At the end of last year, I got some inside info from my local cheesemonger about some great standby holiday cheeses. The holidays are over, but I still trust my small little shop for all the new news on cheese. I decided to have a more in-depth meeting with the shop's cheese buyer, and while I walked away with a long list of new cheeses on my "To Do" list, what I really left with was a better sense of how a small cheese counter works.
You might learn about the inner-workings of your neighborhood specialty shop, too!
My shop is called Greene Grape Provisions, and it's in the heart of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It's not a destination cheese shop, but it has that neighborhoody feel, and a great reputation for some excellent foodstuffs. The shop really grounds the neighborhood and serves as the most central landmark.
I met with Laura Heifetz, Cheese Buyer and Department Manager, who's worked in cheese for years, first at Murray's and then at Whole Foods, and so she knows as much about how a big retailer works as a small one.
The shop has a unique challenge: Serve the regulars what they want by keeping them satisfied with a roster of cheeses they know and love; maintain high quality of cheeses by keeping fresh inventory and accurately ordering new stock; and change things up every so often with new and delicious offerings.
Interestingly, it's hard to balance these last two challenges. A small shop doesn't necessarily have the luxury of bringing in a new wheel on a whim. There are minimums to an order, and sometimes a new cheese requires some marketing in order to make the sell to a customer who might always expect to make the same purchase. Laura spoke a lot about the merits of sampling. But giving out tastes takes a toll on the bottom line. Most often, though, the price paid is worth it: a bevy of customers converted to a new favorite cheese.
In order to maintain quality, a small shop can't just have a bunch of new perishable cheeses lying around. It's a delicate balance. But at Provisions, they do it well.
Also interesting was the difficulty of purchasing cheese directly from small farms. It's kind of a romantic thought: the small, neighborhood specialty shop sourcing their products from local dairies. But in reality, the products from those dairies are best handled by a distributor. Packaging, shipping, and marketing is an art in and of itself, and these tasks sometimes prove just a bit too much for a small farm to manage on top of cheesemaking. Makes sense. And so, for the most part, Laura buys cheese from distributors.
One undeniable benefit to a small shop is the ability for the cheesemongers to truly connect with their customers. It's a neighborhood shop, indeed, and the staff know their patrons. In this, and in her employees, Laura takes much pride.
And there's something else for her to be proud of, too: She makes the store's mozzarella. By hand. About 5 days a week. Very cool, and if you get there early in the morning, you can still eat it while it's warm. And best of all, if you're a Brooklyn-ite, you don't have to go to Little Italy to get it.
Laura's Top 3 Cheese Picks
They're always changing, as cheese picks tend to do with the season and personal taste, but these are Laura's rave-worthy wedges at the moment:
Rolf Beeler Appenzeller ($27.99/lb; Swiss): Raw cow milk, nutty, and sweet. An assertive, in-your-face example of just how delicious a mountain cheese can be when it's this mind-blowingly good.
Fiaco di Capra ($23.99/lb; Italian): Raw goat, washed rind, like a goat milk taleggio. Fudgey in texture. Unique. Pretty goaty, in that sweet, barnyardy kind of way.
Flora Nelle ($23.99/lb; American): Newish blue offering from Rogue Creamery in Oregon. Sharp and pungent, but incredibly well-balanced. Feels like velvet on the tongue, like any good blue should.
Visit Greene Grape Provisions online or at 753 Fulton in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
(Images: Nora Singley)