A great cheese shop needs to have a few basic things:
1. A handpicked selection of amazingly delicious cheeses
2. A passionate individual to help select a cheese that's just right for you
3. The tools of the trade like knives, scales, cheese wrap, labels and such
Some might argue that you also need a building to put it all in.
When it comes to that last point, Eric Paul is proving otherwise. Eric has an amazing cheese shop -- it's just that he's missing the shop part.
He is known as The Cheese Traveler. True to the name, Eric and his cheeses can be found as they travel to events around the area. But it is worthwhile to track them down, because his cheeses are unlike any others you'll find in the region.
And it's as much about the cheeses as what he does with them, and why.
The best place to catch The Cheese Traveler is at the Delmar Farmers Market (now indoors) on Saturdays. There you will see Eric behind a table, hovering over 23 beautiful cheeses. Their names, like "Sprout Creek Madeline," "Cricket Creek Tobasi," or "Peaked Mountain Dandy" might be unfamiliar. This is not because the cheeses hail from far away. In fact, most come from within 100 miles of Albany.
No, they are unfamiliar because until Eric started selling them, they were unavailable in Albany. And they are fantastic.
What you will notice upon first glance is that this cheese selection looks different from others in the area. There is not a single piece of cheese that has been pre-cut or pre-wrapped. Instead you will see large hunks of the wheel, from which you can easily imagine what the whole cheese once looked like.
Farmhouse and artisan cheeses are different from their industrial produced cousins. They are made by hand, and come in many shapes, colors and sizes. Eric takes delight in what he calls the "visual appeal of the whole wheel," including the patina of age that can be seen on certain rinds. And he believes that when a wheel is cut down into retail units, one looses the sense of where that slice of cheese came from.
Pre-wrapping cheese can also negatively affect its flavor and the texture of its rind. Eric had me taste some of his cheeses, including those with funky looking rinds that ordinarily I might discard. They were intense, but not ammoniated, sour, slimy, or particularly gritty. He takes great care of his cheeses.
What you will not notice, however, is that almost all of The Cheese Travelers wares are made from raw milk -- or, in other words, milk that has not been pasteurized. This is a trait they have in common with the world's greatest cheeses. Lest you be worried about the safety of such cheeses, the federal government allows the sale of raw milk cheeses that have been aged for more than sixty days. The sale of younger raw milk cheeses is prohibited in the US, much to my personal dismay. This is one of the main reasons why you will never find a Camembert as delicious here as you can find in Paris.
Fundamentally, Eric is trying to both provide "taste experiences" for his customers while at the same time honor what he describes as the "ritual craftsmanship of centuries."
Raw milk cheeses play a critical part in helping him achieve these goals. He says raw milk "produces a more full flavor, not always stronger, but nuanced and complex." The use of raw milk in cheese production also links back to the tradition of cheesemaking. Historically, this is how cheese was made, but the drive for mass production and consistency in the later part of the 20th century trumped values like craftsmanship and flavor.
In the service of providing taste experiences, Eric attempts to ensure his handpicked selection of cheeses includes those of every milk, every style and every texture. And explains that he has to have washed-rind cheese because "they are part of the cheesemaking culture."
The end result of this is that Eric can help you put together a classically composed cheese plate. That means one with four cheeses: a cow's milk, sheep's milk and goat's milk cheese, in addition to a blue. For variety's sake, he suggests that the cheeses should also be in different styles.
Naturally, when you stop in at The Cheese Traveler, Eric will offer you a taste of anything and everything you are interested in sampling. But it's not a snack, it's simply a sliver. The idea is for you to evaluate the flavor and texture, not to fill up on samples. Smell it, roll it around in your mouth, and be honest about your impressions. Because nothing is wrapped, it's quick and easy to get a taste of whatever strikes your fancy, and based on your input the two of you can hone in on your new favorite cheese you've never heard of before.
And when you are done, not only will you have a tasty cheese, but you'll know about the farm and the people who made it. Eric says he's been to many of the places himself and talks to the cheesemakers regularly. Like any good cheesemonger, he believes in forming good relationships with the producers who supply him with cheese.
Eric isn't just a good cheesemonger, he's a great one. Nobody locally is doing what he does. Beyond his commitment to small-production, handmade raw milk cheese, it's the practices he employs that put him in the ranks of the country's best.
The good news is that he has begun to explore locations to establish a retail store, but as of yet he says he hasn't found the right space. Another idea he's kicking around is to get a truck so that he could have a mobile cheese-selling operation. Apparently they have them in Europe. I picture an ice cream man, but with cheese.
In the meantime, catch him Saturdays at the Delmar Farmers Market until December 17, and then keep tabs of The Cheese Traveler on Facebook.
Daniel B. is the proprietor of the Fussy Little Blog.
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