Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Real Philadelphia Cheese

Though hanging out, eating well and exploring the countryside is always fun, the real reason Anne had come to town, as mentioned a couple of posts ago, was to showcase some of the products from Saxelby Cheesemongers via a course at the Tria Fermentation School. Class wasn’t in session until early evening though, so that gave us the better part of the day to explore Philadelphia. Heading into town in the late morning, we made a quick stop at Tria’s offices to deliver the cheese and other materials for the evening and then got down to the business of mapping the day. As “tour guide du jour,” I wanted Anne to get a feel for Philly but also to visit some of the town’s major cheese destinations.

With Center City as our starting point, I couldn’t think of a more apt first destination than the new outlet of DiBruno Brothers at 1730 Chestnut Street. This was my first time at this still relatively new location and, even though I had expected something a bit upscale given the address, I was taken aback at the size and scope of their new showpiece. More reminiscent of a Dean & Deluca outpost than of the original DiBruno’s, I was sad to see yet another successful small business feel the need to jump up to “the next level,” as the effort so often, as here, leads to a loss of the character that made the original business so special. That’s not to say that there aren’t wonderful products available or that I wouldn’t stop by occasionally for convenience’s sake if I lived in the immediate neighborhood. There’s still a great cheese selection and the cuts of meat and sausages in the butcher shop looked promising. It’s just that the whole enterprise comes off feeling disconnected, like just another glossy, one-stop, upscale super market. Now that I think of it, perhaps that suits the Rittenhouse neighborhood just right.

After a few more stops and conducting a bit of business, it was about time for some lunch. We headed to Reading Terminal Market, where we met my buddy Bill who was playing half-day hooky from work, and settled right into some roast pork sandwiches from DiNic’s. Appetites sated, and before taking a walk around the rest of the market, we headed for Downtown Cheese. Try as other establishments may have, I feel that Downtown Cheese is the only Philadelphia-area monger that’s ever been able to give DiBruno’s a real run for its money. In many ways, it’s actually my preferred shop. I’ve always had a good rapport with owner Jack Morgan. His stalls are clean, inviting, well organized and easy to browse. He trains his staff well, maintains good relationships with his vendors and is just as happy to let you know when something should be given the pass as he is to recommend something new, interesting or simply in its prime. Regrettably, Jack wasn’t in that day so, as Anne had landed on my doorstep bearing a healthy gift of cheeses from her own stand, we just took the opportunity to survey the current offerings and watch Bill as he amassed an impressive array of goods. As a sidebar, I’ve also long appreciated Downtown’s not-so-downtown location in the Ardmore Farmer’s Market out on Philadelphia’s eastern Main Line. Only a hint larger than its Reading Terminal sibling and with a very similar look and feel, the selection and quality at Ardmore are every bit as good as at the Terminal.

DiBruno's March Madness
Casting usual preferences aside, I must say the most earthily satisfying stop of the day was the original DiBruno’s (930 S. 9th Street). Just walking in the door and taking in the aura of accumulated years of cheese, salami and olive funk that permeates the shop’s core has a certain grounding affect on one’s soul. It didn’t hurt that this was mid-afternoon on a Monday. The store was serene, quite the opposite of the elbow-to-elbow bustle of the weekend scenario, and we had plenty of time to browse and chat with Hunter, who was manning the head of the counter that day. It also didn’t hurt that Anne and Hunter had met before, at last year’s Fancy Food Show in New York. This was the first stop where Anne really let loose and got into talking shop, so we hung out for a while and took in the feel of the place. It was a stroke of luck that DiBruno’s was highlighting the produce of Andante Dairy that day. I’d first encountered Andante’s cheeses during a January trip to Sonoma, where they were featured selections at The Farmhouse Inn in Forestville. Andante’s “Acapella” is one of the finest American goats’ milk cheeses I’ve tasted and DiBruno’s is one of the few sources for Andante on the East Coast. After a few other samplings and musings, and after casting our votes in that day’s round of DiBruno’s March Madness, we settled up our purchases and made our way out to explore a bit more of the 9th Street Market.

After a lovely walk through town and a few more food and libation related stops, the final cheese venture of the day, and the raison d’être for the trip, was Anne’s class on “The Great Northeast” at Tria Fermentation School. She discussed the history of cheese making in the early northern colonies, from its early farmstead roots, to a growth in export trade, into industrialization and its inevitable decline in quality, and then came full-circle to the current explosion of farmstead, artisan dairies in New England. Interspersed with the history lesson was a tasting of six different farmstead cheeses:

  • Jasper Hill Farm Constant Bliss (Greensboro, VT – cow, raw)
  • Brovetto Dairy Harpersfield with Ommegang (Harpersfield, NY – cow, pasteurized)
  • Hillman Farm Harvest (Colrain, MA – goat, raw)
  • Bonnieview Farm Coomersdale (Craftsbury Common, VT – sheep, raw)
  • Cato Corner Farm Hooligan (Colchester, CT – cow, raw)
  • Jasper Hill Farm Bayley Hazen Blue (Greensboro, VT – cow, raw)

I've been a long time fan of Jasper Hill’s work, so the revelations for me were Hillman Harvest and Coomersdale. Both are based on milks from 100% grass-based feeding; their flavors showed it. In spite of different milk types and origins, a fresh, grassy and slightly nutty flavor profile permeated both. The Coomersdale in particular reminded me of some of my favorite Basque sheep’s milk cheeses, and that’s meant to be high praise. Both stood out immediately for balance and depth of flavor but neither was heavy or wearying on the palate. They’re cheeses I could snack on all day and return to regularly.

At day’s end, a look back at our itinerary went something like this:

  • Visiting the new DiBruno Brothers, 1730 Chestnut Street
  • Coffee at La Colombe, 19th & Walnut
  • Business (and gelato tasting…) at Capogiro, 13th & Sansom
  • Lunch and shopping at Reading Terminal Market
  • A quick ride through town with Bill
  • More shopping at the 9th Street (Italian) Market
  • A walk around South Philly, Old City and back across town
  • Mid-afternoon raw bar and beer at Sansom Street Oyster House
  • More caffeine back at La Colombe
  • Class at the Fermentation School
  • Beer, mussels and frites at Monk’s

We all need to explore our own cities like that more often. Sometimes it just takes a visit from a friend, new or old, to make it happen.

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