Stepping into Eataly Boston’s cheese department is to step into a vast and scrupulously curated dairy library. With a selection of both popular and obscure cheeses from Italy and from US cheesemakers, the cheese counter is worth spending the extra time to explore. Given the vastness of the collection, it’s hard to know where to start without consulting an expert. I recently spoke with Eataly Boston cheesemonger Hope Lerman about their cheese, how a cheesemonger can help you make the right (cheese) investments, what Bostonians really love in a cheese and more.
What cheeses, local or imported, are you most excited about right now and why?
This summer we are really excited because we are experimenting with flavored burratas. So kind of taking the cheesemaking to the counter. So far we’ve had a pesto filled burrata and this month we have a lemon filled. They’re just really easy for summer. No muss, no fuss - a little olive oil and salt and a baguette and you’re ready to go.
And then we also have a really amazing cheese from Jasper Hill Farms up in Vermont. It’s called Calderwood and they do that in conjunction with a cheesemonger in New York City named Anne Saxelby. She really highlights the care and attention that Jasper Hill puts into the feed that they give their cows and how the hay that goes into the cows really affects the milk that comes out of the cows. The cheese is raw milk, all from Jasper Hill, and as it’s aged it’s wrapped and coated in the hay that the cows are eating while they’re being milked for the cheese. It’s this really great expression of the taste of the land and the taste of the place, which is their motto and it’s really special that we have it. I’m in love with it right now.
What hidden gem cheeses should people be paying more attention to?
One of them is always going to be Parmigiano Reggiano. People come in and they ask, “what do I have to get?” and parm is always going to be my response. And people are like, “no, I get it at the grocery store.” But we have four different kinds of Parm at any given time here and we have what they call red cow Parmesan, or vacche rosse. Before I had red cow parm I felt the same way. Like, oh, Parm is Parm, but this is made only using the milk of one breed of cow. It’s the Emilia-Romagna red cow. They’re not great milk producers, so this cheese is really a labor of love - looking back at traditions and how parm was originally made. It’s just delicious - eaten straight, grated on pasta. It’s got those nice little tyrosine crystals that everyone loves.
There’s also the Pecorino selection. People assume that Pecorino means Pecorino Romano. What that really just means is that it’s a sheep’s milk cheese from the Rome area. But we have multiple Pecorino Toscanos. We have Pecorinos from Sardinia. So coming in and really honing in on the differences and being able to taste different kinds is really cool.
What’s are the best uses for the different ages of Parmesan?
So really it’s going to be personal preference. As they get older, they get a little bit drier and a little bit more intense. Those crystals are going to develop a little more. Those happen as the cheese loses moisture and the amino acids bind together. So, a 36 month parm is going to have more crystalization than an 18th month parm. But an 18 month parm is going to be a little bit softer on the palate, texture-wise. They’re all good for grating, they’re all great for eating. Grated on grilled corn is an awesome way to use it.
What’s special about cheese from Italy?
What makes it special here is that we’re able to trace the regionality of the cheese. Eataly is based in the idea of the slow food movement - knowing where your food comes from, where it was created and how. Working with Eataly allows us to have these partnerships where we can really tell you about the places where the cheeses come from. A lot of them are agriturismos, where people can go and stay, they can milk the cows, they can learn about making cheese. They’re family businesses, so it’s really important that we get to support them as well as the American cheese makers.
How should people store cheese when they bring it home?
That really depends on the cheese - whether it’s a soft, bloomy rind cheese like a brie or a hard cheese like a parm or a cheddar. You definitely want to create a microclimate where your cheese can continue its life, because it is alive. Whether it’s in a Tupperware with a piece of moist paper towel or wrapped loosely in cheese paper or parchment paper, you want to make sure the cheese has room to breathe.
What’s your best cheese counter story from your time as Eataly Cheesemonger?
