European Cheese Shops - A Perspective
I was interested to read the recent listing in the WSJ of their top ten cheese shops. Somewhat surprisingly, every single one is located in Europe, which I can’t help feeling shows remarkable lack of imagination, let alone knowledge of some of the fantastic cheese stores also to be found in the US, many of which have been in operation for well over a decade. (Mental note here to compile a list of my own.)
Although I haven’t been to all the cheese shops in the WSJ (give me time!), I do know a few of them and worked for several years at one of them. So here’s my personal run-down of some of those mentioned. For Poncelet in Madrid, we wrote a piece about their store in the June 2009 issue of culture. You can read the article here http://culturecheesemag.com/poncelet_madrid
L’Amuse - Netherlands
Focussing on farmstead cheeses and especially goudas from the Netherlands, L’Amuse is owned and operated by Betty & Martin Koster with the help of their daughter Thasia. The business has two amazing retail locations, one in Santpoort-Noord and a newly opened shop in Amsterdam.
The thing that particularly sets L’Amuse apart, is that the Kosters work very closely with their suppliers, selecting cheeses at a young age which they then bring back to the L’Amuse caves for maturation. This allows them to sell the cheeses at the peak of condition and flavor.
Although best known for their Signature Gouda, be sure to try the Gouda Gris, an unwaxed gouda made from goat’s milk, Terscheling – a sheep’s milk gouda from the island of Terschel, and a new cheese called Lady Blue which is a softer style blue.
For those of us unable to travel to the Netherlands, the great news is that the Kosters export some of their L’Amuse cheeses to the US and they’re available at good cheese stores. For further information, check out the Essex Street Cheese website, which are the sole importers. www.essexcheese.com
Neal’s Yard Dairy - UK
Having opened in 1979, in a pocket-handkerchief-sized store in London’s Covent Garden district, Neal's Yard Dairy has now become synonymous with the evolution - and to a great extent the salvation - of British and Irish farmhouse cheeses during the last three decades.
Retail remains at the heart of the company which now has a second outlet in the wildly popular and hip Borough Market in Southwark, just south of London Bridge. As food awareness in Britain has grown in recent years, so has Neal's Yard Dairy, and it now consists of vibrant export, wholesale and mail order departments under the same name.
Enter one of their shops and you’re greeted floor to ceiling with great wheels and truckles of cheese maturing on their shelves. The long slate counter (which took 2 years to source from a Welsh quarry), is filled with beautifully presented cheeses of all shapes and sizes, kept cool by the atmosphere in the shop rather than traditional refrigeration. The approachable, patient and knowledgable cheesemongers are on a mission to ensure you taste the cheeses and leave with the cheese you want – not just a cheese they want to sell.
While you’re tasting, cheesemongers regale you with information about the producers and the cheeses you’re trying, so inevitably you leave the store enriched on many levels.
La Fromagerie - UK
Located just off London’s vibrant Marylebone High Street, La Fromagerie was chosen as one of the anchor tenants to help re-vitalize the area as a foodie haven just a few years ago.
La Fromagerie very much reflects the passions of its owner Patricia Michelson. The tiny original store still exists in Highbury in north London, beneath which lie the company’s maturing cellars. However, the much larger Marylebone shop is home to an atmospheric café alongside the store that sells carefully selected and hard-to-find foods with, at its heart, the cheese.
The cheeses are housed inside a glass-paneled room contained within the main store where, thanks to temperature and humidity control, they’re kept in optimum condition. Customers are encouraged to slide open the heavy glass door to make their selections, with the skilled guidance of the La Fromagerie cheesemongers.
Michelson buys direct from the majority of her producers, thus ensuring quality and a close connection with the makers. Although La Fromagerie specializes in French cheese, they also sell a carefully chosen selection from Italy, Spain, Portugal and the UK. Notably, Michelson is one of only two retailers to sell the mere two American artisanal cheeses available for sale outside the US.
www.guffantiformaggi.com/index-uk.html (English version)
Sadly, I cannot claim to have visited the Guffanti store mentioned in WSJ, but I have had the privilege of visiting their beautiful maturing cellars in Arona last year, while on an excursion from the Slow Food Festival in Bra.
Low, vaulted ceilings, tile floors and orderly, cheese-filled shelves immediately convey you’re somewhere very special. Being below ground, temperature and humidity remain fairly constant. This is achieved with the aid of technology together with the ability to tap (literally) into a nearby well that can flood the cellar floors and give humidity an extra boost as required.
The cheeses are cared for constantly by a skilled team that turn (flip), brush and wash depending on requirements. In one corner, slightly apart from the main cellar, my attention was drawn to a group of aged cheeses with particularly pitted, gnarly rinds.
They were covered with cheese dust, a telltale sign of cheese mites which are the scurge of most self-respecting cheese maturers who spend vast amounts of time trying to get rid of (or at least control) these pesky critters. Therefore, I was surprised to see evidence of them in this otherwise immaculate cellar and questioned Carlo Fiore, the current owner, about this.
With a smile, he explained that the stash was reserved for a particular group of Russian customers who specifically request/insist that their cheese is aged this way so they can consume it with copious quantities of vodka!
Although something tells me these particular cheeses don’t find their way into the retail store, you should certainly make an effort to try the others, many of which are also available in the US. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.