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More Than Just Cheese

October 17, 2012

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.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2012 10:17 am

    I live in Delmar not far from Delaware Ave. Can I call my neighborhood DelDelSoSo (Delmar Delaware South South)?

    By the way, that salami you bought isn’t really just salt (i.e. NaCl) and meat, right? I am pretty sure that would be some unholy crime against the FDA… It has Prague #2, and a starter culture too I would think. If some sausage maker is out there making salami with just meat and straight up salt, and managing to sell it, I would be very interested…

    I have done dry cured salamis using only salt, Prague #2, cayenne, and a starter culture. The cayenne gives a sort of flat heat and really lets all of the funk of the ferment come through. I will have to go over to the Cheese Traveller and poke about in his meat case…

    • October 17, 2012 10:54 am

      Is it wrong that your last sentence made me giggle like a 7th grader?

      Kidding aside, I’m excited to do the same thing. I met Eric in August at an event and he’s such an interesting guy. I can’t wait to take some time and get in there to explore his shop.

    • October 17, 2012 10:29 pm

      Mr. Dave, The Saucisson D’Arles is cured appropriately, in accordance with the FDA; however, it is seasoned with only salt. So there are no spices to cover up inferior meat or craft. Elias Cairo makes them in Portland, Or. He learned the trade during a five year apprenticeship in Switzerland. He then moved to Greece and learned how to make the Loukanika there, before returning to the U.S. to found Olympic Provisions in 2009.

  2. October 17, 2012 10:59 am

    (long whistle) – You gotta work on that definition of health food. There is a shit-ton of mass produced “health food” out there filled with chemical additives. To say, “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” isn’t really wrong, it’s just not, well, right.

    I’l give you credit for making a point, though. Sorry to be such a bugger.

  3. October 17, 2012 11:06 am

    Oh, and I had the Stracchino, as well, as it was delicious! Eric told me about the D’Arles, but that purchase will have to wait for another time. I have a bit of the Sopresatta left, so that’ll probably top a pizza this week. I really want to stop in again and try that Cider Jelly and Apple Cider Vinegar, but I feel kind of bad buying stuff like that when I have a whole orchard in my backyard and 3 gallons of apple cider fermenting into vinegar in my root cellar :(.

  4. October 17, 2012 10:51 pm

    Olympic Provisions really does a nice job – great to see their products will be available here. I picked up a few at the Real Food on Polk Street in SF a couple of months back – I remember the sopressata in particular as being terrific – and it’s nice to know I won’t have to travel so far afield to get them.

    Thanks for the heads-up in re The Cheese Traveler’s soft opening… looking forward to heading over there quite soon, and quite often!

  5. October 17, 2012 10:56 pm

    Actually, it was Cheese Plus down the street now that I think about it. Either way, Olympic Provisions is great. And I can’t wait to meet Eric and pick his brain on all matters cheese. :)

  6. October 18, 2012 2:19 pm

    Reblogged this on Tjpina1's Blog.

  7. October 21, 2012 11:43 am

    Last weekend, C and I were at my mother’s (who is walking distance from AGB and, now, the Cheese Traveler), and on Facebook, and I said, “Oh, hon, the new cheese store opened next to All Good Bakers today.”

    “If you want to go, you can go.” I looked at him funny – he, after all, is way more of a foodie than I am. “I’m telling you because I thought YOU would want to go.”

    He looked at me and said, “Why would I want to go to a tea store?”

    And he says I don’t listen to him.


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