By Alifair Skebe
Customers often ask, “How long have you been open?” While this question seems to warrant a fairly straightforward answer, such as, “Our shop was established in 2012,” it begs a larger question: when did this all begin? And as all things begin in the same manner, The Cheese Traveler began with an idea.
Like a refined cheese, the development of The Cheese Traveler was a process. Eric Paul, cheesemonger and owner, long held the desire to own a cheese shop, but the business truly solidified only after the building had been leased. In June of 2012, Eric and I escaped for a weekend vacation to celebrate our ninth anniversary. Eric had just signed the lease at 540 Delaware Avenue, and the space was deep in renovations. The weather was balmy and beautiful. We set out for Little Falls, one of New York’s hidden gems, especially for hikers and climbers. What we didn’t realize at the time was that it was also a hidden gem for cheesemongers. Little Falls, New York is not only nationally recognized for its Moss Island, an igneous intrusion along the Mohawk River with prehistoric glacial potholes, it was also at one time nationally recognized as the cheese capital of the United States.
Little Falls, NY
Eric has been interested in all things cheese since I met him. When we started dating, he was Cheese and Meat Manager at the local Albany co-op Honest Weight, but he soon left to take a position at Siena College’s library in order to complete his undergraduate education. Siena offered Eric a tuition reduction as an employee, and Eric could take classes part-time in the Classics program. While these two positions on the surface may seem unrelated, the connection is that Eric is a researcher at heart.
Starting with ‘cooperative’ ideology of local, small production foods, at Honest Weight Eric developed a way to retail Slow Food, the small, local, farmstead and artisanally-produced foods from around the world. Slow Food International began in Italy as a reaction against the fast food industry. Eric brought ‘slow foods’ from neighboring New York valleys – Schoharie, Hudson, Columbia, and Washington in the form of grass-fed meats and farmstead cheeses – and international ‘slow foods’ specialty chocolates, confections, and accompaniments from Europe and the U.S. into the small, specialty foods section of the co-op. These were the best slow food that the regions had to offer.
Missing slow foods, but capitalizing on his research skills gained from his years at the co-op, Eric sought in his new position at Siena to find the nationally-recognized films of each country – those which were banned, contested, and controversial as well as innovative for their technique and quality. Even though Eric had no library science degree, nor the authority to request or buy the films for the department, he enlisted the help of faculty to sign off on his purchases and use the films for their classes. At my behest, he brought in a collection of Surrealist films, making Siena’s one of the few libraries in the world to own these special, art-house films.
Eric left Siena to complete his bachelor’s degree full-time in Classics at Bard College. Afterward, he worked for a start-up co-op in Troy, NY. However, he had always wanted to get back to cheese. He began translating passages from ancient Greek that referenced cheese in any way, and gathered them in a compendium to classical literature. He worked a short stint at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, MA to get a feel for the small, specialty food business. Through understanding the business, Eric realized that he could open a cheese shop of his own, and he began to devise ways to make that happen in Albany. And that’s really when his idea of a ‘cheese traveler’ began. A ‘cheese traveler’ is a researcher who travels to bring the best and most unique flavors of the cheese world to you.
But as your humble author, I must admit that a refined palate was never my forte. Words and visual design were my aesthetic. The poor immigrant life of my ancestors was one of survival and of sometimes empty bowls and hungry bellies – it didn’t matter what it tasted like; if it was edible, that was good enough. In my 20s, I began branching out in cooking. A vegetarian must exist on more than bread, pasta, vegetables, and soy. I bought a funny little book with pictures of carved pumpkins called Play with Your Pumpkins, which to date has the best recipe for French pumpkin soup, Paul Bocuse’s ‘Soupe de Courge.’ I like to think that it was his recipe and a wedge of Gruyère that brought Eric and me together.
Before I even knew Eric was the cheese manager of the co-op, I had bought a slice of six-month Gruyère with the intent of making Bocuse’s soup. I put the cheese in my bare fridge, right on the top shelf. Eric and I then met while I was member-working as a cashier at the co-op. After we had been on a few dates, I invited him over to my apartment for Sunday brunch. He chanced to look into my refrigerator. Truthfully, on any other day, it could have been a block of cheap cheddar sitting there. Fortunately, this stunning little cheese stood out. I’d like to say that I passed the food test, but it was much more than that. We connected on our shared love of researching the past and experimentation, of learning and discovery. Consequently, I am no longer a vegetarian
Flash forward to Little Falls, NY. Eric and I had just eaten a lovely meal of oysters, lamb, and duck made by Chef/owner James Aufmuth at the French bistro and hotel Canal Side Inn. We were walking through the town from the canal up to the main drag. (Little Falls is also known for its haunted hotels.) And along the sidewalk were historical markers with a narrative of the town’s cheese industry during the nineteenth century. Pictured in black and white on the placards were enormous cheddar wheels, railroad cars, the first industrialized and bottled rennet, factory houses, and more. Photos of factory workers, administrators, town residents. Surprised by our discovery, we ran from marker to marker to find out more about the town’s history, but also of our own, our nation’s, the history of the business we were now entering with our little Albany cheese shop. We had a name and location with no logo, a name without a brand. And here in this place, we realized something. That what we were doing was important. It was the refining of an idea, the ripening of something unique, and Little Falls affirmed us in our journey. That night is the moment that we, cheese travelers were truly ‘open,’ and like Walt Whitman’s uniquely American ‘yawp,’ we sounded ours over the proverbial rooftops of the Capital Region.