It’s been a crazy experience. We’ve sold entire wheels for people to bring back to Asia with them. We have made cheese wedding cakes where we’ve stacked cheese wheels to make a five-foot wedding cake. It was crazy. We vacuum seal cheese for students going home.
What are the staff favorite cheeses?
We have a cheese from northern Italy called Alta Badia, It’s from Trentino in way, way north Italy and it’s an Alpine style cheese that’s got a nice soft body and great palate feel and it’s got a really great price point. So, cheeseburgers, snacks, kids love it. It’s just everyone’s go-to cheese.
Do Bostonians gravitate toward any particular cheeses?
They love blue, which is something that I never would have expected. Our blue cheese selection here is pretty vast, but if I don’t have [a specific blue cheese], Bostonians will let me know. That’s the one category where people are like, I want a better goat blue, or I want a sheep blue. I think that people see the variety in the case and they’re really curious about it, and it’s good that when they’re at Eataly they’re open to trying new things because then inevitably they’re going to leave with something that they didn’t think that they were looking for. Which is why when you’re at a cheese counter, let the cheesemonger help guide you. Give them as much information as possible. What milk types you might want to avoid or texture styles. Let them guide you and your palate to the one that’s the right choice.
And lots of mozzarella. Lots and lots of mozzarella.
And the stinkers… [Bostonians] really like the stinky cheese. Like Oma from Jasper Hill. That one’s not super stinky but that’s a good starter cheese. We have some really stinky stinkers from Indiana from Tulip Tree Creamery - Foxglove just came in yesterday and it feels like a dirty diaper and it smells amazing. We can’t keep that one in stock. And they’re also really loving Sola di Bufala which is a water buffalo milk brie-style cheese from Lombardia.
What are your favorite cheese board additions? Drink pairings?
Pairing is a really important part of the job. You always want something to cover all of your bases. So something salty, something sweet. You want to look for texture that will complement your cheeses. We do a lot of nuts, seasonal dried fruits. Edible flowers with soft fresh goat cheeses is really nice in the summer. Yesterday, I did one with a bunch of fresh vegetables because they just looked so good. Whatever is seasonal and looks good to you is always going to work.
With wine you seem to have the best luck when you stick with the same region. So if you are trying a cheese from Tuscany, then a nice Tuscan red is probably going to be a good fit. If you’re trying something from Sardinia, then you’re going to get a brighter wine to complement the sharper flavor of a Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese. Our wine store is awesome at that. You can always bring a cheese over to the wine shop and taste it with the wine guys and they can help you find something the exact same way we do at the cheese counter.
If you took a trip to Italy now, what cheeses to you seek out?
I would head to Bra, because that’s sort of the cheese capital of the world and it’s where a good portion of the Italian cheese community is located. I would eat soft robiolas all day and talk to the locals, eat local cheese. And then I would really, really like to go visit a man named Giorgio Cravero. His family has been making Parmigiano Reggiano for a very long time. His Parm is among my favorites. It’s a 24-month. I’ve heard amazing stories of Giorgio Cravero so that is where I would go.
What are you looking for when you’re selecting cheeses to feature here?
Taste is always going to override everything, even if it’s a little bit funky. It’s just one of those things - when you know, you know. Once you put a piece of cheese in your mouth and you know it’s the right cheese for you, all of your senses light up and your endorphins are going.
Always cheese with a good story. Cheese that is being made to preserve a tradition or to start a new one. Those are always going to be winners.
What’s the best way to use random cheese scraps?
Fonduta, which is an Italian fondue. Mac and Cheese. Melt it all in a pot. You can pour it on a pasta, you can dip bread in it. There’s always a way to use leftover cheese scraps.
Boston has a great cheese scene. We have Culture Magazine which is a national cheese magazine located in Boston. It’s a great resource for us. It’s run by two sisters, Lassa and Stephanie Skinner and they are amazing ladies. They are powerhouses in the cheese business.
800 Boylston St., Boston, eataly.com/cheese