Sopresatta was good and I really liked the cumin funk of the Loukanika. However Eric also mentioned the D’Arles which contains nothing but pork and salt. He explained that without any added flavors the sausage maker has nowhere to hide inferior ingredients or technique. To me this seemed like the obvious choice, and I asked him to pick me out a cheese that would work well with this meat treat.
He gave me samples of two, but it was the Puit d’Astier that really wowed me. I hadn’t even seen Eric’s facebook post on the cheese earlier in the day. But its yellow mold, creamy sheepiness, and grassy flavors really had me hooked.
While he was busy cutting I got to take a quick look at some of the packaged goods on the shelves. Bad on me for not taking pictures or better notes on the products. But the selection of oils and vinegars was unlike anything I have seen in the area. Plus Eric has some really special dried pasta, polenta, jams and more.
Here’s the thing. Eric has a very clear idea in his head about what makes food good. For him it’s tied in with history, geography, craftsmanship, and time-honored production practices. When you are in the store, you get a very clear picture that everything there is carefully curated. Each item is there for a reason. Every product has a story.
And if the store isn’t busy, and you’ve got plenty of time, he’ll tell you all about it.
Sadly, my first visit to the store was incredibly rushed. But I’m coming back. I’ll be coming back a lot. As I was leaving Eric was telling me about the Tilldale Farm’s meat, and how customers will be able to buy it fresh versus frozen. I missed some of the details because I was running late, and was focused on getting out of the door.
However I have a feeling there will be plenty more dispatches from The Cheese Traveler as I discover some more of Eric’s finds and probably to pick up more of that dried sausage. Mrs. Fussy loved it. She declared that it smelled like “mushrooms, and pig, and hazelnuts, and a thousand pounds of umami.”
Both the cheese and meat went well with a nice shiraz. To make it into more of a meal, I made a simple salad from yesterday’s Roxbury greens and topped it with a poached egg. Oh, and there were olive oil crisped potato spears to boot.
I am thrilled to have a place like this here in Albany. I’d be thrilled to have a place like this in Berkeley or Manhattan. The store is really shaping up to be something special. But since this is a soft opening, before you hightail it over to the DelSo call first to make sure someone is manning the store. Or you could stalk them on Twitter and Facebook, which was my modus operandi.
Either way. But if you love food, you need to get there soon. And often.