Ray's Culinary Travels to NYC and Pt. Reyes
A few customers roll in and I decide to step back and take it all in. Greg's colleagues at the fresh mozzarella counter next door pull me over and demonstrate who they stretch their mozzarella. Between demonstrations they feed me a few warm mozzarella balls. This is the way to eat fresh mozzarella - fresh from the pot, arms to your side, butt extended and back arched down a bit so you don't drip the warm milk on your shirt - not unlike how you might approach a Philly cheesesteak or Chicago hotdog!
Back at the cheese and charcuterie counter Greg slices a beautiful Mangolista (Hungarian Wooly Pig) Lardo for me then some Cotechino from Salumi in Seattle. "Here, try these" as he hands me slices of 18, 24, and 36 month Prosciutto d'Parma from Salumeria Rosi. "Have you had the new stuff from Creminelli yet"? Greg's got me cradled in joy. My basket is almost full and this is my first stop of the day.
I bid Greg farewell and venture into the rest of the 50,000 square foot Italophile's wonderland. I'm not really into these large format stores anymore. After 6+ years of 1500 square feet at Cheese Plus, small intimate stores are more my style. Eataly however was relatively comfortable because each section is set back a bit from the others. There were many sections to visit including the Bakery, the Fish counter, the seafood grill where you could dine and enjoy a glass of wine, Chocolate and sweets, Coffee, Butcher, a Pasta "shop" within the center of the store that was almost the size of Cheese Plus, a serious Oil and Vinegar counter, rooftop Beer garden, etc, etc, etc. I met the Olive Oil "ambassador" there, who each year travels to Tuscany to oversee the olive harvest. He sampled a number of delicious oils for me and described the olive varietals and unique terroir of each producer. Load her up - I've got a little more room left in this basket here!
Nest stop, Salumeria Biellese which is just around the corner. This is their original factory location, now turned in to a restaurant. I'll stop in for a taste of some great Salumi. But wait, it's not at all what I expected - Chicken Parmesan from a steam table? No thanks. I see a few salami stacked in a far case but they don't offer a charcuterie tasting.... Oh well. FYI - we offer excellent salami from Salumeria Biellese - all natural Berkshire pork, hand chopped and very best quality.
Next stop, Murray's Cheese on Bleecker Street
For many years, Murray's old location on Bleecker was one of my favorite cheese shops in Manhattan. It was small and every inch of the store was filled with delicious food. In many ways I tried to model Cheese Plus from my impression of the old Murray's. A few years ago Murray's expanded, capitalized, moved across the street and became a much bigger fish in the Manhattan (and USA) cheese scene. But for me the charm and authenticity stayed in the old location across the street. While a nice and very busy store, it felt a bit like "corporate specialty" where everything is there, but it just isn't personal. But all is not lost because I do like their other location, and in addition to cheese, I'm also into music and this neighborhood has a great guitar store ('57 Goldtop Les Paul, please) and great record stores too!
OK, I've got to stay focused, off to Dean and DeLuca
When I told my wife I was going to Dean and DeLuca she asked me if was still relevant after all these years. "Yes, absolutely. Don't you remember that movie with Annabella Sciorra and Matthew Broderick where he is the cheesemonger there?" And yes, Dean and DeLuca is still relevant to me. Not so much for the cheese, and not for the service, but for the merchandising. Those glass cases, marble countertops, and high ceilings are stunning. So much bread, perfectly pampered produce, and a darn tasty chocolate chip cookie on my way out the door.
Next stop, Despaņa
Despaņa is Spanish specialty food store. Similar to our own Spanish Table locations in Mill Valley and Berkeley, but smaller and more European in style. I'll be travelling to Spain in a few weeks and wanted to brush up on my Spanish food knowledge. Despaņa features plenty of Jamon and Salchichon, and a small yet impressive cheese selection. The back wall features many canned and boxed products sure to please any homesick Spaniard. Nice shop!
Next Stop, Murray's Grand Central
Grand Central Terminal is a beautiful, yet bustling place. Many years ago my wife introduced me to the Oyster restaurant there, and the food hall there is pretty spectacular. The charm and authenticity missing at Murray's Bleecker is here at Grand Central. Maybe it's the layout, or the throngs of commuters, but I really like the vibe here. Same cheese and charcuterie as their other location - just better! The food hall also is home to Penzey's spices - the best spice store around. There's also great seafood, produce, bread, coffee, chocolate - you name it it's here in one hallway. Ok, it's 6PM and it's BUSY in Grand Central Station. I got to go.
