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A Man Named Brie

A Man Named Brie

This is one of several posts from my three trips to the US during the months of June and July 2016. For the rest, follow this link.

Before moving to France, Mme Fromage and I lived for years in the Washington DC area. She was born there and her mother (let’s call her Grannie Fromage!) still lives in the area. I lived there from the early 90s when I came south from Philadelphia to go to graduate school. With family and great friends still in the area, it remains our base of operations for our US visits. Crucially, we’ve found a great place and a great person to get cheese from while we’re there.

Whole Foods Market is an up-scale supermarket known for its fresh and varied produce (some of which is organic), natural meats and cheeses, and fresh bakery. In comparison to the standard US supermarket, one could say that Whole Foods is a step up, though that may be damning with faint praise. In absolute terms, Whole Foods has a good selection and is a nice place to go to remember what decent food and good service are like. (Is it expensive? Yes, but maybe that’s also because Americans have been used to paying cheap prices for cheap food.)

But what’s important for me is that Whole Foods actually has a decent selection of cheeses—better than the competition at Wegman’s. They offer variety and quality at prices that are reasonable for the US market. They don’t always offer consistent service though. This past visit I went to two Whole Foods. At one, I could clearly see I was interrupting the associate from whatever important work he was doing on his computer and was treated as someone who, despite my intrigue and questions, needed to just buy my damned cheese and go away.

A fantastic Beaufort from Mons, the famed French affineurs.

A very good American blue cheese.

At the other, I met a man named Brie. No, I’m not kidding. And whatever your view on destiny, his name given to him by his “baroque” parents (his word) can only be seen as the start of a life that would be closely linked to cheese.

 

The Man Named Brie

 

Brie lived in New York when Steve Jenkins (whose story in itself is remarkable and who can be credited as much as anyone with raising the profile of cheese in the US) started bringing fresh European cheeses into New York’s famed Dean & DeLuca market as employee number 1. Brie recalls eating great French chèvres and raw milk cheeses that are no longer available in the States. A student at Columbia University, he frequented Zabar's and “remembers when Fairway Market took off.”

Food was always at the center of my life, and I was fortunate to visit Europe several times before moving to Barcelona in 1987. There I worked with a Cava and olive oil exporter and spent much wonderful time visiting vineyards and creameries in Spain, France, and Italy. In 2013 I took a job at the Specialty Foods Department at Whole Foods Market in Rockville, MD, where I have been permitted access to many of the great cheeses of the world as well as educational opportunities at the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin and an intensive, six-month course on every aspect of cheese presided over by the great Cathy Strange, Global Cheese Buyer for Whole Foods. In 2015 I passed the professional certification exam offered by the American Cheese Society and became a Certified Cheese Professional.

This was actually the second time I met Brie. The first was last winter when I spent about twenty minutes with him getting his recommendations for a cheese board we would bring to a friend’s house. I felt instantly this was a kindred spirit. This time around we tasted at least ten cheeses and easily spoke for a half hour as he continued to greet and serve people who walked curiously past the display. In the time I was there he never failed to send someone away with something they enjoyed, and most of the time it was something they had never tried before.

Brie from the Ferme de Tremblaye (read more)

Brie helped me select six different cheeses: brie from the Tremblaye Farm, which Brie introduced me to the first time we met and remains the only edible brie I’ve found in the US; a nice young comté, France’s most popular cheese; a rich and creamy Valencay, the pyramid-shaped goat cheese from the Loire valley; the earthy Beaufort, a mountain cheese from the Savoie region aged by the famed Mons family (whose training courses I’ve enrolled in in September!), Ossau-Iraty, the milky sheep’s cheese from the Basque region (naturally), and a Bay Blue, an American blue cheese with an incredible depth of flavor.

Starting from closest to the wine bottle and moving clockwise: Ossau-Iraty, Bay Blue, Valençay, Comté, Beaufort, Brie

I left Whole Foods that day absolutely delighted from the experience, which, more than any of my experiences from the month and a half I spent in the US, filled me with hope about the state of cheese in the US. It is hard to find decent cheese in the US. Distance and unfamiliarity are powerful forces. Nevertheless it is possible. There are great products out there, in which I would include the rising tide of artisanal cheeses made in the States that are being noticed here in France.

More importantly and better yet, there are plenty of smart and passionate people at stores and restaurants who elevate these products, who share them with others and create distinctive and delicious experiences that are increasingly lost in America’s quantity-and industrially-driven food culture. They share the joy of discovery of natural products made by hand and linked to the land. That’s an awesome thing.

Whole Foods Market - Rockville, 11355 Woodglen Dr, Rockville, MD 20852, USA

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