Our cheese treasure in Carmel
- Burke and Wells
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...
A Burke and Wells Review
Thanks for the account Peter.
I wonder how the Hookup stacks up agaisnt the cheezy joints up here like the Cheese Board.
I just wanted to chime in about Meaux, having gone to boarding school in Brie for three years. Meaux is the capital of the Brie region, which is located between Paris and the Champagne region. Meaux is famous for three things: its cathedral (one of France's most beautiful gothic churches), its mustard (Pommery, packaged in the waxtop ceramic jar, which rivals Dijon's as France's best mustard) and of course, its cheese. Brie de Meaux is not a particular kind of brie, since all real brie cheese is made in Brie, mostly in the farms around Meaux. I don't think there is a particular pedigre attached to the city of Meaux itself vs. the rest of the Brie region with regards to brie cheese. Based on my Briard background, I believe the brie in Brie is basically brilliant in the Briard farms of the broader Brie countryside bordering Brie's biggest bourg (Meaux).
In my boys' boarding school in the Brie countryside, the brazen pensionaires would bolt out of the bibliothèque to boldly brave the december Brie breeze and break out to one nearby farm, bills in hand, to buy some brie and bring to their boarder buddies to binge on. The brie was the second-most coveted commodity from that farm (the farmer had three daughters). It was a welcome relief from the awful usual cafeteria fare (industrial-grade stuff like Président brie sold at the Peninsula's finer dairy establishements).