Photo: niallkennedy, Flickr
Finding the crème de la crème of American cheese shops is no easy task. We did it, however, by carefully considering the variety, distinctiveness, and quality of cheeses that hundreds of them carry, as well as the extent to which they've promulgated the availability of handmade artisanal cheeses. Check out our five picks after the jump.
Formaggio Kitchen, Cambridge, MA
It's impossible to not be seduced by this Cambridge institution's cheese wall, from enormous wheels of Alpine cheeses to oozy milky soft-ripened cheeses to gorgeous chèvres. Owner Ihsan Gurdal travels the world -- from Asia to Europe and back to the States -- discovering cheeses (and condiments) with unique flavors, like fresh goat's milk Robiolas that taste like goat's milk ice cream and wheels of Comté aged for over two years with flavors ranging from apricot-like to chocolaty. Many of Gurdal's cheese discoveries, like Saint Maure Belgique and Robiola di Capra al Fico, are only available at Formaggio Kitchen, making it an absolute must-go-to cheese destination.
Behind the scenes, cheesemongers meticulously wrap and rewrap the cheeses and store them in the appropriate environment -- some in the store's own cheese cave and others in walk-in refrigerators. In addition, unlike many cheese shops, the varieties here are wrapped in proper wax paper when sold.
Cowgirl Creamery, San Francisco, CA and Washington D.C.
Founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith not only sell a superb selection of European cheeses -- ranging from British cheeses like Ticklemore to Italian classics like Taleggio -- but they also sell various dairy products made in-house, like fresh cottage cheese, fromage blanc, and crème fraîche. It's very much like a typical Parisian fromagerie. That said, Cowgirl creamery is probably best known for its self-produced, top quality bloomy rind cheeses – the renowned Mt Tam and St Pat, along with the washed rind Red Hawk – that are distributed in cheese shops and restaurants across the country. Unlike any other American cheese shop, Cowgirl Creamery brilliantly balances their variety of American and European cheeses.
Because Conley is originally from D.C., the company opened its only East Coast outlet in the Penn Quarter neighborhood of Washington D.C. It carries all the California offerings, and also specializes in local Mid-Atlantic cheeses, including Pennsylvania's delicious and hard-to-find Pipe Dreams Farm ashed chèvre. Thanks to locations on both coasts, Cowgirl Creamery remains one of the best places to find out what's happening on the American cheese front.
Murray's Cheese, NY, NY
What started out as a wholesale butter and egg shop in 1940 by Murray Greenberg (the "original Murray") has developed into one of the foremost cheese stores in the U.S. thanks to Rob Kaufelt who bought it in 1991. Apart from building a cheese cave, Kaufelt sells some of the best American and European artisanal cheeses, including its selection from renowned French affineur Hervé Mons – Persillé de Malzieu and Tomme de la Chataigneraie. Some American highlights include: Rogue River Blue, Adelle, and Acapella. This cheese establishment paved the way for many others, and is the ideal vendor for hard-to-find cheeses like Austrian munster, as well as for staples like Brie and Parmigiano Reggiano. It's worth noting the shop does mail order via its website.
Pastoral, Chicago, IL
Opened in 2004, Pastoral has quickly transformed itself into one of the country's leading cheese shops, thanks largely to owners Ken Miller and Greg O'Neil. The duo educates consumers not only about well-established Vermont and Wisconsin cheesemakers, such as Jasper Hill Farm and Carr Valley Cheese, but also about newer ones, mostly from the Midwest, like Prairie Fruits Farm and Farmstead First -- farms whose cheeses are not sold at larger specialty food stores (certainly, not at any Whole Foods). Through its many classes (some given by the cheese artisans themselves), Pastoral emphasizes the crucial connection between cheeses and the farmers responsible for making them.
And for those who need their European cheeses, there's no need to fret. Pastoral also has an exquisite selection of Old World cheeses, including Stichelton, Mimolette, and Bleu d'Auvergne.
Saxelby Cheesemongers, NY, NY
Back in 2006, Anne Saxelby opened a revolutionary cheese shop that sells only American cheeses, mostly from the northeast, such as Consider Bardwell Farm's Manchester, Mecox Bay Dairy's Atlantic Mist, and Cato Corner Farm's Hooligan. At first the idea of focusing solely on American artisanal cheese seemed impossible, but quickly people began to realize (thanks to her stall at the Essex Street Market) that there are more than enough innovative American cheesemakers. Saxelby Cheesemongers is a perfect example of this critical moment in American cheese history: Cheesemaking stateside has taken off and consumers are starting to value local versus imported.
Another aspect of Saxelby Cheesemongers that makes it special is the amount of personal attention that each customer receives. It's as though this cheese booth were located in a tiny French village with just a dozen inhabitants.
These are our picks, but how about you? Do you have any favorite cheese shops?