Reliable Cheese Class: Cheese 101

I love eating cheese, but I consume it mostly in ignorance; I hardly know anything about it.  As with wine, coffee, or chocolate, jumping in to the world of cheese can be intimidating – there are just so many different kinds.  How does one know what’s good?  Where does one even begin?  A great starting place would be at Reliable Cheese Co., a small cheese shop in downtown Durham.  The area’s only European-style cheese counter, this place features a great selection of products, an uber-knowledgeable and friendly cheesemonger (Patrick Coleff), and, for the novice or the aficionado, cheese classes.  

These are not cheese-making classes, which might entail hours of just standing around waiting, but cheese enjoyment classes, where you can learn about the basics, or about cheeses from certain countries, or about pairing cheese with other ingredients.  You get a healthy dose of in-depth knowledge of the products and yeah, you get to eat a bunch of cheese.   Sounds like a fun time to me!

As neophytes, we recently attended Reliable’s most popular class, Cheese 101.  I didn’t really know what to expect, but it was great.  There was a group of about a dozen of us, seated around some wooden tables at the back of the shop.  The tables were set simply with carafes of water, baskets of sliced fresh crusty bread, and, for each person, a small plate of 6 different cheeses, artfully arranged.  Patrick lectured professorially for a while about the process of cheese-making, including a good deal of scientific detail, and then, as the tasting began, we discussed the various types of cheeses and their qualities.  We tried:

  • Fresh chevre (Vermont) – soft, pillowy, and buttery
  • Crottin (North Carolina) – lighty aged goat cheese with a bit more punch
  • Grayson (Virginia) – a “smelly” soft cheese similar to Taleggio
  • Roncal (Spain) – kind of like manchego or pecorino romano
  • VintageVan Gogh (Wisconsin) – an aged gouda
  • Valdeon (Spain) – delicate, complex blue cheese

I really tried to pace myself with the bread and cheese (as we were planning on going to eat afterwards), and felt a little bad for not finishing all of it, but, if I had gone for it all, it would have almost been enough for a light supper.  

Finally, Patrick talked about storing and serving cheese before concluding and offering us 10% off of anything in the store.  I spotted some good-looking buffalo mozzarella and some gourmet meats that I hope to come back for.  And I’ll have to return, because, after learning a bit about cheese, and trying some of the good stuff, I think I’m ready for Cheese 201!

Review: Sandwhich (Chapel Hill, NC)

image courtesy of taylortakesataste.com

You can get a sandwich at a lot of restaurants, but an excellent spot that features sandwiches can be hard to come by.  Leaving out for the time being delis and sub shops (though those have their merits), I’m thinking here of those gourmet cafes that feature fabulous crusty breads, fine meats, cheeses, and produce, and interesting and tasty side items.  Chapel Hill’s Sandwhich is one place that aims to fit this bill.

Situated next to the McDonald’s on Franklin Street, the space is surprisingly sleek and refined on the inside, with dark wood tables and subtle lighting.  Open shelves are stacked neatly with chunky white plates and fancy Moroccan-looking teapots.  It’s a sophisticated feel for a casual restaurant.  After you place your order at the counter and help yourself to a drink, the unfailingly friendly staff will bring it to your table.  Each sandwich is served on a small jelly-roll pan covered with a sheet of parchment, with side items presented in diverse ways: roasted beets in an elegant porcelain cup, fries in a red-and-white checkered paper cone, chips in their own little bag.

The Moroccan theme carries over in subtle ways on the menu – the house special iced tea (with mint and sage), spicy harissa ketchup, a carrot salad garnish.  Other than that, the hot and cold sandwich offerings range from the straightforward (burgers) to the inventive (corn, cremini, bacon, and blue cheese on sourdough).  These are accompanied by a nice selection of side items, priced a la carte.

I ordered the “GMC” (grilled chicken, almond pesto, peppers and onions, and provolone, $8.50) with a side of their hand-cut, twice-cooked fries ($3), and my wife ordered a “Mr. Crunch” (prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, lettuce, mint/lemon oil, $9.25) as a combo with their chips and tea (an extra $3).  Both sandwiches were served on crusty but unremarkable bread – mine on a toasted hoagie roll and my wife’s on a crispy baguette.  Both were good, but neither sandwich really had enough flavor.  Mine suffered from a lack of pesto punch; my wife’s may have benefited from a bit more of that prosciutto (i.e. more fat and salt) and/or a nice juicy tomato, although the fresh mint on her sandwich was a nice touch.  A side of the roasted beets ($3) was also a little too plain.  The opposite was true for the chips, which were dusted with fresh herbs, heavy on the salt, and a bit oily.  Each sandwich also came with a few sliced, quick-marinated pickles, which were sweet and refreshing.  The fries were really just average, but I did like the spicy, smoky ketchup.  The iced tea ($2.50 if purchased a la carte) was quite strongly flavored but I enjoyed it (though my wife – the tea aficionado – did not), and it’s nice that you can sweeten it to your liking with some simple syrup.

I don’t want to make it sound like a bad meal; it wasn’t.  Everything was satisfying enough, but there was just nothing to get excited about.  The prices at Sandwhich, while reflective of the scratch preparations, quality ingredients (real prosciutto de parma, fresh mozzarella) and care in execution, are definitely on the high side.  Portion sizes are reasonable (e.g. not insanely huge), but $10-12 is still a lot to pay for a sandwich and a side item.  For comparison, a sandwich at the La Farm Bakery Café in Cary (featuring their amazing bread) costs about $7, including a side of chips, or a panino from Durham’s excellent Toast, with a side of soup or salad, runs about $8.50.   In the end, Sandwhich holds a lot of promise as a gourmet destination, and it’s a nice place to have a meal, but there are better values to be had – and indeed better sandwiches – elsewhere in the Triangle.

Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours

Wouldn’t it be cool to have your own food guide – to help you find the best taqueria, for example, or barbecue, or local cheese?  Wouldn’t it also be cool to chat with the chefs who make the local dining scene so exciting – to learn more about their menus, sources, and secrets?  To spend an afternoon with someone with the knowledge and connections to introduce you to the best of the best in local food?

This is all possible through a great new company called Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours.  Joe Philippose and Lesley Starcks founded the company with the idea to take people behind the scenes, to find the hidden gems and local favorites, and, simply, to eat the best food that North Carolina has to offer.

The company offers walking tours of Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill, in addition to myriad other possibilities.  Venture out with Joe and Lesley for tapas hour, for example, or on a tour of the area’s best taquerias, or create your own customized tour in consultation with Taste Carolina.  Tours run during the week and on the weekends and generally cost $30-$40/person.

My wife and I recently joined the “Durham Taqueria Caravan”, which took us to four of Durham’s best authentic Mexican spots.  Over the course of a few hours, we feasted on outrageous enchiladas mole and the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had, tacos with countless fillings, sweet Horchata (rice milk drink with sugar and cinnamon), marvelous fried quesadillas and aguas frescas, and topped it off with a round of Mexican desserts.  By the end, I was completely stuffed, and I loved it.

Check it out at:

http://www.tastecarolina.net