If bliss on the palate is your kind of sightseeing, then local cheese shops will connect you to New York's culinary culture as much as any sought-after reservation. A recent weekend in New York had me hopping from one cheesemonger to the next, taking us through favourite neighbourhoods and rewarding us with scrumptious cheeses when we arrived. Here's how we did it.
With the alarm set for 7:30 a.m. (aren't I fun to holiday with?), our first morning came bright and early. My husband and I stepped out the door of our rented East Village flat to find St. Mark's Place slowly waking up. The weather was unusually warm for March and the corner vendors were hedging their bets, organizing displays of both sunglasses and gloves. Our destination was the Union Square Greenmarket that opened at 8. Lattes in hand, we arrived to find a city corner full of white-tented vendors selling fresh produce, heritage meats, preserves and artisanal cheese.
I stood transfixed by a display of gorgeous, handmade, Tuscan-style cheese at the Dancing Ewe Farm booth. Our early-to-rise regime had paid off: We were able to watch the owners cut into whole cheese wheels (the aroma from a fresh-cut wheel is fleeting but heavenly) to start offering samples.
I purchased a wedge of their intensely gold, Guernsey milk caciotta and a piece of an artful-looking sheep's milk cheese called vinacce whose fuzzy, hedgehog-like exterior was encased in grape must sourced from local winemakers.
I left Union Square market with four little packs of cheese, having stopped to pick up a goat-milk Camembert from Ardith Mae Farm and a raw milk wedge of Jean-Louis, a seasonal cheese from Bobolink Dairy. My collection was accumulating at an alarming pace and we had only begun.
Lunch took us to the Fat Radish, a market-driven hot spot whose cheese plate is sourced from Saxelby Cheese in the Essex Street Market. The cozy and welcoming Saxelby Cheese shop has two things going for it: To start, owners Anne Saxelby and Benoit Breal sell a mouth-watering, hand-picked selection of farmstead cheeses mainly from the Northeastern U.S. Second, if goat's milk vanilla sea-salt caramels sound yummy to you, Saxelby's can provide a quick sugar hit on the way to the nearby Doughnut Plant for a heavenly tres leches cake doughnut – one bite of the yielding, sweet pastry bursting with creamy filling will make you aggressive if anyone dare suggest sharing. If cheese and doughnuts (plus a nap) don't make for the perfect afternoon, I don't know what does.
A New York cheese tour wouldn't be complete without visiting the Murray's Cheese flagship in the West Village. The Murray's Melts grilled cheese counter is a perfect lunch stop and its cheese counter, which boasts more than 300 varieties, is cleverly divided into cheese styles from bloomy (brie-style cheeses) to washed rinds (stinky, runny temptations) to blue. My one-pound order of Dante, a favourite cheese hailing from Wisconsin, garnered bell-ringing and cheers when the cheesemonger put the wedge on the scale. Disappointingly, they weren't celebrating my cheese-picking abilities; the staff enthusiastically acknowledge each time a monger perfectly approximates the weight of the piece he's cutting.
After our Murray's fix, we walked north to find Lucy's Whey, a charming little shop tucked into a corner of Chelsea Market. A unique Vermont cheese called Winnimere instantly seduced me. This luscious, oozy fromage is washed in beer and wrapped in bark from spruce trees. Peel away the top rind and scoop it out with a spoon. Only available from January to June, it's as exclusive as a Chanel handbag, but more luxurious.
On Saturday, we gathered midtown to meet a friend for brunch at Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro. The day's fondue special was a flavourful fontina-based dish dotted with confit tomatoes and pistou. When we reached near-bottom, the server asked if we would like to finish the meal in traditional French style. Lowering the heat under the burner, she cracked an egg into the pot, creating a kind of decadent scrambled egg merger with the remaining cheese.
Artisanal Bistro also offers an extensive list of cheese and wine flights. Our friend, Victor, was a great sport when I ordered us five Old World cheese and wine pairings at 11:30 a.m. (Nothing says relaxing like a friend – notebook in hand – demanding to know if you're experiencing "synergy" while you chew your Époisses and sip wine.)
Walking off some of the fondue, we found ourselves in the Flatiron District, where we sidestepped the smorgasbord of Mario Batali's Eataly and the temptation of Shake Shack in favour of the nearby Beecher's Handmade Cheese store. I bought a serving of Flagsheep – Beecher's firm, aged ewe's milk cheese – while my husband munched on squeaky cheese curd and watched more being made through a window onto the production area. For an early-evening nibble, head downstairs to share a cheese plate and sip wine alongside the working cheese cellar where Beecher's Flatiron Cheese (exclusive to New York) is ripened.
By Sunday, I had collected a formidable cheese tray that needed to be consumed before we left the next day. So we bought some Raspberry Lambic Ale and invited a friend. While I carefully pulled the crinkled cheese paper and handwritten labels from my precious wedges, my husband, a photographer, scrolled through his favourite photos of our trip. Pictures may speak a thousand words, but sometimes a good bite of cheese says it all.
WHERE TO GO
Saxelby Cheese: Find the flagship store inside the Essex Street Market (120 Essex St.), and a custom selection of cheeses sold at Épicerie Boulud, across the street from Lincoln Center (1900 Broadway at 64th Street). saxelbycheese.com
Lucy's Whey: Look for this artisanal supplier of American cheeses in Chelsea Market. 425 West 15th St.; lucyswhey.com
Murray's Cheese: Head to Greenwich Village to choose from 300 varieties (254 Bleecker St.), or grab a seat at the counter at the centre of Grand Central Market (43rd Street and Lexington Avenue). murrayscheese.com
Beecher's Handmade Cheese: This store and café in the Flatiron District lets you watch cheese makers do their thing. 900 Broadway; beechershandmadecheese.com
Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro: Taste international cheeses in their prime in this bistro and wine bar. 2 Park Ave.; artisanalbistro.com
Union Square Greenmarket: Farmers, fishmongers and cheese makers abound. Vendors vary. Broadway at East 17th Street; grownyc.org/unionsquaregreenmarket
Sue Riedl writes The Globe's cheese column, The Spread.