Hi Chowhounds! Here's a sample of Burke's writing--it's only fair he do some talking. This is an introduction to our favorite cheese place in Carmel. We've never found better in this hemisphere, but then, we haven't explored San Francisco yet. Enjoy!
Cheese Hookup in Carmel
We drive miles along the coast to south of Monterey to meet our dealer. Hurried phone calls are made, requests are discussed in coded phrases. We're looking for a very specific item to feed our addiction. It won't be cheap. The heat has been coming down and availability is scarce. We're visiting our hookup.
The Cheese Shop is on the lower level of Carmel Plaza, an open-air mall near the main drag of Carmel-by-the-Sea. It's just off the beaten path, existing alongside the kitschy art galleries and Louis Vuitton boutiques and their yuppie shopping experience. We head straight for the cheese: it's our number-one destination when in town.
Kent Torrey is the proprietor of a wonderland--a vast selection of cheeses and aisles crammed with wine. Edward, Adam and the rest of the staff are knowledgable and always have the good stuff on hand. Even a semi-regular is recognized and greeted like an old friend, their cheese preferences remembered out of perhaps hundreds. The staff is terrific, but it's what they have behind the counter that's really worth the hour's drive from home.
When Wells and I began our cheese addiction, we would buy from Draeger's in Menlo Park, which has a decent selection. The Oakville Grocery in the Stanford Mall is also fine, but expensive. Both have a selection of cheese that beats the average Safeway, but we learned abroad that the Petit Basques and Reblochons and Bries you can buy here are France's Velveeta and Cracker Barrel--pasteurized, homogenized product sold plastic-wrapped in convenience stores for a quick snack. Imported here, the prices on these cheeses are boosted significantly and the products are sold as gourmet. Don't get me wrong, they're delicious, but specialty retailers like The Cheese Shop sell the real deal: French, Spanish, Italian and English artisanal product is the order of the day here, and you will find the rich, super-flavorful cheeses that grace the carts of France.
If you're like Wells and myself, you don't see why American Brie (you know the kind) is so popular. It has an image far exceeding its actual flavor, typically a plastic-tasting lump of soft goop surrounded by a waxy white shell. At The Cheese Shop we scored some Brie de Meaux, the real stuff, from a region near Paris. Brie is an AOC, appelation controlée (meaning only certain cheeses can hold the name), and Brie de Meaux, a deep and earthy cheese that when allowed to warm to room temperature attains true complexity and depth of flavor, deserves its sacred name. Soft cheeses are where the French excel, producing small runs of creamy goodness in almost every village and town. Our favorite is Epoisse, a cheese that reeks of the barnyard and will make your kitchen smell like a farm, but tastes incomparably good. It's $18 for a little wheel that will serve 2 or 3 people, but it is very much worth it. Epoisses are only available a few months a year, so if you see it anywhere (and it's the real thing, and not aged to death to avoid US pasturization laws), be sure to snap it up. We did.
Adam, our friendly server, dished out sample after sample in the midst of a stream of chatter about France, the Pebble Beach Concours, the Giants and various wines and recipes. Some of the cheeses on offer we didn't care for, but others were immediate buys: true AOC Muenster from Alsace-Lorraine, Papillon Roquefort (France's most popular Roquefort, and it blows the doors off anything else available here), and Fromagee de Lanzee, a near-liquid cheese that resembled smelly grey paste but tasted sharp and delicious on crackers. We picked up some Spanish Manchego, which can be grated over salads and pastas like Parmigiano Reggiano. This time out the real winner was an artisanal Stilton that was actually crunchy in bits. We had it with a little Wilkin & Sons Tiptree Essex Quince jam--magnificent flavor, delicious on toast or even just by itself. It was Adam's advice that got me to try the Stilton with the Quince jam, and I want to personally thank him (and buy a lot more) next time we're there. And the next, and the next...
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