The Law-Abiding Cheesemonger

Tag Christof & Sam Wittwer

November 22 2015

No mystery: American cuisine has come a mighty long way in just one generation. But what’s almost more extraordinary is how far American food culture has come in the same amount of time. Not only can producers and chefs around the country make world-class versions of everything from pickles to paella, there’s even a new and particularly American way of talking about food that is sophisticated and nuanced, but without a lot of the silly snobbery that can get in the way of actually enjoying what you eat.

Our friends at Harvest Grocery in Richmond’s Fan district are purveyors of fantastic foods from all over the world. We spent the morning with their cheesemonger-in-residence, Josh Franklin, who gave us some tips for putting together an American cheese plate and pairing it with the right wine.

Josh showed us a couple of gems from Harvest’s collection: a “bloomy rind” from Greensboro, Vermont, and the mighty Esmontonian, from Caromont, a farm not far from Charlottesville, Virginia. “Bloomy rind,” as it turns out, is the classification for a style similar to brie—it’s silky, creamy raw cow’s milk cheese encased in a funky blue-green rind. Josh let the cheese settle in the warmth of room temperature before carefully scalloping off the top of the rind and served on thin slices of Virginia apple. He recommends that similar cheese be given around around 30 minutes to settle into room temperature from refrigeration.

The bloomy rind led into an interesting conversation about DOP, or the protected origin status that is prized in European foodstuffs. Products like cheddar, balsamic vinegar, champagne, and sherry are technically only considered those things if they’re produced according to strict sets of rules and within their designated territories. There are far fewer of these sorts of protections in the U.S. (and a lot of times, legalities from Europe don’t apply outside the E.U.), but it is slowly emerging with regional traditional items like Hatch green chile from New Mexico. There’s also a growing movement to codify and protect the vernacular barbecue styles of Memphis, the Carolinas, and Texas. Long story short, the bloomy rind is effectively a really awesome American brie—but brie happens to have protected status. You won’t ever catch Josh, the law-abiding cheesemonger, slinging a non-French brie.

The Esmontonian, on the other hand, is all its own thing. This substantial hunk of raw goat’s milk cheese has a neat, almost waxy rind and is the product of goats who graze exclusively on grass and wildflowers. It is milder than, say, Manchego (made of sheep’s milk) and has a silkier texture.

The abundant cheese case of Harvest is pretty much overflowing with fantastic exotics that we were dying to try—one intensely yellow French cheese, for instance, had a placard that advised it had to be broken up with a hammer and chisel. But as with all good things, it’s all in the edit: Josh chose a couple complimentary styles to make this elemental, essential cheese plate. His cheese pairings, are pragmatic and enjoyable—it’s about enjoyment and really savoring and remembering and developing a taste for new varieties slowly. This no-nonsense approach extends to his wine pairings, too: instead of flowery descriptors and arcane reasons for why one note balances another, Josh has a more straightforward philosophy: “Of course, there can be absolutely terrible pairings, but at the end of the day, it’s about what you like.” Praise.