Last week saw the beginning of Lent, but I hope that the good Christians among us sacrificed something other than cheese. Not being Christian – or particularly good for that matter – denial is not a problem for me, so today will unfold like every Sunday has for the past few years. You see, Holly and I have a Sunday ritual. Well, it’s not really a ritual. There’s no blessed cleansing of the sacred cheese knife or other formal obeisance to the cheese gods. It’s more of a routine. But it still has meaning. Every Sunday, we take an hour or so and head out to a local cheese shop, drop a bundle on some of the world’s finest, pick up a baguette, come home, open a bottle of wine and slip into a zone of gustatory delight. There’s nothing quite like it. Such a simple meal – bread, wine and cheese, but so incredibly rich in historical knowledge, practice and creativity. It’s like eating the Louvre.
Walking into a cheese shop today in a city like Toronto, where I live, is a microcosmic experience. It is to walk into a small, ordered, world of shelves, typically behind a glass counter, stacked with cheeses organized by country, or even region, of origin. Occasionally the organization might differ and the order may reflect types or categories of cheese, all assembled in a single location, reducing the geographical complexity of production to the micro-globe of the cheese shelf. This, of course is not unique to Toronto. The same general arrangement can be found in Paris, London, Melbourne, Rome, and Buenos Aries. But I know that in each of those places are people like me. People who take joy in walking into a cheese shop, scanning those stacked shelves looking for something new, or letting their eyes land on an old favorite and suddenly realizing that it’s exactly what they’re’re in the mood for. And when they realize it, they can almost feel their mind dredge up the memory of taste so that their tongue can anticipate the sample that’s bound to come, and all those great qualities are in your mouth before the cheese itself.
There’s also something special about being known in a cheese shop – and all good retailers know this; that the relation between the customer and the seller is based on how each understand the other. If a cheesemonger can’t assess the knowledge base of potential customers and respond appropriately, they risk losing customers. And customers can learn so much from good cheesemongers, that if they act too aggressive or cautious, they risk ignorance. But if that mutual understanding develops, a wonderfully social relationship can form. And that can grow to the point where a cheesemonger can develop a taste profile for a customer, know what they like, and can begin mentally preparing offerrings when she sees them walk in the door. And she’s always ready, so that you feel welcome – almost at home – when you walk through the door of the shop and encounter something like this:
“Hey, long time no see” she says, with a big grin on her face, knowing it’s only been a few days since my last visit. She doesn’t ask me what I would like, as she does other customers, but reaches into her mental database, locates my preferences and, as if she’s been waiting all day for me to walk in the door, smiles, quickly draws out a sample, and starts the dialogue that leads to the exchange… “you’ll love this. It’s the last piece of the wheel. I was going to take it home myself, but now you’re here. You have to try this. It’s perfect right now.”
This is just a teaser. The routine will begin shortly, and I’ll report back later on today’s finds…