For the love of cheese. That’s the only reason you open a cheese store. It’s not for the money or the glory, of which you will see little. Some customers will beat a fast exit when they see prices that don’t compete with the supermarket’s. A few customers will be overwhelmed with gratitude and may become acolytes. But, ultimately, the greatest reward may be that you get to spend your days inhaling the heady aroma of cheese, following your charges on their journeys from youth to maturity, learning their stories, talking to producers and tweaking your orders to their cows’, goats’ and sheep’s schedules — in short, taking your part in a trade that dates back thousands of years.
Mill Road Cheese Shop, Westhampton Beach
Transplanted to Hampton Bays five years ago, Carlos Gonzalez was tired of the drive to Mattituck in search of quality cheese, and he believed the area could support a fine shop of its own. Gonzalez has a career in fast-food franchising but, as a young man, he spent many years working at Dean & DeLuca’s cheese counter under legendary cheesemonger Greg Blais (who now runs the cheese program at Eataly) and he never lost his passion for cheese.
And so, in Nov. 2020, Gonzalez took over a former art-supply shop in a little strip mall north of the village and transformed it into an elegant emporium dominated by a cheese counter behind which toil two to four cheesemongers, one of whom is Joe Ciardullo who, from 2011 to 2020, ran Port Jefferson’s late, lamented C’est Cheese market-cafe. The shop is managed by Jessica Benoit, a veteran whose experience includes being a chef in Switzerland. The shop does custom boards and boxes and sells plenty of cheese tools and accessories. There are olive oils and specialty grains and imported Prosciutto di Daniele and Jamon Iberico and my favorite brand of chocolate, Blanxart from Spain.
But the heart of the shop is the cheese counter, the challenges of which Gonzalez boils down to three: selection, interaction and maintenance.
"There are probably 500 cheeses in each distributor’s catalog," he said. "Over time, you learn which producers and which products are good. But it’s not only about what you like. You have to understand what your customers like — otherwise you wind up throwing out a lot of cheese."
Gonzalez has a particular affinity for French washed-rind cheeses with a mild funk such as Époisses, Reblochon, Vacherin Mont d’Or. He is also bullish on American cheeses which, historically, did not offer great value when compared to their European counterparts. But, he said, the price gap is narrowing: "It’s partly an issue of sustainability. When cheeses are flown in every few weeks from Europe, the costs are transferred to the consumer."
He loves talking up Harbison, a bloomy-rind charmer from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, Point Reyes Blue from California and Capriole goats from Indiana. And "talking up" is a critical skill for a cheesemonger. "Cheese can be intimidating," he conceded.
Figuring out how much of each cheese to buy, often holding it until it is mature enough to sell and then selling it before it tips into overripeness has only gotten harder during the pandemic. It’s also been more difficult to even obtain certain cheeses: "It starts with producers, some don’t have the manpower now for full production. Then the distributors have the same issues." And when there’s not enough cheese, he said, "the distributors will sell to the big guys, not to small cheese shops like us."
Mill Road Cheese Shop is at 216 Mill Rd., Westhampton Beach, 631-998-0483, facebook.com/millroadcheese/
The Town Cheesemonger, Huntington
LI’s newest shop opened just before Christmas in the front of Industry, an artsy gallery-lounge-boutique on New York Avenue just north of The Paramount. Owner Patrick Ambrosio presides over a small prep area and a marble countertop on which sits a single refrigerated display case. Currently the store is open during the day Thursday through Saturday.
But what The Town Cheesemonger lacks in space and time, it makes up for in experience. Ambrosio, another Dean & DeLuca alum, started selling cheese on Long Island in 2007 when he spearheaded the department Bernard’s Market in Glen Head. He went on to the Babylon Cheese Cellar, Le Bon Fromage inside the first location of Huntington's Crushed Olive (now at 357 New York Ave.) and, most recently, The Village Cheese Merchant in Rockville Centre, which he left last year.
The limited capacity has resulted in a fascinating cheese-thought experiment: If you can only sell 20 cheeses, which 20 do you sell?
"When you work in the world of cheese," Ambrosio said, "you come to understand that there are cornerstone flavors and styles. My goal is to see that most of those are represented."
For the role of Cheddar, for example, he chose Prairie Breeze from Milton Creamery in Iowa. Its Cheddar profile is not too funky, and it also possesses elements of Gouda and Parmesan. The hard sheep's-milk cheese he’s currently selling is Manchego, though he could see trading up to Pecorino Toscano or Basque Ossau-Iraty. Triple-creams, so popular on LI, are led by St. Stephen from Four Fat Fowl in New York’s Hudson Valley. His washed rind cheeses are, in ascending order of stinkiness, the French Vacherousse d’ Argental and Préféré de nos Montagnes and Abbey Wrestler (which is now one of my favorite cheeses).
Ambrosio thinks of his new venture as "a market stall," and hopes it will expand in the future.
The Town Cheesemonger is at 344 New York Ave., Huntington, 917-346-6369, facebook.com/towncheese