Last stop, Beecher's
Beecher's recently opened an outlet in the Flat Iron district. The store has only been open about 6 weeks, and a former monger from Cheese Plus, Colter, just started working there. Unfortunately he had left for the day so no personal guided tour, but his colleagues were convivial and friendly. Overall the store, cheese factory, and restaurant were too new and fresh for me. It didn't feel "New York" enough for me, but I'm sure that will change with time. I did however enjoy their Flagsheep Sheep Cheddar they were featuring. And the Portland based Olympic Provisions Salami I purchased there will be available at Cheese Plus soon.
My arms and feet are tired. I've been shopping and walking all day. It's time for a glass of wine and dinner with my wife and nephew. While at Eataly earlier in the day, I met chef David Pasternack, the chef of ESCA restaurant, who is also the proprietor/chef of the seafood grill (Il Pesce) at Eataly - he suggests we dine at ESCA and I took him up on his offer to reserve a space for us outside on the patio. It was great seafood dinner, and a great night.
Day 2, the tour continues...
I have a couple of hours before we leave for the Berkshires, and I just couldn't squeeze Saxelby Cheese into yesterday's tour. It's the first stop on the F train from Brooklyn, and I arrive at opening time. Saxelby Cheese is a TINY shop inside the Essex Street Market that features only USA cheese - mostly New England cheese. What a wonderful little shop jam packed with dozens of tasty morsels. I brought a new bag with me today to load up more supplies for the weekend, and promptly filled it with stinky, soft, and squishy offerings. After about 30 minutes I must have tried every cheese available and ventured off to check out the rest of the market. Formaggio Kitchen (Boston) has a small shop there too, and I know they're the only source for these great Miguel Gorry Basque Cherries I love so much (If I could only find out how to get these to Cheese Plus!!!!!!!). There's also a nice bakery there, amongst the more ethnic food markets, electronics repair shop, and a lunch counter with an owner who's reputation is equal to Seinfeld's soup-nazi.
But I'm missing one quintessential New York food experience - no it's not bagels, or hot dogs, or smoked fish at Zabar's or Russ and Daughters - my desire is a Corned Beef Sandwich on Rye. My favorite has always been 2nd Ave Deli, but I'm closer to Katz's and my subway station to Brooklyn. So Katz's it is. I still think 2nd Ave is better, but the pickles are tasty and the Brooklyn Brown Ale sure tasted good at 11 AM!
Last stop, Bedford Cheese Shop
The subway station is just a couple of blocks from Bedford cheese. Mast Bros. Chocolate is nearby, but unfortunately they're only open in the evening. What's this just around the corner? Blue Bottle Coffee? OK, a quick taste of San Francisco with an iced New Orleans coffee, then let's get more cheese!
I fell in love with Bedford Cheese a few years ago. It's a picture perfect shop - corner location with windows, air-conditioned cold (good for the cheese), wooden shelves, charcuterie case, cheese case, a wall of dry goods - maybe 500 square feet, maybe less. Former Cheese Plus cheesemonger, Nate McElroy, provides a guided tour of the best cheese, charcuterie, and dry goods. My bags are pretty full but he thrills me with a raw goat cheese from Neal's Yard Dairy I had not tasted before, and some great salami from Biellese. His colleagues there tell me "although Mast Bros is famous for their hipster chocolate, this stuff from Zoe's is better". Ca-ching, put it in the bag.
OK, it's getting late and I've got to get across Brooklyn to meet my nephew on a Friday afternoon as we navigate through the tunnel and across Manhattan (thanks, Chase!) on our way to Lake Ashmere in the Berkshires. All tallied up we have 21 cheeses, almost a dozen cured meats and salami, breads, crackers, honey, bags full of pasta, chocolate, olive oil, and other goodies. It's going to be a great weekend!
Here's a photo of my niece, Ally, as she looks in amazement at all the loot I've brought with me to Lake Ashmere.
Back home in San Francisco, my niece Stefanie is visiting from Arizona. Still jazzed from my fast tour of Manhattan specialty food stores, I arrange for a tour of Barinaga Ranch near Point Reyes while she is visiting. Coincidentally, it's the following Thursday.
The drive up is typical of a San Francisco Bay Area summer day. Fog in the city, so thick you can't see the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge as we drive across. Once in Marin, the sun comes out with the sunshine until we reach the coast again. Then the fog kisses the rolling hills and soft landscape above Point Reyes providing a picturesque and comfortable (especially for visitors from 112 degree Arizona heat) atmosphere.
