Behind every cheese, there’s a good story waiting to be told. You just have to ask the right people. In this blog series, Amanda will be interviewing cheesemongers from around the country and relaying their most fantastic tales of international travel, in-shop aging, and curious customers. Last week we introduced the series. This week we meet the owner of Formaggio Kitchen. Read on, and you’ll have a chance to win a copy of our Cheese+ ultimate pairings issue!
“I can visualize the car trip out there,” began Valerie Gurdal, owner of Formaggio Kitchen. “We were in Western Piemonte. I remember the fog lifted and revealed this gorgeous cathedral. We then drove in the opposite direction into the Alps and pulled to the side of the road to this Bra cave and met the guy who branded the cheeses.” She paused. “We were out in mountains, we smelled the smoke from all the little cabins. We went to tiny restaurant and then had a typical Piemonte cheese lunch. We were just in heaven.”
The description was enough to get the gears of my imagination spinning and my mouth watering. Had I been in Valerie’s cheese shop, I would have certainly bought whatever cheese she had brought back from her travels in Piedmont.
But I wasn’t a customer in her shop today, and before I knew it Valerie was on to the next travel tale.
“Then a few years ago we were in Catalonia and found new sheep’s milk cheese up there. They showed us how they sheared a sheep and used the wool. They gave lessons on the loom and taught us how to weave it and how to wrap it around soap.”
Formaggio Kitchen sells that soap along with myriad other specialty items. But – as the name suggests – cheese is the shop’s mainstay. Valerie began working at Formaggio’s Cambridge location in 1984, and in 2000 she opened a store in the South End. She and her cheese-expert husband, Ihsan Gurdal, spend their days managing the shop’s inventory, advising customers, and traveling the world in search of the tastiest cheeses and specialty items.
In addition to the 300+ cheeses adorning the shelves, South End Formaggio sells honeys and jams, oils and vinegars, olives and antipasti, bread, charcuterie, cakes, chocolates … all the stuff you’d expect to find stocking pantries on Mount Olympus. But, in spite of its epicurean inventory in which local chefs delight, the store’s South End location remains at its core a neighborhood shop, carrying staples for the everyday consumer.
“What I love about setting up shop here is you get to know people’s names; you get to know what they like,” Valerie explained. “For example, we have Friday Night Tim: He always wants the strongest and stinkiest and ripest.”
Formaggio Kitchen’s diverse spread caters well to the adventurous spirit of its clientele. “They’re willing to try a lot of different things … sometimes I’m surprised.” Said Valerie. “For example, I was just helping a woman who wanted Italian ham, spicy German salami, and Basque region cheese.” She continued, “It’s fun to watch the people grow over the years. The kids that used to come in are teenagers now. They’ve developed palates.”
Valerie and Ihsan have grown too in their thirty years of traveling. But while Ihsan speaks French and Valerie claims to speak “a little Spanish,” sometimes the couple has to vault over language barriers before acquiring their product.
“We use a lot of sign language,” Valerie explained. “For years we went to Italy asking if we could taste something and would later realize we had whole sentence incorrect. Each of us tries to have command of language before we go. But in Sweden, for example, there was no way. We were going to have to use Google translate.”
When Valerie returns to the cheese counter, she brings all the thrill of international travel back with her, coloring her descriptions of cheese with tales of life abroad, even offering customers the chance to have their own spelunking experience by leading tours in the shop’s own cheese cave.
But while Valerie had me swept up in the glamour of imported Piemonte Bra and other foreign delicacies, as we finished our conversation, she had me craving something local, and low-key for my next cheese indulgence.
“Meadowood Farm in New York just sent us a sample – it’s a fresh sheep’s milk ricotta,” she said. “Sheep’s milk might be my favorite. It’s very light and fresh – you could use it on pasta or on tomatoes instead of mozzarella. I can see putting it on grilled fruit with drizzled honey.”
One day I’d love to hunt for cheese in Western Italy or Eastern Spain, but on this lazy summer day, I’m more than content to stop by the Kitchen, pick up hearty serving of sheep’s milk ricotta and perhaps a few peaches, and fire up the grill.
Do you have a neighborhood cheese shop? Tell us about your favorite local shop in the comments below for a chance to win! Post your interaction in the comments section below and you might with a copy of our Cheese+ pairings issue! Comments must be posted by 11:59 p.m. on July 21, 2014 to be eligible to win.Photo Credit: Featured image courtesy of Valerie Gurdal