Fairfield Cheese Company
"I opened during the worst part of the recession," Laura Downey says with a chuckle as a coda. Such a statement of entrepreneurial horror isn't often followed with a gentle laugh, but Downey has earned that right. For her, the recession isn't an excuse for a failed business, but something that she has succeeded in spite of. She is the co-owner with Chris Palumbo of the thriving Fairfield Cheese Company in Fairfield, Connecticut, a shop bringing the best in artisan and locally produced cheeses to the Connecticut suburb.
Downey's love of cheese is rooted in an expatriate childhood. As a child, Downey lived in Paris and London for two and a half years each. Back stateside, she came to Boston, where she continued her lactose love affair at such establishments as Formaggio Kitchen. She eventually came to Fairfield, and found that the closest cheese shop was a 20 minute drive away. Downey decided to solve that problem herself.
"I was always confident that Fairfield could support its own cheese shop," Downey said.
Today the Fairfield Cheese Company fills a small shop to bursting with stacked cracker boxes, shelves of olive oils and spreads, and of course, cheese. According to Downey, the shop stocks between 80 to 100 cheeses at most times during the year. Many of the shop's selections are seasonal, a feature in step with their artisan suppliers. A shop favorite of the summer season is Summer Snow from Woodcock Farm, a Vermont cheese maker. Summer Snow is a sheep cheese with a cool, light taste that subtly builds to a blue cheese flavor toward the end.
Downey has had to explain the advantages and disadvantages unique to seasonal cheese to customers, who may not be familiar with the seasonal outputs that characterize small cheesemakers.
“I think that being able to tell our customers that cheese has seasonality and that some things aren’t always available helps them understand the price," Downey said, "and it also makes them feel connected to where it is coming from”
Downey, who does all of the buying for her shop, enjoys building relationships with her cheese suppliers. In some cases, Downey has been able to watch the cheesemakers change their product from year to year as they hunt for perfection.
"I love the newness and the different things they're coming up with. I love seeing the new cheesemakers, how they have changed since we opened up," said Downey, "I love that aspect of it.
Downey isn't shy to admit that she has a thing or to left to learn about cheese making. Downey took part in the Cheesemonger Invitational this past June 23rd in Long Island City. The invitational was a showdown between cheesemongers representing 40 different shops, whose cheese prowess was tested in three preliminary rounds: cheese trivia, a blind taste test, and a final challenge to "sell" a randomly selected cheese to the judges. The top 10 performing cheese mongers from these challenges advanced into a finals round.
How did Downey fair?
"I did terrible!" Downey says with a laugh, "I got nervous!"
Downey was taken by surprise by the specificity of some cheese trivia questions, like the pH of cow's milk. Downey said she performed well in the taste test, but got tangled selling cheese to the judge.
"I'm actually very good at it," Downey clarified, "I choked."
In the end, the invitational seemed to remind Downey how much there is to know and learn about cheese. “I feel like I know a lot but then when I go to things like the invitational, I know I have 3 years in the business.” said Downey
Downey will be learning more about cheese every day at her shop, and teaching those lessons to the local citizenry and out-of-towners that come into Fairfield Cheese Company looking for some delightful dairy. For at the end of the day, there is nothing in the business that Downey likes more than telling the tales of cheese.
“the best part of cheese mongering, in my opinion, is telling the stories of where the cheese came from” said Downey