Until two years ago, hunting for worldly, exotic cheeses in Austin felt like a frantic quest to find the last golden ticket under a Willy Wonka chocolate bar.
Unless you could settle for a small, pre-packaged selection of cheddars, fetas, pepper jacks, Americans or mozzarellas, you probably felt a little dejected. And no can of Kraft Cheese Whiz or box of Cheez-It could get you through the woes; you craved those smelly, heavenly chupacabra cheeses.
"We're starting to talk about the stories, traditions and creations behind cheeses and what makes them so unique. I almost liken it to the craft beer scene..."- Jenna Layden
Nowadays, whether it's soft, hard, Brie, Gouda, goat's milk, sheep's milk — or any of the other smörgåsbord of options — individuals can easily track down some of the world's finest, fragrant, most revered delicatessens from local cheesemongers and shops all over town. So why after all these years are we finally able to get our hands on these blocks of fermented deliciousness?
"We've started telling the stories of cheese," says Jenna Layden, specialty coordinator for the Southwest region at Whole Foods Market. "From my experience of working here, there used to be only just a few places you could buy your cheeses from, and a lot of what you saw would be the commodity-style cheeses."
"I think what's helped us evolve [beyond] that are influential retailers like Whole Foods and small neighborhood artisanal shops. We're starting to talk about the stories, traditions and creations behind cheeses and what makes them so unique. I almost liken it to the craft beer scene because there are so many different cheesemakers and producers popping up all the time now."
Layden got her start at Whole Foods in the cheese department seven years ago. Through the years, she has seen the specialty cheese section of Whole Foods expand and evolve into a department that carries an average of 400 cheeses or more, thanks to the passionate work of cheese producers — both big and small — throughout the Southwest region. "A lot of people come in now who are more open to trying new cheeses. They want to know the story of the cheeses they see, and we're excited to talk with them about it."
She believes Austin's interest in locally made, locally sourced food is what has caused people to rethink the way they purchase their cheeses. Yet the interest in these flavorful delicacies also reaches beyond Austin. In fact, the American Cheese Society just featured its first ever Certified Cheese Professional Exam, which over eighty Whole Foods team members pursued, Layden says.
Layden emphasizes that neighborhood shops like Antonelli's Cheese Shop and Henri's Cheese have fueled the city's infatuation with the more gourmet, rare cheeses out there in the world. "Places like Antonelli's really care about the tradition of cheese and supporting the cheesemakers," she says. "People really appreciate the passion they have for creating an experience around buying cheese."
John Antonelli, owner of Antonelli's Cheese Shop, started piecing together the idea for his Hyde Park shop during his honeymoon with his wife and now business partner, Kendall. He realized he'd need to learn more about the aesthetics and science of cheese, but he felt a calling to fill a gap in the Austin culinary scene. In February 2010, Antonelli opened his shop and started transforming people's typical cheese-purchasing experiences.
"We wanted to change the way people thought about their cheeses. I personally loved that shock that took over me when I would bite into a great piece of cheese, and I wanted our customers to discover that," he says.
"Cheese is one of the few products that encompasses a whole range of knowledge components, and there is a great science to it. There's so much to learn, but that's what we're here for. We want to teach people about great cheese."
A chance encounter with a passionate cheesemonger named Kelly Sheehan at Central Market would be one of the key ingredients to Antonelli's influence and success. Sheehan left Central Market to become Antonelli's cheese buyer and cheesemonger and has helped grow the small Hyde Park shop into one of Austin's favorite gourmet specialty stores.
Antonelli's has even helped several Austin restaurant's like 24 Diner, Swift's Attic, Asti and numerous others integrate a gourmet cheese plate onto their menus. "It's been great to be a part of that expansion and growth with Austin restaurants and chefs," Antonelli admits. The store just recently opened its second location across the street from its flagship store, and Antonelli has even been honored with an invitation to be on the board of directors for the American Cheese Society. "I'm still in shock by it all," he confesses.
Sandwiched between Lick Ice Creams and Bryce Gilmore's Barley Swine on South Lamar is another local cheese shop by the name of Henri's Cheese. Owner Andy Means and co-owner Will Angst run this European-inspired shop and bistro selling seventy cheeses, eclectic wines, charcuterie meats and other delightful delicacies. "I always had the idea of doing a [cheese] shop in the back of my mind," Means admits. "I thought it was one of the most adventuresome foods you could ever try."
After working in San Francisco for six years, Means moved to Austin with the intention of eventually opening a small cheese shop. Over a period of three years, Means weaved together the intricate ideas and details for his cheese shop. In the end, he has created something that resembles a cozy neighborhood shop in the heart of a bustling European city.
"We've been busy ever since we opened," Means says. "Austin's culinary scene is growing, and it's got a ways to go, but people have become more open to the idea of trying different cheeses and wines than they're accustomed to. We want people to feel comfortable to explore and branch out when they come in here."
It's nearly impossible to track down the seed that inspires a culinary movement. In this case, however, I'll definitely agree that the passion and work of local cheesemongers, producers and shops have finally created a cheese scene worthy of Austin.