Raleigh’s cheese scene is leveling up.
When I go out for date night with my husband, we always agree on one thing: forget the dessert and bring us a cheese plate. That’s not to say that I don’t eat chocolate on a daily basis—I definitely do—but there’s just something so delicious about a glass of wine, a sample of unique cheeses and a relaxing atmosphere.
But, let’s face it, we don’t live in France, or even Wisconsin for that matter. Our choices are somewhat limited but they have been expanding to include more than just pimento cheese and cheddar. From food trucks to grocery stores to restaurants, Raleigh’s cheese scene is changing.
Take Wegmans, for instance. Opening in Midtown East in September, the New York-based grocery chain comes complete with a cheese shop featuring offerings from a cheese cave.
That’s right, I said cheese cave.
In a 12,000 square-foot building in New York, there’s a brie room and caves for ripening soft and wash-rind premium cheeses, including the 1916 Aged Goat Cheese that tastes mildly tangy, with a hint of bright acidity and a light dusting of ash.
By ripening its own cheeses, Wegmans’ products approach perfection.
“The cheese caves were a concept we talked about in 2008, but didn’t open until 2014,” says Cathy Gaffney, Wegmans’ vice president of cheese, delie and cheese caves. “The goal was to take soft-ripened cheeses and see how we could bring them in and make them absolutely perfect. We also wanted a central location to do a quality check on our special cheeses. In doing all of that, we discovered we had an opportunity to create new cheeses.”
Those creations, such as the Professor’s Brie and Full Ver-Monty—a new, smooth, Alpine-style cheese—have gone on to please customers and even win awards at the 2018 American Cheese Society Conference and 2019 United States Championship Cheese Contest.
But it’s not all about the product. Gaffney says customer demand has to exist to make the caves worthwhile. And exist it does, to the extent that Wegmans even started a “cheese university” within the company to teach its employees the ins and outs of Gouda, Fontina and Stilton. Workers learn how cheese is made and how to tell when a cheese is perfectly ripe. Then, they can talk knowledgeably with customers.
“One of our goals is to always make people feel comfortable in the cheese department,” Gaffney says. “We want to focus on welcoming our guests and make sure they feel comfortable asking questions. Every question is a viable question. We also want to give everyone a taste. Our folks are always excited to tell the story and share the products.”
The cheeses aren’t something you talk about today and in a month or two they’re ready to go, Gaffney says. Instead, it’s a labor of love and a deep partnership with suppliers. The result is beautiful cheese.
“Cheese has been around for thousands of years,” says Gaffney. “It’s nature’s most nearly perfect food. It’s milk and a couple of ingredients. Sometimes people feel intimidated but they shouldn’t.”
Decidedly less intimidating, but no less delicious, are cheese curds, a snack that enjoys some popularity in the Midwest. Wisconsinite Lisa Germain started the Cheese Curd Shack, a deep-fried cheese curds food truck, to fill a void Germain noticed in the market.
“Fried cheese curds were nowhere to be found [in Raleigh],” Germain says. “We were shocked! In Wisconsin you cannot go to an establishment and not order deep-fried cheese curds to go with your beer.”
The Cheese Curd Shack serves white cheddar cheese curds directly imported from Wisconsin, lightly breaded with fresh ingredients and fried. It offers the regular flavor, plus jalapeño, and garlic, the newest addition. If you like garlic cheese bread, you’ll love the garlic cheese curds. While it’s not needed, marinara and ranch for dipping are also made available.
“It’s been a difficult but fun journey for us,” says Germain. She left her corporate job in Wisconsin, packed up, and debuted her food truck at Brewgaloo in 2017. “We were accepted into the NC State Fair, a huge accomplishment. We’re now in our third year and we finally have the word out on the street—questions about what a cheese curd is have significantly diminished.”
At Barcelona Wine Bar, a nationally-acclaimed restaurant with a new location on Martin Street, questions are encouraged and cheese is as an important part of the menu as the wine.
“We have an executive chef in each restaurant who has a lot of freedom with a large part of the menu,” says Ennio Di Nino, the general manager for the Raleigh location. “We like to have a mix of cow, sheep, and goat’s milk cheese in our options from Spain. There will sometimes be a local cheese mixed in here and there, depending on its availability. A mix of textures is also important, so having soft, semi-soft and hard cheeses is part of the criteria. We’re working to source some local cheeses right now and are looking forward to being able to showcase some of North Carolina’s own.”
Like Wegmans’ Gaffney, Di Nino realizes that educating the staff also educates the customer, that everyone’s palate is different and that everyone has their likes and dislikes. Barcelona staffers are so knowledgeable about cheeses that they can make recommendations by comparison, to make lesser-known cheeses more relatable.
“We love to let guests try things,” Di Nino says. “If they don’t like it, no big deal. We’re happy they tried it and if they do enjoy it, that’s great, and it’s something else for them to enjoy the next time they visit.”
Highlights on the Barcelona cheese menu include a mild and buttery Tetilla, a Manchego aged for six months, a “drunken” goat cheese and an Alisios, a cow and goat’s milk cheese rubbed with pimentón, or smoked paprika, from the Canary Islands. Pair those with dry-cured Spanish ham or cured Hungarian pig and you can’t go wrong.
“We’re thrilled to be in Raleigh,” Di Nino says. “We’ve made so many new friends who have become regulars over the weeks and we look forward to making many more. Raleigh’s food scene is evolving and it’s fantastic to be a part of it.
The Scoop on Cheese Curds
Cheese curds are moist pieces of curdled milk that are popular in Canada and the northeastern and mid-western parts of the United States. Basically, they’re bite-size chunks of soured milk.