As an undergraduate, I was fortunate enough to spend a semester in the town of Tours, France. Until then, I had never eaten what I came to think of as “real” cheese. As the best cheeses are produced by patient labor and enjoyed in relaxed style, Tours was the perfect place in which to learn how to eat cheese.
On my sustained lunch break, I would sometimes sit down by the river Loire while eating a simple repast of bread, oranges, and a chunk of ash-ripened towering funky perfection, washed down with a little red wine.
At the time, and still perhaps today, some European countries still saw the leisurely midday break as sacrosanct and had yet to adopt of the “he who dies with the most hypertension wins” model adopted by a certain former English colony across the Atlantic. Such a meal was luxurious and still fit within my student budget — in fact, it was working-class staple and a savvy person even today could eat this way and spend less than what one might pay at a fast food restaurant. Hold the wine.
I returned to the United States, where the standard for cheese at the time was something that looked, smelled and tasted like plastic. There was the Concord Cheese Shop, still an excellent source for all things gustatory, but that was too far away for me to maintain my daily cheese habit. I gave up looking for great cheeses just as I gave up smoking Gauloises cigarettes.
Over time, much has changed. Massachusetts now produces world class cheese. On Nov. 10, I was invited to moonstones in Chelmsford for an evening of food pairings, presented by the Massachusetts Cheese Guild, a nonprofit whose mission involves, in part, educating the public and supporting the production of artisanal cultured dairy products.
The event featured two selections from Merrimack Valley producers: a goat cheese from Dancing Goats Dairy in Newbury was used in a delicate mushroom and spinach ravioli and a cheesecake was made with fresh ricotta from Wolf Meadow Farm in Amesbury, whose cheesemaker Luca Mignogna was on hand to explain how he crafts his cheese in the old-world caseificio tradition. ( Editor’s note: Luca is pretty amazing, you really need to read more about him here. )
There are many places where you can buy superlative, locally made cheeses in the Merrimack Valley. Mill City Cheesemongers has opened in Lowell and the cheese counter at Whole Foods in Andover is staffed by knowledgeable and friendly people. Butcher Boy in North Andover not only sells some exceptional cheeses, but you can pick up wine there was well to accompany them. We no longer have to content ourselves with the bland products of past decades.
To find excellent, locally produced cheeses, visit our friends at:
Butcher Boy Market
North Andover, Mass.
Concord Cheese Shop
Mill City Cheesemongers
Top photo by Adrien Bisson.