You know what I miss? Cheese. And not that orange crap you find in unnatural shapes like square at the corner store, but real cheese. The kind that came from some milk, maybe cow’s or goat’s, that sits, un-packaged, in a refrigerated case, where a person behind the counter will slice you a big slice or a little slice, enough for a two person picnic or a twenty person dinner party. That’s the cheese I miss.
I am not quite sure how my mom managed to end up transplanted from the bustling streets of Paris to the one town in central North Carolina that actually HAD a cheese shop, but she’s either very impressive or very lucky, and she did. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on top of the tall glass cheese case, where cheese-monger Tim would feed me bites of Brie, while my mother perused the rest of the store (which was not just a cheese shop, but a fine food importer, a gourmet grocer before it was fashionable, an in-house coffee roaster and fine chocolatier, a vision of tall shelves with wondrous products, the birth-place of my foodie-ism).
We didn’t have a ton of rules growing up (for example, I didn’t have to make my bed unless the cleaning lady was coming over later that day), but there were three that were HARD AND FAST. One, we all eat dinner together, even if it meant waiting for my father and brother to return from hockey practice at 11pm, all of us starved and edging in on cranky. Two, a green salad follows dinner, always and without variation. My father makes the vinaigrette, and I learn to toss the salad as soon as I can grasp the long wooden salad tongs (I always had to stand up to do it though- my mother can handle those things from a seated position, and I still can’t grasp exactly how). And three, there is always, always, always, a cheese plate in the fridge.
It didn’t have to be big, this cheese plate, but it was always there- a Brie, a goat cheese, a blue cheese, and a hard cheese- in the earlier years I remember an aged Gouda or a bright orange Mimolette, and then later, I don’t know if it that we didn’t know about them before or that we simply didn’t have access to them, the Spanish and Basque cheeses, a Manchego or a P’tit Basque. A Cantal for my father, a Roquefort for my mother, and a creamy, melty Brie for the kids, and even if you didn’t have room, you’d eaten your chicken leg and vegetable and salad, there was always room for a piece or seven of cheese, and I skipped the bread, better to taste the cheese directly.
I learned more and ate even more when I went to work seasonally for the same cheese shop I’d been frequenting since I was old enough to sit up (it’s now a million times larger than it was when it started, and even than when I worked there). There wasn’t any cheese available for import to the United States I didn’t taste, including the bizarre square goat’s milk cheese from Sweden that tasted vaguely of caramel. I learned that I love blue cheese of any variation- soft, hard, cow, goat, sheep- but there is a special place in my heart for Roquefort (which, travel tip: if you’re ever in southern France, the natural caves where Societe Roquefort is made are not to be missed). I learned that you can do Brie one better by eating a triple cream like St. Andre, and that a three-year aged Gouda is a million times better than it’s fresh counterpart (and than a five year aged Gouda, for that matter). For all the bitching we do about food produced by the English, they’ve got cheese covered- Double Gloucester, Stilton, and the totally bizarre and delicious combination, Huntsman. I learned a shit-ton more about American produced cheeses, like how Vermont really does make a killer Cheddar, and that even a hardcore goat cheese resistor will eat a piece of Humboldt Fog.
Cheese plates are what I will invariably bring to a potluck, and not just because I’m a mediocre cook. I could spend a million years in a good cheese shop, dreaming up all sorts of cheese plates, from the exotic to the mundane, and for every taste in between. If I had an ounce of business acumen, I’d open my own cheese shop, or more specifically, pay someone else to run it, while I cut and sliced and wrapped.
Lest you think I simply miss cheese because I’m pregnant, it’s not that. It’s that I have yet to find a local cheese shop that carries what I’d like to see (for “gourmet,” Whole Foods is awfully stuck on Cheddar)- where I can get my cheese cut and wrapped correctly, and where the person behind the counter has at least tasted the wares. Maybe the high fat content of cheese makes it an unprofitable venture in southern California?
Who knows. Just figure out a way to ship me some.