The 800-acre Barinaga ranch is located on the Marshall - Petaluma road, just a couple miles off the coastline. In addition to raising sheep and making cheese, The Barinaga's lease most of their certified organic land for cattle production. New to farming and cheese making, Marcia Barinaga left a career as a scientist and journalist to get back to nature and give back to the community. Milking about 65 sheep, she produces a handful of great cheese in a small cheese making room and aging cave fashioned from 3 steel shipping containers.
We arrived around 11:30 and were greeted by the dogs, and Marcia's cheese making assistant. The cheesemaking was completed for the day, and the cheese were being pressed into their forms. The cheesemaking room was warm and moist, and had a delicious smell from the milk. The late morning sun was peeking through the fog and in the window, and if possible I might have just laid down and taken a nap there in that happy place. Marcia was very excited for her new pneumatic press and stainless table, which support the cheese at a slight angle allowing the excess whey to drain off the cheese while the press gently squeezes the modest stack of cheeses fresh from the vat.
From the cheemaking room we visit the aging "cave" - really just a walk-in cooler, but calling it a cave is more romantic, don't you think? There we see a few hundred wheels of cheese in various states of aging. The freshest cheese from a few days ago are still very soft and white, while the older cheese have more color and texture, and are significantly smaller from their plump newborns. Marcia describes how she brines her cheese in a saturated salt water solution for a few hours, then as the cheese matures she "washes" them in a culture solution of b. linens and geotrichum to give maximum flavor.
She says her heritage is Basque, so her cheese is also Basque in style, and name. She went back to Spain to learn about cheese making in the mountains there. She said it solidified her desire to be with her sheep and make cheese, but her true cheesemaking skills were developed while training at a sheep dairy in Vermont. And man is she ever a great cheesemaker! I believe it's her killer combination of being a super human being, plus her love of science, and her overwhelming love of her sheep.
Back out to the cheesemaking room, her assistant is applying soft rubber numbers to the cheese, Today's batch is # 50, and so she applies the rubber numbers "backwards" so that once the cheese is aged and firm they will read properly on the surface. Each number is cut by hand and has a unique shape and style, adding to the handmade character of the cheese.
We ventured out to the milking parlor, and to the pasture where her sheep were resting. What a beautiful bunch of gals they were. Sheep are often nervous and tend to stay together, so we just hung out with them for a few minutes and before you knew it, they were coming over to get their heads scratched and get some lovin'. Marcia told us some great stories about the sheep and their names - like "miss panties", whose wool is colored in a way that it looks as if she's wearing underwear.
Marcia told us some heartbreaking stories, too, about the unfortunate responsibilities of raising and sometimes culling sick and unproductive sheep. She mentioned that it might cost her $100 to purchase an animal, and she might only be able to sell it for $200, but if the Vet is called out that's $100 per animal minimum, so there is no profit when that happens. I asked her if she ever experiments with making some unique or different cheese for kicks. She reminded me that each animal only gives about a quart of milk a day, so financially, there is no way she would ever experiment like that. Her goal is to break even financially - she's not sure she'll ever really turn a profit from the sheep dairy business, so every penny counts.
She did however have a little raw sheep milk we could taste if we were interested. If we we're interested? Yes, please! She explained that after milking there is always a little left in the line that is hard to remove, so they just pour it through a few layers of cheese cloth and use it for fresh milk in the house. We all had a small glass - 4 of us - that's just about the entire production from one of her girls that day - a rare and expensive treat. Let me tell you, that was some good milk! My niece's boyfriend, who's relatively reserved, just lit up with joy! It was thick and buttery, and as sweet as vanilla ice cream. Hours later I could still taste that rich butterfat in my mouth - YUM! 3 days later, Ty (the boyfriend), was still talking about that milk.
Marcia had a journalist stopping by, so she had to run. We we're off to get lunch and visit Cowgirl creamery down the road, before exploring the Lighthouse and Point Reyes coast. Thanks Marcia, for a great tour!
We feature Marcia Barinaga's Bi-Bat and Basseri regularly at Cheese Plus. They're great Basque-style sheep cheese made near Marshall, on the Marin coast.
PS - I almost forgot... On the way back to Brooklyn from Massachusetts we stopped to see my dear old friend Otto in Germantown, New York. Otto and I worked together at Whole Foods Market in the 90's here in San Francisco and Mill Valley. He moved to the East Coast and was the vice president for Whole Foods there, and London, too. Like me, he left his career at WFM after nearly 20 years and started his own independent food store. His store is Otto's Germantown Market in Germantown, New York. He's great and so is his store. If you're ever in the Hudson Valley I highly recommend his shop. He'll hand scoop for you a delicious cone of Ice Cream and serve it with a smile!