It’s not often that you get a farmer, a brewer, a chef, and a cheesemonger to join together for dinner. The farmer has her animals to milk in the evenings. The brewer has beers to pour. The chef usually stays in the kitchen, and the cheesemonger…well, you know where he’d rather be. In the cave, of course.
On appearance, Scamorza (ska-MORT-sa) is one of the ugliest cheeses. It looks like the belly button of a giant baby – dried out, pale, and slightly waxy. For years, I avoided it. No one I knew ate it, and the only person I ever saw order it in the cheese line was an old man with very large ears.
Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano is one of the greatest inventions. For me, it’s always been the cashmere socks of the cheese case. It can dress up anything, even an egg. I like it plain, too, to suck on after a good meal. Those caramel notes are all the sweetness I need, and I like the way Parm crumbles like rock candy.
For Rocco (center), the highlight was meeting Sister Noella, the cheese nun – a microbiologist and Benedictine who set up her microscope in a conference room and invited cheesemakers to come in for a rind tutotorial. Rocco picked up a few tips from her presentation on “Growing Molds Gracefully” which he plans to implement in the aging cave back on Chestnut Street.
It’s berry picking season, and that means one thing: cheese and fresh fruit for dinner. I love nothing more than loading up on cherries, strawberries, blueberries, or blackberries and setting out a cheese board to match. Add a plate of smoked fish, a light salad, some white wine, and you’ve got a glorious feast. No fuss. No hot oven.
People are always asking you questions, so you have to learn stuff constantly. For example, when I started I didn’t know about vegetarian rennet [a coagulant used in cheesemaking], but customers would come to the counter and ask for “vegetarian cheese.” Now I know to point them toward Portuguese cheeses, like La Serena, Gardunha, and Azeitao. They’re all made with rennet from cardoons, which are like thistles.
Until I really got into cheese a few years ago, I never considered eating a hunk of the hard stuff, like Parm or Pecorino, unless it was grated. Now I know better. Some of the tastiest cheeses are relegated to “accents” in part because they have so much flavor. Eat them just as they are, without starches or sauces, and you’ll be surprised how delicious they are.
On the first sticky day of summer, I walked down to Philadelphia’s Italian Market in search of something cool, and I came home with burrata. Cheese and humidity don’t always mix, but then, burrata isn’t ordinary cheese. It’s a fresh mozzarella compress wrapped around a scoop of glorious cream and bound together with leeks.
Back in April, a friend gave me a bag of lemons from her family tree in Florida, and their bright floral bite sent me on a citrus binge. That’s how I came to Pantaleo, a firm Sardinian goat cheese that smells like lemon yogurt and tastes – in its youth – as delicate as the Madaleines that sent Proust into literary reverie.